The stars we are given. The constellations we make.
That is to say, the stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.
The desire to go home, to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of the intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars,
to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love.
To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild,
to shelter in darkness and blaze with light,
to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.
Nights alone in motels,
nights with strange paintings and floral bedspreads . . .
I have lost myself though I know where I am . . .
I have never been to this place before.
Times when some architectural detail or vista that has escaped me these many years say to me that I never did know where I was, even when I was home.
You get lost out of a desire to be lost.
But in the place called lost, strange things are found.
Text from Rebecca Solnit’s Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
Photos taken in an abandoned motel on Route 301 in Virginia.
They were fine yesterday, being fed, stirring in the nest. But I noticed squirrel activity in our yard. I went out and drove them off a few times.
This morning I sensed the silence. Then I watched the nest, good long minutes. No parent feed-relay.
I walked out just now to the shed. Peeped over the ledge of the window box. And down into the nest.
I won’t show a photo of the empty nest because it’s too sad. I’ll bring the nest in and save it. Scott and Zelda are around. She’ll rebuild in another site and they’ll try again. These photos are from yesterday.
It could have been an owl, though I suspect squirrels. They were in the trees around the shed when I checked the nest. I look at them hard. They just folded their paws and looked back at me.
It is no picnic taking these pictures. Scott, who has been on paternity leave the last two weeks, has suddenly taken over a major role. Scaring off intruders!
The babies are growing fast. Right now they sleep a lot, like most newborns, but are ready to eat whenever Scott or Zelda lands at their nest. Watching the parents through the scope, I see them sort of break the food up before distributing it. Maybe those little gullets can’t have a whole worm stuffed down them? Also, everybody poops. The parents take away waste on every trip, which seems to be in little sacks.
So here they are: Irene, Howard, Bill, and Esther.
At the top, Monday, May 5. Note the long skinny neck pitched forward into the nest. It takes a lot of energy for them to pick their heads up.
Tuesday, May 6. I love their little yawping mouths. When I approached the window box, I could see the tips of beaks waving around. They are so cute! If you look closely at the one with his beak turned up, and the one with his mouth open, you can see the slits in their eyes. Soon they’ll be gazing at the world.
Wednesday, May 7. Scott swooped down at me when I was trying to get a closer look. I snapped one picture but it showed a bad case of camera shake. My husband filled the birdbath and I let him run interference while I took another picture a little later.
Both times the nestlings were sleeping, even though they’d just been fed. You can see the backbone of the one in the bottom left. Their wings look a bit more defined. It’s not going to be easy to fix chicken any more.
Once again, Zelda has not been reading What to Expect When You Are Expecting. The last egg was laid Easter Monday. I figured the first two birds would hatch May 3 (she laid two eggs in one day), the third May 4, and the last on May 5.
This past weekend we went away for our delayed Valentine’s anniversary to Colonial Beach. I watched ospreys busy in their nests and hoped Zelda was okay. When we got back Sunday morning, I peeked in the nest. I didn’t check it on Friday, the day we left, but clearly everybody had been busy while we were gone.
Irene, Howard, Bill, and Esther are here! They aren’t much to brag about now, but Scott and Zelda think they are beautiful, bulgy black eyes, visible livers, gall bladders, and all.
Looking at the naked helpless little sack-birds reminds me of the burdens I shouldered as a kid. Too skinny. Near-sighted. Crooked teeth. Chronic allergies. Picked last in every single game. Unable to tell time or tie my shoes or ride a bike.
To have one or two of those liabilities is bad enough. To have them all paints a dreary picture of a scrawny, buck-toothed, adenoidal, uncoordinated kid who tripped over her own shoelaces and never knew if the clock said eleven-thirty or five till six.
Making matters worse, I watched birds, adding another taunt to my lengthy list: Bony Maroni. Snaggle-tooth. Snot-nose. Spaz. Birdbrain. I couldn’t do anything about the other faults but birdbrain I brought on myself.
Why birds? Because I lived in the sticks and spent most of my time alone. Birds were always around. They kept me company. They fascinated me (“fastinated,” even). Who doesn’t want to fly? When I was five, I jumped off our tall front porch with a paper lunch sack in each hand. Instead of soaring, I landed hard, spraining both knees.
Okay, if I couldn’t be a bird, I would watch them and learn their secrets. Maybe they’d help me navigate life a little easier.
First, my love for birds made me turn to crime.
In Drug Fair once when no one was looking, I snatched a tiny brown bottle with a parakeet on the label. I waited with my mother as she checked out, the Hartz Mite Drops burning like a live cinder in my pocket. Outside it was dark. My pale face reflected in the plate glass window didn’t reveal a wrinkle of guilt. Yet at home I hid the bottle under my mattress and tossed every night like the Princess and the Pea until I threw it away.
Next, my love for birds turned me into a liar.
I bought the Golden Guide Birds and studied it like I was passing the bar. The book recommended keeping a list of birds sighted. I converted my mother’s address book into my Life List, which is larded with lies and doctored more than the ledgers of an Atlantic City mobster. Vesper? I don’t think so. The “R.B. Grosbeak” (rose-breasted grosbeak) I claimed to see at the “edge of Woods” was most likely a house finch.
I collected nests and feathers and egg shells and lined them on my bookcase, to my mother’s horror. “Lice infested!” she screeched, even after I cooly informed her lice vacated nests as soon as the bird hosts did.
In fourth grade I wrote a letter to the author of All About Birds, a book I’d checked out of the library so many times, the librarian should have given it to me. Clearly I was into facts: “I am a yard and 13 in. tall” (I didn’t mention I only weighed about 40 pounds). I remember conducting that earth-shaking experiment. I stood in our pink-and-black tiled bathroom, tied thread around a straight pin and a down feather plucked from my stepfather’s pillow, then dropped it in the sink. Madame Curie, stand back.
As an extra flourish, I made Mr. Lemmon a Christmas card (a trace of green glitter remains). But I was stymied where to send it. The world would never know a brilliant nine-year-old figured out how gannets in Canada don’t “kill thier self by hitting the water.”
When I was ten, I saved enough Top Value stamps to buy my first pair of binoculars. My too-close-together eyes paired with a bulging astigmatism made viewing through regular binoculars nearly impossible. But I carried them with me anyway.
Sometimes people were impressed by my encyclopedic knowledge of birds. “What kind of a bird is that?” one of my cousins would idly ask. “A grackle,” I’d reply crisply. “Notice that it’s bigger than a starling and doesn’t have those yellow speckles on its feathers. The grackle has a wider tail and a yellow eye—” “Yeah, okay.”
I stayed in Birdland until seventh grade. By then I’d decided I would become an ornithologist (and a mystery writer) only I didn’t know how to pronounce it. In our unit on occupations, I told my teacher I wanted to be an “or-nee-thee-o-lo-gist.” She didn’t know what the heck I was saying and put down “forest ranger.”
By eighth grade I realized my love for birds, along with my homemade clothes, would never net me any friends. I started haranguing my mother for store-bought outfits or reasonable facsimiles of Villager blouses and skirts. I put away my binoculars, passed my bird books to my niece, and tossed my nest and feather collection. Time to give up birds.
Well, I’ll be seeing you.
Eventually I gained weight, learned how to tell time (digital clocks!), smiled with my lips closed, got allergy pills, rode a bike, and decided team sports were overrated (give both sides a ball and send them home).
But birds didn’t give up on me. They were always there. Waiting to keep me company. Willing to reveal their secrets. Our adventures continue.
It rained for three days and three nights. Epic rains. Biblical. If I wasn’t a teetotaler, I would have downed tumblers of gin. But at least I was indoors where it was dry. Zelda had to incubate those four eggs.
My husband set up a spotting scope for me to watch the nest. I’d look out the window and there was Zelda, sitting tail up, head up, body spread to cover the clutch. Rain dripped off her beak. Her feathers contain oil to reduce some wetness but nothing like what fell from the sky. It remains to be seen if her nest will be a success.
During the last week and a half, Zelda has sat, leaving her post only for a minute or two to eat. And I have sat, too, at my desk, working. Sometimes I thought about running away to someplace sunny. Instead I visited blogs.
I found a blog post called “The Crossroad of Should and Must,” a discussion of why we should ditch Should and go for Must. Should is our regular life. “How others want us to show up in the world . . . When we choose Should the journey is smooth, the risk small.”
Must, on the other hand, isn’t an option. “Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self.” Hmmm. I always thought that Must was Should—as in, “Today I must go to the grocery store or we will starve.”
Must is about calling, the thing we should be doing, but not should be doing. The author of this post worked at Mailbox. She left a great job to become an artist. She didn’t know her calling but it began with a dream about a white room. Where was this room? She looked on Craigslist. And there it was! When she moved into the white room, a voice said she should paint.
From there she took an Airbnb in Bali to be alone for six weeks. I had to look up AirbnB (also Mailbox, plus I had no idea you could find places in your dreams on Craigslist). In the Bali hut she made paintings of the moon. Back in California, she tried to figure out how to turn moon paintings into fabric designs, so she took an Airbnb in New York City. She sold her fabric and launched a new, even better, career. She talked a lot about results and Picasso.
In a nutshell: Life is short, go after your dreams. These days when I am alone with my truest, most authentic self, I want to sleep. Or eat chocolate.
Next I jumped to a blog about one of my favorite photographers, Theron Humphrey, and his project called This Wild Idea. I love this project. When Humphrey’s grandfather died, and he realized there would be no more stories, no more photographs of him, Humphrey quit his soul-draining product photography job. Then he set off to find one new person to meet and photograph. From August 1, 2011 to August 1, 2012, he traveled all 50 states in a truck with a coonhound named Maddie. He posted the photos and stories online for 365 days.
I drool over this idea. But it isn’t going to happen. Wanting to take to the road and photograph people, with or without a dog (Winchester would be out of the question), is not a Must calling to me. Neither was living in a hut in Bali to think for six weeks. There are too many Shoulds in my life.
It has occurred to me that the Internet, like advertising, creates dissatisfaction. Fantasy writer Terri Windling says on her blog that “reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions.” Yes, me too.
(Yet the Internet works for a lot of people. Airbnb. Crowdfunding got Theron Humphrey his nest egg for his venture. Instagram made his dog famous and nabbed him a book deal. And This Wild Idea earned him National Geographic Travel award for the Year. The woman in the white room is also successful.)
I clicked off the web with a sigh. There comes a time when you can’t ignore the Shoulds. You own a house. You have family obligations. You have health issues or your loved ones have them. It would be lovely to go traipsing off, but you can’t.
Every evening, I’d look through the spotting scope at the nest. I could see the silhouette of Zelda’s head against the shed wall. Does she hear Must telling her to fly to Bali? Or be a cowbird and lay her eggs in other birds’ nests so she can be free?
Zelda sits steadfast. Patient. Waiting. Her Should is not a smooth journey and the risks are great. She has the highest possible need for results—hatching her eggs.
As for me, I need to turn off the “mass choir of voices” and get back to work. I’m lucky enough to realize Must called to me when I was fifteen (though it was my English teacher who told me I should be a writer of children’s books). I’ve been trying to answer that call ever since, even when more Shoulds crowd into my life each year.