Birdland

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There are birds nesting all over my front porch. They seem to like the ledges under the porch roof for building their homes of twigs and other plant matter. And while I complain that the nests themselves are unsightly, it’s so much fun to peek out the window and see baby robins lifting their little heads up looking for mama bird.

Today my world is a bevy of bird activity. I hear bird calls of all kinds, some sweet and lilting like a song from Snow White, others like miniature drills rat-a-tatting away. And there is a group of brown birds with soft red heads flitting back and forth from the rooftop to one of the nests on the porch. It looks as though the young ones are having flying lessons.

Birds seem like nervous creatures, always jerking their heads here and there, looking out for predators, no doubt, such as the giant hawk that soared over the house earlier today. Yet they themselves are predators, hopping across lawns searching for worms and grubs to feed themselves and their hungry young.

In the quiet of the morning, it’s peaceful to hear the birdsong and think of the busy avian life going on in our trees and on our front porch. I’ve always wondered what the nightingale sounds like, trilling away in the dark while other wildlife sleeps. On the famous Beatles’ song “Blackbird,” you can hear the melodic lilt of a real blackbird  singing.

In years to come when I have more time on my hands, I plan to take up bird watching. I’ll buy binoculars and maybe even one of those jaunty hats to wear out in the forest. Perhaps I’ll join a birding club so that I can learn more about the fascinating world of birds.

All in good time. First I need to have an empty nest of my own.

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Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

Spring Has Sprung

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The birds are back! This morning I awoke to the merry sounds of chirping outside my bedroom window. Outside the kitchen window, robins were industriously searching for insects. In fact, I’ve been seeing robins everywhere. Those harbingers of spring have come out in full force as if to say, “It’s finally here!”

In front and back yards all over town, magnolias and daffodils are blossoming. I’m seeing the ubiquitous yard maintenance trucks on the village streets and hearing the sounds of mowers and blowers as gardens get back in shape. And that elusive star, the Sun, is making ever more frequent appearances.

It has been a long time coming. Just the other day, my brother-in-law from Minnesota was showing me a picture of his snow-covered yard and bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t been able to remove the thousands of Christmas lights from his trees. Meteorologists are saying that the widespread snow cover over portions of the Midwest may mean a cool spring and early summer.

My husband and I have spent the last two months huddled under blankets and wearing a full complement of winter gear as we’ve watched our daughter’s high school soccer team play at windy, cold stadiums across suburban Chicago. I’ve never been to a Chicago Bears game, but I feel as if I now know what it’s like to weather a late winter game at Soldier Field.

But the change in the weather and the signs of spring make me hopeful. I’ve resumed my walks outside with a spring in my step. I’m getting the sprinklers ready for spring planting and the air conditioner ready for warmer temps. With any luck, I will be able to sit out at a high school soccer game in my shirtsleeves.

Spring has truly sprung, and I plan to make the most of it.

The Cruelest Month

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It has been a long, cold, depressing winter with no real end in sight. As I write this, a blizzard is burying Minnesota in snow while here in Chicagoland, we have been subjected to yet another gray, rainy and miserable day.

All this winter has caused a certain lethargy in me. My energy level is low, and the ideas that usually teem in my brain have slowed to a trickle. I realized today that the bad weather has kept me inside too much. Not being able to take my walks outside has seriously hampered my ability to think and dream.

It is known that physical activity enhances mental performance. So a brisk walk in nature has always been my prescription for writer’s block. Lately, I just feel physically and mentally lazy. It’s hard to get motivated when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind and rain pelt the windows. So I’ve been spending my free time doing crossword puzzles and watching TV, eating carbs and getting sleepy. I feel like a bear in its den surfacing briefly, only to find that it’s not time to come out of hibernation yet.

The daffodils in my front yard have just started to send green stems shooting up from the soil. They look too petrified to open and bloom. There are no leaves – or even buds – on the trees outside my window. I long for inspiration, but all I feel is a dreary heaviness of mind and body.

By now we Midwesterners should be able to expect some light and warmth, some signs of growth in our environment. Instead, April so far has been one very unfunny Fool’s joke.

 

Winter Solstice

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A few days ago, I arose at 4:30 in the morning. My head was spinning with holiday to-dos, and I just couldn’t sleep. At 6:45, I went up to my daughter’s room to wake her for school. But it was so incredibly dark in the hallway that I had to check the clock again to make sure I had the correct time.

As we approach the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness seems to envelop us. Night comes swiftly and lingers into our morning awakenings. We are approaching the day of shortest daylight and longest night.

Early cultures marked this winter solstice with festivals of light, such as the Scandinavian Jul, from which we derive the Christmas word “Yule.” It is no coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas, two festivals of light, are celebrated around the time of the solstice.

We are a people afraid of darkness. At the holidays, this darkness can take the form not only of physical night, but of sadness, loneliness, and depression. Loss of loved ones feels more keen at this cold, dark time of the year. The holidays themselves, of course, can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Hence my 4:30 am awakenings.

But for me, the winter solstice is a time for rejoicing. Not only is the great feast of Christmas around the corner, but the days will begin to lengthen again. In the midst of January’s sometimes bitter cold is the reality that the brilliant sun shines more often and lasts longer into our days. The New Year will give us new resolve and hope for a better life.

The whole season of Advent is one of waiting in darkness for the coming of the light of Christ. HuffPost writer Caroline Oakes sees the meaning of Advent enriched by the ancient pagan traditions surrounding the solstice. In them, she recognizes the Celtic culture for “its keen awareness of humanity’s deep, inner connections with the rhythms of the natural world.” (HuffPost, December 21, 2012)

So we wait in the darkness. In Oakes’ words, “This is Advent — when, as sleepers, we awaken to our own light of love, deep within us, waiting to be reborn again in the dark stables of our own souls.”

 

Creature Feature

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meadow-micePeople who say they’d never hurt a fly are lying. When I see one of the six-legged disease carriers salivating on my kitchen counter or, worse, my food, I have no compunction about hauling out the swatter and ending that creature’s already short life. The same goes for other bugs who have the nerve to invade my house. Sure, I’ve been known to trap the odd spider in a cup and usher it back into the great outdoors. But for the most part when it comes to vermin in the house, my policy is “No mercy.”

There are, however, many distasteful critters that are protected wildlife and not so easy to rid oneself of. For instance, a hapless vole (a tiny version of a mole) made its way into our basement. I’m sure we completely freaked it out with our screams of terror. When I summoned the exterminator, he informed me that he could not kill said vole. Rats and mice were in his purview but not, apparently, voles. So my husband gamely caught it in a shoebox and took it to the woods where I hope it lived a long and happy life.

Recently I noticed that the exterior of my house looked as if I had started to decorate for Halloween. There were huge spider webs in every nook and cranny, in the corners of the windows, and dangling from the light fixtures. So I got out my broomstick (I’m a good witch) and started knocking down the diabolical insect traps wherever I found them, sending giant, monstrous arachnids scurrying into dark corners.

At the corner of my porch, I noticed that something had been digging a hole underneath the steps and immediately suspected the mother raccoon and her babies I had spied one morning moseying around in our backyard. I found a company called Critter Detectives, which came out and set a humane trap at the mouth of the hole. Sure enough, a couple of days later, I found a huge raccoon lounging in the trap. My critter detective came out, removed the trap, and set a new one. A few days later, Rocky’s friend also succumbed to the bait that looked like marshmallows, and it too was caught in the trap.

This seemed to solve my raccoon problem, as subsequent traps yielded no prisoners. But in our backyard we had an old wooden shed I had long suspected of harboring unwanted wildlife. So I called a landscaper and asked him to have his workers come out and dismantle both the shed and the 23-year-old wooden swing set that has been a lawsuit waiting to happen.

No sooner had the crew opened the doors of the shed but a huge and very pregnant skunk came waddling out. I have to give the workers credit for their bravery, as they gave the critter a wide berth but continued to dismantle the wooden structures. Mama skunk wandered away but kept returning to figure out what had happened to her cozy nest. I must confess that I felt a little guilty evicting her in her delicate state.

I recognize that we share our world with many types of creatures and need to respect their roles in the circle of life (even the flies). And while I’d never be named PETA’s Woman of the Year, I would also never needlessly cause an animal pain. I’ve learned that even exterminators have soft spots. Years ago when I found that a mouse had been making a nest in our outdoor gas grill, I called one of the big pest control concerns. The man they sent out opened the grill cover and saw that the mother mouse had given birth and that there were now about a dozen baby mice nesting there. His reaction was to leave them alone rather than obliterate them. “After all,” he reasoned, “they’ll be on their way as soon as they are big enough to travel.”

While my husband teased the “big, bad exterminator,” we acquiesced and allowed those critters to hide out in the grill for as long as they wanted. (Needless to say, we didn’t have any barbecues for a while.) I just hope those mice didn’t become someone else’s critter problem later on.

 

One Day At a Time

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IMG_1399I recently discovered that a friend’s health problems are considerably more grave than we had realized. Upon receiving the bad news, my mind immediately sprang ahead to all the difficulties, logistics, and future issues that might arise for her and for me as I tried to help her through the crisis. A mutual friend, however, said something to me that put the brakes on my fear and anxiety. She said, “I take life one day at a time. It’s all I can do.”

Breathe. “One day at a time” is, of course, the mantra of 12 step programs that aim to help people recovering from addiction. Sometimes the vista ahead is too huge and too scary. Better to keep our focus on our feet as they proceed through this one day.

Thinking about what needs to be done today and shelving most future worries is very helpful to remaining calm and focusing on the task at hand. Whether it’s a health issue, an emotional crisis, a financial complication, or simply an unforeseen wrench in our plans, taking things one step at a time can be a reassuring way of moving forward.

At the end of my stressful day, I decided to take a walk and clear my head. The grammar school around the corner from my house has a butterfly garden that was grown and is tended by the young students and faculty at the school. There was a light breeze blowing through the tall flowers and grasses as I walked the stepping stone path. No butterflies flitted through the garden, but here and there I saw fat bumblebees getting the most out of the flowers they hovered over.

Along the path I saw a sign that said “Common Milkweed.” I had read that monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive but had never seen the actual plant before. Or if I had, I did not know what to call it. Milkweed feeds monarch caterpillars and provides the right environment for monarchs to lay their eggs. I pictured the local school children cultivating the soil and gently planting the seeds for the milkweed. I saw them watering the garden under the watchful eyes of their teacher. I felt certain that while they worked in the garden, these children simply focused on the task at hand, which was to plant something that would nurture monarch butterflies.

Milkweed

I will try to keep this mantra in my head and heart: “one day at a time.” I will try to keep hope alive for my friend and myself. I will take a stroll through the milkweed and just breathe.