I hear a house finch singing in the courtyard. I turn off the kitchen faucet, dry my hands, move to the window. He is perched on one of the looping vines that arc up from the bougainvillea. He hops toward a second bird who moves away. At first I think, oh, no. I’m afraid he’s pestering a sparrow. He does it a second time, and again the bird scoots off a bit. And then I know. He’s wooing her! The female moves off again, settles on the top metal bar above the tray feeders. The male follows and continues his serenade. I can feel the female listening. I watch the male’s red head, his chest puffing, beak angled up, all this love in his song. I’ve never seen this before, all these years. The two birds stay together there for a long time before they fly away. Such a gift. Thank you, I think. Thank you.
I lie on my back, diagonal across the bed, fear tingling through my body. It reminds me I’ve had two scary dreams in the past few nights. In the most recent, I crouch in the courtyard in the dark and watch a faded blue hatchback park outside the fence. The rear window is covered with stickers like the ones Colleen and I collected when we drove around the country in my yellow Pinto just after high school. In the dream a man gets out and tries to open the gate. I think, having someone try to get inside at four o’clock in the morning isn’t a good sign. I try to speak, to say, “Can I help you?” in the sharp, condescending voice I use for phone solicitors and strangers like this who don’t identify themselves. But the words never form, and I wake up with a jolt, fear coursing through me. Nightmares are rare for me these days. But this morning I didn’t wake from a bad dream. This amorphous fear is just alive in me. There are plenty of possible fronts: loss of income, Mami, Trie, my writing, the future. At one point, I notice the refrigerator is silent, and I worry it has died in the night. Even for me, this is such a stretch I have to laugh. After, I lie still and do a little metta practice, a little tonglen. I breathe in the fear from my body, breathe out trust and ease and well being. It quiets, becomes more subtle. I lie there for a long time and let my mind roam. I wonder if this awakening of fear is tied to the healing work I’m doing with Elana. Could it be only a sharper awareness of the fear that always lives in me? And then for one moment I sense excitement in there, too. That changes it for me, points me toward something maybe I can accept. The thought of living with this kind of fear all lit up in me, maybe for years, seems unbearable, but fear tinged with excitement feels more livable, maybe poised on the brink of the next thing. It softens it, adds hope, promise. I breathe in, breathe out. The refrigerator turns on. I hear morning traffic, building already as our snowbirds trickle back in. The finch begin to chatter in the courtyard. They’re late, sleeping in on this gray, cloudy day. I stretch, yawn, grab clothes. I open the louvered window, reach my hand through to touch the morning air. I relish the sight of the bright orange Mexican birds of paradise, taller than I am now, the blooms showing their wear on this autumn morning. I slip into my worn-soft sandals, ready to greet the day.
Guess where I am? It is Sunday, and I am sitting in my courtyard drinking my morning tea for the first time in five months. I am so grateful I was able to trust myself, to be gentle, to not push myself back out here before I was ready. I have been afraid of this day, of being here without my cats. I was afraid I would feel too small, unmoored, alone. I was afraid their ghosts would be too glaring, to have them not lying nearby on their pillows, or Sable underneath the honeysuckle, Sofia stretched out on the cement beside the gate, rolling on her back in cat abandon. I was afraid it would hurt too much to even reach for my own pleasure here in my garden. And I think if I had tried it any day before today it might have been true. But I have spent hours and hours moving everything into summer places, putting in an odd and goofy watering system. There are pots of dirt beside the sliding glass door waiting for carrot and beet seeds. I pulled out one “field” of sunflowers, their gorgeous disks drying now in a yellow bucket. I moved both umbrellas, bought new chairs and put them on the other side of the table. I rigged new spots for some of the bird feeders. I have touched every part of the courtyard in the last three days, and it changed me in the process. Not only that, but now there is almost nothing that’s the same except the birds are here, and the mountains, and me. My furred ones are not, and never will be again, but it’s a deep and quiet ache, not a wrenching agony. And it’s laced with wonder at the newness of everything around me, eased by the comfort of the mourning dove cooing from the fence and the soft pecking sounds of everyone eating breakfast. I count fourteen house finch again and again while I sip my tea and marvel.
At odd moments, I find myself missing bird sounds. Have I just become greedy? This time of year when I wake up they are not nearby. I hear bird voices, but they are coming from a distance. Right now, though, someone chirps from the Palo Verde, the high note coming through the open kitchen window and then gone. I miss the goldfinch who used to chatter in my neighbor’s yard. Once in a while a house finch comes to sing in our tree. I stop to savor it, as though I can pull those liquid notes through my skin, his song alive in me beside my beating heart. And sometimes when I wake up now to muted sounds of life I remember that first spring when we lived on Avenida Ortega. Early every morning a cacophony of bird sounds grew and swelled, like nothing I have ever known before or since. I want that again, that unbelievable crescendo. But I will remember to relish what we have here and to never overlook the music, to cherish each voice always. And I’ll work to help build more of a community here, too. (I have secret hopes the hedges in the new development will come alive with birds.) Here’s to feeling once again at the center of that symphony.
I am still wearing a long-sleeved shirt because I got caught up in working online and forgot to pay attention. Now I know I am too warm, even in shorts, even sitting in the shade. I can hear a goldfinch in the palo verde, his high-pitched trills exotic somehow–bird aria. “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” is playing on the construction site. Sable meows a couple of times before setting back on his pillow behind me. Sofia walks into the shed. I hear her clamber back up to her latest perch, having climbed down to pee and have a bite to eat. Now she can return to the important job of napping. My eyes are heavy, and I’d love to curl up, too, let sleep take me. Last night I was working in bed and began nodding off at the computer. This is new to me. Does it mean I’m getting old? This morning instead of working first thing I lay on my back and let myself daydream. I could hear a house finch singing in the neighbor’s tree. Such a pretty song, drifting in the open louvers. I studied the ceiling, the way the elegant boards cross it, mid-century craft, old-school care. Boo was still curled up beside me. “I love our home,” I said and stroked him. And then I didn’t let the wake of those words drown me in that long list of things that need doing. I managed to let it all wash out to sea instead and just be happy lying there beside my soft black cat in the early morning. Lucky. Grateful. Sleepy. Glad.
I love birds. But I’ve always been extra fond of the house finch. Maybe in part it’s because this was the first bird I identified on my own, sitting on our wide stone porch in Hopland watching them busy at the feeders. I combed my little book of California birds page by page more than once until it clicked for me, until I recognized my own birds in the photograph. I remember the childlike glee, the thrill of figuring it out on my own, that dumb grin I get on my face when I’m falling in love. But more than being my first birding victory, there is something so present about them, an awareness I don’t sense in some of the other small birds, a feeling of taking stock of things, of taking their time. I see a kindness in them, too. I think that, more than anything, makes me want their company. I love it when they sit in our palo verde or nibble during a quiet moment in the tray feeder. We have one male house finch who shows a golden orange instead of red, an aberration of some sort. (Did I read once it’s caused by nutrition?) I love the vibrant color, this oddness of his. It makes him familiar, the one I can recognize each time he arrives, and it lifts my heart to see him. I dream of the day when I’ll look up into our palo verde and see a score of house finch sitting there in their calm, considering way, when the bougainvillea will have grown lush and bushy and three score more will be chattering from deep inside their shade. And in the meantime, I’ll be glad each time one comes to visit our courtyard garden, odd or otherwise.