The Snow Geese
A story has no true beginning, for what came first is always preceded by an event before it, but I’d have to say mine started with a birdy conversation.
At the spunky, golden-hearted age of six, I wore no shame. I would sit regally atop a wooden stool on the porch of my grandpa’s RV retirement home in Sun City, Arizona and whistle sweet nothings at the swarms of yellow canaries that sat atop their palm tree, attempting to communicate my qualms to beady eyed airheads. Pigtails swung as I looked up to admire them, lingering sentimentally in the air of what just was. Little hands clasped and little legs crossed in surprising professionality as I pondered what it would be like to be a bird, free from all but migration. My magenta pink shorts were just about as attention grabbing as my peculiar behavior.
Then I was 16, and I wore much more shame. I’d have rather died than wear magenta pink shorts, I sported no pigtails. At this age, being called peculiar would cause me to disintegrate. I had sacrificed living in pursuit of image. Anxieties found fruitful labor in obsessions over the right hair and the right pants and the right sweaters. I opted for more unassuming blue jeans and calm greens. I straightened my curly hair. My essence was fabricated to the point that even I knew myself as less of a physical being and more of a paper mache mirage. I dreamed of becoming devoid of matter, an empty orb that is impossible to perceive. I didn’t talk to the birds anymore, but I kept my eyes on them. The ambiguity of the eyes were comforting to me, a secret way to see without being seen. I found myself in a clashy bookstore off Broadway with my boyfriend’s insufferable college friends, trying to keep up with dissertations on Tarintino. I carried myself like a bomb walker, scrutinizing every move I made, terrified my interior would be unearthed amongst esoteric conversation. I took a turn towards the novels, their quips fading into achy white noise. I sighed in the relief of not having to pretend, even if only momentarily. An inconspicuous, tattered, blueback book caught my eye. William Fiennes, The Snow Geese: The Story of Home. A mention of birds grabbed my attention instantaneously. As I traced my pinky along an unforgiving spine, I recalled how my boyfriend often compared me to a bird, calling me gawky and beady eyed, fearful, as if I’d flap away at any moment. I bought it, read it, broke up with the boyfriend, wore pigtails and magenta shorts on a Wednesday, and turned 17.
William Fiennes found personal pilgrimage in tracking the migration patterns of snow geese from Texas clear north to Canada, equating their movement to a metaphor for community and the human journey. Suddenly, I had new eyes. Birds in the sky caught them and pulled me to fantastical places. I passed beings on the street and saw sparrows instead of humans. I went to jazz concerts and heard bird songs flow out of the trumpets. I went to coffeeshops and saw them sitting at marbled tables drinking americanos, resting together between their travels. Everything had become birds. As the seasons progressed, I reconciled the formidable concept of change in the necessity of migration. The all powerful certainty of uncertainty creates the potential to become positive nihilists. We may rationalize that our lack of control sets us free, free to harvest the crop of new opportunities in our lives. I became the bird, but I lost my fear and shame. Obsessions over image became redundant to me - a bird need not prove to the world that it can fly. I was smooth and windriding like a dove, the complete opposite of a pigeon. I took a trip to Chicago and felt like one as I rode the brown line mid level through downtown, winding around skyscrapers and peering into third story windows, admiring the street from a bird’s eye view. The cold wind swept me up in twirly whimsy, reminding me of its blessed omnipotence. One evening, I and all the other birds stood huddled together on Michigan avenue in our black puffer jackets, shivering to the same rhythm. I felt community in this moment. If life is one big migration, we must be more grateful for one another. It is quite miraculous that our dotted lines intersect at all, much less so meaningfully.
On my way back from Andersonville one evening, the man on the brown line told his friend that his girlfriend jumped the tracks at the Fullerton stop. I pictured the disjunct combination of a fluttery leap into the air and a dull thud against metal, and my face twanged sourly. But, the friend put his arm around the man and they stayed that way, and my mind was painted in a more pleasant metaphor. I pictured a flock of snow geese protecting a bird fallen ill, wing over wing, shielding it from windchill. Should that bird pass away, I knew they’d leave a hole in their migration V for where it used to be. I knew they’d sing songs of loss and mourning, of change and celebration, and that the melodies would all play in the same key. I felt this analogy was comforting, and I turned to tell the man, but I saw no man - only a canary. And, as I learned in my magenta-pigtail age of six, I cannot speak canary. Instead I flew home and drew migration V patterns, leaving a space for a missing bird. “For the Fullerton girl,” I would say. Spring turned summer back home in Denver, and every time I saw a V of migrating birds in the sky, there was always a missing space in their formation. I think it must’ve been for her.
An indigenous language of Maine called Penobscot has a greeting. It asks, “How are you surviving?” and answers “It’s hard for those of us not yet living.” I don’t speak Penobscot just as I don’t speak canary, but I receive the message in birdsong nonetheless. To live vicariously through the eyes of others is an oxymoron. To fear the tsunami of change is to never swim over its peak. This greeting was the perfect descriptor for my life, until an unassuming book taught my eyes to see myself and the world in more trusting ways. I think of the Fullerton girl daily, I hope I make it up to Canada to see the snow geese soon. I now live as much as possible as I did when I was six. No fear, no shame, no doubt - only canary song and peculiar inquisitiveness.