Wednesday’s Words/Short Short Story: Ardis and the Feathered One

(Photo by Jack Bulmer on Pexels.com)

It had come to this absurd situation. One wrong footfall and boom!–her ankle puffed up like it was packed with dense stuffing. Except it had nerves, too, and persistent pain. Swelling that made the skin ugly, tighter. So much for the fearless, iron-legged hiker that Ardis had always been. An easy trail through the woods brought her to her hip, now bruised and sore. But the ankle twisted on the way down a rutted, rocky slope.

Slouched in her cushioned and creaky rocker, she stared out the picture window. Books she’d piled at the side table were hardly touched. The TV in the corner was blank, meaningless. Her pitiful right foot, encased in a rigid plastic and padded therapeutic “boot”, made her angry and at times tearful. It lay there like a forgotten thing, a useless thing that taunted her from the old leather ottoman. Until she reached for the crutches, forced herself out of inertia to hobble to the kitchen for sustenance or down the hall to answer nature’s call. She hated to drink too much or she’d be often compelled to make that miserable trip.

If only the sun would shine. Ardis then might see past the low grey clouds, be able to envision an end to 6 weeks, make plans for resumption of her life. At first her buddies Harry and Joanie stopped by after work; Aunt Ellie brought scones and steaming cappuccinos; her co-worker brought magazines– as if Ardis was in the hospital and could only handle cheesy reading material, but at least she came by. Now, almost no one came. Except birds and squirrels, but there were far more birds in her yard–which she had only half-seen before.

So, by default, Ardis had become a bird watcher. Not that she knew much about birds. They came and went, pecking at the soil or berries in bushes, hiding in potted plants on the deck, snagging a spot in a makeshift bird bath created by rain in a cereal bowl used and forgotten. Their chirruping and singing were pleasant, and before long she was trying to figure out who was partnered with whom, where they were flying off to, and if they’d scatter or fight when crows–birds, sure, but lately seen as titans of trouble by Ardis– descended. Where did they all go when it rained hard? Did they have family to help them find food?

She thought the same handful returned every day and so began to name them: Johnny Red, Angel, Big Talker, Ivan, Little Mo. It was entirely unlikely she could identify them well–she couldn’t even tell what species they all were–but it didn’t stop the naming. She’d attempted wrestling with her crutches–which conspired to topple her between Point A to Point B–to go outdoors. Once at the back door she’d opened it with difficulty, then only listened and watched from there. The early fall air smelled and felt sharply soothing. But after ten minutes of leaning against a hard door jamb, crutches cumbersome and her ankle beaming at her with pain–that was the end of it.

One afternoon she kept trying to read a book Aunt Ellie had generously brought her about Pacific Northwest birds. (Though no coffee or scones.) It was far less dull than her aunt had warned but less thrilling than imagined. But she kept at it until her eyelids slid shut, fluttered, fell again. In a flash her mind had hopped on the sleep train and gone elsewhere. She was high up and everything was shining in whites and blues, a chilly, bright landscape. Calm, silent. Free. Far from feet and other human and mysterious impediments. Her rocking chair afternoon rolled away from her as she moved effortlessly.

Thwack! Ardis’ eyelids flicked open.

Something had hit a wall, the window, maybe the picnic table outside… was it the neighbor kid’s ball? a pinecone rolling off the roof from last night’s rainstorm? Then she replayed the sound and suddenly bent at the waist in the rocker, straining her neck to better look out the window and to the deck. There were some feathers. A bird had flown hither and thither as usual, then rammed right into her big window.

Trying to get a better view, Ardis rocked forward little by little, began to slide off the seat and steadied herself. But were those bird feet? She shouldn’t be able to see feet sticking out in the air. Her heart stirred. She grabbed the crutches, positioned them so she could stand and better look out.

Yes, the bird was certainly knocked for a loop, lying on its side with twig legs and clawed feet straight out. It lay stunned, perhaps paralyzed. Or–dead? She looked from every angle she could, noting the sleek black head, white stripe, two black stripes above and below dark bead of its eye, a dab of yellowish color by its face, body clothed in greyish-blue—taupe?– feathers, a colored breast. But its small face, still as can be. A handsome feathered thing. She didn’t think it had been given a name. Maybe a visitor? What sort? She watched then concluded her window had sent it to its demise. And she was filled with an attack of sadness, eyes going misty. What to do? She shouldn’t touch it, move it. Flummoxed, she retreated to the ottoman. Waiting for something to happen, hoping it might get up.

Hearing that awful thud again and again in her head.

It just couldn’t die.

She sat with hands crossed flat against her chest. Perhaps five minutes went by, then she skootched the ottoman to the window. Looked down at the bird, noted its right wing set a bit apart from its soft rounded body. The wing seemed to move rapidly; she deducted it was a breathing movement. She held her own breath, put forehead to glass wondering if the wing was damaged. If it would ever fly even if it lived. Suddenly, the bird smoothly hopped upright onto its feet. Stood still, just breathing more gently. The wing didn’t look bent but who was Ardis to determine anything? It wasn’t taking a step. It just stood there on spindly legs, not even the head moving. Maybe it was brain damaged and couldn’t figure out what next. Or, after all, there was that wing– or maybe something was hurt inside?

Ardis was pondering, still, how she might help, then admitted with a mutter that she was no use to a bird, surely not one nearly accidentally murdered in her own back yard. By her own picture window as she sat there, unaware. The beat up creature–why wasn’t it giving the offending window a bad look or, more appropriately, gazing toward sky and trees? She wanted to get up and walk out, make apologies to it–crouch down eye-to-eye with it.

Damn that ankle. Her inability to find a good solution.

From the distance there rose a clear bird call. And the not-so-dazed bird turned its head to the call, lifted off the deck and swiftly flew off with nary a wobble. Just like that! Ardis’ hand flew to her mouth as she grinned like a kid, amazed.

She pressed her face close to the glass, searching tree branches, the hedge next door. Not a feather to be seen. No significant bird chatter. The bird just recovered its senses and strength and oriented itself. Took right off. How could that be when it had looked like a goner? Unlike Ardis, it had not sprained a thing when it met with sudden changed circumstances; it had just lost its bearings, and perhaps consciousness briefly.

Ardis moved backward and sat down, thrusting the crutches aside. Stared out her window a long while, replaying what had happened. Her alarm, sadness, concern, surprise. A sudden desire to protect birds from her windows and even more from her ignorance.

And then: what bird was it? A nuthatch? A warbler? A chickadee? Those two black stripes, a white stripe between, some yellow or was it orange or…? She grabbed the Northwest bird identification book and began the search. It was taxing to recall the specifics of birds marking, beak shapes, coloration. It was hard to figure out what birds lived where or, if migrating, when and why. But she persisted awhile until she had come up with five different possibilities. She should have taken a photograph.

As time passed she also thought how she needed more patience with herself. The swollen ankle. Her mistakes and frailties. Her lack of knowledge of so much. The bird did what it was meant to do so it might regain its sense of self, its righted bird-ness. She could do the same with her own circumstances, couldn’t she–wait it out, let healing happen until she regained her Ardis self. Just be still. Worse might have happened to them both. She could manage this interval of time, as her little miracle bird had managed its situation.

Her fascination with the identification process continued until the room dimmed, then filled with soft rosy light. She put the book down, looked through her window. There was a bird sitting on dangling branch, looking right at her. Her feisty bird? Wishing it so, she imagined it had come back–or maybe it was a sibling or a cousin. No matter. Redux: she named it in case she saw it once more. Redux, as it had been restored to itself, to nature, to her. Ardis offered a wave and it flew beyond a scrim of deepening dusk.

Monday’s Meander: An Often Happy Small Mountain Life

The symbol for Mountain Park trails and a “No Smoking” warning.

Living on a forested (modest) mountaintop outside of Portland, OR. is in some ways a perfect fit for me–it is billed as “nature’s neighborhood”, and I greatly appreciate trees and other nature offerings. We left a densely populated if charming neighborhood in NE Portland two and a half years ago for what seems nearly like country in comparison. I am grateful we moved, now–the last few years have been trying, often sad. But here we daily can find increased health and serenity in the natural world.

Mountain Park offers 8 miles of well maintained trails throughout 200 acres of wooded, hilly landscape. I now and then have shared the trails in different seasons and weather. Today I set out to snap photos of greenery aglow with sunshine that will diminish as months of rain return, the daylight dimmed by repetitious cloud cover. Of course, the terrain remains greener than most places all year long… (We had the first true rainfall over the week-end after months of drought–a joy to hear, feel and smell early autumn rain.)

My hour walk today began at our higher elevation by entering a tunnel. It took me down steeper paved trails, though there are some dirt pathways. The neighborhood was designed in 1968 as a planned community amid woods, and there are typically modern NW-style houses that I like–sharp, clean angles of natural materials with large windows/skylights– ranging from good-sized but simpler homes to impressive ones, all blending in with muted woods and stone. They are half-hidden among foliage, often sequestered behind fences.

One of many tunnels in the neighborhood to avoid street crossings.

The paths are often steep and windy–great “interval training” for the body.

The footbridge is a favorite spot to pause–but the creek still has little water.

There are brighter areas along the way with open spaces to relax, where residents’ dogs can play.

The house hidden here is interesting in that it was built so close to two adjoining paths, its swimming pool and perhaps a gardening utility shed barely disguised by latticework and vines. I once saw a man reading poolside on a chaise lounge, but have never seen or heard anyone swimming. At night there are fairy lights aglow.

A favorite tree, below, lovely as it spreads its great limbs up and out. There are lots of mighty Douglas firs and other conifers, but also wonderful big leaf maples and madrone trees, among others.

In the midst of shadows are occasional play areas–and seven small parks. Often they’ve been empty since the pandemic has taken hold. I have brought my twin grandchildren to play a few times–outdoor play and fresh air are required for kids!

If you look closely you will glimpse foothills of Tualatin Mountains, part of the Coast Range.

Please click on the slideshow to view the end of today’s enjoyable meander. There are many more miles of trails to explore in beautiful Mountain Park; all I have to do is turn in another direction outside my front door and go forth. I am guaranteed great exercise and a peaceful spirit as I roam.

Rising from shady forest, I emerged into brilliant sunshine, breezy air warmed–not quite abandoning tail end of summer weather. But very soon. Chilly rains won’t stop me. There are always more trails to appreciate in the great outdoors, even in the city.

Friday’s Poem: Once, Michigan

The visiting lovers have left the long shores,

carrying sweetness in palms of their hands,

promises of return wrapped about them

in a bright scarf of loose knots,

memories planted in their hearts.

Their words are conspiratorial whispers

as they look back, then move toward ordinary life.

Birds are flocking, straying less often;

once the berries are over they will go, too.

The leaves have begun to rattle, pine needles to flee and fall.

The air is spiked with foretelling scents.

Sitting cross-legged in fields

no longer summered green, my sight

fills with that rocky shore, fresh water

churning chilled depths that will turn

my fingers blue if I linger until first snow.

But here is true north, a lifetime from

mountains where I now live, and farther from the sea.

In September light, jewel blue and amber,

the world is seasoned and richer.

My hair whips about, shrouds my eyes.

I know that leaves still cascade

down my shoulders, grazing my face,

but those constant waves raking the stones–

that once stayed my cries,

called forth my singing–

and those steadfast trees afire in northern palettes–

these will follow me into the rain-laced nights

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Check One- Spiritual? Religious?

The question for me is: can we not choose both? I can and do, but often in our roiling, defensive, divisive social milieu, it can seem wiser to keep it all to myself.

Not only these days but, honestly, as long as I have been here we’ve been offered a plethora of options for personal belief, endless pegs on which to hang our hats at doorways into various faith systems. “Step right this way!” It can be brain-stunning, considering the bombardment of ads, social media platforms and random videos. Some revolve around specific diets; some require certain forms and lengths of meditation or prayer; some involve lifestyle changes, such as leaving modern technology and possessions behind; still others insist on engagement just within that proscribed community; and often the center of it all is an allegiance to a religious–or spiritual- leader. They may ask of practitioners certain ritualistic behaviors that may be forbidden to “outside” persons.

Though there are often several cross-over elements to faiths and practices–an aspiration to enlightenment, whatever that is for the group; a belief in the wisdom of the earth; a commitment to times of ascetic, solitary devotion to core beliefs–there are also clear divides. I bump into some of these out in the world: a unique dress code followed; jewelry worn to identify a wearer as a follower of that faith; tomes read that are reflective of one’s serious study of that belief and none other; café discussions that devolve before long into arguments. And the various posters hawking this natural lifestyle or that set of soul-and-body-purifying methods, or meetings to instruct one of an avenue less travelled. They all state they lead to “a well being of wholeness.” And maybe we are a bit more fragmented in 2021…so some might be tantalizing, while others seem absurd. A few beliefs are popular in our culture; some are decidedly not. And how far can a philosophy venture before it is considered a “fringe” movement? There is room for everything out there.

Or is there? It likely depends on where you live and who you are. I can’t say being Christian is easy on the Northwest. Then again, I had not thought of it much one way or another–then it turns out not everyone tolerates other peoples’ faith affiliations… Who knew the liberal West could be that judgmental? I am a left of center sort of person but, then, there are just lots of rumors out there about what my faith means and what it does not. No one asks for my ideas or experience. I want to be nonjudgmental of the naysayers. But hope for more respectful and open discussion. As recall it really was more likely decades ago.

The one thing many people contend is that religious principles and beliefs are in opposition to spiritual ones. Distant from one another, not at all the same. Choose one or the other–but the two do not mix. Or so we are encouraged to think. Here are the first three definitions from Merriman-Webster says:

Definition of spiritual, adjective:

1: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spiritINCORPOREAL spiritual needs

2a: of or relating to sacred matters spiritual songs

b: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal

spiritual authority, lords spiritual

3: concerned with religious values

Yet they remain separate to lots of people despite there being an overlap that is significant. Religion generally gets a side or back seat, if any seat, at a proverbial round table talk. Additionally, we learn early the two topics that are most incendiary are politics and religion. Humans wage wars over both–at great length and to great losses. Maybe that is why some are loathe to address actual religion. We too often tiptoe about it–that is, unless we are moved to speak up loudly/protest/rally in the name of whatever we hold dear. I grew up in the 60s so know about protesting. But when it comes to my faith, I do not unleash a humungous voice, usually. In fact I am very often quiet in most arenas. And I don’t like the sense that there is less and less choice for being able to share, to talk, to discuss openly– without penalty.

When did t his shift happen…? Over a lifetime I have sat around many tables, energetically engaged in debate that have led to insights with deeper understanding. A welcoming energy has been noticeable as ideas were bandied about. Bridges were constructed. Even with topics religious and political. Yes, there can be conflict and words one wanted to retrieve at the end of it all. But it wasn’t an exercise in disrespect or worse, cruelty.

More recently I have become more habituated to being quiet about things of the spirit unless I think present company will tolerate, perhaps enjoy, such conversation. Sometimes it is hard. My life is imbued with what matters most to me. As it is for most people–even if we are not conscious of it. We grow into such things and they accompany us on life journeys, shaped and reshaped, changed or replaced as we go. And one’s philosophy or faith is the same.

If I was still a serious seeker, perhaps looking for a religion, I would likely be overwhelmed. I tend to delve in, immerse myself in ideas–the nitty gritty. Because of that characteristic, I looked into various religions as youth and young adult–as young people are apt to do. Besides, I had had multiple experiences that didn’t necessarily cohere with what I had learned of the Protestant traditional ways of faith. Long before adolescence, I had a sense of deeply holy presence in my life, and divinity alive in complex realms of nature as well as human beings. I had difficulty finding words for this as a child and teenager but it seemed endemic to all natural-made life, and it reached far greater than the world beyond mine. And before I even knew what well-honed intuition and “extra sensory perception” meant, I was familiar with it within me. It never seemed unusual or extra anything. For one thing, my mother had it and used it without explanation or fanfare. In fact, it seemed almost a family thing. So–traditional church, spirituality, sacredness, intuition, everyday applications of belief and faith…it was all wrapped up together.

Raised in the First United Methodist Church by parents who left their childhood Southern Baptist and Church of Christ affiliations, respectively, when they moved north from Missouri, I was more or less at ease. (I later realized how radical a thing they did according to their Southern/Midwest culture.) I was shown that Christianity’s hallmark beliefs are based on Jesus Christ’s teachings: of love of God, others and one’s self; mercy; forgiveness; a deep commitment to supporting human progress–for the betterment of one and all; and personal accountability and authenticity. It made basic sense to me in my childish understanding and later, as I transitioned into adulthood. I learned more as I went, but these stuck with me even when it didn’t always add up to the reality of my life.

It was a moderate sized church community in a smaller city, housed in a building that Alden B. Dow had designed; it was lovely moving through it, gazing out beautiful windows. And what I heard was what I experienced. People were congenial but much more–considerate, quick to help others in need (not just at church), generous-minded, gentle mannered but strong in the face of tragedy. I went to Sunday school each Sunday morning, then joined the family in the sanctuary. I attended church camp many summers–fun with others and nature; participated in events at Christmas and Easter; and was confirmed in the faith at 12. My father oversaw the music; my family sang or contributed instrumentally–a favorite part of services was robustly singing hymns from pews or in the choir loft.

As I moved into teen-dom I was, for a time, in a Methodist Youth Fellowship; we were active in the community helping others. But I began to diverge from known entities and ways as I grappled with trauma, increasing drug use over the next several years as I tried to cope. Yet I was not one to ignore the implacable sense of God here, there, everywhere. I wrestled with often obscure but profound meanings of existence, the greater purpose of living. I drew closer to nature’s mysteries and lessons and sought out ancient Celtic ways (some of which still resonate with me). I read books on philosophy and world religions. I sought out magazine articles of other cultures’ spiritual practices. I became interested in shamanism and poured over Kierkegaard and CS Lewis and marveled at their different views. Then Joseph Campbell’s writings on classical mythology, Native American beliefs, Christian saints and arcane writings, Buddhism and meditation, white witchcraft and paganism, Subud, Bahai, parapsychology, the uses of graphology and astrology–well, the list went on for years…Some of this seeped into me as surely as Christianity. I sorted and tossed as I began to embrace enlarged viewpoints.

Did all this worry my parents? There weren’t arguments, but there was voiced concern. They felt I was far too serious, even somber for a teen-ager; so did many of my classmates. In time, I found more friends–those in the arts, those who loved to exchange ideas. Many of us became hippies, playing folk music, aligning ourselves with natural ways and means of living. But with the advent of the anti-establishment movement we became more politically engaged. That opened up a whole other vista. Religion could pose as nearly anything, it seemed; doctrine could have many facets and faces. But not all were Christian, of course. We were busy trying to be “free spirits.”

Heady times, dangerous times, passionate days and nights and beliefs to explore and dreams and justice to fight for. I became involved with Students for a Democratic Society for three years. By then, my parents were very concerned; no doubt their prayers were more fervent for my well being; we became estranged at times. I had begun to forge my own path out of childhood and their home. By 16 I had essentially left; by 18 I had literally moved on. Many ups and downs taught me to fight my own battles, alone or with other young adults.

Except that I still believed in God. Nothing was capable of shaking that up much or for long. I might have felt alone, been literally abandoned. But I knew I wasn’t, truly. And through it all, I felt and remained Christian.

Looking back, I have no complaint about being raised in that Methodist church. I left it awhile and returned to it, have off and on attended other Methodist churches wherever I have lived as well as others. For some time it all seemed bland, too moderate for me, but that also spoke to my tumult and hunger for different experiences. I was looking for greater passion to put to use in life, more effective activism in society– and a truer response to God’s ubiquitous presence.

By my early twenties it hit me that my faith could be as strong or weak as I intended it to be. That it changed as I grew up, went on. And that it didn’t require me to attend a church, though that was good, too, if it benefitted me and, later, my family. But the priority was that I live it, daily walk it– not just talk it. I intended to try always to adhere to the chosen tenets to the best of my capability, not get messy and slack off because it was challenging at times to believe, even harder to act on them. And it mattered that I continue making my sacred relationship with God my first priority. And take to heart Jesus’ teachings which were rooted in love’s wisdom and shaped by extraordinary courage in his own vexing, turbulent times–and yet serve scores in an often tragic, angry world.

Have I been able to follow through? I have made errors in my life, some grave and damaging ones. I have failed my own expectations, yet I keep on with it. Nothing destroys my belief in the revolutionary compassion shared and taught by Jesus, his radical acts of love flowing from the eternal, powerful knowledge and grace of the ever creative, universal God. And every day I am brought closer to the certainty that nature compels us because it reflects God’s intricate and astounding work in this world and those beyond–and that it is a gift to us, to learn and cherish.

Can I even talk about this in public? I just did.

Do I have to check one box or the other? Already have checked both.

Can I try to understand other faiths, respect other kinds of believers? I can. Somehow I also believe we are all entwined in the ultimate sense.

Is it likely we become more committed to beliefs by being taught from the beginning their value? But then by way or trial and error, recurrent discouragement and hope, human fear and spiritual-religious transformation, the resilience of our souls?

Yes, and more than that, God never moves apart from us. What our earthly eyes see is only part of this story. We need to better see with our spirits. May I live and move within God’s welcoming presence and vast designs of life, now and always.

Blessings to all who seek God, and may the seeking bring more unity and charity.

Monday’s Meander: Leach Botanical Garden

The lovely Leach Botanical Garden covers 9 acres in SE Portland and was for a long while owned by descendants of pioneers. John Leach, a pharmacist and his wife, Lilla, a science teacher and amateur botanist, who developed the acreage. I last attended a wedding there a two f decades ago when we all enjoyed a smaller, more rustic garden. It has since been redesigned to better showcase the land’s offerings. Marc and I recently spent a beautiful morning with the twins and their parents exploring. It is a family friendly garden (be aware masks are required for all but the youngest). A new feature is sculptural wood benches, some of which were tried out by the toddlers–climbing and sliding down them!

A spacious pavilion opens to a pleasant area with a fire pit area and an elevated walkway set among the towering trees, where the grandkids had snacks. Note the walkway behind which the toddlers enjoyed running across.

Moving on, the path took us down to the comfortable “manor house”, permanent residence of the Leach family until 1980. There is also a quaint cottage on the other side of the courtyard and, further on, a stone cottage the Leaches originally lived in during summers as their manor house was being built. The courtyard emphasizes a fairy tale feel to the property.

Of course, I would take the cottage without a second thought…a perfect spot for writing and Marc fit me right into the scene. The twins enjoyed a small pool in the courtyard.

One can understand why weddings and receptions are popular here!

We continued down the steps and paths to a river walkway, where we spotted the sturdy, cozy-looking stone cottage. I had hoped to explore inside but all buildings are closed due to Covid-19.

It was a beautiful morning, and we reluctantly took our leave–we will return soon!