blonder of blondest star
the most mysterious
(eliena,my dear) is this
how anyone so gay
possibly could die
— ee cummings, poem number 53
Am I glad for the title of my web log, for I felt to report an event that transpired yesterday, one that I cannot presume to fully understand. A visitor walked (or waddled) right through the Garden Gate here at Lost Reef Cottage. We are hosting Don and Sara, a truly lovely and love-filled couple from outside of Boston, MA, as guests in the Mission, next door. (If you’d like more information on that, check out http://www.welcometothemission.com/) And there we stood together in the garden along with their friend Danny, who wound up rooming with Don “back in the day” at Brigham Young University and has remained a rare and true friend ever since. Danny, as it turns out, lives only a few blocks away and is, I am quite certain, serving as a hellacious tour guide. He is an excellent “bad boy.”
Apparently it’s a bit colder up in Boston, where they have this thing (every year, it seems!) called winter. Sara particularly seemed enraptured at having stepped into a living Rousseau canvas with an ancient coral reef excavated in the ground and golden Yellow Malaysian coconuts way high up above, thrown in just for artistic good measure. Then, as if on cue, this little yellow bird came walking right up to us. It was a cockatiel, native to Australia, and most probably male. It joined us in our casual circle, for a while, before proceeding deeper into the garden, toward the reef.
It was in no hurry, but did move as if he knew where he was going.
The bird seemed quite comfortable with human company, but would not allow itself to be touched. Not then. Yet everybody knows that the ground is no safe place for creatures born to take wing. Alan and I were just noticing day before yesterday that when the birds come to drink and bathe in the fountain, they maintain a level of vigilance that might be called paranoid, were it not justified. Very much, I suppose, like us taking nighttime swims in shark-filled waters.
I don’t know birds. I never had a feel for them, as some special people do. But as it became evident that this little bird was not just passing through, I became concerned that he not become a “happy meal” for our cat, Hoppers, or one of the neighborhood felines that from time-to-time pass through. I saw that he was tired. I decided to post a lost and found ad on Craigslist and filled a bottle cap with water for him to drink. I did not then know that he needed nothing from me, except (I would like to think) a peaceful and safe place to take flight into the Great Hereafter.
When I took my camera down to take his picture for the posting, he could barely keep his eyes open. Here, near the fountain and just by the left front corner of the Cottage, is where he came to rest. He was bathed in golden afternoon sunlight, for the last time.
He was so little a creature that I had to wonder how far he had walked, and how he had made it here at all. I have learned from my brief Internet research that the birds are quite social, typically traveling in pairs, or in larger groups. I learned that the brilliance of his coloring identified him as male. They live up to 25, even 35 years. I learned that the position of the feathered crest atop his head easily and always indicates their state of mind. “The Cockatiel’s distinctive erectile crest expresses the animal’s state of being. The crest is dramatically vertical when the cockatiel is startled or excited, gently oblique in its neutral or relaxed state, and flattened close to the head when the animal is angry or defensive. The crest is also held flat but protrudes outward in the back when the cockatiel is trying to appear alluring or flirtatious.” (From the Wikipedia, Cockatiels.)
So I suppose he was relaxed, in the garden. My heart went out to him. “How far have you walked, little buddy?” “Don’t know, but well far enough,” I could imagine him responding.
In the meantime, to keep him from being eaten, Alan found an old red plastic shopping crate and gently placed it over him. Yet as I said, I know nothing of birds, and Alan and I were in a hurry to get over to my parents’ house for a visit, and the thought occurred to me that perhaps despite my good intentions I might not be serving the bird at all. So I went out to release him and he had fallen over, his little head leaning into the corner of the crate as if all sense of balance had forsaken him. He was dying.
This was not the first of God’s creatures who have come to our little green compound to die. A couple of years back a tattered old black and tan striped cat showed up, in almost exactly the same area. She sat with a certain proud resignation on the stone bench just inside the garden gate, and showed such a lethargic lack of responsiveness, and native fear, that I stopped myself from shooing her away and instead just paused to say a brief prayer for her. I knew she was on her last legs.
“Alan,” I said a few minutes later, “there’s an old black cat over there. She is really sick, might die.” “We don’t need another damned cat around here,” he exclaimed along with some choice profanities, for in truth the number of feral and abandoned animals criss-crossing our yards, wailing into the night, fighting, and marking the Earth with the stench of their urine had clearly crossed some line. So I understood that.
“Alan,” I said softly, “this one’s gonna die. Just be nice to it.” He said nothing. “If there is anything you want to tell the angels,” I said, “just tell her. She’ll be with them soon enough.”
An hour or so later, I was out raking leaves in the back yard of the Mission. Alan walked up and said, “Paul, I just had a talk with Special Kitty. I told her not to be afraid, and that everything was gonna be all right.” A tear came to my eye; I couldn’t help it. It was one of those simple moments in time that tend to catch you unawares, in which time stops. I suddenly realized, with full force, “This is why I love this man.”
And I suppose that blessing was reason enough for the cat’s visit, if indeed it needed one. We buried her later that evening, together, just under the Dade County pine tree at the back of the property. After the freshly-turned Earth had been patted back into place, we took a brief moment to send up our simple prayers, without words.
When I saw the little bird laying down to die, a poem came to mind. I have just been re-re-reading The Hell with Politics, the collected writings of the late, great Jane Wood Reno, a true blue original pioneer, visionary, writer and news reporter. (The book was edited as a labor of love by one of her grandsons, George Hurchalla, and published by the Pineapple Press. I cannot recommend it highly enough.) Her children, including her first-born, Janet, have all made quite a name for themselves.
I had the privilege of spending time with Jane, many hours in fact, and wrote a big paper about her for a folklore class taken as part of my studies as an English major at the University of Florida. She was too much fun, and a born teacher. Perhaps moreso, if a distinction may be drawn here, a master storyteller. Consequently, I often hear her voice speaking the words she had written, for I heard her tell many of the stories set forth in the book. I only wish that you could, as well, for the old woman was cantankerous, poetic, and almost completely soul.
Here is the passage from Jane’s book that came to mind, describing her visit with one she held dear, who lay dying. I’ve included the surrounding narrative just to provide context, and for fun. Interestingly enough, the even-then historic home of which she writes is still standing, on Flagler Street just west of Miami Senior High:
I knew the stately stone mansion as Peg Brigham’s home. Her father and mother built it in 1903, when Peg was two years old. The Brigham’s son Ed was born there. It was built on forty acres that they owned that stretched from Flagler Street to the Miami River. One night when Ed was a little boy, a panther stuck his head through the window of the living room and looked around. Ed and his father sat very still, and the panther finally went away.
Mrs. Brigham made a lot of money in real estate in the early twenties, but she didn’t have much after the big boom busted in 1926. The family, receiving no rent, had to move back in their old home when Gertie had to move out of the house in the early thirties. [Gertie Walsh had run a noted “home of ill repute” there quite successfully, for many years.]
Peg was one of the great, the wonderful, people of the world– kind, wise, generous, brilliant. She wrote fine prose, though she never finished anything or published any of her writing. “I spoiled Sister,” Mrs. Brigham once told me. “I gave her fifty dollars a day spending money when she was eighteen.”
When Peg no longer had money with which to help friends, her strength and kindness were still there. She could listen to a friend’s problems and find a good solution. She returned you to yourself feeling your very best, polished like a silver spoon. Her eyes had the sparkle of true beauty. Married five times, she died a baroness.
The second time I talked to Peg after I met her, I came to her house and asked her mother if she was at home. “She’s upstairs in bed, not feeling well,” said Mrs. Brigham, indicating that I could go up.
When I went into her bedroom, she was propped up in a bed like Sarah Bernhardt dying of consumption, and I said, “What’s the matter, Peg?”
“I have been to Ludlow Fair.”
“What does that mean?”
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where
Carried half way home, or near
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer.
Down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remains to do
But begin the game anew.
(Poem quoted: A.E. Housman, Ludlow Fair)
Now, back to yesterday. At the same time I posted the ad on craigslist, I wrote to my friend Debbie Coultis, resident in Chicago but whose soul would easily fill the Western hemisphere. We first met Debbie by hosting her at the Cottage, and then the Mission, but she has become part of our family, and in many ways a blessing to us. She is engaged in a serious health struggle on numerous fronts, including a diagnosis of osteonecrosis that requires constant skillful and creative surgical intervention to keep the bones in her jaw from collapsing inward, creating a “ripple” effect that is nothing good.
That being said, Debbie is easily one of the more alive people I have ever known. Her singular passion is for the other animals occupying our planet, and she is all about exploring ways that we can all not simply co-exist in peace, but enrich one another’s experience through new ways of interaction. She has studied many different ways in which relationship with animals can be extremely useful in human well-being and healing. She founded and remains active on this cutting edge with a non-profit charitable organization called PAN, People, Animals, Nature, Inc. , viewable online at https://www.pan-inc.org/
I asked if she might have any thoughts on what to do with this tiny creature, and told her I didn’t know beans about birds. I gave her a link to the postitng on craigslist. Before she’d had time to get my e-mail or reply, I sent her another:
The little fellow up and died. I believe that is why he came here.
Where he flies, no cats will eat him and no crawling insects will torture him. He is free at last. God only knows how far he had walked, to get here.
I am so glad that you are in my life.
Debbie’s response came in just after midnight, and it touched me. It spoke with great elegance of that always-Greater Mystery. I knew it was to be shared, and thus sat down to write this report today:
The post was deleted from Craig’s list, so I was not able to investigate further.
I will share my new line of thinking/feeling. I have come to believe that compassion is an innate trait to people and other animals. The notion is a tenet from Zen Buddhism. Modern society makes the practice difficult. Language translation can change meanings. Sympathy is similar to pity, and comes down to deeming another being inferior. Empathy requires being in another body or soul, which may be possible for a short time, but still the merging for any length of time usually means we dump our “stuff” onto another being. Compassion requires knowing self, foibles and strengths. Compassion requires work in one or many lives. Compassion is love. Crying and embracing the mysterious is compassion.
Thank you, Little Bird. May you again fly High, in peace. And thank you, Alan and Debbie and Jane and Sara and Don, Mom and Dad, and so very many more, for being in my life. So beautifully.
Mystery can be a thing of beauty, perhaps very near its heart. And so we exit stage left, where we began.