My favorite poet, the late Mary Oliver, wrote a poem called Singapore, in which she sees a woman at the Singapore airport whose job is to wash ashtrays in the public toilet. Mary Oliver struggles with her judgments about the job itself and the sweet woman performing it, even as “disgust argues in my stomach.”
She says, ironically,
“A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.”
It is hard to hold the happy place these days. Certainly, those joyous moments come and we can cherish them. We do our best. And there is a reality out there that isn’t pretty and we can’t always stand in a happy place in the poem of our lives. By the end of Singapore, Mary Oliver balances the image of the woman on her knees at the toilet, and imagines she is washing clothes in a river, “her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.”
In a recent blog I wrote, WHY DO WE PUT OURSELVES IN SUCH PRECARIOUS PLACES? there was a bird, a nest with eggs, the Chicago river and trees. It was a scary place in my poem of a blog, not a happy one. A mother bird had built her nest on a fire escape, with easy access to any predator. When I asked her why she did this she said it was easy, she had a great view of the river, and trees and children playing. She knew about the black cat that circled below and that maybe she had kittens to feed. She told me she understood the cycle of life.
I took her photo, wrote that blog, and came back daily to visit her sitting on her eggs, hoping she would be ok. After all, the fire escape was rickety and rusty, maybe the black cat would not want to risk it. Maybe momma bird would escape a horrible death and she would teach her babies to fly. When I arrived each day and saw her still sitting there, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I do each morning when I awake feeling healthy and become aware that our little nest, with my husband and son, is safe at the moment.
Within the week she and her babies had met their destiny. There she was, on the step above the nest, torn to shreds, feathers bloody, beak pointing upward and eyes staring at the blue sky. Her nest was empty except for a small part of a bluish egg shell near its edge. I imagined her squawking and flapping her wings trying to fight off the predator, trying to save her unborn babies. And there was something exquisitely and painfully beautiful about that image of her. I didn’t judge her anymore for building the nest where she had, instead of in a tree. I accepted her fate, though I was truly sad. I saw the poem of her short life. It was her poem, her life.
Mary Oliver ends her poem with the same kind of awareness. Perhaps having read this poem so many times, Mary Oliver taught me how to see this experience differently.
“I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
Fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
The light that can shine out of a life.”
We do the best we can. The light still shines out of every life. Momma bird loved her life, no matter her fate. I have no doubt that she loved the moments she had, building her nest, flying through the sky, sitting dutifully on her eggs, enjoying the view.
Her nest is empty now and it had been full. She lived in that fullness.
I envy her complete acceptance of the cycles of life. I am still working on this.
I took the nest down from the fire escape, so beautifully built and tightly woven it is. I didn’t want the next momma bird to be naïve and decide it was a great find. Maybe this was intrusive on my part. Still, it was my only solace during a time in my own life where I feel so disempowered. Maybe I could save a life, another momma bird and her babies. Maybe not. It was just a small action I could take. So I did.
I brought the nest to my sacred garden. There it sits in dried branches of an art installation I created. This particular one represents the Chinese Five Element- Wood- Spring and new beginnings.
It is a good reminder of the poem of life. We do the best we can and a light shines out of every life.