Birds

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with birds. I’ve written posts about them working together as a group, eating from our bird feeder, and terrorizing our gutters.

I love the idea of them—their beauty, their gracefulness, their little birdy tunes whistling through the trees—but I don’t want them too awfully close to my personal vicinity. I decorate my home with whimsical paintings and lamps and ceramic figurines of songbirds, but the real ones need to stay outside.

 

Maybe I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at a formative age and developed a real aversion to them. Or maybe having birds fly down our chimney and enter our basement as if they’d unknowingly flown into their worst nightmare when I was growing up has made me assume they would peck my eyes out if only given the chance.

 

When I was in elementary school, our librarian rescued a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. She brought it school where it lived in a little cage that sat on the checkout counter. I remember observing the tiny bird that was mostly pink skin and frail bones. Every so often, Baby Bird would let out a pitiful squeak, and the librarian would prepare the bird’s food, filling an eye dropper with some whitish, liquid concoction. She would squeeze a few drops into the open bird mouth, and the food would almost instantaneously come out the other end. Needless to say, Baby Bird didn’t make it.

 

When my husband and I were first married and living in Memphis, we spent a lot of time with other newlywed couples. Most of us didn’t have kids yet, but a few had pets. One couple had two cockatiels— “Mr. Tumnus” and “Prince Caspian” which they adored. When we would gather at their apartment, they would let the birds fly freely around their living room. Such a treat, except for my crippling fear of eye-pecking and bird-pooping.

 

I’m not sure why I have this conflicted relationship with birds. I admire them, fear them, eat them and appreciate them all at the same time. I look at the amazing things they’re capable of—making nests out of twigs and fluff, laying eggs and caring for those babies, warbling their lovely birdsong, displaying their marvelous and colorful feathers. Still there is something that makes me nervous when I’m near them. Their actions are seem unpredictable, and this scares me.

 

To be honest, I find myself having conflicted relationships with people, too. Humans are also capable of so much—kindness and cruelty, beauty and destruction, love and hate. Sometimes we’re as frail as that baby bird in the library. And other times we are regal and free to fly (and poop) without restraint. And still they are times when we are afraid, flying into a new place and attacking those trying to help us out.

 

We are also like birds because we go through seismic changes throughout our lives. Birds go from egg to flying creature, and we (hopefully) go from immature child to wise adult. These changes are necessary.

 

According to C.S. Lewis (whose literary characters some people name their cockatiels after): “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

 

Let’s be willing to make these changes so we can have the opportunity to soar!

Strength to Grow

I’m always surprised at what plant life is capable of. After our week-long vacation at the end of June, we returned home to a veritable jungle of vegetation.

 

The limbs on the Rose of Sharon bushes on either side of the front porch were so long and weighed down by blooms that a person had to hold them aside—like a rainforest explorer armed with a machete—just to walk down the porch steps.

 

Weeds—purge, crabgrass, woodsorrel—had used our absence to invade our stone walkway and flower beds. Patches of dandelions and clover were brazenly scattered across our yard.

 

When we came home from our trip, I walked around our yard looking at the ways it had changed in the past 7 days. One of the first things I saw was in a mostly ignored corner flower bed at the edge of our yard.

 

Realizing this spot was far from the garden hose, we had planted low maintenance rose bushes there. We knew it wouldn’t get much attention. Last summer, I planted two plants just behind the roses. These were given to me for free by a master gardener at the farmers’ market. (How do I know she was a master gardener? I think she had a nametag.)

 

Seeing that I am not a master gardener, I don’t even know what these plants are. The woman told me that they grow well in full sun and were easy to keep alive. As long as it wasn’t marijuana I was satisfied with her information.

 

To my untrained eye, I think they look like hostas now, but when I got them they were little dirt balls with a bit of green leaves stuffed in a Kroger bag. I planted them and totally forgot about them.

 

In spite of my ignorance and negligence, during our vacation they bloomed into a radiant yellow and fire-orange flower. The sight of it took my breath away, like an astonishing magic trick. I nearly expected that the flower appeared in a puff of smoke at the end of a wand.

There is something magical and admirable and astonishing and honorable when something (or someone) beats the odds to succeed. When the expected failure is an unexpected triumph. When a dirt ball grows into a stunning flower. When a tiny seed sprouts to crack a concrete sidewalk.

 

Growth isn’t always inevitable. It requires a strength that is sometimes hard to find.

 

When I watch our son Ezra play with his toys, his imagination soaring to heights beyond what he’s ever seen, I consider how this wasn’t inevitable. Born in an impoverished nation. Parentless as an infant. His first five years spent without a family. Ezra has every reason not to bloom. And yet he grows stronger every day. He finds joy in simple activities.

 

When he plays alone with his toys (or in place of toys, anything else he can find—scraps of paper or sticks or coins), he uses this high-pitched voice that signals to us he’s in a new place. He’s entered his imagination zone where someone needs saving and there are bad guys and it’s more fun if the toys are arranged in a straight line.

He’s our stunning yellow-orange flower, because the most impressive growth is often found in unexpected places.

Collecting seashells

Beach vacation objectives can vary greatly, person to person.

 

For some, the highlight is a sunset stroll along the shore.

For some, the highlight is eating lots of fresh seafood and key lime pie.

For some, the highlight is relaxing by crashing waves while you catch up on your leisure reading.

 

And then there are those people who go to the beach with the full intention of picking up beach trash, ocean rejects, discarded debris, used mobile homes—a.k.a. seashells.

I’ve seen these people at every beach I’ve visited along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This is how you’ll recognize them: Their eyes will be trained downward, and they’ll be awkwardly grasping a handful of a sandy objects. They will dig in the sand with their bare toes or the tips of their shoes until they unearth what they hope will be the largest, most beautiful find the sea can offer.

 

They will gasp slightly when they raise a big, smooth seashell—its underbelly pink and shiny with Mother-of-Pearl iridescence—to their eye level only to sadly sigh when they see its imperfections, the holes and the sharp edge on one side where it broke apart. They will look wistfully out at the ocean, past the relentless waves, and wonder where its other parts lie buried in the dark and sandy depths.

 

But they will determine that some of these marine discoveries are worth keeping, and the next stop for their treasure trove may be a plastic sand bucket or a Styrofoam cooler. But these collectors won’t be satisfied if the final resting place for their beach beauties is such a commonplace container. No. They have big dreams. Dreams of making seashell jewelry—earrings and pendants. Dreams of filling glass jars with seashells and hot gluing them on picture frames. Dreams that most likely won’t actually come true once the daily grind of not being on vacation sets in but dreams nonetheless.

 

How do I know so much about these beachcombers? Because I used to be one, that’s why. I once collected a bucket full of sand dollars to bring home and make into Christmas ornaments. They stank so bad that my mom made me keep them outside. I bleached them and dried them out until they were brittle and unusable. All that fishy smell and Clorox bleach for nothing.

 

Even though I discourage my own children from bringing seashells on the 8-hour car ride home with us, I still find myself looking for that perfect shell as I walk with them along the beach each day we are on vacation. I will often pick up those fan-shaped scallop shells or the conch shell masterpieces or the bowl-shaped clam shells or the architecturally-mesmerizing nautilus shells and carry them on our stroll.

 

I don’t keep them. Their existence holds no purpose for me in landlocked Murfreesboro. But there’s something magical about their weight my hand. For me, the beach means standing on the edge of something, one foot on the sand and one foot in the ocean. It means a horizon that goes on and on to reveal the most glorious sunsets. It means not hurrying. It means holding hands and not because you’re crossing the street.

And it means a bucket full of seashells that have no value apart from their commonplace remarkability. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. Loveliness often where you search it out.