Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”




Write from the heart

“It’s surprising what you can hear in the silence of a relationship with someone who has passed,” Kathy Curtis writes in “Invisible Ink: The Journey Beyond Words” (2007).

Kathy kindly gave me this book (Word and Spirit’s first review copy!), which basically continues an epistolary conversation with her mother. The two had written letters back and forth for years. “There was nothing profound about what we wrote,” she says in the prologu51Qf-OTJR8L._AA160_e. “We just wrote.”

Then Kathy’s mom was diagnosed at age 60 with cancer. The letters stopped as the two of them, along with the rest of the family, coped with pain, morphine, grief, palliative care and, three months later, her death.

Despite her mother’s physical absence, Kathy began to write to her again. Being accustomed to channeling her experiences into creative endeavors, she knew putting this difficult journey into words would be therapeutic — but she didn’t know how much strength she would gain from doing so. “I also didn’t know that I would begin to get a sense for what Mom’s spirit might want to say back to me,” she wrote.

The letter from Kathy to her mom details their final three months on earth together, from her mom’s cancer diagnosis to the hawk that flew with the funeral procession. Anyone who has cared for a loved one in the dying process will be able to relate to the pain, frustration, and sweetness described here. Then comes the energy shift — of the person as he or she moves to the other side, and of those left behind as they navigate life without that person. Or is their loved one still there in some way . . . but how? How would they know? Is anyone, especially a parent, ever really gone?

Kathy and her father and sisters began to inexplicably sense their mother’s presence — they’d suddenly smell her perfume, see her in a dream, or see a cardinal and just know something out of the ordinary was happening. Then a lost ring had Kathy looking up at the sky while gardening and saying, “OK, Mom, I know you can help me more now than ever — help me find the ring!” Seconds later, there it was on top of a pile of compost.

This story segues into the next part of the book, in which Kathy’s mom has her say. In our logical and linear world, it may be hard to believe that someone who has died is still present and communicating with us. That is, until experiences like these make us tune out the world’s chatter (and our own) long enough to listen.

Kathy’s mother describes witnessing her own funeral, her delight at still getting letters from her daughter, and her own feelings about her illness and passing. There is growing wisdom and perspective from this higher plane. There are references to her dancing days in high school — poodle skirt, saddle shoes and all.

Naturally, she devotes significant attention to her family’s grief, offering comfort and the assurance of her continued love and presence. “I’m glad you drove down to Indianapolis to spend Mother’s Day with Dad,” she tells Kathy. “It was nice to see you in church, especially knowing you wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t for me. (I might even get some extra points for that around here. Ha!)”

Mom also firmly counsels her daughter to let go of her own expectations about how her mother’s earthly life should have been. “I know you mean well, but it’s not for you to say what purpose my life had,” she says. “There’s more to my story than you’ll ever know, and goodness knows, you’ve got enough to figure out about your own life.”

And the hawk that flew with the hearse? Birds are messengers, Mom explains. They travel between worlds: “All you have to do is pay attention and open your heart, and whatever message they have for you will find its way in.”

Time in a bottleneck

“The Time Keeper,” by Mitch Albom (2012)

Who divided up the days into hours, the hours into minutes?
How could they really be that smart?
Who divided up the minutes into seconds?
They must have had a broken
Must have had a broken heart

— Joan Osborne, “Who Divided”

In Mitch Albom’s latest novel, we meet the guy who divided the days into hours, the hours into minutes, and so forth. He ended up with a broken heart.

Young Dor, living at the dawn of humanity’s history, invents numbers and counting. He mitchalbom.comfigures out how to mark the passage of time with a shadow, stick, and stone. As he grows older, marries his beloved Alli, and has children, he becomes consumed with catching shadows and measuring water. He invents the first clock and calendar.

That’s when it gets complicated.

His childhood “frenemy” uses one of Dor’s sun sticks to try to defeat the gods and gain power. This forces Dor and Alli into exile, leaving their children in the care of others. When Alli dies, an anguished Dor ends up imprisoned in a cave where he will not age a moment. The only thing he can do is listen, for eternity, to the voices of everyone on earth asking for more time.

Well, not quite eternity. After thousands of years, Dor (aka Father Time) is freed with a magical hourglass and a redemptive mission to help two particular people understand the gift of time. Sarah is a teen girl of high intelligence and low self-esteem. Her sense of time crumbles along with her heart when the boy she likes does not like her back (or even treat her with basic decency or respect). Victor is a self-made billionaire who is used to getting what he wants. When his cancer is deemed untreatable, he seeks immortality in science — by making secret plans to have his body frozen for revival centuries later. Sarah and Victor don’t just need Father Time’s intervention. They need each other in ways they’ll discover only when the paths of all three converge and difficult choices are required. The last part of the book is somewhat reminiscent of Scrooge’s life review in “A Christmas Carol.”

Time happens. It passes. It’s a gift from God, and a precious one at that. At the same time, it’s an earthly construct. Or more accurately, its measurement and manipulation are our doing and not God’s. That’s what Albom seems to say in this fast-moving (or did it just seem that way?) read.

Albom, like me, comes from the world of newspaper deadlines. Much more rides on time in fields such as emergency medicine and firefighting. Apart from this — what if we let go of our need to cram as much activity or accomplishment into every minute, hour, or day as possible? Or our need to treat time as if it doesn’t matter because we think we don’t matter? We might find peace we didn’t know was possible in this lifetime.

“All in God’s time.” It’s a tough concept in an impatient age . . . but definitely worth considering.