Bird of Passage

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It’s Monday and I’m running late, so of course there is construction on my road, a flagman waving cars to a halt near the lake. I join the long line of edgy commuters drumming their fingers on steering wheels and studying their phones.

I’m trapped here for a few minutes, but I am not here. I am mentally racing from one meeting to the next, calculating the time lost, rehearsing the presentation, reworking the PowerPoint. I look up to see if the flag has changed from stop to slow, and then I see him.

Or her, because it could as easily be a female, for all I know. But males have brighter plumage, one of nature’s inequities. And this plumed visitor perched on my side view mirror is very bright indeed.

He’s chrome yellow, tipped with pale gray, and he looks at me with eyes like tiny black beads. His frank stare jolts me out of my distracted fog. There’s something insistent about his presence here, now, this morning. He cocks his head, as though posing a question: What on Earth are you doing?

I don’t have a good comeback. I can’t say that I’m using this forced idleness to center my thoughts, or breathe deeply, or admire the canopy of branches overhead, the glimpses of early summer light. I’m not contemplating the vastness of the universe and my barely discernible part in it. I’m not planning good deeds, or pondering how I might be of service.

No. I’m consumed with minutiae, the pinpricks of inconvenience, my host of First-World problems. I have places to go and people to see. I don’t have time for this traffic stop, and I certainly don’t have time for bird watching.

Still, he stays. He flaps his wings a bit, looks at himself in the mirror, turns back to me. He’s really quite perfect, small and elegant and so close that I could touch him.

I envy people who find unfailing comfort in nature, who seek it out on mountain hikes and woodland rambles. Once, early in my career as a journalist, I interviewed the children’s book author and poet Beatrice Schenk De Regniers. She told me that her writing was nourished by frequent “meadow vacations,” intervals of respite from city life when she would spend a week sitting in a field or a forest clearing and just looking. Always looking.

One of her poems begins, “A feather is a letter from a bird.” I wonder if a warbler perched on my mirror is something more—a homily, maybe. Or a wakeup call.

The car ahead begins to move. I take my foot off the brake, but the bird stays put. He’s waiting for a reply to his question, and I shift uneasily in my seat. I try out some responses: I’m making a living. I’m getting through the day. I’m doing my best. He doesn’t budge. It’s time to accelerate, but he holds my gaze. I’m seriously late now, and yet the urgency has faded. Against all reason, I want to stay.

At work, I look him up. He’s a Golden Swamp Warbler, and he’s just passing through. He and his kin stop here to breed, then move on farther south. Their collective name is not a flock, but a sweetness, or a stream, or a bouquet. A sweetness of warblers. Even the words are a balm.

These warblers favor marshy wooded places, like the lakeside where I met him on a harried Monday morning. He won’t linger for long, though. A bird of passage, he lives by an ancient rhythm of flight and rest, journey and return. He has places to go and questions to ask.

I hope he comes back. Next time, I might have the answer.

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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