Shutdown Week 4: Shame

House sparrows have been chirping at my window. They’re abundant on my city street and in the spring they emerge from their winter hiding places looking for food. Last year for the first time, European starlings appeared. Sometimes I think I hear robins and cardinals but starlings mimic the sounds of other birds. They’re trying to trick me into putting bird seed out for the more colorful birds, not knowing I love them equally. 

Gutsy red-winged blackbirds abruptly premiered on the railing of my balcony, sucking the breath out of me. Their distinctive one-second long, loud musical trill called me from the breakfast table. Jet black bodies shouldered with red and yellow feathers held on fearlessly as I moved closer to the window. For years I’ve had black furniture with red and yellow highlights, imitating red-winged blackbirds. 

A friend called from Florida to say Happy Easter as I was tethering Henry for his morning walk.

“It’s Easter?” 

“Yes! It’s Easter,” and we laughed in that old familiar way, like we just discovered each of our days slips from one to another like egg after egg slipping into boiling water. We starting talking about the Shutdown. I extended Henry’s walk farther along Lake Shore Drive sensing a longer iPhone conversation.

“I can’t watch the news. Can’t talk about him,” she said.

I understand, of course. It’s what we all say and like all of us, she ended up talking about it anyway—said the Democrats need to present an answer to the question “why” to win in November. 

“The Democrats have moved their convention to August about the same time as my book release,” I said. “Let’s go to Milwaukee and sell books out of the trunk of the car, a trunk show!” We’ve had such adventures in the past, but plans cannot be made until the Shutdown is resolved. 

The outside world has been a physical threat since St. Patrick’s Day. At first I was in danger of someone sneezing on me. I’m in the vulnerable group. Now others are in danger of me sneezing on them. I may be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier. 

Henry and I ended up sitting in the bus stop sheltered by an unexpected spring warmth. IMG_0871Walkers have taken to the street lately because the sidewalks aren’t wide enough to keep the reqiured social distancing. A woman in an ominous medical mask, six feet into the street, walked by and gave me a long evil eye. I’ve been wearing a cowgirl bandana for my mask and I neglected to re-cover my face after it slipped down when I was on the phone. Shaming eyes have replaced smiles and waves on the street. Watch out if you forget your mask. You’ll need to mend your wounds with a Brene Brown Ted Talk on shame from the daggers shooting out of your neighbors’ gaze.

The Stay Home battle cry presents no threat though. Settling into social isolation, I watch masked neighbors from the window.

And I pray for a visitation from the woodpecker I heard the other day.

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

On a ridge near the Fox River John and I soft-footed along the sidewalk stopping here and there for Henry, my terrier, to sniff unfamiliar markers deposited at the base of old-growth trees by squirrels, chipmunks, and, of course, dogs. I asked John the usual grandmotherly questions about school, his grades, homework. Science is his favorite subject and he likes moving from class to class now that he’s in Middle School. He pointed out homes of his school ’s vice-principal, classmates, older kids he knew. He said there are often turkey vultures shuffling around this lawn or that, looking for dead worms and garter snakes. 

“Did you know vultures ride the thermals?” He asked. And I knew what he was thinking—he wishes he could spread his arms like wings and let the thermals airlift him into the sky. I do too. We probably have the same dream.

Further along we saw a robin jumping across the grass.

“I never see robins in the city except in the park,” I said, “do you think that’s the robin singing?” 

“No, that’s a cardinal. In the trees. A robin goes yeep.yeep.yeep. A cardinal goes schwee-eet. schwee-eet,” he said.

When we returned to his house, we headed for the deck off the kitchen. He asked if Henry and I wanted a drink, then disappeared inside for a few minutes. He came back through the door caressing a lizard that stretched from his neck to his waist. 

Catching me staring at the hummingbird feeder dangling from the railing, he said, “We haven’t seen a hummingbird since we put up the feeder. But there are lots of yellow finches flying in and out of the lilac tree.”

I have no clue what 12-year old boys are supposed to know. There was a time when he carried a pocket computer around with him so he could play Mario at every possible moment. After a few years, Mario took a backseat to Minecraft and I thought cyber games would possess him for the rest of his life. So I was thrilled to hear these lessons in bird behavior so confidently plucked from deep within his genetic code.  

I shouldn’t be surprised. As a fledgling, before he could talk but after he’d learned to walk, his mother and I took him to Target. While we loaded bags in the car, John sat 1motionless in the shopping cart transfixed by a seagull preening in the sun at the top of a lamppost. A few years later, John and I were sitting on the sunny side of Navy Pier, taking a lunch break after whiffling around first-grader attractions in the Children’s Museum. Sparrows started hopping around our table and John surrendered his bagful of beloved McDonald’s fries to the birds. Crouching down on the pavement stretching his arm as far as it would go with a soggy cold fry dangling between his thumb and finger he tried to get the birds to eat from his hand. The outstretched arm tired and weakened so he propped it up with his other arm and went for at least a half hour. 

I rue that I see him so infrequently. But I’m comforted by my brood of friends with the same grandmother’s lamentation. Like birds on a wire we gather and chirp about our grandchildren, clucking out their accomplishments, funny remarks and milestones, ending with a feathered sigh.