Our cages

It is a matter of shame that in the morning the birds should be awake earlier than you. — Abu Bakr

My parrots are an allegory for my life. The entire time I have had them, I’ve given them what I could: Love, devotion, medical care, beautiful homes (cages), and life partners.

However, as the rains begin fall and it’s breeding season for the type of birds I have, I can’t help but think that their anguish of being stuck in a cage and wanting to fly free and breed is similar to how I feel about my life. I feel like there’s a door there and I never open it. Every turn is just another turn in the cage, a life compartmentalized with all the responsibility that I’ve heaped upon myself, but not wanting to let go of my self-imposed ties because of some sort of internal ethic. Listening to the parrots in the baby monitor as the sun rose used to be a welcoming alarm clock, and now it’s just Groundhog Day.

And then I realized that I had all the control and that I should just begin. Someone once said to me that good things can happen to you if you just clear a path. That’s code for don’t retreat into darkness, stay open to the light. Interesting that all the good advice has nature encoded into it.

I’m listening to the Gymnopédies by Satie: the keys fall, it sounds like rain, and then it sounds like dancing, and it’s quieting the parrots.

Georgia’s face is so old: her soft dog eyes and long white snout look like snow and mud.

Shadows of tiny birds appear for a moment in the light of the window shade, and then are gone.

Image: “The Narrow Path” by rabiem22 on Flickr.

 

 

 

 

The next sense – the emotional impact of climate change

Twilight cover take us away, we’re only here for a day – Younger Brother

We often hear about people with S.A.D, which is Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s another concoction of the medical profession to make us think something is wrong with us, so we will go running to our doctors to get a pill for what ails us.

When we have cataclysmic changes like we’re having now, we’re bound to feel them in every layer of our being. It’s not just about long rainy seasons and grey days anymore; we are digging ourselves out of mountains of snow and using the dog’s water to keep the lavender alive.

I feel like I’ve been on a verge of a “thing” lately waiting for the rain to come in California. I’ve been poised on some theoretical cliff, waiting for the grass to grow again, the birds to be alright, and the flowers to shine. It’s a melancholy that bears no relief. I am outside, wavering between pockets of cool and then the unnatural feeling that the earth is being microwaved.

In the article “The Hidden Mental Health Impacts of Climate Change,” Marlene Cimons writes about a recent Lancet report:

The report, which was published Tuesday by the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, said that victims of natural disasters often suffer elevated levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD, as well as “a distressing sense of loss, known as solastalgia, that people experience when their land is damaged and they lose amenity and opportunity.’’ Moreover, “these effects will fall disproportionately on those who are already vulnerable, especially for indigenous peoples and those living in low resource settings,’’ the authors wrote. These effects not only include the emotional reaction to physical illness and destruction of property, but involuntary “displacement” that forces people to move elsewhere in order to survive.

The Lancet report said that experts already have identified such reactions in people who have experienced floods, and even among those suffering from slow-developing events, such as prolonged droughts. The report noted that emotional impacts include chronic distress and even increased incidence of suicide. “Even in high-income regions where the humanitarian crisis might be less, the impact on the local economy, damaged homes and economic losses may persist for years after,’’ the Lancet report said.

But even if the rain comes we’re spiraling toward something so different now, none of us can predict the future. Migrations are thrown off, sea creatures are hurling themselves onto beaches, and only those who think, but aren’t really in tune, are exclaiming “what a gorgeous day.”

Above and below

If the rain has to separate from itself
Does it say, “Pick out your cloud?”
Pick out your cloud

– Tori Amos, “Your Cloud”

Lyanda Lynn Haupt wrote in her book Crow Planet that “Many human activities are wholly ugly, working against the nature upon which we forget we depend. Still, we do not flip-flop back and forth, now in nature, now in culture, now feeling quite animal like, now wholly intellectual. We are, at all times, both at once. In this, humans may be unique, but we are not less natural. We are the human species, living in culture, bound by nature.”

Today we walked the dogs in Millbrae, just West of the San Francisco Airport, along the bay. To my right, small songbirds flit amongst the condoms, cigarettes, and tossed coffee cups, as tourists and business folk stand at the cement wall and watch the planes come in. We chat with whomever takes interest in our tall dogs. There is something easy about small talk, especially on a Sunday. We are all outside together.

To the East is the San Francisco Bay with its lovely shorebirds. Just down from the Benihana, in the marshes that make a cul de sac from bay water and the cement buttresses, stand three Snowy Egrets, one a parent and two fledglings. They are decidedly stoic, content to stand within the marshes and meditate, all the while silently preening. Then, the adult breeding Egret takes flight to most likely find fish for her loved ones.

I always wonder how the birds fair when situations aren’t idyllic. Each year, thousands of birds get tangled in our plastic bags or eat our trash, and most likely die slowly and silently. Also, in drought years, birds are forced to get creative about how to find water to drink. When someone wastes water washing their car, the crow down the street waits near the drain, and drinks it.

Though I couldn’t help but observe that our walk wasn’t absolutely beautiful it was what it was. The sky above, with its gulls, crows, and songbirds, and the ground below with the same, and egrets and grebes in the water. For me, those birds weren’t out there in nature…we were here together, sharing the same above and below. I maintain a sense of responsibility and respect among them. They are lucky — they don’t have to think or take action about the world and all its environmental tragedies, as the world changes around them they will either live or die.

References:

Alone

“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.” – Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

As a young child and teenager I used to escape into reading, to feel safe. It was my only window into the outside world, my only solace in a house where I suffered needlessly. Some days I wondered if I would eat, or be allowed the keys to the car. If I didn’t know the answer to either, I cowered in my room with a book. My world began to unravel in earnest when I turned eleven, and I became a more sensitive child, which has not changed to this day. All sensory inputs are overload, but what I’ve learned to do is acknowledge that I think my dog is judging me, note the internal impact, and move on.

I look and long for lonely hours. If my dogs wake me in the middle of the night for a break, though I am tired I look forward to standing outside in the cold for a brief moment, wrapped in my purple blanket. It’s the same view of the stars and Cirrocumulus clouds, through the dead branches and power lines, lightened by the moon. The blanket is so long it gets dragged through the dust and twigs, that I bring into the house with me, and that I find some mornings between the sheets.

I look for birds that are alone. Where is their flock, and where do they sleep, protected, if there are no leaves on the trees? What are they eating, and where do they get their water in this drought year? The gorgeous Common Raven, following me around the park, seems to recognize me. He jumps from trash can, to branch, to bench, chortling and cooing at me. I tell him “yes, I know, the people who pick up the trash came early today, and you slept in, too bad for you.” Or, “I am not the red-head that feeds you, that must be someone else.” We come to an understanding, and he lets me leave the park. Or, the Northern Mockingbird that peers into his reflection in my picture window, thinking “could it be someone, lonely, who is like me?”

Caged

We are constantly invited to be who we are.
~ Henry David Thoreau

Today I made myself step out of my comfort zone. That zone is at home, doting over my animals, napping, watching movies, and thinking about writing. Very little of the latter it seems. But I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off, so I went over to the coast. It’s not a luxurious drive, but a 10 minute meander down a hill into Pacifica, CA, and a walk along the Pacific Ocean.

Pacifica is kind of odd, and you have to look for its gems. If you can look past the people that weird you out — like the addict nursing his Budweiser just outside the cafe where you are sipping on your espresso, or the trippy ZZ Top-looking guy taking his daily stroll along the ocean. It reminds me of the dirtier parts of Arcata, CA, where I grew up.

ZZ Top asks me what I like to take pictures of, because I have my camera, and I reply “lots of things.” He says “you should take a picture of that red-tailed hawk over there…” and so I try, but he flies away before I can get a good pic. But I’m grateful to him for pointing it out, and he keeps walking.

I sat for a long time on the beach, on a rock that made my ass hurt, settled in among the trash, feathers, dead crabs, and broken shells. I made myself write a page in my handwritten journal, and I was going to read these fabulous nature book I had brought along, but that will wait for tomorrow. I was content to watch a gull playing keep away with a starfish.

It felt good to get out of my cage. In fact, my birds I keep at home seem to be an analogy for my life. I can see that I am free, that I have wings, and that there is a lot of the sky and earth to explore. But I’m content to stay within my routine, what I know, and at night I close the door and stare into my little mirror and ring my little bell. It’s my mind that has bars around it, and it seems that every day that passes I pick away at them with a file. I know I can change.

I ended my mini-outing on a bench just in front of San Andreas lake, nibbling on half a sandwich and listening to the traffic just behind me on Skyline Boulevard. That’s where I seem to live, straddling the line between urbanity and sanity.

Wind

My face is a mask I order to say nothing
About the fragile feelings hiding in my soul.

– Glenn Lazore (Mohawk)

Outside the wind is waiting just outside the fall. It dances around late September, and by December it will be here in full force. I watch with patience as the landscape changes; the leaves begin to wilt on the Catalpa, the songbirds are fewer, and we all move forward into darker hours.

My hair is long now, and I have to wear it back in a ponytail when it’s so windy. Even then, strands of my red hair at the temple are pulled away by the gusts and enter my eyes, nose, and mouth. As I walk, the wind is at my back and pushes me forward. The wind in the trees, especially the Eucalyptus up near San Andreas lake, sounds like a rushing river. I am always surprised to look up and not find water, only a gigantic tree, and the intoxicating scent of its bark.

I think of the little wild birds, late at night, sleeping and holding on for dear life to swaying branches. This is much like what I do as I rest, my wings (arms) tucked up around my head and neck like a bat, my only protection from my dreams. The other night I dreamt that there were men in a car, parked in my backyard, and my aviary was on fire. I don’t have an aviary. I am out of control.

The randomness of the wind makes me feel safe. It wraps its tender or strong air in a cold embrace around me, and sometimes sings me a quiet lullaby in the early morning hours, before it dies down at dawn.

There’s always a break in the rain

Life is the worst
Listen to me, I’m a philosopher
Love, that’s a trap
Responsibility, that’s a trap
Like a father to a son, I tell you this
Life is full of horror, nobody escapes, nobody, save yourself
Whatever pulls from you
Whatever needs from you
Threatens you
Learn at least this
What you are capable of, let nothing stand in your way

– Al Pacino in “Angels in America”

I have a love/hate relationship with the winter and December. But there is a beauty in the bareness that only animals with great noses are lucky to know; like the whiff of both orange trees that grow in the winter in my neighbors’ yards, and the smell of eucalyptus that wafts up on the wings of crows and ravens chasing away a hawk. If you look up waft, “to cause to move or go lightly by or as if by the impulse of wind or waves,” I think it’s very unlike the dictionary to have such a poet’s definition, and I am pleased.

My backyard, in all its commonness, is a place of ever-changing weather and an attack on the senses. The shapes and dreams from my childhood still live in the clouds – the bunnies, big hands, sweet pink cumulus, and the smells; coldness, wetness, darkness, sadness, and the thoughts the sun-smell brings. I’m reminded of the taste of carrots and vinegar, tomatoes and salt, all on the porch of a sunny day.

I spent time with my dying family this season. My sister, the caregiver, and my mother, having less and less to look forward to. The bitterness of the unthoughtful gift from my brother, and the brief visit that consummated in the long nap during the car ride home while my mate navigated his way with the company of 70s on 7.

Unlike letting mother nature move us and do its thing, we as humans are expected to navigate our human landscapes by how we want to live our lives as individuals. I had the sudden realization that, when there is a break in the rain, you have to seize the opportunity for another kind of life, happiness, and interpretation within the clouds around you.

Comfortable with gray

“We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”

Pema Chödrön

I used to throw things away that reminded me of lost loves, drawings and journal entries that weren’t perfect, relevant, thoughtful. Some say that it’s healthy to go to the fire, to purge that which you think won’t let you move on. I think that’s why so many people go to Burning Man, to say goodbye to that which they couldn’t control, the thing that didn’t go their way. I believe we should do the exact opposite.

I keep some of these little relics, like the cheap necklace I was given by a young, handsome, crazy stalker, the garden gnome from linda-who-smoked and would give angel readings to those who believed, the poems from loves and not-so-loved, and the little glass bird my former co-worker brought me from Italy, given with insincere thanks for watching her bird for almost a month.

I keep these odd little gifts, because they remind me that the unwanted, and sometimes wanted, emotions we experience over time make up who we are, and our part of our collective experience. I like the grays of life, for example, would Jane really care if my sink was dirty, and if she did, could we still be friends. Or that snake slowly killing that mouse down in the wildflowers; how sad for the mouse but the snake had to eat. I have to stay with the randomness to keep the extremes at bay.

Today I was at the pet store and I got to watch the “store cat” try to jump up on one of the new soft dog crates, only for it to topple over on it. We were there to catch the crate, while the cat ran away looking pissed and embarrassed. We got a good laugh.

And then we drove home through South SF, enveloped in the smoke of a 4-alarm house fire in downtown. We caught a glimpse of the neighbors balancing themselves on the fence, watching the billows of gray smoke, and perhaps pondering the uncertainties of things.

Starling

Do you love any, do you love none
Do you love twenty, can you love one
Do you love…me?

A long time ago, it seems ages, I fell in love with a bird. He was a long, dark bird, with sun in his feathers and sleepy yellow eyes. He was very different from most birds his kind, and a non-native, a starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

We met one night near the train tracks. I sat alone, waiting for my ride, and he called to me from a power line, “you are so beautiful, may I nestle in your red locks?” I giggled and looked away, and when I looked back he had hopped to the top of a eucalyptus and flown away.

And so it went, these chance meetings, and he would only appear when I was alone. Sitting on a bench near the ferry terminal, he would fly down and peer at me from an empty chair; rattle, whirr, and whistle – fly a little farther away, and do it again.

For a while, starling and I only exchanged fleeting moments like this. One day he dropped a little bookmark at my feet. It looked like a gold paperclip with a small rose engraved at the top. He flew down next to me and watched my expression as I picked it up. I could smell his feathers from where he landed, the heat and the heart underneath them, and I was smitten.

Starlings are relatives of the Myna bird, and like them they have impressive vocal abilities and a gift for mimicry. He learned how to imitate the words “Habibi,” and “maybe,” but I think they might have been the same words, it just depended on which day he said them. I would hang on those words, and depending on which one I thought he said it could make or break me, until we met again.

When we weren’t together, starling would travel with a pack of grackles and blackbirds. I would hear from the house finch “yes, I saw him over on Chestnut, drinking from a gutter and whispering sweet nothings to another.” I did not flinch. I knew that starlings were known for their brood parasitism, and he was only looking for a new, temporary nest. But as I mentioned, he was different from the other starlings, he wasn’t so much interested in proliferation, but the addiction of connection.

Watch while the queen
In one false move
Turns herself into a pawn

Sleepy and shaken

And watching while the blurry night
Turns into a very clear dawn

As the days went on, we became closer and closer. He would abandon his main nest more often, and we would sit together, saying nothing, breathing each other in, learning the other’s own special language. Though he would go back to his home high above the hill the time we spent together was enough to sustain me. I would drive dreamily home, still smelling of the oil from his wings.

I am thinking of your woman
Who is crying in the hall
It’s like drinking gasoline
To quench a thirst
Until there’s nothing there left at all

Alas, it…
Was not meant to be

No clean transition
Wish there was a better ending
The hottest love has the coldest end

Starling
flew
away

Mourning Dove

In a state

I live in one of the most beautiful states in the world. I live and work in California, and I have never not had a job in this state since the age of 13. Quite a remarkable feat for someone who grew up on welfare cheese and was the last of eight children from podunk Redding, CA. In my humble home 15 minutes away from San Francisco, I have arrived, and I have no aspirations to rise any further. My ugly but growing on me wallpaper, my unpainted walls, and the backyard that does what it wants is all I really need. Well, I am taking a bird watching trip to Cairo, Egypt, next year, so maybe I can die after that. In any case, I am well-fed, have a roof over my head, and I have people that love me. I need no more than that.

For those of you that have read my blog all along, you will remember that my sister, Robin, died in 1990 – at the hands (really, gun) of her boyfriend. He later died in prison, of HIV/AIDs.

Every time I see a Robin in any tree, I say “Hi, Robin” and I am happy. Hi, sister.

My sister taught me how to ride horses, and to respect their energy. When I see the breast of a quarter horse or the breast of the Robin, I am drawn to the beauty of that warm color, the horse’s soft muzzle, and the Robin’s beautiful song. My sister’s hair was the color of a Robins’ breast, and I cannot see that bird without seeing her. Her wide hips, the flip of her hair, her commanding presence above us all. Gone at 29.

In the parking lot where I work, sometimes I’ll be sitting in a conference room, post-meeting, and I will hear the sound of a lone Robin in the plum trees outside the window. I never have to strain, he is so loud and clear. I doubt it is the same Robin, but maybe one that has passed on to his ancestors that the best way to call for a mate is from the rooftops overlooking the non-native Eucalyptus that are forced to live above the cars. I leave early, before sundown, to catch the last of his soliloquy. The weight of the sun and breeze rest on me. Let me comb my red breast, deep breath.

Landscapes

When my mornin’ comes around, no one else will be there
so I won’t have to worry about what I’m supposed to say
and I alone will know that I’ve climbed the great big mountain
and that’s all that’ll matter when my mornin’ comes around

~ Iris Dement

My mother’s brother, my uncle Geoffrey, died last October. The cancer in his body from years of smoking metastasized quickly, and just as soon as he was admitted to a terminal care facility, he was gone.

I did not visit him before he died, as he would have not recognized me nor would he have cared that I was there. My sister visited him religiously, but my mother could not face the inevitability, so she kept her distance. However, once he was gone the sheer tsunami of mortality washed over her, leaving her to wander through the landscape of life’s uncertainties.

During his life my uncle was a fairly well-known local artist in San Jose. He created etchings, lithographs, and taught at the local university. His art is in several public permanent collections including the San Jose Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts San Francisco, Lannan Foundation New York, and Crown Press Berkeley.

Just a week ago my sister invited me to his house to choose some of his prints for my own. He had this great studio in the back of his house in Willow Glen — a messy converted garage filled with his creative life. As I stood at the table flipping through his prints I felt like I was standing inside of him, that the walls of the studio was his body’s frame, his art his presence, and the thin layer of dust on the floor his heart. I don’t know any other way to describe it.

One liked one piece in particular very much. It was a print called “Tapas” and he had made ten versions of this print. I think I chose 2/10 and 6/10.

This time I spent looking at this piece got me thinking about how little we know about the mind. I felt like what he put down on paper was his interpretation of his mind’s landscape. I sensed that his prints were a rendering of how life’s wind, rain, sun, death, fruits, and flowers leave their marks on our brain, and this output was my uncle trying to make sense of it all.

Tapas