Murmurations

Years ago while in third grade, I made a pact with God. A Catholic child, I was educated by the nuns who read us stories of the saints. The martyrdom of chaste young women and the Virgin’s apparitions to devout children terrified me. Goodness and devotion seemed to lead to a life of prayer in a convent or an early death. Neither figured into my plans. I was considering a career on Broadway or as a Wiki Wachi Girl in the Florida Keys. So, I turned to prayer. Before entering a darkened room and snapping on the light, I would squeeze my eyes shut and humbly beg, “Please Mother Mary, my Lord God and Jesus, do not appear to me. I am unworthy.” For fifty-eight years they honored my request.

However, one winter day, when the air was unreasonably warm and the sun had not yet burned off the strips of gauze shredded on a flat dull sky, I followed a path that led up and around the crest of a stout hill. A blue jay complained as I headed into the trees below. New growth greened the twigs in the highest reaches. On each twig clung a waxwing murmuring as it rocked on a southerly front; dark crested silhouettes against a stark sky.

The blue jay launched from its branch, repeating its warning.Conversation ceased. As one the waxwings rose, fanning out, wheeling, swooping, spiraling.Gathering in mid-air, inky shadows reunited in a primal dance that folded, opened, flowed and changed course to swing across space.

I have read that in ancient times gods sent swarms of birds to foretell the future or to interpret the past.These oracles of change carried omens- a king born, a battle lost, a death imminent- linking earthly cares to divine realms beyond ordinary experience- the journey of the soul. But I am no interpreter of omens.

Silenced by wonder as nature unfolded before me; speechless as the birds returned to their perches, my mind quickly rushed in uninvited, shoved awe aside, and seeking sense, took control: “Hey, hey, I got this one. I understand what is happening here.” My mind then proceeded to explain an extraordinary experience with facts, leaving me vaguely unsatisfied.

I know that in these modern times scientists study swarms of birds to compute their numbers and analyze the data. Waxwings pursued by predators group into flocks- safety lies in numbers, evasive maneuvers-  linking survival behavior to the science of physics beyond ordinary experience- the evolution of the species. But I am no interpreter of data.

I alternate between thinking of the catwings as prey- fleeing and outwitting the foe- or as messengers- carrying an indecipherable warning.Today I lean towards the latter view.

Who among us is able to read omens or to translate wonder- our natural response to beauty, startling events and astounding theories? In these modern times, we have been taught to answer questions in one language- the language of science. How to satisfy the restless heart‘s search for meaning? Can we use reason to go beyond the mind? How would the good nuns respond?

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Jungle Warfare

The three day rain has ended for now, yet the leaves continue to drip- a light patter becomes staccato as a breeze rustles through. I have clothes to dry before the next deluge makes it impossible. The reprieve also allows me to scan the yard to see what forays the jungle has made into my garden. It is a formidable interloper which respects neither property nor life.

From across the wall, marauding creepers advance into my beds. They sling out their tendrils, winding around the stems of my plants, dragging down these innocent victims, unfolding their leaves, to steal the precious sunlight. This is when the dove activist protests in support of the undergrowth.

“The flowers have no more rights to the garden than the vines or weeds. They too are part of nature. Give peace a chance!”

Yeah, yeah, I note her presence, consider her advice but don’t follow it- I think she’s just being lazy. Over the past few years I have become hawkish about these monsoon transgressions. I grab up those bad boys by the fistfuls, rip out their roots and throw them back into the jungle.

 

Warrior Frog

Yesterday we got a good thrashing- gusty winds, blowing rain that seeped in through cracked roof tiles and left puddles under the windows. Tree branches snapped and tossed their leaves all around the yard. A stream rushes under our bridge to the river below us, and the egrets from last summer are back. So beautiful- they wade in the pools and eddies where the fishing is good. They are very shy and as I cross the bridge, first one and then the other opens its wide white wings and flies high over my head to hide among the leaves. I assure them I am to be trusted- I’m vegetarian after all- but they don’t believe me.

The frogs are in raptures- a gazillion voices, some high pitched and some in the low registers. We are also serenaded by scolding squirrels, the sharp barking of our neighbors’ dogs, the calls of birds and an insect acapella competition.

This morning I was surprised to find a small tree frog on the tile floor of our living room. Blown in from yesterday’s storm? It was sitting up straight, back legs tucked under as if ready to spring. I quickly found a jar and a piece of cardboard so I could scoop him up, watch him for a while and then let him go in the garden. Considering how often I hear the frogs, I am surprised how rarely I ever see one.

I snuck up from behind, gently placed the glass jar over him and slid the cardboard underneath. He didn’t move a muscle, so I reasoned he must be dead. Very bizarre. What strange death and dying rituals do these creatures practice?  Like a fallen Viking warrior cast off in his stone boat to Valhalla, he meets Odin with dignity and perfect posture.

Still, my plan was a good one- I moved the tiny dead frog outside under a tree, and the ants were delighted.

First Flower

Tulips Art

Tulips were the first flowers I drew.

Not these tulips
with tightly packed petals
cradled in a viridian leaf
arranged in a slender vase.

Not these tulips
who unfold in hues
of titanium white                                                                                                                                                    cadmium yellow
alizarin crimson
atop sinuous stems.

These tulips are confined                                                                                                                                              by elements of design
perspective, proportion,
weight of line.

My first tulips
marched across the page-
a parade of kings and queens
wearing bright crowns.Tulips Child

That First Morning

Thirty-six hours from door to door and I finally arrived in the village on the last day of hot season. After emptying my suitcases, I pulled on an old petticoat and my river blouse, wrapped a towel around my waist, draped another over my shoulders, grabbed my soap and headed to the river.

Every summer I return to India where we raised our family and our younger daughter lives still. Our house overlooks a sacred river; sacred because many temples are built along its banks, and holy sages have plunged in its waters.The tarred road outside our gate dead ends, dropping off into the slow moving brown waters- a rare place where timelessness exists. The river gives no clue as to the date or even the century.

In the early gray light of morning, women bring their children and their laundry down to the river. While the children play, their mothers soap the clothes, then beat them on large flat rocks that have been dragged up to the water’s edge. After the clothes are rinsed, wrung out and draped over bushes to dry, the children are gathered, scrubbed down and let loose to rinse off. Years ago I learned to bathe while fully dressed- a skill required in heavily populated rural India. 

That first morning the sun was high. The children had been dried, dressed and sent to school, so I had the river to myself- along with the cicadas, kingfishers and the strange little fish with the scratchy lips. On the opposite bank, I could make out the steep pitched red tiled roofs of the houses. 

I then plunged to wash off the dust from the outside world.