“The Infinite Cage” — Joron


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(With a few words in a note to me, she tore open the blank space here, and asked me to write again. Her gesture brought tears, in both senses of the word, and so it starts with tears — because it involves breaking the icy river, the cowardly reluctance to thaw it, to think it isn’t always flowing underneath.)

(Santa Croce ceiling bird.)

Beauty, Nathan reminds me.

What of my small experiences wants words to land them here. What birds would touch down from untouchable sky in order for me to see them, count them, photograph them, devote myself to them.

Because now these birds seem wild and unbelonging like the work that sits months waiting for me in my studio.

Last week we made a strange reunion of local birders on the back porch of a stranger’s house, to peer over a fence into the neighbor’s yard to glimpse a young Summer Tanager eating desperately at the feeder. He was undoubtedly wayward and far from home territory because of the onslaught of coastal storms. We were welcomed into that space and to each other, with only a quick mention of the mass shooting that had happened the day before shattering our small town. Then, the bird arrived, and as Eva describes, we wandered into the center of the circle of wonder. Summer Tanager was the greeting.

How often I delude myself to be disconnected from it all. And as Eva exclaims more loudly, impatiently, because the most obvious is the most difficult — we are always in the circle of wonder, never outside it — and we can indeed find center. Never by our own narrow volition, but by wandering.

(Red Phalarope by Summer Lee, a pelagic bird brought inland by storms, 2023.)

But I want words for those birds, those moments — not the ones where I tenderly helped unclench his fingers from the hospital bed, or the impatient coldness I can turn towards my own children, or how exhilaration smothered grief when driving away from her hopeless apartment for the last time. Not for the woman who rocked her body in prayer before every beautiful dinner she served and told me, this is not the life I expected for myself. And even still, not the gift of my children’s joy that persists despite me, or how I can burrow into the surrendered miracle of my new, unexpected lover.

Somehow there should rather be words for the Virginia Rail that crept out from its perennial hiding place to the spot below the window of my car. And how we caught eyes, one being welcoming another.

The people in that odd backyard meeting, with undoubtedly their own sufferings and joys, would understand. The Virginia Rail is basically all we talk about for hours and hours, even though long ago and long gone — until the next improbable Beauty arrives. And of course, those far away but close to my heart who send me words fluttering down from the sky, out of nowhere perfectly on time — thank god they understand too.

(The Virginia Rail. January 2023.)

In these birds, these words, these friends, I know is the paradox of faith, and how it takes care of us by destroying us.

I will taper down this roughly thawed cascade of words to say that 77 unique species of birds have visited my yard in the 20 or so years I have lived at this home. And I wonder about what I missed in the times I drifted away. Once a group of us chased a vagrant Dusky Warbler across a field of dried fennel, a man’s long camera lens thunking against my head to capture the bird, preventing me from photographing it well. The bird flew off confused, and we stayed to celebrate, for me the 560th species. A bewildered boy next to me scanned over the expanse of chaparral and said, just think how many dusky warblers might be out there and we would never know.

(The Dusky Warbler)

So maybe in my silence, where words haven’t been, is a backwards way to acknowledge some secrets. Not about the “yoke of perishing” we come into being with. More like finally seeing the Prairie Warbler next to the local sewage plant. That time, it took minutes to see his yellow light darting in the scrub, when the year before I spent weeks, thousands of miles away, to no avail. How some things will always escape, even as I am coming closer and closer, and reveal secrets of me that are unknown to myself even. Dufourmantelle cautions, mystery is not an enigma to be solved but prayed to, and truth is only a veil.

“Endure, o mystery of being, so that I might pull threads from your veil.” – Wislawa Szymborska


To See is to Be at a Distance. – Takeyoshi Nishiuchi


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399 birds.

It is a silly and random number, especially when applied to the chaos of life.

I have counted 399 species of birds over the years, my life staggering and flowing with the number. With them, there are little drab stories and big colorful ones too. Births and deaths and hopes and losses, and fears and little reliefs and bits of joy. Like how, when she addresses me as “my love,” a bird flies through me. And gratitude for those who counted with me. With poems and stories and letters and sometimes just a line that says, I saw this bird. A bird, like a thought migrating over arbitrary borders, that reaches me and perches on my heart.

(Pompeii fresco)

So many gifts.

Like the story about the man who paints. We met long after we lost Takeyoshi, meeting only because we both lost precious Takeyoshi. So how could it be that we both have spent our lives making artwork from birds.

And some of those who have taken it to the other side with me. We easily slip into the private language of obsessive details about where that bird was seen and when. Daily reports of who arrived and who left. Remember that time? And all the while, I ask myself, why does this young man, and that old man, and this lost soul, and that serious cynic, why do we devote ourselves to birds. Track them. Count them. Photograph them. Why not butterflies? Or pieces of rotting fruit? What of them drives us to beyond which we can go no further, knowing the bird might be long gone.

He once whispered, It is not like I need to see all of the birds. I replied, I need to. He added, Well maybe it isn’t necessary to do so in one year.

I climbed several thousand feet up a fog-covered mountain twice in three days to see a small group of Bell’s Sparrows, a species not even listed in most books. The second day the wind opened the curtain of fog just long enough to see the tiny apparitions.

Or the other times, like Prairie Warbler who visited from far away. I waited patiently for weeks at the pond where it drinks. My friends saw it. I never did.

How futile to argue with a Prairie Warbler.

(Merlo from Sara’s yard, July 2021)

And then the ones that flew over like signs from dreams. Sometimes it was when the heart was heavy from an absence. Or there was an unexpected blessing. Like when, in my grandmother’s land, the golden pheasant was digging through trash at the hastily-restored ancient wall, or the little wren that sang outside the window of the home that stands guard over displaced immigrant bones.

Or the magpie that comes to her door, reminding her to stay in the garden rather than retreat inside. How magpies risk themselves for shiny objects, reminding us all about the unfolding, if not wayward, path. Along which there are no repositories, because shiny objects have no use in the next season, the next life. Because there is always a next season.

And scooping up the dying and dead ones, sometimes trying to save them, as if I could. In the hand, they weigh at most one or two nickels, and are soft and fearful, and heavy with mourning. How they persist so dutifully against so many odds, storms, predators, just to succumb to human ignorance and interference and land in the bottom of a muddy hole I have dug for them. The point at which finally I have learned: it is witnessing, not intervening, that heals.

In some cultures, they remove themselves from their kindred to shift their senses towards the animal world, and away from the human ones. They perform rituals to cleanse and purify themselves. Then after a few days, the animals appear to them, what we have survived upon since the beginning. And we follow.

In life, I never have had the emotional strength to keep up with where the birds take me, especially Fox Sparrow. But somehow the discomfort eases just enough to comprehend the next rare bird who I must change my life for. And less and less do I know where that will take me. But the 401st bird is already just in view over the horizon, trailing off towards this choice-less path, and I have already devoted my life to it.

The 400th Bird.

O birds, I’ll sing to myself, you’ve carried/me along this bloody voyage,/ carry me now into that cloud/into the marvel of this final night. — Jim Harrison


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I own a caged bird made up of thousands of serious marks by several colored pencils on paper, framed. None of it is particularly bird-like except the woman I know who applied each one. I met her in a room in an institution in my grandmother’s country. She was one of a group who spent their days in an art room. When one of them began hitting his head and shrieking, I asked my colleagues to leave and I sat down and started drawing birds, too. The silent making in that space brought us all back home. Eventually their caregiver tapped me on the shoulder and said, we knew you were coming from far away. We have a song for you. They handed out instruments to each other and stood in a circle around their art desks and starting singing, loud enough to carry into the clinically sterile halls outside. I clapped my wings and let their foreign calls delight me, until an older man who could sing but not speak wrote on his dry erase board: Ask our visitor to sing a song for us.

If I sing these words about you, you stay alive with me. If I craft these scenes from our past here you still are in them. Humans, by dint of language, are the only beings capable of a future conditional tense. It enables the birds to sing in the daybreak after the night of our death, and we hear them. And the more sensitive, by the size of the eyes of the bird, the earlier the song begins. And the more comfortable and active they are in the dark, from where you also emerge.

Little ink bird, by Summer Lee, 2020

At some point in their circle of death the birds turned towards me and they told me matter-of-factly you had been taken. Gone. Right from the middle of me. The swaths of memory that made you part of me flew out of an absence and circled themselves over and over as clear as today. Some sort of compensation for the violence that I will never see or talk to you again. I would also learn that someone took something from you when we were young that wasn’t theirs to take. It stole parts of your life increasingly, until you were gone. We were born right across the street from each other. Now I am living and you are not. This song is my deepest apology.

Some of the most beautiful birds in the circle know me through intimate, timely words over incredible distances. At the moment when I thought you were most gone, it was as if you were sitting across from me. In her knowing, the beautiful poet bird just then wrote: somehow when they leave the body, they become closer to our hearts.

And yes, these songs fall out like feathers, like when at the end of one morning, the birder opened her car door to leave and told me the lump was cancer. That same day I held Magnolia Warbler who had been found struggling on the ground, and in my hand he shrieked a distress which was the call that there is unfathomable suffering without the consolation of reason.

One morning of those 43 mornings in a row, before the other birders arrived, there at the edge of the puddle was a bird I knew well and would make me famous to other birders for the week. How funny since he was a common bird to me, Varied Thrush, from a dark path along the reservoir near my west coast home. But here, he was a long way out of range. The place I often find myself. Who knows how these specialists drift thousands of miles from their homes, how this tiny bird managed to cross over the Rocky Mountains. Surely alone. We are birds along a life-long commute of thousands of miles. These words are the apology when one goes off course.

Thank you to our parents who let us little kids out to play together hours on end, often into the darkness. Thank you to my mom who visited him a few weeks before in the hospital, to remind him he was not his diagnosis. Though the tattoos of darkness were adding up on his body, there is always the light of possibility for all our self-inked narratives to be not true.

After the 4 hours a day every morning I spent with these birders, the migration season was over. It reminds me of the moment I left that institution where the caged birds sang and made art for their entire lives. A part of me stayed behind to keep drawing birds. But along a corridor on the way out, a mother was visiting her son. He sat alone from the group flatly staring out a window, and she was petting his head, preening him with all her loving attention.

The birders leave because the birds move on. The last bird spotted was an emerald blur of a tiny hummingbird that was late for the cold air. It hovered over our heads just long enough for even the slowest of us to register and then it zipped away into the invisible. 

“Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass.” Jim Harrison

Detail of Deposition by Pontormo, 1528

“I could never have come to the present without you / remember that / from whatever stage we may again / watch it appear…” WS Merwin


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The birds come and go here just as Fox Sparrow does in his homecomings and disappearances back on the West coast. Just as truth and beauty migrate out onto another unreachable continent when trying to reason with them. Why can’t you stay here to remind me, I ask through my binoculars. Just once. Their wondrous plumage and secretive calls draw us out from the smallness of our shelters, out into the rainy forests and sometimes in communion with each other, the alive and lonely. This year all the rarest of ones flickered across my field, even a tiny, crystal-blue Cerulean Warbler that spends most of his time too high for anybody to see. A Hooded Warbler touched down too, in a darkly flooded forest where he normally does not, just for two days. Then they leave and we are alone again. Maybe that’s why I told a beautiful woman birder that I saw the rarest bird, when in fact I hadn’t seen it at all. Something about the mix of her beauty and shyness, and something about me being mistaken and humbled. But maybe that bird is still there in our minds, more glorious and hopeful than if we had even seen it.


(Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia of Music. Sculpture by Stefano Maderno, 1599.)

What if this wave of unrelenting and invisible death was actually a grace. Except of course for the poor and vulnerable who always die for our sins. All while I suffocate in the safety around me in the anxiety that it’s never enough. Like when I impatiently told her she just needed exercise when in fact she was just about to die, swollen with failed organs, failed also by my insulated stupidity born of fear.

One time out in the twilight of a chaparral migration, stranger birds gathered in a circle. And even more strangely invited me. They had gathered in order to die. But being birds, they had to first learn how to die through song.

I listened. And of course cried too, as one does even at a stranger’s funeral. One sang of her young daughter who died suddenly. And when the mother’s song entered the abyss of dark and permanent grief, her daughter would come sing to her, to the point where I could almost hear it too. I still don’t want to know if it was an apparition of the psyche or from the other side, because it’s the same place where my own grandmother speaks to me.

This mother had brought with her the chaplain she had met in the hospital. Yes, there is always a bird there, even if we don’t believe, and here she was in the body of a middle-aged, white woman wearing a collar. The chaplain sang to me too, as I worried about my own son treading a difficult path through life. As she warbled, we all sat crying for ourselves and for that mother. Her song was about just being there at the right time, reminding us that our bodies know how to die when it is time.

But the timing of the young daughter’s song, as well as this chaplain, was uncanny. Like the little 9th century bell in Rocamadour that rings when there is an incontestable miracle. Not all pilgrims who have climbed on their bloody, tired knees to that church will hear it. But I can hear that birdsong from that circle of death, even if they are on the other side of the earth now.

Through all the hatred to be had of insufferable humanity, its never-ending range of evils, these migratory birds continue to love me well through certain people, strangers even. Just through their words. Through the poetic words they send me, calls to the heart that rain down on me in dark, muddy forests. In poetic words, there lies the impossibility of their birdsong — as impossible as it is to hold truth and beauty too — that living is through learning how to die. One word at a time, one song, risking itself into unreachable silence.


“The greater miracle of language lies not in the fact that the Word becomes flesh and emerges in external being, but that that which emerges and externalizes itself in utterance is always already a word.” Gadamer, Truth and Method.

“Art brings the finite and the infinite, the visible and the invisible, into coincidence.” Takeyoshi Nishiuchi


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The greatest injury to Fox Sparrow might be that scientists are trying to build a mechanical bird to replicate all he can do. But what a consolation it is that they can’t yet fathom his genius — that when he moves just the toe of his wing, he can change the direction of all his feathers, just so. How he can make his feathers stick together with a force greater than Velcro and then separate them at will. Not to mention his song.

And their song. The mystery that all those technical elements can create a moment completely liberated from them.


(Here is Where We Meet, by Summer Lee, 2017. Cyanotypes, fabric, wood.)

There was a time when the mystery itself was worshipped. And that painters knew the impossibility of capturing it, but their religion was to try, for hundreds of years. But in these days, even though no one now can say exactly how a word becomes flesh, we are fed so much technical explanation about this material and that, the biography of that painter and historical event. Circular tales plunging us into neurosis. What else is neurosis but the inability to cope with uncertainty. And the delusion we can ward off any risk. They knew then, as it goes, the angel arrives even if Mary turns her head.

If ever you have held dead Fox Sparrow in your hands you also know that nothing else could suffocate life more than the self-congealing words we wrap around it. Even if it is, and it always is, to try and comfort.

Fra Angelico made a point to put the fallen Adam and Eve leaving the garden in the same scene as the Annunciation. He knew the word can separate, but also in the same scene obliterate all back into the messianic. Caroline’s poems do this many times a week. And maybe that’s why I tire you, to set out so selfishly about here with words from time to time. To remind myself, the truth and untruth of language.

To remind myself that no one can explain how the paint in my watercolor pan can bring Fox Sparrow to me. And how Fox Sparrow can leave just like that, just because I wrote it here.

Mary, in an economy of words we can’t fathom today, said,

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.

Let me greet all such incursions on my cautionary house of being with such grace. To find repose in the pain of resignation. Not a lazy resignation, but at the end of intense searching, like that for Fox Sparrow. I have read volumes on his kindred, and created innumerable treatises on all the possible places he could be when he isn’t here. Some dark and treacherous, like facing decisions I must make for my child, the lightning-lit rain pelting Fox Sparrow as he embarks in his night flight home. Some of his places are as light-filled as the clouds of Veronese, overlooking restless humanity. And sometimes as majestic as the vanishing valleys into the boreal forest I will never visit. Most of all, it’s the perch on the thin wire weirdly placed in that painting. Where he peers down on a woman who has been greeted by an angel, telling her that her life is about to be changed by no fault of her own. And of course Fox Sparrow knowing what we don’t know: that we are all fallen. And that a word could turn into flesh, spirit into form, and save us.

fra angelico prado 3

Right now Fox Sparrow is under my feeder scratching the dirt in this humble coastal yard in front of my house. The more hungry he is, the closer he lets me. To see his black eyes see me, see this place, that somehow guided him here to me. Back to the emptiness.

The YWCP chorus, directed by Susan McMane.

“And the emptiness turns its face and whispers ‘I am not empty; I am open.’” —Thomas Tranströmer on Vermeer


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It’s hard to believe but Fox Sparrow says it’s best to fly in the darkness of night. Thousands of miles in just a few weeks. He might already be gone by the time I return.

The birds are named differently here, and are very wary. I follow their calls but cannot see them.

Before the war, some boys went into the forest nearby and climbed down a tunnel in search of a rumored treasure, in the days when one could dream of backyard buried treasure. When they reached the floor of the cavern and raised their lamps they saw a spectacular herd of bison and rhinos and horses running overhead from a time before history, as if it were yesterday. How most treasures are indeed accidental.

There are differences of 2000 years between one painting and another on the same stone wall. And no other change in style of line or pigment. One can compare in contrast how much the same Annunciation scene changes over 300 years. In those paintings, the perspective shifts immensely, as do the colors, and how the bird overhead goes from contour to volumetric realism. But in these caves, the paintings are almost exact, as if done by the same painter, even in caves 400 miles by foot and 20,000 years apart.

Chauvet painting, 37,000 years ago. (Photo by Jean Clotte)

What is more dystopic: life on the freezing tundra on the brink of starvation, living to kill by rudiment tool; or our tired, cynical eyes fixed trance-like to LED screens, where an unmanned drone can drop a bomb on a coordinate, our own child’s life. 20,000 years in between us and us. It is an impossible stretch to imagine a bison or wooly mammoth in this over-farmed field in front of me, but the painters were us, after all. We share some deep part of humanity, maybe if only just the underground place where we go momentarily to dream. And what is there for both of us is those paintings.

Nearby, I saw her there, in her medieval castle home of 30 years, because she found a way to never leave. Even if she had been a starlet and philanthropist, her money had been drained and they dragged her away from her castle at the end of her life. There is a photo of her in that moment, sitting on the ground of the porch like a beggar, with a few belongings and some bottles of water. It was her fall, but also her protest. Because even to the end we made her perform, the exotic caged bird, singing and dancing, sometimes to our low tastes. The castle feels spent now, as if folded up after an epic performance, breathing only memories of the high days of celebrity-filled theatres, greying sequin gowns, and used toys from a line of adopted children (where did they go?). Eventually, the princess offered her a new home, and Jackie O funded her final farewell/revival show (those women understood), then she died a few days later. In Paris. But for now she prevails in that castle. Not unlike an outline of a gorgeous creature fading on an exposed cave wall.

It didn’t ring while I was here, a small 9th-century bell on the ceiling of a chapel carved into the rock of a cliff. The chapel could seat maybe 30, but receives innumerable pilgrims, for a thousand years now. Some climbed the long stairs on their knees, as if life itself weren’t cut and bruised enough. In the dark space, a black virgin carved by a hermit tenderly watches us. And we watch that little bell that is only rung when there is an incontestable miracle. A list on the wall begins in 1385, mostly for miracles at sea. The sea is a fantasy to most who lived here then, 200 miles from this little chapel. And who decided what was deemed a miracle, she asks me. I don’t know but it always involves suffering. And how miracles are also under the auspices of the accidental.

Fox Sparrow

(Fox Sparrow, when I first met him.)

It becomes obvious here that along these little roads and stone villages there are little sauvage patches of forest left, under which are other undiscovered caves full of prehistoric paintings, so beautiful because they will never be seen. Never to be paraded in front of lustful eyes. Like the birds here who continue to call and flit around, always outside the reach of my eyes.

Darkness, Fox Sparrow says. And I believe him, because all of this unfolds when words fail to contain it. How far these little words go though, sore and tired pilgrims of the darkness, in search of the miraculous.

“The true entrance into us will not occur by an act of will.” George Steiner




“That of a bird floating on the wind without moving its own wings, that of a bird which is flown by the wind.” Zeami, 15th Century


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It’s a flagrantly irreverent kite, as it dances a silly jig back and forth, fancy-free and a mile high in the gray sky. Shadows of swallows and swifts dart all around, you can’t much see them but can feel them hurling by just inches away.  All this high above a green river, slicing through a narrow forest, carving into the dead center of city. Just a concrete bridge, an updraft, and an insect haven for the evening hunger.

Yes but I’m not happy, he says in broken English, laughing only a little. Because even though it is a plastic-blue-Walmart-superhero kite, this is serious.

You have eagle eyes, he adds, as I point out to him where in the forest the string has hitched itself. Although I side with the runaway kite, mocking his owner, finding communion with the disinterested birds.

His little boy is concerned as his father sternly reels the string in, the father with one eye on his little boy “Vincent!” who might at any moment fall off the unrailed bridge to the rocky riverbed below.

A gray hawk does some stoic surveillance and disappears. Then a noisy plane above it.

He pulls the string harder and the place in the tree where it is stuck is made clear, revealing our finite and diminished existence. Now caught, the kite flails against certain death, surrounding leaves torn away and falling. It occurs to me this $20 kite battle means something to this man, when my kids lose toys daily without notice. And how this battle now means the world to me.

Suddenly one of the yanks frees the kite from the branches and it soars up again into the sky. He releases a shout of victory like a knight who has slayed the dragon. He retreats back into the city with his child, kite following closely like a dog with a tail between the legs. I laugh.

Then just when the whole sky seemed too vast to embrace our little drama, tiny stabs of rain give their acknowledgement and I start to cry. A mote of beauty in this world. Yet under the same sky where children were torn apart in their school bus by our bomb. The same day the sky gathered the river, made a clearing, and uttered our silently grateful birds.

(Detail from Lorenzo di Credi, The Virgin Adoring the Child, 1490. British National Gallery)
Love by Czesław Miłosz


Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

(Detail, Follower of Joos Van Cleve, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1530. SF Legion of Honor)

“Summer’s ardor was confided to silent birds and due indolence to a priceless mourning boat through gulfs of dead loves and fallen perfumes.” Rimbaud


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Fox Sparrow is still here. But I know it’s soon. Almost now.

I have seen bodies float down that river. And I have let them pass, even though they took parts of me, right from the heart.

We stand at the banks, birdwatchers most of us.  An improbable fellowship of a strange generosity. They will run to tell me they just spotted something beautiful and rare, just over there. They delight in sharing stories of the ones they saw many years ago. And I delight in every one with them as if I had been there. How words awaken that. Sometimes a personal story will spill out like a loose feather, like why he remains unemployed. How after her mom died a slow death,  she and her sister call each other about what miraculous birds they have seen that day. One boyish teenage-girl alone for years under a tree told me which of two almost identical species of obscure birds was way up there, just by hearing its call.

Once I walked silently into a group of men bowing their heads crying, their cameras off as if in mourning also. It seemed one of them had been expecting me, because he plainly said that he had accidentally scared a deer into that river over there and it drowned.

Many years ago, he had asked me about Virginia Woolf’s drowning before he took his own life and so I was determined to walk to that river, to see if somehow my response was at all valid.

After a long hike through pastures outside the village, I walked her to the muddy embankment of the brown river running. She has been in and out of my life, even the last few lives too, and when she felt it she didn’t trust it. But there we were. A long curve of river surrounded by lifeless and flattened swales of fields saddled by fog. After a moment of taking in the dull scene, a white thing in the distance pierced through the grey. A majestic swan aflight squeaked its wing feathers in a steady beat, and glided the course of the river past us, down out of sight. Flight and not stones, even if fear changes her mind. The birders among us will understand.

Because this bird knew where I needed to be. In this word. Sometimes I lose my patience with it all, as if I could turn the direction of an entire sentence. But life just runs over my impertinent hands and through my doubtful fingers. And will eventually take her too. And another bird might drift by, or flit onto a branch right here along the way. On its own time.

Like Fox Sparrow who is still here. He knows it is now. He also knows it is not.

(Joan Jonas, performance entitled “Merlo,” 1970’s Tuscany.)

“The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window, Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died.” — Virginia Woolf.


“With total rapture and delight he talks about the birds which he can see from his prison window, and which he never noticed before, when he was a minister. Now of course, after he’s been released, he doesn’t notice the birds anymore, just as beforehand. In the same way you won’t notice Moscow when you actually live there.” — Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters.

The power of Art seems to tear up the one experiencing Art, all at once, from the connection of his life, yet at the same time to move him back to the whole of his existence in this world.” Gadamer


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It is almost time for Fox Sparrow to leave.

Yesterday a red cargo ship full of containers from Asia approached our coast. It happened on a glassy, high-blue light day as the Bay Area can be in February, so that even the frothy wakes along the ship could be seen crisply miles away. And how the crew must have seen the land from miles away also, how that green and gray brown alights after a month at sea. The welcome that builds after days of an interminable emptiness on the horizon, in every direction. Maybe a terror of openness, but the warmth of possibility. Lonely yes, but connected to the ocean and the sky, feeding on inward mornings and memory — connected to all things, connected even by our loneliness. To be on an endless sea — yet, as Caroline said, to feel lucky waking in the morning unafraid, to get up with the desire to get up, for another day of open and empty horizons.

After ten epic years at war, and ten more at sea, Odysseus reaches home where no one can recognize him except his dog. He is washed by his childhood nanny, who discovers a scar on his thigh, revealing his identity. His scar is the doorway to homecoming.

How life’s experiences, like words, cut and divide while gathering its skins into a scar.

I hope while at sea, I would delight in the unrepeatable colors, and how ocean water defies all predictable pattern, and what fog can create with light. That I would relish in all the inks and brushes I have, not analyze those I don’t. And maybe there is a bird, the courageously pelagic amongst us. At home without terra firma, the beings of the utmost unhousedness.

Does anyone else wonder where Fox Sparrow is when he is not at my feeder?



(Ma Yuan, Studies of Water, 1190-1224)

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in the sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no rain; without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist.” — Thich Nhat Hanh


No one knows the secret of its beginning or its end. Its forms are phantoms. The thread alone is real; the thread is life. — Loren Eiseley


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I’m sorry to Fox Sparrow. Because the dark became darker, and for primordial reasons no one knows, he returned. How did he reckon with the absence after so many years. His ancestors knew of my frontyard and told him somehow, so that he trusted it as a place for sustenance, to fly thousands of miles for this one square foot of shrub. And one year there was nothing.

Now I return to Fox Sparrow.

The figures on top of the architecture here look down, disdaining on our frenzy. They have stood there so long that no one identifies them, relegated minor celebrities now ignored except by erosion and pollution. Sacred space, he said. What do they say from up there about down here. Fox Sparrow flies over them, and I bustle under them, from one cathedral to another, one painting to another.


(Rimini 1300’s, Padova)

And how thanks can be welcomed now, now long enough on this cobbled plaza to understand most of life is forgettable tasks and losses and then precious bursts of presence.  The self-flight of wanting the outside world to adapt to my needs. When really life is all that I needed, even if I only realize it now, hundreds of years later, says this old dusty part of the world. The other drivers madly suicidal, pressing against an imagined self-important destination. So many masterpieces, they blur.

The sum of history, the robber barons and politicians and corrupters careless in their selfish deals, so that an Angelico or a Bellini could escape. Luckier still that someone noticed something there after the floods and the rot. There is art in there, after all.

That is no way to say goodbye, to be stilled in the instant of loss and mourning. In a back room they discovered his final and unfinished Pieta. Who is holding up who, and whose arm is lifting what. And how it looks as if it could topple at any second.

A flight of memories all of them loving even the cruel ones, thank you. Grief is here, too. He tells me, yes the continual parting from which all thought emerges, but it’s the same place same thing that greets what I hold close to me. Sometimes too long. What breaks the heart is mostly heart. And laughter and flesh and thanks. And sometimes catching the ecstatic edge to all this openness, the immense out there, the terror of all possibility. And then having to pack yet another school lunch.

Our performance, this bird and this life, the reverberation is aliveness. Where the play is the only thing to watch and engage — not the players. If only we let ourselves be forgotten. Then we can return to ourselves, however no longer ourselves, but Fox Sparrow. The unfolding self and an empty tomb, completely miraculous. Empty without obligation.

I’m not a believer in anything except Fox Sparrow.


(Performance, “Annunciation.” From Requiem: Welcome Home to Un-Home, 2017. By Summer Lee)