JUST before dawn, a redbird called from the live-oak tree outside my bedroom window. His song was of such tender sweetness that I smiled, even in the gray mistiness of morning. "I caught this morning morning's minion," wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. Later, however, the ubiquitous sirens that thread through the backdrop of city life obscured the sweetness of the redbird's call. Savannah's manners may be courtly and old-fashioned, but her crime is contemporary.
As I drank my morning coffee, I listened to the morning news and recoiled. It had been a particularly wretched week with both national and international stories chilling me. Srebrenica, Waco, South Africa; the litany of names slipped into consciousness and lodged there, catching like sharp thorns. The images of injured children "beat against my heart with broken wing."
But time and finances dictated my hours. Deadlines had to be met, and there were things I needed to say. I went upstairs to my studio to work.
My loft is usually a refuge, but that morning it was not. Before I could get started, the telephone rang, and rang, and rang. I knew the solution: Take it off the hook. Let the machine pick up. But I couldn't. Personal reasons demanded that I answer. That morning, there were three calls, three stories, three problems to be resolved. My refuge seemed filled with voices, some of which only I could hear.
The picture book I'm working on was laid out across the desk in sequence, waiting for words to fit the pictures I have in my head. My characters - Cuffy, Dahomey, and Shisa - called to me in the lilting Gullah cadence of the Sea Islands. And in the space next to my computer, chapters of a young adult novel waited to be put into courier font. Tattnall, Obie, and Zinnia spoke to me in soft Alabama accents through 20 chapters. They'd been waiting longest, but being Southerners, were fairly polite about the wait.
Suddenly, what I do and what I was trying to understand through my writing seemed futile. In the face of the world's terrors, how important were these books for children? Who would care about the children I write about? I'm neither a philosopher nor a theologian. I'm searching for answers, not promising them. Could my words make a difference in how a real child understands this world? I don't understand it - that's why I write.
From the open window came the dulcet refrain of a mourning dove, a gentle cry verging on the edge of sorrow. And I was suddenly in need of wings. Hopkins wrote, "My heart in hiding stirred for a bird." I needed to hear birdsong. I placed my hand over the picture book: "I need to see a small bird," I said to my Gullah friends, "a bidi-bidi, to ease my heart." Everything would have to wait. On my way downstairs, I picked up a copy of Emily Dickinson's poems. She too understood the need for wings, "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul." I went down to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea and then outside.
Yellow Banksia roses tumbled over courtyard walls and climbed into the trees. I walked out, startling the birds perched on the wall and in the dogwood tree. They fluttered away on "wimpling wing," but as soon as I was settled, they returned to the feeders. They are well-fed, the Savannah sparrows and the chickadees. Four mourning doves tottered on pink feet over the warm, rounded stones of the courtyard, their breasts shimmering like opals. A fifth dove sat on the telephone wire, her body like an apostro phe etched against the sky.
Terra-cotta saucers holding sunflower seeds for the redbirds were tucked among scented geraniums, whose delicate white blossoms rose above thick, furry leaves. Angus, the rooster that lives across the lane, crowed suddenly in a voice like a rusty hinge. But the birds ignored him and continued feeding. Since my cat, Sister, died, birds have been coming to the feeder in droves. Sister was too fat and lazy to ever catch a bird, but she was very much in evidence, choosing to sit among the shrubbery under the
feeders just to torment them. Like most cats, she was master of the elusive and the subversive. Peace settled in, and the sounds of seeds falling punctuated the quiet air.
Something moved the air close to my ear: a humming, a whirring that faintly stirred the air. A green hummingbird hovered at my shoulder. Scarcely breathing, I sat perfectly still. He stayed only a moment, a fluttering of time, then was gone. I couldn't believe my eyes: He was not much larger than a bumble bee. But his sound was in my ear, fierce wings that beat on the air like some atomic heart. I was enraptured.
1 REMEMBER once, when I was a child, sitting in a field of larkspur. As I sat alone among the blue and lavender flowers, a golden butterfly lit upon my shoulder. The moment was magical, like a secret gift. Whenever I think about it, I recall the scent of warm grass and sunlit flowers. It was one of those isolated moments when we are surprised by joy.
I was so enthralled by my encounter with the hummingbird that I had to tell someone about it. "I never realized that you could actually hear a hummingbird," I said. "Why did you think they were called hummingbirds?" was the prosaic reply. That's not the point, I thought. The point is wings. The point is the visitation - being surprised by joy.
Later though, I decided that it is often a mistake to try to share something precious and unexpected. Perhaps it was expecting too much for someone who had not actually experienced the moment to share with me my sense of wonder. I had been the one searching for something, trying to find solace in solitude. I should have savored the gift, admired it from all angles. According to the book of Luke, even Mary "kept all these things and pondered them in her heart."
My "heart in hiding" that had been in need of solace had been given it. I had "called off thoughts awhile" and taken Hopkins' advice to "give comfort root-room."
Pondering, like comfort, is a careful thing. Small moments of wonder need to be savored; then, in the fullness of time, acknowledged. When we seek that "still, small voice," we shouldn't be surprised when we hear it, but simply grateful. It brings us back. Unforeseen, unexpected gifts, like skies seen between mountains, light a lovely mile.