Oniontown Pastoral: Not One Sparrow Shall Fall to the Ground

Oniontown Pastoral: Not One Sparrow Shall Fall to the Ground

Sparrows are among the smallest birds at my feeders, but they arrive in such numbers that I’m freehanded with the millet. They flit about on a ceramic table I’ve set out and flick seeds everywhere, leaving much of their meal in the snow.

Nobody would call house sparrows conspicuous. They wear shades of dormancy, sandy brown and gray like the leafless hedges and trees in my view, charcoal like the sunflowers wife Kathy left in repose by the garage.

My friends making a mess and taking flight.

While it’s noon on February 1, the sparrows haven’t touched their breakfast. Have they left the neighborhood? Migration isn’t a precise phenomenon. They may return soon. Maybe I won’t see them for a while. Who knows?

I’m not worried, but these friends do matter to me. As one who spends eternities looking out a window while stacking up sentences like firewood, I’ve acquired the habit of explicating minutiae. You may be one for panoramas, but give me an epiphany on the wing, the magnum opus of a pigeon feather fallen on wet grass. Anyway, vistas give me vertigo. A small matter to consider suits me best.

One example is framed calligraphy hanging in our bedroom. The words are a big deal. I chose them from a Henry Taylor poem for wife Kathy on our tenth anniversary. “A life is much to ask of anyone, yet not too much to give to love.” What’s trivial is my neglected task of moving the verse eight inches up the wall. The dresser we bought months ago makes the current placement clumsy.

Lovely words that need to move. (Calligrapher: Judy Welch)

How long would it take to correct this decidedly First World problem? Less than a minute, provided I could find a hammer and nail. Instead I lie in bed and think, “Meh.” This dynamic repeats itself with a repair to a screen door, a few articles to be rearranged in the garage and tiny vents to be installed in my writing hut’s soffit. With a flight of ambition, these projects would disappear, as my mother used to say, in two jerks.  

Through these little white sins of omission, I understand myself: trifles crowd my mental floor space. Easy chores assemble. “You’re no match for us,” they say, crossing their arms and looking at me over reading glasses. “We’ll wait you out.”

Occasionally an annoyance will find me mindless. The family cat, Baby Crash, hops up on the kitchen counter when I come home and puts a paw out as if to pat me on the cheek. “Hello, sweetness,” I tell her. “You want a snack?”

She happily crunches the treats, then immediately gives me the paw again.

“I just gave you some,” I sigh, then catch myself. She wants me to pick her up and kiss sweet nothings all over her sassy head. She doesn’t need much. I possess a litany of deficiencies, but also plenty of love. What’s my problem?

Baby Crash this afternoon in the belly of the great fish. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Here again, the incidental is my sage. Fortunately, I often catch on to what the easily overlooked has to say.

About a week ago my colleague Ben died in his sleep. A congenital heart defect got to him before a transplant did—just 36 years old. He and I weren’t close, but melancholy rests in my chest. I know why, and it has to do with a short phone call. Some months ago I sent out an appeal for anybody who had Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen. Ben called to say he had the book in his church study. If he felt well enough, he’d find it for me. We talked for a bit. This deeply devoted pastor had an explosive laugh and a mind sparking with insight and curiosity. He corrected my pronunciation of the author’s name, reminding me that Aulen was a Swede.

Ben and I occasionally connected at church gatherings, but it was this phone conversation that let me know what he was about—so warm, joyful, generous. Half-an-hour’s laughing and kibitzing was enough to convince me that the world wouldn’t be right without Ben in it.

Of course, if all the minutiae had to offer was sadness, I’d stop paying attention. Most often, however, joys arrive like sparrows.

A month ago grandson Cole and I sat together, watching a movie. He leaned into me and fell asleep. At nine years old, he won’t be interested in cuddling with his grandfather for much longer.

I whispered into his red hair, “Pop loves you, buddy.”

Without a word, Cole put his hand on my chest and gently, sleepily patted it three times. He had heard me and answered.

It makes no sense, but that boy’s hand on my gray chest grants me hope. Some moments are so quietly glorious that they must live forever. The same goes for Ben. Words, too, like sparrow, sunflower, heart, life, love.

Cole trying on glasses. He won’t be young forever. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

4 thoughts on “Oniontown Pastoral: Not One Sparrow Shall Fall to the Ground

    • Thank, Kimberly. Your reaching out this way means a lot. I haven’t been a very reciprocal blogger lately. I hope all is well with you and yours. John

  1. Having lost a friend and colleague to heart disease a few months ago—I almost said “days” or “weeks” ago because it still feels raw and the world untenable without him in it—I read about Ben with an open (oh here it comes, that word) heart. Thank you. –DHG

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