I’d been staring out of the same window of my apartment for about a month, when the Eastern Phoebe came. I watched night come and go, rain come and go, hunger come and go. I was beginning to feel like some prehistoric stone, eyes stationary as I watched the world continue to spin around me — my limbs stagnant, while I waited inside.
From this vantage I saw plenty of robins patrol the lawn. I heard mourning doves startle and flutter-squawk up to the nearest branch. Daily, I witnessed the cardinals cheep importantly at each other in the swaying trees, and the trees themselves gradually changed from being dotted with green, to being swathed in it. The nature I could see through the window was marching along, springtime business as usual. And then this morning, suddenly and confusingly, the phoebe showed up.
I was braiding my hair when I first saw the new bird. Inspired by its delicate stance, I approached the window carefully, being sure to transfer my weight smoothly from step to step. I was worried it might see me through the glass, and I didn’t want to startle it. Every patient step brought more detail into view as I got closer and closer. My hair, only half braided with ends loose, didn’t even come undone.
With my face close to the glass, I observed the small being. It was resting on the bricks of my windowsill, out of the direct rainfall. I’d always thought it was my superior human brain that gave me both rest and higher consciousness, as if the two were related. Somehow, the fact that my species had invented apartments and grocery stores facilitated the luxury of quiet thought, while other creatures of this earth had to forage and defend against the elements to make it through each hour. Except here was this black-beaked bird doing nothing. It certainly did not seem to require the constant, active survival that fit my stereotype of nature. And so, it bewitched me.
Was this little bird doing more than surviving? Of course, the word “survival” takes on a slightly different meaning to conscious, thinking humans. I knew people who had seriously survived depression and one who hadn’t, all of them without risk of starvation or exposure. The fact that we survive, day to day, encased by walls — does that speak to our intelligence? Does that make us superior to this little feathered friend who sat on black twiggy feet in the rain?
I felt like a scientist holding my breath for a result. What would happen? I had never seen a bird indulge in such a long free moment before. What would it do next? I tried to drink in all the details of its small body. The outline of feathers was finer than I expected, almost like fur, but neater, and more contained than my own locks. The top of its beak curved into two handsome nostrils. Did all birds have nostrils? I had never noticed them before.
After it got comfortable, it began to close its eyes. I imagined its face weary, like my grandmother’s when we watch TV after dinner and she says, “I’m not tired, I just want to rest my eyes.” How tired I was then, watching the visitor. I was not tired from searching for food or keeping myself warm. I was tired of every day tasting the same.
Philosophers and poets have examined the proverbial bird in a cage countless times. For the minutes the phoebe graced my windowsill, I was aware of the role reversal. Was that irony? I remained still, looking out through the glass while the bird sweetly closed and opened its eyes. Mundane as it was, I was glad for this distraction from the even more mundane. When it seemed to be finished resting, the bird hopped over to the nearby bush, gobbled up a couple berries, and flew away. I guess it had to eat to survive.
What did I need to survive another month stuck here? I had thought that all the thinking and resting and reading I could do as a human would make confinement okay. I didn’t need to struggle through the rain to eat berries and bugs, I thought. I needed to learn and create. But after meditating with the phoebe, this importance of higher order thinking diminished. When the grey-buff bird left with a flash of white on its wings, I grieved.