Birdseed

In case you’re wondering why Mark and I have stayed married for 35 years, here’s the deal: he wakes me up every morning with a cup of coffee and a kiss. If you needed marital advice, you’re welcome.

While we’re in Texas, we enjoy our coffees in the living room of our small house. A bank of four windows gives us a view of the back part of our 28 acres, which lie about 45 minutes outside of Austin. The land is part of the lovely Texas Hill Country. Rolling hills that are actually mostly bulges of limestone created by a long ago shallow sea stretch out before us. Gorgeous live oaks, pernicious cedars (actually Ashe junipers), and native grasses adorn the landscape. We’ve put up a couple of bird feeders in the trees outside the windows and watch our customers enjoying their birdseed. We see titmice, chickadees, scrub jays, white-wing doves, sparrows, cardinals, ladderback woodpeckers, and various other species.

It’s really fun to watch the birds. The titmice tend to come in groups; maybe there’s an invisible dinner bell summoning them. They eat efficiently, perching on a feeder and pecking away steadily. The chickadees, which are very small, seem like nervous eaters. They land, look around, peck once, and flutter away to hide and survey the scene before approaching again. The little brown sparrows prefer to eat the spillage from the ground. They’re the same color as the dirt and leaves, so mostly you can spot them by watching for movement. And the white-wing barely fits on either feeder and often falls off after attempting to twist itself into some strange position to partake of the goodies. Apparently hope springs eternal in the dove breast, because the white-wing we see most often spends a lot of time walking up and down the branch on which the tube feeder hangs, looking at the feeder below. My theory is that this bird is strategizing about what contortion to try next time. And this dove must be doing something right, because it is a chubby one.

Sometimes in the late afternoons, we sit on the porch, drink wine, and watch the birds at the feeders as well. These days we can watch the sunset, too, because it’s cool enough to be outside. We have a porch swing, but usually for this purpose we sit in rockers as the sun dips through the lace of the leaves and slips below the horizon. We do talk some during these interludes, but actually we’re often quiet. If there’s no human noise, the birds come back for one pre-sleep feed. The titmice grab the bowl feeder, the chickadees dart back and forth to the tube feeder, and the sparrows take  the ground. On really quiet days, you can hear the flutter of wings as the birds flit back and forth a few feet to rest in a tree or bush between bites. I love that sound. It’s like you can hear feathers.

Birds aren’t the only things with feathers, though. Emily Dickinson explained:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

Dickinson, I understand, was petite and rather birdlike herself. Her poems are punctuated like the one above, so that ideas and images roll out in short breaths. She’s kind of a chickadee poet, moving in for a moment and then skittering back to her bush with the thrust of a hyphen. Maybe that’s why she appears to know something about feathers – and hope.

And this Christmas season, I’d like to think I know something about hope, too. Honestly, this is unfamiliar territory for me. In a world that preaches “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” I’m way better at the latter than at the former. It made me darn good at assessing environmental plans, because the concept of a “reasonable worst case scenario” made perfect sense to me. I’d been anticipating that all my life. And the kids always used to complain about their care packages when they got home from camp. The problem wasn’t the contents; rather, it was the entire roll of packing tape I’d use on each parcel. Apparently at mail time the counselors didn’t give the girls long enough to disembowel one of my packages. I tried to sell this circumstance as anticipation rather than frustration, but without much success.

But this December, I’m actually feeling a bit hopeful. Yes, COVID is rampant right now, and my heart drops at the daily statistics. But vaccines are rolling out, and non-crazy officials are saying that 2021 should see a decline in cases as vaccinations increase. Too, we’re apparently going to have an adult in the White House, which is a welcome prospect. In fact, Mark and I are feeling sufficiently sanguine that we’ve put down a deposit on a seven-day Greek Islands/Turkey cruise in September. Granted, the deposit is refundable, but as Mark put it, it’s kind of like the Old Testament (Protestant nomenclature here) prophet Jeremiah buying land and burying the deed in a pot even as the Assyrian army was bearing down on Jerusalem. It’s a marker of hope for the future, an act to affirm the belief that better days lie ahead. I don’t know that Jeremiah would be my choice of cruise buddy – those prophets could be rather dour – but you get the idea. I think it’s more like putting out birdseed. If you feed them, birds will come. If you hang in there, hope – and the fruits of hope – will come, too.

So this Christmas season I have a few feathers of hope. It’s a chickadee kind of hope, that looks around nervously and flies a few feet into a handy bush to hide every once in a while, but it’s there. And I hope that the same is true for each person who reads this post. I wish you a wonderful holiday, and I wish you hope.

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