The Song of a Frozen Thrush

I was getting cherry tomatoes from the basement freezer to make marinara sauce when I remembered a karmic coincidence. It happened a few years ago and was so unlikely and sacred that I took the bizarre step of freezing the evidence—a dead Swainson’s (or olive-backed) thrush.

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Swainson’s thrush (Credit: Wikipedia)

I first wrote about this handful-of-a bird a couple years ago while on a train to Florida to visit my dad and step-mother, both of whom were in an Edvard-Munch-spiral of dementia:

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Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893. Can a serious painting be a cliche for despair? Maybe, but it fits. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“The lights have gone off and engine and ventilation moans have stopped. As the Silver Meteor sleeps for what we’re told will be fifteen minutes, I remember Swainson’s thrush. Named after 19th century ornithologist William Swainson, the thrush takes numerous micro-naps during the day, each of just a few seconds, according to hras.org—like naps on the train. Passengers nod off for a minute, until the car jerks or somebody walks by and brushes against them or a grizzly old guy hacks cave breath from one seat back to their nose—my present situation. Then they strain their eyes open a slice, shift position, and nap again. 

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

Please! Nobody, woman or man, looked this together on the train from Pittsburgh to Orlando. We were all visual renderings of halitosis. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“Sometimes I myself check things out with one eye because the annoyance isn’t worth the effort of pulling both open. In this I imitate Swainson’s thrush. Saul Scheinbach describes the nifty mental trick this bird and others use to sleep and prevent getting eaten at the same time:

“’Scientists found that when the birds were in a migratory state, they reversed their activity cycle, resting during the day and becoming active at night. As a result daytime ‘drowsiness’ (eyes partially closed) increased, but total sleep time dropped by 67% as compared to birds in the non-migratory state. To partially compensate for this sleep loss migratory birds took daytime micro-naps with one or both eyes closed. These episodes occurred during periods of drowsiness and lasted about eight seconds each. The team suspected that unilateral eye closure (UEC) during the micro-naps allowed one brain hemisphere to sleep while the other stayed awake to avoid predation.’

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Little thrush, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy. (Credit: Herbert Spichtinger)

“Scheinbach goes on to report that the research team referred to here went on to prove their suspicions true and adds tongue-in-cheek speculation: ‘UEC has also been observed in ducks, whales and dolphins, indicating it may be more widespread across the animal kingdom. Perhaps humans exhibit some form of UEC too. I recommend testing college students during exam time and security guards at night.’” Har har.

The mission to Florida, via Amtrak for fear of flying, failed. My father and step-mother refused to move into assisted living. To their neighbors’ dismay, they hunkered down in their Bastille of anguish and confusion for several more months. The trip’s only grace was long stretches of writing on the train and dozens of naps taken like a migratory animal.

Back in Erie, bummed about such a dreary use of vacation time, I showed up at the church and found what looked like a Swainson’s thrush lying dead on the sidewalk. I imagined it flew into the glass door and fell into my path. It was perfect, as if it had taken a macro-nap until I arrived. What were the odds? A sage bird I read and wrote about but never met lay before me in repose. I’m not much for signs, but I know a wonder—albeit a dark one—when I see it.

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I think you’re a Swainson’s thrush–anyway, sing. I’m listening.

So I picked the thrush up, wrapped it in napkins until I got home, and froze it in two sandwich bags. True, keeping a tiny cadaver in your freezer is morbid, gross, weird, whatever, but I wanted to hang onto Swainson’s thrush. We had a conversation pending, but after watching my dad flail about in dementia’s white caps and refusing rescue, I had no shamatha left to imagine what a dead bird might say to me.

My shamatha may not be functioning any better than when I stepped off the Silver Meteor all those months ago, but lately gifts have landed in my path, both quick and dead, and I suspect they’re in formation with Swainson’s thrush. Just now I reached into the basement freezer and returned to the dining room table. Again I laid napkins down and took hold of the body, this time expecting freezer burn. But no. Its wings have darkened, but otherwise it looks the same as the morning I found it.

Had the thrush offered itself to me? Ah, a trite thought, spiritual kitsch. But regardless of her intent, she’s been teaching me. If you can’t nap for an hour, take thirty minutes. Too busy for twenty minutes of prayer? Do ten? Savor three bites rather than swallow ten whole. A truckload isn’t preferable to a teaspoon.

In fact, as one who takes in everything from memoirs to avocados to Starbucks coffee way too fast and in embarrassing quantities, I believe Swainson’s thrush may be trying to lengthen my days. Receive staples, luxuries, and blessings in small portions, you middle-aged glutton!

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Micro-blessing Cole sleeps on macro-blessed John.

I’m breathing, listening for this frozen bird’s song. (Lord, help me.) Micro-graces have been appearing, and fortunately I’ve had one eye opened to notice them. They’re all singing to me mercy within mercy within mercy.

Neighbor Patrick, Shenley Drive’s Down’s-syndrome sage, just turned twelve, but his boy-wisdom isn’t getting all mature, fussy, and sophisticated. He lives in a relentless now; I wonder if what the world regards as a deficiency is really an absence of intellectual clutter and absurdity. He does his best to teach the neighborhood. Sometimes we pay attention.

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Patrick: Let’s play! I’ll be Superman.

Friend Mary posted the following on her Facebook page: Foster & Help Needed! “Noel–The Christmas Kitten”: This little kitty was found tonight after she crawled up through a heating vent into a house in Millcreek. We assume she went in to try to keep warm. She is very sweet, and just wants to be held and cuddled. As you can see, she is emaciated and obviously has been on her own for some time. Orphan Angels Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center will be overseeing her care, and a vet appointment has been made for her first thing in the morning. She needs a good foster home until she can get strong enough to be ready for adoption. Orphan Angels could also use donations for this little one. This case was unexpected, but they want to make sure she gets the help and care she needs. Anyone interested in fostering, please call Eileen at 814-504-3246 to be screened. Donations can be made via paypal on the OA website: http://orphanangels.weebly.com/.

Mary and husband Mike agreed to take Noel in, knowing she’d need a couple months of care before a permanent adoption would be possible. Noel didn’t survive, though. Mary writes, “I am at least grateful she had warmth, food and love in her last days.” And I’m grateful for friends’ yes to one of my frozen thrush’s forgotten sisters. Mary and Mike quietly hugged the world.

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Noel, Swainson’s thrush’s little sister. Her eyes teach me.

This Christmas week my brother Ed asked if I had our Grandma Miller’s molasses cookie recipe. He made some on his own and said they were hockey pucks. We looked in a family cookbook without luck. In passing he also mentioned that Gram made a batch of those cookies once a week because Earl (Gramp) loved them. This hardly seems worth sharing, but the idea has stayed with me, especially since Gram’s body was gnarled with arthritis. Her cherubic face was always pursed with pain. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams wrote. Correct. A red wheelbarrow and a molasses cookie.

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Dora Miller’s molasses cookies weren’t so puffy. I never knew I’d want a picture of Earl’s favorite someday. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Also this week, parishioner Bob and his grandson Gabe stopped by the church to do some cleaning. When they came into my office, I crouched down and said to Gabe, “Hey, you got a hug for Pastor John?” He smiled and let me have it. For him it must have been like hugging a sequoia. For me it was one regulation clergy hug—until I tried to pull away. Gabe hadn’t gotten the memo that this was to be a micro-embrace. A Swainson’s thrush-preschooler passed his goofball minister a universe of grace without realizing it.

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A standard hug micro-heals me for days. (Credit: corbisimages)

When an olive-backed bird is your mentor, even a fart can be a blessing. Yes, you heard me: a fart. (Roll the r. It’s more fun that way.) Friend Abby recently shared this laugh on Facebook:

Conversations with my 4 year old. Take two.

Keenan: FLURRRP!

Me: Hah! That was quite a toot!

Keenan: (Very serious) that wasn’t a toot momma.

Me: It wasn’t? Sure sounded like one to me! What was it then? A fluff? A fart? Did you shoot a bunny?

Keenan: No momma. None of those. My butt blew you a kiss.

I accept Abby’s word (If I’m lyin, I’m dyin!) that Keenan came up with his own version of the scene in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in which Nicholaus “anon let flee a fart.” In the heart a four-year-old boy, such a kiss is precious, not to be wasted. The point: I need Swainson’s thrush’s strangest song to make me laugh and drag me out of the terrible squirrel cage of self .

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Sniff. Oh, that was supposed to be a kiss. Why, thank you. (Credit: Lars-Olof Johansson)

Because my olive-drab bodhisattva hasn’t finished saving me yet, I’ve returned her to the morgue. Such power! Even frozen she sings to me: “Creation screams and groans, but shh. Do you hear the descants of grace and mercy?” 

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A bodhisattva with many wings. (Credit: Nat Krause)

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When a Soul’s Door Is Left Open

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Cole Martin Thompson. Go ahead, show me a nicer pair of nostrils.

As I mentioned in my last post, my first grandchild Cole was born on November 30th. Days one through seven were dicey, as he was in the NICU with schmutz in one of his lungs. His face—and let me emphasize, it’s so boo-boo-beautiful you want to order a few of them ala mode—was jaundiced because his system was trying to absorb a hematoma on the back of his head, which was smooshed up against my daughter Elena’s pelvic bone for a week or two. Enough of that. He’s safely home now.

Most fresh grandparents are like me, all burble and coo. At the very instant of Cole’s birth, as he was soaring from womb to bosom, he crop-dusted his mother with meconium. I wasn’t there to see it, yet as soon as I heard the details I said in the voice of an animated bulldog, “That’s my boy!” Not because his first act was pooping on Elena, but because I took it as an existential statement.

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Cole wiggled his nose. We saw him! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

As a newborn he’s swaddled most of the time, so his activity is at the low end of the spectrum. (Note on swaddling: Geez, Louise, they wrap infants up tightly these days. Cole looks like a white cotton bullet with a round, fleshy tip.) In other words, he’s often motionless. But when he does anything at all, makes kissy lips or even seems to be bearing down, you’d think Pavarotti just sang “Nessun Dorma’s” final vincero! The kid’s butt rumbles! The crowd goes wild!

These are the days that fracture men’s souls; at least that’s my experience. When my own Elena and Micah were born, I was too nerved up to take in the fullness of their beauty. I missed a lot—ah well, life is thus. At fifty-two, I’m still a goofed up customer, but together enough to be present to Cole. And his beauty has cracked me open. No kidding, the Swedish Bikini Team and the Victoria’s Secret Runway Squad could show up, and I’d rather look at the face of my grandson. I’m not going to lie: I’d glance up every few seconds, but Cole would get most of my attention.

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Cole while still in the NICU, hypnotizing his grandpa.

Not even his face. His lips are enough. Or his assertive little nostils. God help this bizarre grandpa, I’m getting verklempt thinking about my grandson’s nose. I’m honestly undone. I’ve had hundreds of days when concentrating was difficult because of troubles real or imagined, but I can’t remember ever struggling to stay on task because of consuming joy.

Sure, Cole’s a standard-issue, boiler-plate, pretty-darned-decent-looking infant, but resting my lips against his fuzzy head has pushed open the door to my soul. Not only can I receive that boy’s beauty, but the lessons and wonders that crowd around me constantly come in for a visit.

Some wonders are quirky. Son Micah wandered into the kitchen last evening smoking his e-cig and wearing something resembling onesie pajamas, tiger slippers, and a hoodie. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he reported. “This is some comfortable shit.” My twenty-one-year-old has developed a taste for the Casablanca Hookah Lounge on Erie’s West 5th Street, where he read old National Geographics, drank Near Eastern tea, and smoked before coming home and changing into something more comfortable.

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Uncle Micah relaxing, smoking his e-cig.

Until Cole was born, the plastic Halloween bobble kid Kathy glued to the truck dashboard annoyed me. The joy space he cleared changed my sneer into a laugh.

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Oh, okay, kind of funny.

A couple lessons in recent days belong in the Whoa, Kind of Deep catagory. The other day I gave extra time to reading the work of fellow bloggers and was rewarded with this affirming observation from James Hollis, posted on agentleinstigator.wordpress.com:

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Jean-Paul Sartre (Credit: Wikipedia)

“What constitutes personal authority? Stated most simply it means, to find what is true for oneself and to live it in the world. If it is not lived, it is not yet real for us, and we abide in what Sartre called ‘bad faith,’ the theologian calls ‘sin,’ the therapist calls ‘neurosis,’ and the existential philosopher calls ‘inauthentic being.’ Respectful of the rights and perspectives of others, personal authority is neither narcissistic nor imperialistic. It is a humble acknowledgement of what wishes to come to being through us.

In my usual state I would have paused and considered such powerful words, but with my soul’s door open, I was able to receive them. “To find what is true for oneself and live it in the world”—yes! That’s my purpose. And acknowledging “what wishes to come to being through” me—another yes! I have so many failings. Some days my life stretches out in front of me like a cobblestone road made of imperfection. But if “what wishes to come to being through” me is a compassionate gaze toward the world, I should also use those loving eyes to regard my own brokenness.

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The face that opened a soul’s door.

Cole, wonder that he is, even guided me to a new appreciation of Facebook. A Napper’s Companion prodded me to join Facebook, but the friends I’ve connected with there have reminded me of human goodness. My light bulb moment came when my nephew Ed called himself a nerd for liking big band music, which reminds him of riding in the car with his late grandfather. Friend Abby, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t know Ed, posted this message for him: “I don’t think you’re a nerd. I think it’s pretty rad you were able to conjure up a great memory.”

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Credit: Wikipedia

Ah ha. Ed in Utah receives affirmation from John’s friend Abby in Pennsylvania. Technology is used to bestow a blessing. Civilization takes an inconspicuous cleansing breath. My past disgruntlement with Facebook had to do with news stories of cyber-bullying and friends being jerks to each other in cyber-public. Only after Ed and Abby’s exchange did I consider that humans are always finding new ways to treat each other like hot dog water. Blaming Facebook for a small fraction of its users’ shabby behavior is like blaming ranch style homes because couples sometimes argue in them. Hey, it’s not the house’s fault. So I say to Facebook, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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My soul’s door was battered anyway. Cole has done me a favor by unhinging it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Is Cole’s face responsible for a couple of random epiphanies and shocks of joy? Has his beauty loosened something in me, healed an old wound or two, soothed a deep spirit-cramp? Is he helping me to see graces I’ve overlooked? Or is he innocent? I guess the only judge who matters is writing these words, and I say the kid’s guilty. When I suspect for a second that his eyes are actually meeting mine, my soul’s door swings open. The blessed trouble is, I can’t get it closed again.

Some time today I’m going to stop at Cole’s house, hold him, and wonder if souls can get along fine without doors.

A Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom,

I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.

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Beautiful, even as its flowers wilt.

I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.

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I’d stop so you could have a long look, Mom. (Credit: Carson Ganci)

Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.

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Cole Martin Thompson holding his Uncle Micah’s finger

Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.

Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.

While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.

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Your amazing daughter-in-law with a swaddled Cole. In your absence, science has discovered that the best way to quiet infants is to wrap them close to the point of suffocation and make loud shhhhh sounds in their ears. Who knew?

I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.

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What hair I’ve got left is going gray, Mom.

But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.

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If you were here, I’m sure Elena would peel grapes for you.

It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.

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Your grand-daughter married a good man.

It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.

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Micah’s got a funny haircut, but he’s also got all your gentleness.

I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.

Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

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We figured you’d want something simple, like this.

And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.

For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.

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What do you say, Mom? Let’s all go get ice cream.

Love,

John