April 25, 2011
This is a late-night creative impulse after a joyous Easter Sunday, one of many I hope that is part of me trying to re-ignite my calling as a writer.
This weekend, on Good Friday, after our church service and delightful brunch at my father-in-law's house, I spent some time with my family on some nearby nature walks. Along the way, I had spotted a few Wood Ducks, Bald Eagles, a Downy Woodpecker, a Pileated Woodpecker, and a sparrow which I didn't recognize so I had to look it up in my bird book later, to find it was a Black-Crowned Sparrow.
The Pileated Woodpecker I only saw for a fraction of a second as it flew away, but I could still identify and name it. Why is this? It's basically something I've been able to do since childhood. For some reason, I was fascinated and obsessed with birds. To this day, I'll typically be able to spot a bird out of the corner of my eye and just casually say 'oh look, there's a (insert any long, bizarre name like Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker or Willow Parmigtan here) ' Now this is something my wife Janet gets very puzzled by, and doesn't understand how I can quickly identify and tell them apart like this. It's one nerd-ish facet of me that she likes to kindly tease me about. I was a skinny geekish kid who wore polo shirts, memorized bird calls, and went outside with huge-ass binoculars the size of my head to look for birds, while all my friends played sports. It's just weird, but what can I say? I was a strange kid, and birds are awesome. And there was something about this weekend, having a long overdue moment to spend in nature and see these unexpected sights in the trees, that re-kindled and reminded me of the significance behind this obsession.
For whatever reason, it started in 1st grade that I became interested in identifying birds, and would obsess over and memorize Roger Tory Peterson's field guides. Summer vacations to our family cottage up north brought all kinds of opportunities to listen for loons and owls, and visiting my grandparents in Arizona in the Spring of 1987 was an absolute thrill, stumbling upon dozens of species that we didn't have out in Michigan. Birdwatching was an absolute joy to me, and I even got my mom hooked on it. Putting up our bird feeder in the backyard was a major event as it attracted all kinds of new guests we had never seen before. Years later I discovered the paintings of Robert Bateman and began taking oil painting classes, trying my hand at painting birds like he did. I filled sketchbooks with realistic pencil renderings of different kinds of birds.
Yet around the time I hit my teen years, my interest in birds was a bit more on the fringe and not as central to my life. I actually had a sketchbook from age 14-ish that is completely filled with bird drawings, and then radically shifts to zombies, witches and slasher-movie characters. Once adolescence set in, I started embracing things less "geekish" than looking for birds. Reflecting back, it was also around this time that my family left our church and that was no longer a central part of my life. Is there a connection here? Not exclusively, as I was also just growing up and began to have more pressing interests. But I do find that interesting...
I remember an old friend of mine telling me a story a few years ago, that he had heard someone say to him that when God wants to send us a message, sometimes he uses a bird. I don't know that there is any Biblical proof of this, but nevertheless there may be some truth to it. My friend related this to his own experience when his brother had died, and remembered having a quiet moment after his memorial service when he was standing outside alone reflecting on his loss, and a bird stopped near him. He just had a little moment alone with this bird, who looked at him for a few minutes before he flew away. Somehow it gave him comfort and a sense of peace in that situation. This story resonated with me, as around that time my wife and I also felt the same sense of mystery connected with eagles after the sudden death of her mom. (Check out my movie review for Pixar's UP to read more about the meaning behind this story...)
As I went through my semi-agnostic seeker phase through my college years, I remember having a significantly poignant moment on a beach near San Francisco. I was on a very deliberate spiritual journey at this time, trying to sort out what I truly believed amidst a haze of self-help, New Age-y, non-specific fuzziness of personal searching. I was trying really hard, too hard really, to have a spiritual experience on this beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, reflecting and meditating on my life and wanting a quick answer to my existence, based on some fluffy ramblings I had read about people "finding themselves" in a simple solitary moment like that. As hard as I tried, I was about to leave rather disappointed, not really finding what I thought I might experience. But something made me stay, and then I just spotted these four little shorebirds, Sanderlings they are really called, running back and forth along the waves. I took these pictures of them, and I was delighted and moved to laugh and cry by watching these birds that night. Because for whatever reason, I remember a voice inside me telling me this was a glimpse of my future family. A few months later I met my wife. Today, with our children, we are a family of four.
Does this really mean anything in particular? Does God use birds to speak to us? I don't know for sure, but I have found that many times in my life when I have felt close to God, aching for Him, searching for Him, wrestling with Him or puzzling over Him, a bird shows up.