In the Shadow of Birds

I have no idea why it was the red cappuccino machine that surprised me when I got home. We’d had it for a few months. But somehow, it stood out on the counter – a surprising marker that I had returned. Back in Livermore California.

The red cappuccino machine

The red cappuccino machine

There were thunderstorms here before I left. But they were nothing like the thunder and lightning I heard and saw as I walked back to my hotel after sitting out the tornado warning in Iowa City. The sky looked primitive. As if primal soup was brewing – waiting for the big bang to create a new universe.

Earthquakes are more scary, one of the workshop participants said. “At least with tornadoes, you get a warning.”

Yet, somehow, I got no comfort from the warning. I wasn’t scared. I just felt that I was at the mercy of – well, I don’t think I even know whose mercy I was dependent upon.

As we scratched our pens across notebooks in the hallway of the Natural Science Building, the air closed in. I couldn’t see it. Couldn’t smell it. Couldn’t taste it.

But my body felt it – hot, humid, thick air closing in around me. A very slight, but discernable vise-like band tightening around my head, my ears plugging up – like during takeoff – and a film of sweat covering my body, like in a sweatlodge.

And then it was gone. The pressure released, the evaporating sweat cooling my body.

Letting go. Like when the heat in the sweatlodge gets so intense all you can do is let go – and let in.

It’s been twenty years since I participated in sweatlodges on the beach at Bolinas. I had to drive a half an hour, walk through a field that was home to cows, who weren’t sure they could trust me, to get to the cliff overlooking the beach, and then climb down a narrow path to get to the sweatlodge.

It was a journey that had a definite before and after. Whatever concerns and turmoil I brought to the sweatlodge were gone afterwards – the intense heat of the lodge forcing me to get into my body and then let go and let life in.

Circumstances hadn’t changed. But I had.

It was because of last year’s floods in Iowa City that my writing workshops were held in the Natural Sciences building – the newer English and Language buildings were built down the hill from the older buildings, closer to the bank of the Iowa River. The river poured into them and they haven’t yet recovered from the damage.

So, it was the natural sciences that hosted writing workshops. The hallway in which I sat out the tornado warning had glass cases filled with a giant grasshopper and lobster and the torso and head of a giant ape (a replica, no giant apes were harmed in the making of the cases).

Bird dioramas filled the third floor. At the entrance is this quote:

“There is no square mile of the surface of the planet, wet or dry, that has not been crossed by the shadow of a bird . . .”
James Fisher, The World of Birds

owls2And there on display, were birds whose shadows had crossed the surface of the planet: from ostriches to hummingbirds to penguins. Most of the dioramas were more than a hundred years old, dating back to the last decade of the nineteenth century.

From the other side of the display, a bird skeleton, ready for flight, looked like a shaman raising her arms in supplication or blessing.

On the one hand, I realized that a lot of birds gave their lives for these dioramas. On the other, I was in awe of the range of environments birds can inhabit – can cast their shadows.

My artful essayist workshop spent most of one afternoon with the bird dioramas.

I have been going to Iowa City every summer for the past five years to attend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. There is always a definite before, during, and after for me.

The before part is anticipating it. This year, I was even nervous.

The during part has to do with immersing myself in writing and being among people – instructors and workshop participants – who are there for the writing – for where the writing will take them.

“This is your tribe,” the Festival director said in her opening remarks for the weeklong session I attended.

The during part is letting magic work its course.

The after part is returning to the mundane having traveled the course of magic.

So maybe the red cappuccino maker sitting on my counter surprised me because I am in the beginning of the after part – returning to the mundane .

In my imagination, birds live a life filled with magic. Most sing. Most fly. Some dance to woo a partner. But, perhaps for them, it is just what they do. The mundane routine of their lives.display2

DSCN0014On my first morning home, I made a cappuccino, using my red cappuccino machine, took it to my writing shed and wrote. Later, I organized my laundry. Later still, I drove down First Street and saw that the Vine Theater was showing The Wizard of Oz as its noontime free movie.

If they are looking at me, I wonder if birds think I live a life filled with magic.

4 thoughts on “In the Shadow of Birds

  1. As I anticipate turning 62, trying and failing to erase a past life filled with betrayal from my now ex-husband ,anger and frustration seem to overcome my usual joy in just being alive. I hate this overwhelming feeling of defeat. Your blog reminded me of the freedom I recall experiencing when I made the time to listen to the l soft and easy rustle of leaves in my backyard. I still go through the routine of watering my purple morning glories and roses refusing to forget their promised beauty.


    • Your comment brought tears to my eyes.

      How courageous you are to water those purple morning glories and roses, refusing to forget their promised beauty, in such a dark time.

      Please know you are in my heart.



  2. And yet, I believe that the real magic of life is the extraordinary contained in the ordinary. Maybe that is what you are meant to capture in your writing.

    C.cesena, “I still go through the routine of watering my purple morning glories and roses refusing to forget their promised beauty.” … Therein lies the magic, right? You say what I’m thinking far better than I can say it myself.


    • Judy,

      Indeed I do believe that magic is the extraordinary contained in the ordinary.

      I wonder if depression is about losing sight of the extraordinary. What an act of courage for c.cesena to refuse to forget promised beauty.

      Wow, that just came over me what she said.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s