In the Blue Jay’s Call…

p956070856-5[1]     There is something distance in the singular cry of the blue jay that pulls me home to places along my trodden path.

Perhaps its sharpness awakens memories seemingly dormant that beg to be noticed just about the time one thinks they are forgetting. Whether in mid-conversation, quietly reading a book, or my hands plunged in hot soapy water washing the last of the dishes with my mind lost in thoughts of weekend plans or nothingness, that cry…brings me to a halt. I am transported, ever so briefly, but enough to recall steps, paths, and moments of wonderment along the way.

My youthful summers were often spent along the winding trails of the birch and pine woods around our summer cabin. A rough place, by most standards, made of log and mortar with a cinder block foundation; it was often cold with the wind whistling through the walls. My dad needed to build a fire in the wood stove on those Michigan mornings to get the summer day started, especially when we needed to be brave enough to visit the outhouse and wash up in the icy cold water pumped out of the earth from the well.  Built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) near Gladwin, Michigan, my grandfather owned the place affectionately referred to as the Ca-Ha-Bo club, which he frequented with his buddies back in the 1930s. My dad and his brother went along as early as 1936, fished, climbed, and played along the moist treacherous ravines and sunny sand mound roads.  My father made it his own in the late 1940s when he and his high school friends all decided to get out of the city and into the woods. In his dad’s old 1931 Essex with a rumble seat, they made a book of memories just being boys. Until the boys turned to men and began bringing their young families to the shabby old cabin along the Tittabawassee River which snakes through mid-Michigan, and then it was our rustic get-away until 1975, when no one was left to visit and it was sold.

We did a lot of nothing there, and the nothingness was lovely.

We colored and played cards for hours on the screened-in porch that look out over the river, fished off the dock and occasionally rowed out to the middle of the river with my dad, our bobbers dancing on the waves in waiting like our dreams of ‘someday,’ and returned with our strings full of perch and sunfish for dinner.  In the sleepy mornings, the air rich with aromatic cedar and pines, we would take our bowls out to the sand roads and gather wild raspberries and blackberries until our bowls and bellies were full and our mother of pearl finger nails stained red. These were the sweetest of times, no rush, few demands; childhood in its simplest form.

The sisters at the cabin

The sisters at the cabin

But it was our walks in the woods, passed spindly groves of birch and aspen, and then deep into the thicket that scratched our youthful legs, that was most daring and adventurous for me. Always with other siblings, there were moments when I wished I was alone. The sun light shone bright up above the canopy of leaves against that bright blue sky, as the ‘old Indian trails’ grew narrower and more difficult to navigate. Though we hoped to see a some deer or maybe a bear, with a brood of kids, some loudly thinking there were chieftains, we didn’t see much, except chipmunks and raccoons, and the ever present birds.

These days, when I hear the aggressive blue jay cry outside my grown-up home so far from those northern woodlands, and see all the sparrows and dove scatter in its presence, it is there that I am transported….to the sun dabbled path, the sisters out ahead, and in those moments when the call of the jay would echo through the forest walls making me shiver with aliveness and possibilities. What will I be when I grow up? Where will I live? When will I fall in love and who will he be? Until someone’s voice as shill as the jay would bark at me to not fall behind, I was happily getting lost in my own world.

There in the forest, where later in my teens, older sisters off with their important lives, the younger kids napping in the cabin, I would take my flute and walk to a clearing, where I would sit on a rock and listen to the deep tones of my instrument mingling with the fluttering leaves along the edges. I would sing, without holding back, and dream of stages and audiences, of flowing dresses and gentlemen extending their hand to dance with me…and of kisses…my rosy lips perched in a bow, eyes closed feeling the hand of the wind caress my face and comb its fingers through my hair. There on that rock in the clearing, I could create my own world. The blue jay, plentiful in those mid-Michigan woods full of oak trees, would call to me when the sun was high, or when it was getting late, wake me from my dreaminess, and remind me that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness.

I remember once, over twenty years ago, walking along a path in northern Wisconsin near the border of Minnesota in the woods at Amnicon Falls, when the blue jay made itself known. It was a troubling but exciting time for me, full of complications and cold hard facts. At one point, I was walking along a wooded trail just ready to enter a deeper, darker part of the forest, and the blue jay called its singular cry….echoing, echoing, echoing through the forest as I looked up into the blinding sun for that blue-winged alarmist. I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see much at that time in my life, but could hear the rustling of the trees in the summer breeze inviting me to move along. I could feel my footing…cautious but bold …and continued to follow my hearts desire…the bird and its call weaving through the trees, flirting with my senses, daring me to listen.

Many of us are highly sensitive to sounds and smells, which is sometimes a blessing and at other times a curse, for they can easily distract us when we should remain present and focused. I see this all the time in the classroom and gently bring a child back into reality, after allowing the student to quickly jot down whatever he or she was remembering for later use in their writing, something that was lost on me in the 1960s, when I was aptly labeled “a day-dreamer.”

The tinkling of glass wind-chiming can take me back to that screened-in porch, someone snapping their chewing gum to my mom happily ironing, the chattering chickadees in spring to a morning in Wisconsin when, through a tent window, I watched a flock of those black-capped wonders of endurance wake up the day all chipper with excitement. The sound of the furnace turning on in winter, its comforting hummm, sends warm goose bumps along my skin, as it did when I was a child, and cold, and would crawl under the bed to lie up against the heating vent. The sound of clinking dishes and people talking at the same time with the lifts of laughter, a couple bars of a song sung, and the bending sighs… can take me back to the kitchens of my youth, aproned women all busy gossiping and working at the same time; people now gone.

The sound of a train whistle in the distance, like the sound of the fog horns from passing ships off the coast of the great lakes; seagulls in the morning, geese in formation honking their goodbyes as they left the brilliant colored autumn behind, and the sound of hushed stillness … the woods covered in fresh snow…can transport me without warning. New sounds like the cicadas buzzing the trees at the height of a blazing hot afternoon in south Texas and fire truck sirens make me think of my boy playing in the yard with his trucks, now off on one of those big engine racing through traffic, and the southern sweetness of the solitary song of the mockingbird in the empty street of a late night…sharing multiple melodies it has learned along the way, to no one except itself, all so clear and distractive, yet surely meant for some purpose in this maddening world. Why else would the mockingbird sing, if not for us to stop and listen?

But, the singular call of the blue jay echoes through my ears into the years, and in its hard call seems to remind me, like it did then, that I am falling behind the others, that it’s getting late, that all around me are dark forests with unknown adventures waiting for me to boldly enter. Even here in my suburban kitchen, cup of coffee, dogs at my feet, and the constant rhythmic tick of the clock, that bully blue jay makes me stop and think and remember…I’m not alone in my aloneness, and it’s time to gain my footing for the path that leads forward.


Alone With Myself on the Curb….

I was alone; left on the curb of the street.

No more than five or six-years-old, I sensed that they had lost me for a moment, for I was rarely alone as a child, and I questioned the uncertain adventure that was before me. I wasn’t scared, but it was a curious situation for the middle child of eight children. It was odd, and I knew it.

I looked up to the house only about 30 feet away. The windows invited me in with the yellow light of evening, the warm aroma of dinner cooking on a chilly autumn night, the little heads of my sisters moving about; I was aware of me, but were they?  No one called or came out for me, so I let go, for what seemed like a very long time, of the warm blanket of safety that was my family.  My timid, tiny self just stopped looking over my shoulder and decided to stay put.

“Being present” wasn’t a common term or practice in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and if it was a little girl like me wouldn’t have known it.  But even though I could not articulate what I was experiencing I sensed that this was a rare opportunity to “be where I am” and to listen to my own thoughts. Honestly, in a family of eight kids, the noise of so many opinions and thoughts got muddled up in my own. I could never be sure if my thoughts were mine…or theirs.  So I did what I already knew how do to, I “noticed” everything and decided it was important.

It was a fall evening and the sun was low in the sky, giving the world I knew a golden glow that was cinematic.  The white of picket fences and trim around windows popped with light. The colors of the tree bark richly darken from the day’s rain, fluttering gold and orange leaves released from their sleepy branches, the red of the fire hydrant and the sturdy brick on our northern houses all created a romantic luster of a magazine picture. I was in love. There was nothing I enjoyed more than beautiful images found in magazines and the movies, and I felt some innate need to capture the moment as if my eyes were a camera lens.

Through a series of thoughts about whether my grandparents and parents could remember when they were young, I made this weird little decision, out loud, that this was a moment to remember.   So, I set about the act of observing every detail around me.

I was a petite child, rather meek, and can remember looking closely at my small pink hands as I spread open my fingers in the air with the moody gray sky as a back drop.  I observed that I had my father’s hands, square and strong, but when I moved them like an Hawaiian girl waving her hands to the Hula, I had the grace of my mother’s long slender fingers.  She had once been a hand and foot model, and her hand always looked so perfect in my father’s. I resolved that my hands were the perfect mixture of both of theirs and suddenly didn’t feel so all alone, as if my parents were always at the end of my arms.

The cold breeze on that Michigan night swirled around me and flipped about the bangs of my soft, brown pixy hair (a standard little girl cut in our house) and I watched the silhouette of geese honking their goodbyes as they passed over our rooftop. I could smell the crisp chill in the air combined with the lingering smoke of the day’s burned leaves and dead branches.  My mother was making a simple meal of hamburger, onions, and gravy that was poured over rice; filler-food, for a lot of kids. It wafted from the partially opened windows, and even if no one else was calling for me to go in, my stomach was.  I closed my eyes, my little body wrapped in the natural and home-cooked aromas of the day, and I resolved that autumn would be forever my favorite season…the place I belonged…the season when I was most aware and alive.

I can stillAt Age Five see my shoes, brown oxfords scoffed around the toes (probably worn by my sisters) and loosely tied, below brown corduroy pants faded at the knees. Wearing a candy red cardigan sweater over a polo shirt with buttons big and shiny; I liked to finger the smooth edges of those buttons. They looked edible.  I recall liking that sweater a great deal, so I felt safely tucked into its familiarity that unusual night.  Where I sat on the curb, my oxfords were damming up the run-off rain water as it headed for the gutter.  Orange maple, red oak, and golden birch leaves matted the water’s edge and little ripples moved the fallen foliage to their final vibrant end under the street.  I remember a sense of sadness for their going away, layered with anticipation for the first snow of winter that so many people of the seasons feel and understand.

I seemed to understand the changing seasons, even at such a tender age, as the normal push and pull of life, the sentimental mystery of time passing. Blame it on the movies or my father’s songs; I already knew autumn was bittersweet.

Along with the sad leaves in the little river at the curb, sat three little toy boats in primary colors. Made of hard molded rubber, they were propelled by twisting a rubber band around a spindle at the rear of the boat.  They didn’t go far or make much noise, but they were a favorite water toy of ours.  I worried for a moment about their safety in being left outside, but moved passed it to observe the sparkly pebbles in the cement that made up our street.  I marveled at how the street could be made up of such jewels of pink and pearly-white stones…like a treasure just ignored as people walked and drove over them.

Only minutes passed, I’m sure, but for me it seemed like time just hung in the air like the aroma of cedar and smoke.  Before the urgency of getting called from the house, I took one last look at the pure radiance of dusk and decided that I was meant to remember things. It would be my job, my calling to notice and file away images, aromas, textures and expressions.  I would do this for everyone in my family, because I felt deeply that ‘someone’ needed to slow down and see things; someone needed to remember.

As many young children feel, I believed I was living in the cradle of a perfect family and that my love for my parents and sisters and brothers was unique and stronger that life itself.  I believed we would never leave each other; it was unimaginable.  And yet, something inside my innocent self felt that, just like the seasons, life turned too quickly. It left me thinking there was a great need to approach all things on a sensory level so to record them in my memory for all time.  From the spring time smell of lilacs in the alley, the new smell of vinyl toys at Christmas, the sound of my father’s deep base voice to the look of deep emptiness in my mother eyes staring out the window; I experience the world around me with an acute awareness. From the embarrassment of having to wear bread bags over our shoes inside our boots to keep the melting snow from reaching our socks, to the warmth of my sister’s legs tangled-up in mine on a cold winter night; I experienced everything with deep emotion, as well, and never wanted to NOT feel those emotions. Over time, very little escaped me.

On that day, alone with myself on the curb, I had an awakening and made vows to the God within my soul to see and remember everything that I thought was important. Little did I know then that the trees and colors of the neighborhood we once lived in would vanish, and that the family that was held together with super-glue love would one-by-one grow up and leave.  That I, too, would be so removed from the seasonal changes of my youth, and that I would never know autumn like that again in my adult life.  My memories at the curb were just the beginning of a lifelong need to capture moments with my senses, perhaps for the day when no one else would remember.

In today’s information rich world, choked by an over abundance of arm-chair psychology and philosophies, one would say I was ‘mindful’ or hyper-sensitive. I might have even been diagnosed with attention deficit, since I was so often distracted by my senses as to be called a ‘daydreamer,’ ‘lofty’ and ‘a quiet and shy sort of girl.’ But even in early childhood, though I failed to have the vocabulary and understanding to express what I was experiencing, I knew it was some sort of gift or calling, this intense alertness to things around me, and to hold on to, remember, and recall the details of what my senses brought to me.

No one really cared. In those days, our parents were not being trained to listen to their children or promote their special gifts. I had to fit in, do my chores, perform as well as my sisters in school, sit down, shut up, and get to bed! My parents certainly gave me a rich life of music, stories, and nature, but I think they were much too busy just providing for us to single anyone of us out and give us ‘extra’ attention. We would have to do that on our own.  I often wondered if one of my parents or a teacher along the way would have seen this intense perception in me, particularly this sensitivity to the natural world, how I placed value on them and connected them to some sort of quality of life; if they would have encourage me to write or express myself through art, what creative things would have sprung forth?

Instead, I have lived an ordinary life, restricted by conventions and low expectations and my own choices to shelf my sensory perceptions and memories, to be dealt with ‘some other day.’ Babies to raise, bills to pay, traffic to dodge, people to please; with no encouragement or acknowledgement of any special gifts; I grew up and into what society expected and was quieted by self doubt.

I felt guilty if I shared my perceptions, indeed wrong if I dwelled too often on them. Heavy company, overly dramatic, moody, distractible, highly emotional, too intense; these are the things I’ve been called. Many times, all bottled up inside myself, I just felt like I was crazy.

But, I wasn’t. I know that now, fifty years later. I was born with sensitivity, intuition and the ability to see how fine details affected the bigger picture and people’s emotions; the kind of gift that leads to a highly creative life, if nurtured. It wasn’t nurtured, so it didn’t flow or grow. I let down that little vow-maker on the curb, and I am sorry for that. She was my authentic self and over the years I betrayed her, disguised her to be something else, quieted and shelved her to the demands of other people and voices that discredited her. I was afraid of her.

Authenticity, though, doesn’t go away. When autumn comes to South Texas, I see things that people who have lived here all their lives don’t see. And I remember the detailed dramatic autumns of my youth, like a memorized movie running in my head. I am still at the curb, taking in every aroma and sound, only now I am not listening for anyone to ‘call me in.’ I am aware of me, and it no long matters if anyone else is. I am alone and letting the remembering flow like the water along the leaf strewn gutter…cluttered, rippled, and dotted with colorful objects. The only one who is calling is that little voice inside me, wondering when I’m going to respond.

Perhaps my five-year-old self understood something that took me years to comprehend, when she proclaimed that ‘autumn’ is my favorite season, when I am most alive; the place I belong. Not in the way of ‘time in the year,’ necessarily, but more in the way of life’s cycle. Spring and summer were too busy and binding for the little girl on the curb, and winter is yet to unfold. Autumn would be the place where my own dramatic changes would unravel and become revealing with images and memories flowing like the stream at my feet and sparkling like the road that no one noticed and just trend upon. Seasonality is not only choice for me, it’s a gift; an ability to see the beautiful struggle of changes, its entire splendor from life to death, and not only embrace it but yearn, indeed ache for it.grainy half face colored eyes

The poets and artists have always known that autumn is the most romantic and memory-inspiring time of the seasons, when trees can no longer keep their leaves and must let go, the shadows grow long, the light is illuminating, and when the changing air sends a little shiver down our sweatered spines.  As I let go of youth, the tyranny of convention and obligation, and the privilege of time, so it is that autumn has become my most vibrant season of all. I am most certainly in the season of change, awakened and alive; where the little girl on the curb knew I was meant to finally ‘be present.’