Saturday, December 10, 2011

The gift that flutters but never fades

It took the eponymous song of a black-capped chickadee (chick-a-dee-dee-dee, if you didn't know) to make me go anywhere near a store on a Saturday afternoon in December. But there he was, in a cold drizzle, anxiously aflutter around our empty bird feeder. OK, then, compadre. For you I'll break my vow of retail abstinence and stand in line for 10 minutes to buy some bird feed and suet cakes.

Once home, I poured black oil sunflower seed into the feeder that my friend, Thea, gave to me as a wedding present 16 years ago. It's nothing fancy: a clear acrylic tower with a pitched roof and landing board made of Michigan cedar. But in a season when we often buy pointless gifts for people who really don't need them, the bird feeder stands out as a worthy exception.

We put it out from early December to late March and probably run 100 pounds of seed through it. And you can't help but feel good about yourself after you've filled a bird feeder. Sometimes I think about the birds as I doze in my reading chair by the fireplace. It's a comfort to imagine them nestled under a snowy spruce bough, the furnace of their tiny heart fueled by the good seed that will keep them warm and alive till morning.

That's the altruistic magic of a birdfeeder. You can buy one for yourself, or buy one for a friend as Thea did for me. Either way, the feeder can only be used in the service of another creature. Selfishness doesn't become it.

For the first nine years that we fed the birds, I didn't think much about why. They had a ferocious appetite, which seemed reason and reward enough. (Whoever coined the phrase "eats like a bird" never watched famished birds swarm a feeder.) It gave me a proprietary sense of satisfaction, much as my mother must've felt when she watched her six-foot sons wolf down mountains of homemade mashed potatoes and Midwestern meat loaf.

Then came the year when the birds decided to take care of me for a while.

It was February, ruthlessly cold. For reasons that in hindsight seem blatantly obvious, I'd worked myself into a state of exhaustion -- mental, physical, spiritual you name it. Work had become a fixation that left me too tired to rest or recuperate. So my body, and my doctor, both demanded that I take two months of sick leave.

Part of my recovery required that I practice something called The Relaxation Response. Basically, you're supposed to sit in a quiet room and think peaceful thoughts. Which is fine, provided that you have thoughts that you'd like to spend time with. I did not, so I'd open my eyes and focus on something less disturbing ... like the bird feeder.

Sometimes, after I zoned out there for an hour or so, I'd glimpse an alternate reality. I'd begin to see the feeder as more than a humble food dispenser. It was a nexus of fluid energy and calculated motion. The birds would ascend and descend, angelic in form and manner, earthly seraphs around a lesser throne. Like waves at the beach, they'd come and go with a pattern that you could almost discern. Too bad they sent me back to work before I could figure it all out.

I'd love to hear what Thea would think of my metaphysical musings. Because there was nothing bird-like about her: big heart, big voice, big physique, a tireless newspaper reporter and an overall nonstop force of nature. Unstoppable, at least, until the end. She died of uterine cancer two years ago at age 53.

The last time I saw Thea she talked nonstop about her big plans to write a book titled "I Don't Have Time for This." Those were the first words out of her mouth when she learned of her diagnosis. Being a respectable journalist, she never had to retract them.

This year, for the first time in 16 years, I cleaned Thea's feeder and gave the cedar trim a coat of Tung oil to prolong its life. It's a hopeful gesture, and "Hope," wrote Emily Dickinson, "is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul."

Neither Thea nor I, ink-stained wretches that we are, would ever dare to write something that grand. But given the cheerful company of wild birds, I can understand why a fellow shut-in like Miss Dickinson would want to.


  1. I really lke your writing.
    I don't know if your still linked to this blog as the last post was 2011.
    If you are, keep writing. It's really good.
    Fellow Michigander,