The Birds at My Window

I grew up in a family of backyard bird-watchers. My grandfather hung feeders on poles high off the ground that aligned with the windows of what he called his den—the room with the old-fashioned typewriter and a worn green leather recliner smelling faintly of Old Spice after-shave. He’d crank the casement windows open, and I would help him fill different kinds of seed feeders and dab peanut butter into logs with holes drilled into them. He taught me to identify chickadees and male and female cardinals and different kinds of finches, and in the spring, we’d listen to their calls.  My mother kept feeders although she was a little less diligent, so hers were more prone to squirrel reconnaissance and destruction.

This year I moved one of the suet feeders outside a window near our kitchen table. The nuthatches and downy woodpeckers convene there for morning coffee hour–nibbling at the seed-encrusted block of fat and chatting amongst themselves. A crowd of obnoxious starlings shows up in the late afternoons, and I’m occasionally greeted with a view of a spread-eagled squirrel balanced on the pole. The terriers are happy to dispatch all unwanted encroachers.

The feeder is positioned in the window right above the small TV where we watch the news, and I can’t help but notice the contrast between what I see on the screen and what I see outside my window. In fact, I’m not sure I could watch the news without knowing those birds are right outside, doing what they always do – eating and chattering and sipping from the birdbath, now warmed with a heater. They are a source of comfort and reminder that nature is still there in the midst of the terrible chaos of the world.

Some days I think my jaw can’t drop any lower in shock and horror with what I’m seeing. It’s all I can do to watch the innocent people of Ukraine having their lives and country destroyed by a tyrant consumed with greed and lust for power. Almost worse than what I watch is what I hear—the barrage of lies, cruelty, and manipulation of the truth that has become our new normal. The mass consumption of disinformation, fueled by the rants and blathering of social media, is not only tearing us apart but creating an epidemic of rude and selfish behavior everywhere from stores and airline flights to school board meetings. Last night, when I heard shouting during the President’s speech, I thought perhaps hecklers had gotten into the House Chamber, but it came from two of our own elected representatives.

Each morning, this curmudgeonly retiree stares out her window to hold onto some balance and perspective. An entire flock of red-winged blackbirds gathered under the seed feeders this week, so they’re officially back in the neighborhood. I saw a bluebird inspecting the house in the front yard for possible occupancy and the finches are hitting the thistle seed especially hard—maybe it takes extra calories to start turning yellow? In another month, I’ll replace the wire suet feeders with red plastic bowls of sugar water and start checking the migration maps for the hummingbirds’ progress. As I provide food, water, and shelter for these beautiful creatures, I long for the innocence of the days when I learned about wild birds at my grandfather’s side. But the fact that the birds I watched as a child still return with each passing season gives me hope, and I am grateful for their song.

What I’ve Learned from Quarantine, Part 2

I wrote about what I learned from quarantine way back in the spring and thought I’d revisit, now that we’re closing the books on 2020.

I am incredibly grateful for my health.

I never dreamed the new reading chair I bought in fall of 2019 would get so much use.

Our twenty-three-year-old, no-repairs-ever-and-still-going-strong dishwasher should be in the appliance hall of fame.

I don’t know if it’s a result of the pandemic or my age or having endured a year of the ghastly festering wound that is American politics, but my tolerance for artificiality and spin is at its lowest ebb. Speak honestly, be real, and please, lose the buzzwords.

My new bread machine is significantly more advanced than its 90’s predecessor but still has a tendency to want to hurl itself off the counter in a frenzy of over-enthusiastic kneading.

Sitting back and watching the world on a screen instead of living in it is frustrating, and yet, I’ve learned a lot from being a quiet observer.

There are wonderfully kind and knowledgeable Comcast customer service representatives. Seriously. So many are working so hard trying to get it right.

Much as we love supporting restaurants with take-out orders, it’s just not the same eating the meals at home at your own kitchen table.

I am very much a creature of habit. In a world where familiar structure and routine have been upended,  I find myself clinging to those habits even more fiercely. That being said, I’ve also learned to appreciate  new and different ways to accomplish something that I may have resisted in “normal times.”

I always feel awkward in zoom meetings—not knowing when to talk or accidentally interrupting someone who decides to talk at the same time. Meanwhile, the cat is lurking on the back of my chair or padding across the keyboard.

Technology, love it or hate it, has flat-out saved our butts this year. Same to be said for streaming TV.

I am determined to use the calendar on my phone instead of my trusty pocket planner even though I could write things down in half the time it takes me to text in all this stuff and scroll through the start and stop times. And there will be no stickers, ever.

Even though I will forever miss them, I am relieved not to be shepherding elderly parents through a pandemic. I know friends who are on that journey and cannot imagine their pain and isolation.

I’ve learned so much (including South African slang) from my online writers group of Chicago-based ladies who have very different backgrounds from mine.

When this is over, I may need a 12-step group for addiction to online Scrabble and Solitaire.

I greatly miss in-person worship. But the view from the virtual pews of other churches, especially the Washington National Cathedral, is reshaping my faith in surprising ways.

Sometimes I need one of those signs found in senior facilities that remind residents what day it is, what activities are planned and when happy hour starts.

You’re never too old for new life, even if it’s in the form of a puppy. (Check back with me in a month and see where I am on this.)

Wishing all of us some form of new life in this next and has-to-be-better year.

November Perspective

Quiet Sunday, as most of them are these days. No rushing off to church and choir practice or drum corps rehearsal. A lot to process as we trim back bushes and shrubs and clean up pots of fading annuals which have given it their all since May. As the hibiscus and mandevilla continue to push out a few token blooms in the seventy-degree weather, it’s hard to believe we’ll be hanging Christmas lights in a few short weeks.

Recent days brought stress and shock and relief and joy all co-mingled together and sometimes changing by the minute. A sleepless night glued to the television watching election results. Constant worry about the impact of this raging virus. Talking with a friend who is dealing with her elderly father’s illness from 800 miles away, after burying her mother in June. Feeling grateful for another year of normal mammogram results, over which the shadow of my mother’s death from breast cancer always looms large. Cautious optimism that there will be different and better paths ahead for our country.

When the news broke on Saturday, I was sitting with two former teaching colleagues enjoying an outdoor lunch. One of us, someone I have known and respected for many years, said truly terrible things about the election. He spoke as calmly as if he were talking about the weather, I suppose assuming that we were all on the same page. The cruelty of his words took my breath away. I wanted to get up and leave or make a scene and shout back at him, “How could you be an educated person and caring teacher and say things like that?” His remarks went way beyond disappointment that his candidate didn’t win or that his side of the issues may not be supported. His words cut deeply, making ugly and false generalizations about entire groups of people.

I immediately changed the subject and we talked about music during Covid and dealing with aging parents and, to be honest, I don’t even remember a lot of the conversation because I was in such shock. It is one thing to experience hatred on our screens but quite another when it comes at us from across the table when we least expect it. I don’t know if not engaging was the right thing to do. Looking back, I wish I would have told him how much his words hurt me personally. He needed to know that. This business of justifying any twisting of the truth along with the blanket disparagement of anyone who does not agree with us as a means to an end is not the way to heal and grow as a country. Or as human beings.  

I’m writing on the porch the way I sometimes do in the spring and summer, except it’s November. Despite the balmy weather, winter birds cluster at the feeder and the goldfinches have exchanged their bright yellow plumage for drab gray-brown. The vegetable garden is bare except for a few cauliflower plants and a stalk or two of brussels sprouts. Colorful leaves still remain on some of the trees but the majority cling to our shoes as we traipse into the house. I am glad to see this year of illness, political rhetoric, tragic loss and violence, and blatant racism creep inexorably to its end. I cling to the hope that by the time spring returns again, we will have found a better way to be with each other. We must.

A Tale of Two Shoppers

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I was in a retail clothing store and that was only because I had to return items purchased online. The store was following all the protocols—limiting capacity, masks required, hand sanitizer everywhere. I noticed a woman loaded down with clothes approach the dressing rooms. One of the sales associates gently reminded her that she needed to wait to be assigned a dressing room. They were keeping every other cubicle vacant and wiping down surfaces after each customer. The woman replied, with a condescending sneer on her face, “Yes, I know. I don’t agree with it, but I know.”

I wanted to haul off and smack her. I thought to myself, “How dare you?” Here we are privileged enough to be out shopping on a Friday afternoon in a store that’s doing everything possible to keep us safe, and you cop an attitude because you have to wait five minutes for a sanitized dressing room. I admit, these days I find it increasingly difficult to keep my anger on a short leash. This never-ending parade of daily atrocities is just pushing me to my limit. When I got up to the counter, I muttered something about having to deal with rude customers, and the woman at the register looked up and said, “Every. Single. Day.”

But there was another customer in the store yesterday afternoon. She was a petite elderly lady, with beautiful white hair and wearing neatly pressed capris and a stylish sailor top. While I waited for a dressing room, she was engaging the associate managing that area in a lengthy conversation about the recent death of her husband, The associate listened with patience and compassion. I suspect this was the first time this woman purchased clothes her husband would never see her wear. The clerk gave me an apologetic look over the woman’s head, and I indicated I was in no hurry. Later the employee at the register explained to the woman how she could pay her bill online or bring a payment into the store. Apparently, her husband had always paid the bills, and she was worried about doing that by herself.

I crave these moments of kindness and decency. So many are trying so hard to do what’s right under circumstances that none of us have ever had to deal with before. There are going to be mistakes and there are going to be challenges and frustrations and can’t we just suck it up a little? Can’t we take a breath and pause before we lash out with a snarky comment or post a rant on social media?

I have never felt such anxiety, and anger about a future I cannot control except through my vote, which I hope and pray will be fairly counted. But sometimes what worries me most is how this me-first mentality manifests itself. It has become a badge of honor with some, including those who hold positions of leadership at all levels. Would we have survived World War II and 9/11 with this kind of behavior and reaction to decisions, that for right or wrong, are being made to protect us?  Have we lost all sense of what it means to sacrifice for the good of all, even pushing back against something as minor as wearing a mask or waiting a few minutes for a dressing room?

I’m grateful for the employees in that store and the thousands of others putting themselves out there and taking risks, so that we can live in some semblance of normalcy. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear that elderly shopper tell her story, reminding me of what really matters.