Thursday, November 18, 2010

to a desert flamingo

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

~Mary Oliver, “The Swan”

Dear bird,

This is a letter of apology – and a confession.

I used to hear the words pink flamingo and think of stale Floridian houses trimmed with green plastic lawns. And you propped up on one. Alone. Or maybe with a fellow – standing solidly on one black leg, your black beak, with its white dimple, tipped downward shyly.

I was unaware that all such replicas are little more than hopeless misrepresentation of what, in fact, you are: a living work of art.

Now I know.

But before this morning I had never really looked at you – never examined the many folds of your feathers, the elegant nape of your neck, or the infinite gradations of crimson color which cascade down the long length of your back. I never knew the tips of your tail feathers look as though they've been dipped in flaming coal; had never stared into your eerily mesmeric yellow eyes, nestled deep into either side of your downy head, and thought, but what universe have you come from?

Somehow – how is it? – I have lived three decades on this planet without ever grasping that your knees, which are really ankles, are the color of raspberries; that the hollow reeds of your legs appear to have been washed with lemon glaze, or the webs of your pink toes dusted with blue powder. Has your hooked beak been brushed with charcoal? Would its inky blackness rub off on my hands? I have never taken the time to wonder.

Instead, my mind has been occupied with other matters… It is - in case you haven't noticed - a strange time of year. In the morning a chill creeps into the air – hinting faintly that cold is coming, coaxing me into donning a long sweater and knee socks, packing a basketful of goodies, and trekking to the park to spread a woolen blanket out upon the lawn.

But this is a ruse. For by eleven o’clock, the sun, winking in a cloudless sky, humiliates me into retreating once more behind hat and glasses. Into sweating and swearing and thirsting all the long way home.

I think I understand why God made seasons – there is something intensely cathartic, even instructive, about watching nature change – its revolving cycles of new birth, of ripening and wilting and dying, tangibly enact, in a relatively condensed form, the life cycle of all living organisms.

For this reason, by the time September comes, I am longing for a change, but outside there is none to speak of. No bright leaves to sweep up into bundles on my front lawn. Instead, the leaves on the lone leafy tree outside my kitchen window remain an obstinate green. My rosemary is blooming – touching little purple flowers – that speak to me of spring, not October and its autumnal glory. The heap of pumpkins piled outside my door begin to bake themselves into pies, so I am forced to drag them inside to cool. It is one less thing to do before Thanksgiving, I suppose.

Meanwhile, all the local stores have set themselves up for holiday shoppers – wreaths made of plastic holly leaves are stacked on practically every end cap; reindeer and Christmas lights mocking me into confusion, alerting me to the incomprehensible fact that winter, even Christmas, is fast on its way. But how can this be, when it is nearly 80 degrees outside? How, when my children are kicking off their shoes to dip naked feet into cool water, playing in their bathing suits, sunning in sun dresses, and slurping down popsicles in jelly sandals?

I do not know.

But standing in the middle of the zoo with my hands clasped to the metal railing, beside the painted plaque that told me all about your natural habitat, I did see how your beauty pertained to everything; and how my life should change.

You may be stuck in the center of an artificial habitat, a man-made lake which – isn’t it? – considerably smaller than the lake where you were born – but for all these constraints, you have not become reptilian, not exchanged your wings for scaly arms. Instead, proudly perched on one leg, you preen, tucking your head into the nest of your wings. The desert sun hasn’t wilted your feathers or muted your colors. You are caged yet you remain obstinately unaffected – or strangely indifferent – to your surroundings, as though your hope were elsewhere.

There, at the center of the zoo, you appeared to be entirely at peace with yourself, wrapped up in a kaleidoscope of quietness that fanned out from all sides… and enveloped me entirely.

There, watching you, I was reminded what beauty is for - that it is an instrument of God, meant to arouse in the human spirit a desire, not to consume or acquire, but to worship; that beauty, if it is true, should breed gratitude, not discontent – should compel the mind it rivets to look up and outside itself, away from all the man-made ugliness that robs the soul of joy. Seeing you reminded me that there is beauty which is beyond the grasp of the imagination, and gave me cause to wonder: if God can create birds with such infinite variety and ingenuity what must the place be like which He is preparing for me?


Joseph Anfuso said...

Heather, Could it be that God not only prepares a place of beauty for you, but that He has already placed you in one--as strange and unfamiliar as it may be? Could it be that YOU are a desert flamingo? :-)

Mom said...

Oh! Could it be? I think so. You inspire and bless!