A parenting metaphor and bird watching

I heard the hawk’s shriek over the shrieking of my children, which meant it was close. I was in the middle of cheering on my children to get along and pick up all their toys from inside our minivan. They had been bickering all day and so I put them to work. Now they were arguing about who was and wasn’t doing their share of the cleanup. I was leaning into the passenger sliding door, and when I heard the bird I leaned back out to see what was going on. Two of them—red-shouldered hawks—were settling on an upper limb in one of the tallest pines in our backyard.


I watched the hawks for a minute as they perched, still chatting, in adjacent limbs. The sky behind the birds was bright with afternoon. Then I heard another call coming from across the cul de sac. The thin line of towering pines wraps around the backyards, making a circle around the traffic pattern, and giving the hawks an arena of perches over my street. The third bird, followed by a fourth, appeared from behind the pines, swooped across the circle, passed near where the others were still sitting, and finally perched in nearby trees.

The four birds rested in the trees for a few moments. Then at once they lifted into the air, shrieking and flying in wide circles over our street. Their raucous, playful bickering even silenced my children. We all watched out the side of our messy van as the birds passed out of sight behind the trees and then reappeared, constantly crying out and responding to each other. Red-shouldered hawks are common in my neighborhood and we’ve had nesting pairs and nestlings before. The way they swooped and flew together, without aggression, made me think they were a family of parents and young birds.

The more I watched, and listened to the birds calling, each one sending its message, sometimes over one another, sometimes giving chase or using silent pauses, gesture, to relate to its family, the more these birds reminded me of my own bickering brood. My parenting metaphor in the natural world was circling my head from above.

Kids exist in a state of constant chatter and expression, each child vying for attention. If one isn’t squawking about something, another one is. In hopes that you won’t judge me a bad mother, I share that, in my lesser moments, I imagine flying away from my nest full of responsibilities. When they’re touching each other and throwing themselves on the floor and arguing with me about their twisted ideas of fair, I seriously think it might be easier to run like hell. Only after sharing such bad-mother thoughts can I state without seeming sentimental that parenting is as overwhelming as it is joyful. And thoughts like these are common among many mothers this time of year because (cue Alice Cooper) school’s out for the summer. And right now, teetering on the brink of a whole summer having three kids at home with me all day, it feels like school’s out forever.

Of course I’m only complaining because I work at home and have to productive regardless of what I have going on around the house. My children are delightful and there’s no one I’d rather spend the next three months with. I am their mother, after all. Which bird was the mother, I wondered but couldn’t tell. But the way her little birds were squawking and carrying on, I could see the parenting struggle is universal. And sometimes knowing that is such a relief.

Applying perspective–finding a metaphor–works wonders on my troubles these days. Here’s a thought I’ve been meaning to share on finding relief while bird watching from David Gessner’s My Green Manifesto:

Audubon's Black Skimmer

“Of course skimmers will not solve any of your life’s problems. To say that you will return from your walks changed is an exaggeration. Maybe you’ll barely remember the sight of the scything birds during the rest of your busy day. Perhaps you’ll never even mention them to your spouse. But if not fundamentally changed, you arena some unspoken way at least mildly altered. At the very least you’ve experienced a blip in the day’s habitual worry. Perhaps, better yet, those sharp bills have given you a cutting gift, slicing through the nettles of thought. And perhaps the birds have allowed those tapes in your head to stop for a moment, long enough for your to briefly notice that there are vast worlds beyond your own.”

I am one mother who sees a lot of birdwatching in the coming summer weeks. And I suppose I am as ready for it as I’ll ever be.

April 22

I just want to start with a huge sigh of relief. I made it through spring break. I know this probably makes me a terrible mother, but having all three kids home all day can be overwhelming. Things start shaking around here at about 5:00 a.m. and don’t wrap up until 8:30 or 9:00 at night, which makes for a long day of taking little requests and satisfying little needs. One afternoon last week, I was standing in the corner of my kitchen, waiting for a cup of tea to steep, with a two-year-old standing on my feet, a four-year-old crying on the floor, and a nine-year-old giving me a hard time about not letting his friend come over. Each and every one of these children is a darling. I love them all, from their large brown eyes to their tempter tantrums. But I’ve heard about this condition called “mom brain,” and I believe I know how it develops. In any case, I made it through. This week, everyone of school-age went back to school. There have been sustained periods of quiet. I’m not sure if my brain has recovered, but I’m here now writing, so things seem to be improving.

vintage juvenile bald eagle

Madeleine and I took a walk to the playground today. Now that she’s a big girl she insists on being a, in her words, “walker, not rider.” And she was right, it was a lovely day to be out walking. The sky was empty and blue. We passed a few mallards in the pond, saw four turtles in the other, swung to Madeleine’s heart’s content, and then made our way back home. This was when, high up in that bright blue dome, I saw a bald eagle circling above my street. I could barely make it out, but the white tail and head gave away the bird’s identity. What a perfect sight for Earth Day.

The bald eagle is, of course, the nation’s favorite bird. It has been tattooed, emblazoned, and imprinted–a true symbol of America. But the bald eagle’s presence in skies above me is also proof that changing the way we live can make a difference. I watched the bird circle high in the cloudless blue, then swoop and change directions with a twist of its tail, and felt the kind of empowerment and hopefulness that embodies Earth Day. If we can ban DDT, then just think of what else we can do. Go us!

A few other reasons to be hopeful on this fine Earth Day include:

The Pulitzer’s were announced this week, and the amazing and talented Elizabeth Kolbert’s  Sixth Extinction; An Unnatural History won in the general nonfiction category. Not only a science book, but a science book written by a woman! I don’t think Kolbert has small kids in her house, clouding her mind with requests for juice and Pokemon battles, but I feel empowered nonetheless. And although I haven’t read the book yet, I’ve officially moved it to the top of my list.

Also, Jonathan Franzen had an essay in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about saving the wild animals. I am thrilled that such a famous (and infamous) writer has raised such important points about nature and sustainability, and in such a widely read and prestigious publication.

Now that two of my three little birds are in bed for the night, and the other is keeping himself busy with some video game or another, I am going to wrap up this fine day with an episode–maybe two if I can stay awake that long–of House of Cards.

Happy Earth Day, all. And good night.

Spring cleaning and chickadees

From where I’m sitting at my desk, I notice the movement around the birdhouse in the oak out front. A tiny bird–a Carolina chickadee–peeks out the round hole at the front, disappears back inside, and then reappears a second later. Then it flies from the birdhouse, where chickadees have nested every spring since we placed it in the tree seven or eight years ago and disappears from sight. Carolina chickadees are slightly smaller than black-capped chickadees because they don’t need the extra weight to survive our mild Carolina winters. They spend the year in this area, which means I spend a lot of time watching them out my window.

spring dogwood

Outside, it’s all nesting birds, daffodils, dogwood blossoms, and, of course, pollen. Everything is covered in yellow pollen that disperses in clouds as the wind blows through the pine trees. You can dust it off your shoulders after being outside. Spring comes fast in the Lowcountry. Overnight. You go to bed one winter day, and then wake up to a warm, dust-covered world. Spring comes so fast that the pictures I took on a walk two weeks ago look look like winter compared to what I see outside today. Everything is much more colorful this week. The oaks, overnight it seemed, have sprouted bright green, brand-new leaves. One day, you couldn’t tell a dogwood from any other tree, and the next they’re the prettiest trees in the landscape. Spring, you’ve taken me by surprise.

spring carolina jessamine

Inside, we’ve been spring cleaning. Or, I’ve been cleaning and bribing the other people who live here to help me. In either case, the stove has been scrubbed, the baseboards have been detailed with a toothbrush (by my kid…who wants to earn money!?), and a load of donations have been dropped off at the charity thrift store.

Something about spring, every year I get the same buzz from turning up the music and cleaning like mad. This year, it’s been Abbey Road and Emotionalism. Last year I went on a pretty serious all-natural kick–I think my crunchiness level rose from like a six to an eight–and so this year I didn’t have to buy a single cleaning product from The Man to make the house shine.

Everyone spent a large part of this past weekend cleaning, in fact. I’m sorry but I can’t help myself: It was clean, family fun! I felt like I was living a chapter from Little House on the Prairie, with everyone doing their own little jobs. And of course, there’s nothing so satisfying as a clean house. It took me many years to figure out the whole domesticity thing, and I’m no expert. But sometimes my acquired passion for a good clean surprises even myself. What’s most surprising about spending the weekend cleaning is that, no matter how much we’ve done, I can still look around and see so much more we need to do. Life is, as they say, maintenance.

So while the chickadees are busy with their housework, gathering the soft moss that grows along the north side of the house and tucking it into their nest, I will be busy finding the filth that’s eluded me since the last deep clean and sneaking outside to watch, astonished as always, as the season brings such rapid and lovely change. And these tiny birds in our birdhouse are–of all the seasonal delights–the best thing about the arrival of spring.

By the way, I scrubbed my kitchen to a shine using nothing but a scrubbing cloth and a paste made of equal parts baking soda, salt, and water. I have no idea what my mother did without the internet. It was like magic.

My very serious blog mission

morning writing

When I heard the whisper–“Mom, can I sleep with you?”–the clock read 3:04. My little boy, the one who still doesn’t reliably sleep through the night, climbed in and commenced a fitful, tossing-and-turning sort of sleep that was impossible to sleep next to. So by 4:00, I was downstairs heating up water for coffee, reading advice to new writers from someone at The New Yorker that I found while scrolling on my phone, and waiting for my computer to start up. I promised myself, if I was getting out of bed inhumanly early, I was going to write and not, absolutely not, get sucked into reading online. But I got far enough into the article–which was about being patient and having a purpose and the importance of living an interesting life–to gather that the most important thing I needed to be doing in those wee hours, was writing. I settled into the recliner with my laptop and put the iPhone down when the document containing my work in progress appeared on the screen.

Getting to work, at least for me, involves orienting myself first–figuring out where I am in the work and what I should do next. Once I get through that, the inevitable period of questioning myself arrives. I think all writers and artists have to deal with self-doubt. We all face the questions: Why am I doing this? What’s the point? Can I even pull this off? Do I suck? I have come to understand that these thoughts are not actual signs that I suck and just part of the process I have to go through every time I sit down to write. Silencing the doubt, at least for me, is a huge part of what being a writer is about. This understanding doesn’t, however, make it easier.

Dealing with self-doubt could be my professional theme for the week. Wednesday night a wonderful Gullah native poet and motivational speaker came to my writer’s group meeting and talked to us about how important it is to write for the pleasure of writing and to believe in yourself and to nurture and share your own unique gifts regardless of what other people think. I left that meeting feeling my spirit renewed and hopeful. So this morning, when my self-doubt seemed especially loud in my quiet house, I reminded myself to take myself seriously, and I wrote a few decent paragraphs before the kids got up.

I’ve read that part of being serious is having a clear mission. Knowing why I write and what I want to accomplish. This is important information for a writer to know about herself. Let’s take the blog, for example. Life List is kind of vague blog title, especially since this isn’t exactly about birding. I chose the title because I’m a dreamer, I’m always making lists of things I want to do and things I want to remember, and because I like to write about nature, including birds–my original tag line was, “Animals I’ve seen so far and notes on the writing life.” At the time, I thought Life List was just vague enough to let me figure it out as I went along. Now I want to try putting a little more strategy behind this blog and see where, if anywhere, I can take it. So back to that blog mission…

I write, in general, to entertain and inform. I’m passionate about a lot of things–food, classic rock n’ roll, crafts, Appalachia, Saturday Night Live–and I want to write about it all. Maybe I will someday. The big questions I try to answer with my writing, at least thus far, have been about nature and how what we know about nature and science intersects, or doesn’t, with how we live our lives. I am an environmentalist; I worry about sea levels rising and sprawl and the state of our wildlife and natural landscapes, but I also worry about how my everyday lifestyle decisions affect those bigger problems. I come at these issues as an artist–a poet, not a scientist. Often what I write and share here relates to that, and one of the reasons I wanted to start Life List in the first place is because it is a place for me to write about whatever I want.

You could call it a nature blog, a mommy blog, a writer blog, or even a lifestyle blog. But the blog is really just about me. It’s about my life in Bluffton, South Carolina, and what interests me, what I’m doing and writing. I write about life with my kids, mundane stuff that I try to make interesting. Life List is about me figuring out how to live a happy and mindful life on our one and only earth, and hopefully, by writing about my own experiences and explorations, inspiring other people to care about the natural world and be mindful citizens of earth too. I guess you can call it personal essay.

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