Non Omnis Moriar
The first bird I met here was half-dead. A Cape May Warbler, my first ever. It had collided with a Chicago building like thousands that do every year. It stood frozen still on the rooftop as I toured the 11-story, urban school for my son, as if warning me of the impending experience there. The Cape May is one of five million migrants and dwindling, but in this season, they still show up as clouds on weather radars every evening as they take into the darkness and as they rest to feed by sunlight.
They must survive the buildings, but also the endless Midwest miles of recently invading soy and corn fields, where there is ironically no food for them. They trace along the lakefront, which is where I found my cathedral among the starving and vulnerable. This church is simple, and the faithful are sensitive souls as they gently but enthusiastically ask me, did I see the black-throated blue warbler over there?
It’s true that in the end love is why. And also, as she crystallized in fragile words, nothing brings so much pain as love.
A third of the first shipment of bone boxes from the United States back to China were empty. Most immigrants back then wanted to be buried in their ancestral homes. They were also not welcomed here. Despite vast impoverishment, the family associations made arrangements to clean the bones and ship them on a 30-day ocean journey via Hong Kong, from where they would be delivered into China. The empty ones were soul-summoning boxes, when their were only names, when bodies could not be located. Something had to migrate home.
Some never made it back. Some are stuck in transit, in boxes in a storage house in Hong Kong, where they opened an empty one for me. When I saw it, I cried uncontrollably. And when I came to, I remembered Faure’s requiem.
Some are still waiting in my hometown, like my great grandmother. And here I had thought the Chinese village name on her tombstone was for biographical purposes only. When in fact, like so many others, it is an unkept promise of a more final return home. No matter how many children they birthed and raised on this soil, the burial here is temporary. Address labels with no postage, the stone mark of their villages is a question mark of an eternally unanswered request, beseeching unwitting visitors, please take me home. The village name, possibly of a village that doesn’t exist anymore, is a way the dead stay alive. Yes, never dead if your progeny visits and honors you. After all, if someone remembers you, you still exist. But here it is not ancestral worship either, just an endless restlessness for homecoming.
The neighbor in Chicago to the right voted for Trump and the grumpy one on the left asked to take down my bird feeder because it was bringing woodpeckers to her yard. I never saw a woodpecker at my feeder in California, who knows why not, but there are four kinds here. You wouldn’t understand what it is to stop feeding the birds of my home. There is no one now to track their yearly changes as well as their disappearances. To no longer hear their version of truths about migrations and the space they know between heaven and earth. So I set out to ask the strange birds of my new home.
It is cold and rainy as I hold my camera up to these birds. We join together in the hopeful uplift of these visitors, knowing also they won’t be here much longer. And I realized maybe this is the reason I was brought here, and why I must now live between two homes.
It was also cold and rainy when I found him at the nearby cemetery in an unmarked grave. The Hong Kong assignment led me to review my grandmother’s INS interrogation from 1925. In it, her father describes burning the documents of her oldest brother at his gravesite. To erase any reminder that he had died in Chicago, the year before in 1924, at the age of 21 of a sudden illness that is of poverty. The confused clerk looked at me strangely, the white lady who presented his romanized Chinese name, but soon enough they found him on a hand-written map. Minutes later, the groundsmen took me to a field and paced off the coordinates — and there in the middle of fucking Chicago, I had found his bones.
She said, it’s as if I had to become displaced to find my family.
(In my imagination my grandmother’s family experienced one Chicago winter because thank you god they quickly moved to San Francisco.)
And if you have ever uttered a word thinking your dead would hear, you understand the birds. And you also know that all real happiness sets you on the edge of loss. As Judith and I ended our two hour phone call, a Cerulean Warbler flitted across my driveway. It was here and gone so quickly, it exists in the realm of doubt. But somehow my grandmother knows I am listening.
Even if I don’t see it again – Nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does–
and so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as toward a place, but it was a tilting within
myself, as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me
only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.
— Marie Howe