I’m not a different person than I was when I set off on my road trip three years ago, but I am a much changed one. The changes didn’t happen all at once and each of them came in their own time, in their own ways. Some were so quiet that I didn’t realize I’d made them until they sneaked up on me in a moment of surprise, while others rushed in with the force of a tsunami, rearranging shores of spirit and thought until I had to relearn my own landscape.
I’m not a different person, but I’m not even close to the same. Sometimes it hurts when I remember just how fragile I was when I left Minnesota in September 2009, but all the events that led up to that vulnerability feel distant now—like looking through an album of old photos from times and places that no longer matter.
Yet, every day something comes along to remind me that I’ve still got a ways to go. Today, it’s the bird feeders. When I moved into this cottage, they were empty, and outside of an occasional yawn from my dog, the screech of cicadas, and the silence of the lizards who live under the mesquite tree, my small dirt yard was empty of life. I planted many things in the hard, dry soil — sun roses, verbena, sunflowers, lupine — and I watered them faithfully. I bought a patio table with a bright red umbrella. Afterward, I filled all the bird feeders, some with suet and others with seed, and placed a large bowl of water under the shade of the tree.
The birds came quickly. Whole families of robins, cardinals, doves and quail, along with a lone woodpecker, came to make my backyard their home. Today, they fill the air with a persistent, distracting song. Far too often, when I sit at the patio table to write, I find myself staring into their space, watching as one bird knocks another off of a feeding peg while dozens of others wait patiently for their turn. I’ve watched as they’ve pried my newly planted seeds out of the damp ground and pecked at the infant growth of flowers until they’ve wilted, colorlessly, back into the dirt.
And then there’s the matter of bird droppings, which fall on my red umbrella, my patio chairs and my car. A sensible person might quit feeding the birds and reclaim their space. A person like me will make a once a day habit of futilely scrubbing and hosing down every surface the birds have defaced, and feel guilty when the feeders begin to approach empty.
I have mixed feelings about the birds and none of them are truly altruistic. I feel an obligation toward them, as if I made a promise that must be kept, no matter how oblivious birds are to a concept like ‘their end of the bargain’ (which, if they were capable of mutual consideration at all, would mean not shitting all over the property of the person feeding them). I feel empathy for all the elements the birds face—the scorching Tucson sun, the lack of rain, all those self-preserving yards that don’t have food and water — and even though I know I’m not necessary to their survival, I feel good about easing some part of their burden.
There’s some sort of sideways karma I’m trying to fulfill, even though I don’t believe in mystical concepts like karma. There have been people who’ve helped me along the way and my thank-you’s to them have never felt sufficient. I feed the birds out of gratitude. I feed them because it would feel dishonorable to the concept of paying it forward if I knew could have helped and didn’t.
I feed the birds to counteract the effects of hate, bitterness, and resentment. It took half of a lifetime for me to learn that that no amount of trying can change minds that are made-up that way. That the most life-affirming thing that I, or anyone else, can do is step out of the ring and try to rise above. Don’t fight the worst parts of nature—accept them for what they are while actively embracing the best parts. Nurture that which you want to live. Feed good intentions and malice will starve itself. Feed love and it will grow stronger than any resentment.
The birds live, innocently and without malice, and I don’t wish to disappoint them. It hurts my heart when I see them pecking at the dregs of a feeder they’ve come to expect to be full, or when a mother quail desperately tries to get at the last bit of caged suet to feed her baby chicks. I do not wish them to fly away with empty beaks and bellies. I want them to be full. To not have to struggle so hard to live.
I keep the feeders full so that I do not forget what being fully alive, awake, and in the process of growing means to me.
I’m lucky. I received a second chance at life and I took it. And everything that’s happened since—ugly, painful, hard, loving, generous, beautiful—is cause to celebrate. Not being a different person, but one who’s more present for her own life, and more acutely aware of its finite time, than she’s ever been.