Seeing Robins


For a time when I was a child I carried an imaginary bird in my cupped hands.

One year, during this time, we visited my mother’s family in Cleveland, Ohio. I carried my bird into the living room. My cousin of the same age, Emma, peered down into my empty hands.

“There’s no bird.” She said it matter of factly.

“It’s a pretend bird, it’s imaginary,” the adults scrambled to explain.

“There’s no bird.”

The adults quickly diverted us to a new game, wary of Emma’s ruthless disbelief shattering my fragile and sensitive imagination, but I wasn’t bothered if she couldn’t see my bird. That meant it was just mine.

Last year I inherited a book about birds from my grandfather. Or, rather, I chose it from a cardboard box my aunt set on the beige carpet.

The National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America. The first page is inscribed in blue ball point pen “Merry Christmas to Ron from George,” in the small, neat cursive of a different time and offering a window into my now-gone grandfather. He must’ve had an interest in birds to have received this gift from Aunt George.

I kept the book because of the drawings. On each page is an arrangement of perfectly rendered birds: the male, the female, the juvenile, winter and summer variations, as seen from below or above, wings outstretched. I was surprised to find I could identify a number already: the Red-tailed Hawk, the Northern Bobwhite, the Mourning Dove, the Whip-poor-will, Black-capped Chickadee. But how many birds I had never heard of, and what wonderful names! The Olive-tree Pipit, the Loggerhead Shrike. I pored over the index marveling at all the ways a bird can be differentiated from it’s cousin: tufted, ruddy, ring-necked, masked, spectacled, brown-capped, gray-crowned, rosy, red-shafted, yellow-shafted, spot-billed, tufted, bristle-thighed, common.

When we got home, I put the book on my shelf and returned to the demands of life as I knew it.

Years later, I took the baby – now a toddler – to the woods to walk in the afternoon. He had been sick, and I had been feeling awfully sad, trapped alone at home caring for him. This day was no exception. I dragged us out of the house with force, parked the car on the gravel, set down the hand-me-down baby back pack on the bright crushed-limestone.

But my son didn’t want to get in the backpack. He wailed, arching his back, kicking his feet and clinging to my jacket shoulders with tears streaming down his face. I sighed and sat down on a rock. Peaceful couples strolled by with well-behaved dogs, casting glances.

“We’re just gonna try it, okay? We can’t go into the woods if you don’t ride in the backpack,” I explained to him. Eventually I just wrestled him into the backpack, strapped him in crying, and swung him onto my back.

“We’re just gonna try it, okay?” I needed this walk. If he kept crying, I’d turn back, but we had to try.

Eventually the tears settled down to intermittent protests. I pointed out what we could see as we walked towards the edge of the woods: “Look! do you see the dried grasses? There, do you see the sycamore?” Each time he paused, and looked, and went back to crying. I kept walking.

Not far under the cover of the trees, we came upon the robins.

What a miracle are robins flying in the last light of the day, the light caught only in the bones of the sycamore branches and the wire-y tree-tops.

“Look, baby. Do you see the birds?” I pointed again. We stood and watched them.

I don’t know what the miracle of the robins is, but I do know that as I stood watching them I was all at once able to feel the trees just there and the wind in them. I felt me leave myself standing there, and the safeness of being a creature among creatures wrapped me up. I let all the breath out of my lungs for the first time in weeks.

Later we stood on the edge of the cliff, in a spot where the earth is packed flat by so many feet and only the hardiest of small green leaves dare to bud out. From here the square walls of the marble quarry curve around to hold the green pool and the wind rushes across unbroken and emboldened by the vastness.

“The robins are here, too – look!” I pointed at the sky as it faded to gold. They were crossing joyfully the space above the bowl of water, above even Joseph and I standing there on the cliff.

Birds do not rise from the branches, they simply step off – as one steps off the side-walk into the street – with wings outstretched, and we watched them stepping from spindly branches into the sky. Their red breasts were amber in the last light and as we stood watching the sun sank into the whiskery black trees and then slipped silently behind the ridge.

Overnight, Joseph’s runny nose bloomed into a fever. The next day we stayed home again, and I staved off my sadness busying myself with the tidying of our three room apartment. Joseph had been babbling for some time before it finally slipped through and caught my attention. He was in the window, balancing on his tip toes on the sill and jabbing his finger into the glass pointing wildly at something outside. He looked back at me, pointed again, “That!”

“What do you see, bub?” I knelt behind him and we looked out together. From here you can see the asphalt shingles of the roof of the downstairs apartment, the roof of the neighbor’s house, the trunk of the maple tree, and in between a small patch of the quiet street below. And there, where our roof ends in a gutter, was a robin. She was drinking, dipping her whole body down to submerge her beak in the melted snow of the gutter and then tipping it back – the way one drinks the last swallow from a deep glass – bobbing her throat in and out all while keeping one wild black eye trained on us.

“Oh, you see a robin.” I knew then that we had done it. I sat down beside him and we watched, first this robin drink the water, then fly to a branch in the maple tree, and then out of sight. We kept vigil at the window, watching the robins as they came in and out of our sight, pausing to arrange their feathers in the branches or drink the cold water from our gutter.

I had shown Joseph the robins, and he in turn had taught me how to see them again.

For days I let myself wonder what all these robins are up to. Must I embark on this divergence? I thought. Already I have too many threads and I am always dropping one or another or letting them get all tied up in knots. The last thing I needed was to be called to the distraction of researching robins. Still, they wouldn’t leave me alone – in my thoughts and at the window, in the yard of the church as I push Joseph in the stroller, filling the limbs of trees everywhere we go.

I was driving when I remembered the bird book. Back at home, Joseph asleep for the night, I searched in the index for Robin. There it was, between Greater Roadrunner and Common Rosefinch: Robin, American, Clay-colored, Rufous-backed, 330.

American Robin

“Gray-brown above, with darker head and tail; bill yellow; underparts brick red; lower belly white […] Common and widespread, the Robin brightens both forest and suburb with its loud, liquid song, a variable cheerily cheer-up cheerio.

When a curious thought won’t let you go, you might give it a little nod. You might take the book from the shelf and run your finger down the pages of the index. You might give it your attention, and ask this question: Where are we going?

All this time, I have been asking myself Where has the poetry gone? I have worried my fingers, wondering how – subsumed under the weight of the tedious and mundane tasks of motherhood – how I would ever access that transcendent place, the feeling of being a creature among creatures. Simply the feeling when you remember that you are alive, and so is everything else.

I have looked everywhere for this feeling, and it turns out I only needed to remember how to see birds.

Each morning, after I’ve risen and dressed and gotten Joseph dressed and made us both breakfast and fed him and eaten something myself and had a few sips of coffee and packed our lunches and our bags and gotten our shoes and coats and hats and mittens on and finally carried Joseph and my mug of cold coffee and my backpack and his basket out and loaded everything in the car and buckled him into his carseat, I kiss him on the forehead and then I shut the car door.

Joseph peers out the window and up into the maple tree that leans across our neighbors fence. He points to the branches, and then waves, holding his puffy little hand close to his mouth saying over and over, “Bye-ah, bye-ah.” When I turn to look, the silhouette of a bird steps off the black line of a branch into the grey air.