The Bird Feeder

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.

Kathi Hutton

Mom, at ninety-six, beside her feeders

A Wednesday morning in January 2021. Minus four degrees Celsius. A shimmer of snow. A shiver of wind. Tentative sunbeams through rippled clouds. A perfect day for a walk.

We meet at nine. My neighbours and I. I wait. This day, no one comes. I walk alone.

Pronoia…the belief that good things are just waiting to happen. I’ve been waiting for a spark. An inspiration. Without companions, stillness enters. Only the crunch of boots on brittle snow. The swish of swinging arms against a scarlet coat. My mind relaxes. Then plays with a word. Alone.

**********

As she grew older, and older, and older still, my mother’s most ardent wish was not to die alone. My sister said she did. I don’t believe her.

Mom died at ninety-seven. But, she was probably ninety-eight. We celebrated Mom’s birthday on September 22. However, when I prepared a natal chart for her, it didn’t belong to the woman I knew. Mom said that her oldest brother once told her that she, the seventh child, was born in August—harvest season on the Manitoba farm. Some weeks later, her parents, Anton and Maria Koshelanyk, journeyed from Caliento to Steinbach—only thirty minutes by car today but an arduous trek in 1917—to register the birth. Both spoke only Ukrainian. The registration date became Mom’s birthday.

At ninety-two, Mom moved from her small home into a retirement community. She had a bright one bedroom, ground-floor apartment with a small, but fully functional kitchen. Her two garden plots provided an abundance of fresh produce for her to eat and preserve. Her several bird feeders that hung just beyond the living room window provided food for her spirit. Behind them lay conservation land—trees, scrub, wildflowers, and grasses—an abundance of camouflage for avian visitors. Mom insisted that black oilers furnished the best nutrition and would tolerate no “cheap bird blends.” A myriad of breeds crowded her feeders: woodpeckers, sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, chickadees, and cardinals—as many as five vibrant red males at one time! Bully birds, especially jays, would also fly in but mom shooed them away. In spite of the deterrents that my brother provided, her battles with squirrels were less successful.

One winter afternoon in her ninety-seventh year, Mom headed out to replenish the feeding station. Stepped into a snowbank. Sank beyond her knees. Struggled to free herself–without success. In time, a passerby rescued her. Then, that good Samaritan reported the incident to the authorities. The latter prohibited Mom from leaving the building to feed the birds. They bolted the service door that she usually used and threatened to remove the feeders if she disobeyed the order.

Mom told them, “If you take away my feeders, I will die.”

A compassionate custodian took over the job of restocking the bird station. One day, when her helper was off-duty and the feeders were empty, Mom placed suet and feed beside the living room window. She opened the sash, climbed out, retrieved the food and fed her feathered friends. Her mission accomplished, she clambered back in. However, once inside, she couldn’t close the sash. It refused to budge the last two inches. Mom turned up the thermostat, donned a heavy jacket and waited for my sister’s next visit.

When Mom was ninety-six, she stayed a week with us in Prince Edward Island. She told me at the time, “Prairie, don’t live to be this old. It isn’t any fun. I’m ready to go.” Even so, she lived another fourteen months. We siblings believe that she decided to stay around until a great-grandson was born. The baby was expected on my father’s birthday, April 27. Lincoln arrived one day early. When he was just days old, my niece took him to see his great-grandma.

Mom, granddaughter Kim and great-grandson Lincoln, May 2015

Shortly before that visit, health assessors determined that Mom was functioning well and would be able to continue in her present location for some time. Two weeks later, Mom was put on an emergency transfer list. In a phone call I asked her how she felt about the move to a nursing home. “I don’t like it at all,” she said. That was our last conversation. From that day on, words refused to move from her brain to her tongue.

On July 1st Mom was transferred to her new residence—a single dingy room on an upper floor of a large rectangular block of bricks. She refused to have any of her artworks hung or photographs displayed. She turned her chair away from the small window. There was nothing to see. There were no birds to feed.

Two months and three days later, the nurse in charge told my sister that Mom’s organs were failing. She died that night.

Was she alone? I don’t believe so. In the spring I had a dream that I shared with Mom. In my vision, Mom and I sit close together on the upper tier of an open bleacher. Sunlight bathes us. We don’t speak. Just enjoy the warmth and the view over the empty playing field. After a time, my Aunt Alice, Mom’s favourite sister, appears. She smiles at each of us then takes Mom’s hand. The two vanish.

I’m grateful I told Mom my dream. Like, me she is a believer in visions.

After my walk today I filled my bird feeders. Used a special treat—hulled black oilers. I gazed up at the sun-streaked sky and said, “Hi Mom.”

Mom’s summer bird feeders

I Never Delete When I’m Walking the Dog: On Writing and Blogging

There are far too many people born into the world, and far too many words written. Millions and millions of them pouring from the presses every minute. It’s a horrible thought.”

Inspector Alan Grant in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, copyright 1951

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

Stephen King in On Writing—A Memoir of the Craft, copyright 2000

_______________________________________________________________

The renewed desire to write began with him. The Storyteller. He recited a poem. The recitation prickled my skin. Flushed my cheek. The left one—if that makes any difference. The message vibrated every cell.

Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life
We have refused
Again and again
Until now.

Until now.

 David Whyte

I remembered the multitude of times I tried to write. All attempts aborted. Remnants discarded or stuffed into the corners of seldom-opened drawers. The life of a writer. The life refused again and again. Perhaps that was not the gist of the poem. It didn’t matter. It’s what I heard.

The resonance of the poem might have been the result of, or increased by, the unaccustomed yoga posture. I was participating in my first Yin Yoga workshop. Poses were held for several minutes. My body relaxed into the positions, or attempted to. My senses sharpened. My mind expanded. My heart softened.

After that late November weekend, when I returned to writing, I realized that the only person I could write for was myself. I once read that a writer must first know her audience. I suppose, if she wants to earn a living by writing, that’s important. But, I am long retired. I live simply and neither need nor desire more money. I am free to create for myself. Good fortune indeed.

What is marvelous, and unexpected, is that others enjoy my stories. Friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. It’s the last group that astounds me. In the ten months that I have been writing my blog, it has attracted more than 750 visitors and over 2000 views from people in 22 different countries. Further, I have 49 followers. Amazing! Yes, some bloggers have thousands or even millions of fans, but I am thrilled with my half a hundred. The fact that I have any at all is extraordinary when you consider that, in 2019, there were:

  • 500 million blogs worldwide
  • 77.8 million new posts published each month on WordPress
  • over 409 million people reading more than 20 billion pages on WordPress monthly

Were Tey alive today, she would be appalled.

In the face of the world-wide blog-inundation, what compels me to write? First, a need to move thoughts out of my mind and onto paper. Otherwise, my head might explode. Second, that one reader who comments, “I loved that story!” What unparalleled satisfaction.

Of the fifty-one posts that I have published, Onychophagia—an account of my former nail-biting habit—has been most viewed. Were readers intrigued by a word they didn’t recognize? Or, do a lot of WordPress readers bite their nails? The single-word header defied the odds. One source claims that titles of six to thirteen words “attract the highest and most consistent traffic.” So much for statistics.

In 2014, I wrote:

I like computers. You can instantly delete an undesirable word, sentence, paragraph, book.

Yet something is lost in that action. I miss the pencil line through the unwanted prose. The messy manuscript that attests to the hard work that may have resulted in just one perfect sentence. Maybe I’ll stop deleting for a while. Just write. Like I think when I’m walking my dog. The thoughts flow then…no problem. They’re just there. And they feel unforced. They feel good. And right.

I never delete when I’m walking the dog.

In 2017 I took a “writing from life” course. I discovered that, for me, thoughts were best committed first to paper. Not to a keyboard. I bought a fountain pen and a spiral-bound notebook. No computers until those initial thoughts found concrete form. No stopping. No deleting. I suspect there is something different that happens at the end of our fingers when we hold a pen and make marks on paper. Something quite dissimilar to what happens when our thoughts flow through our fingers to a keyboard. Well, that’s true for me. The size and shape of the letters, the pauses, the exclamation marks, the dots and dashes, the going back when I’m done, to edit. The notations in the margins. The arrows and carets. The beautiful messiness of it all. Yes! That’s the part I love. When that barrage of words is then transcribed, the hard work begins. The search for synonyms. The elimination of every unnecessary word. The replacement of the “ly” words and some “ing” words—as much as possible. The checking for action verbs and reworking sentences to avoid the passive tense. Weeks or months or even years later, I decide that a piece of writing is good enough to be shared. I post it on WordPress. Then start anew.

*******************

By the way, I no longer write stories in my head when I walk my dog. Regular writing empties my mind of people and plots. I am free to appreciate the dynamic natural world that surrounds us and, before it’s too late, detect the skunks that sometimes cross our path.

I have always loved words and enjoy reading to anyone who loves to listen.
Pitou and I back from a long walk.

Why Write A Memoir?

A little more than a year ago when I finished my memoir, I sent a query letter and a few sample chapters to a publisher—one that promised to respond within sixteen weeks. No acknowedgement arrived. Further, research pointed out that only one in 300,000 manuscripts by “unknown” authors gets accepted by a traditional publishing house. These Many Moons Magnificent was my new-born daughter, albeit, a tiny one. Four years of writing culminated in a book of only 34,000 words. Who would print such a paltry thing? A more important consideration, however, was my reluctance to share my past with strangers. I put the pages in a purple folder, inserted the folder in a plain brown envelope, then secreted the package at the bottom of a deep drawer. Next, I continued to write. Once I had began, I could not stop.

In late December 2019, I published my first blog, “Perfect Meatballs”, a glimpse into my determination to overcome perfectionism. On the next four Sundays, I posted four more tales. During those weeks, I realized I was ready to blog Moons.

Why? Not for imagined riches. I ignored WordPress’s promise that I could earn, earn, earn if I included ads in my blog. A good story is its own advertiser–naive but I want to believe it is true. Further, and gratefully, I do not need money. Nor fame. I am content in my modest life.

One afternoon at the Writers’ Group, I was struggling with a difficult piece of personal history. I said, “Sometimes the writing is painful.”

A member pounced on the admission, “Then why do you do it?”

Before I could formulate a response, a woman answered for me, “Because she has to.”

There was that. But, why did I have to?

Finding Your Answers Within, a book by Dick Sutphen, had found me decades earlier. I decided to look inside—myself, not the book. Quiet moments when beach-walking, forest-bathing, bicycle-riding, or highway-driving provide fertile ground for answer-seeking. On the way home from Writers’ Group that day, auto-pilot kicked in. My mind returned to the aggressive question. Why was I writing a memoir? Before I thought them, three words sprang up—a final expiation. I chuckled. I didn’t know the meaning of expiation. Even so, I remembered a solo winter walk where I asked myself why I blurted out nonsensical words every now and then. Emotional repression spontaneously emerged. The inner wise woman was right then. She must be right now.

Once home, a dictionary pronounced:

expiation (noun)

the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement.

Similar: atonement, redemption, redress, reparation, restitution

For what did I need to atone? One atones for sins. Real sins or imagined sins? Perhaps both.

I knew I had injured people through Emma-like precipitate remarks, an inflexible stand on negotiable issues, and the acting out of fantasies and delusions. But, I had spent years forgiving myself for such transgressions and, where possible, had sought forgiveness from those I had hurt. When painful memories arose, I recited Louise Hay’s mantra,“I did the best I could with the knowledge, awareness and understanding I had at that time.” And similarly “S/he did the best ….” Maybe, there was some deep-seated guilt, real or imagined, that yet plagued me. My response to the message was to keep writing.

A first reader suggested that I publish Moons because it would help others on their self-realization journeys. Certain fragments may inspire some people to embark on Vision Quests, study astrology, participate in Breathwork, or dialogue with a witch. Perhaps. But, just like wealth and fame, self-help was not my motivation in broadcasting the work. For whatever reason, I was now ready to share my story with more than a handful of friends.

In the final analysis, perhaps passion or pleasure propels people to write. Memoir is the most accessible and the most intimate subject matter.

Postscript

Tomorrow, the first two chapters of These Many Moons Magnificent will be published. The book is short; the chapters are short—only one to four pages in length. Even so, as one reader told me, “Prairie, you say a lot with few words.”

Raku moons, Prairie Wakerobin, from a 1994 exhibition

The Story Behind My Blog

First, thank you to everyone who read my first post and to those who took the time to share personal insights, support my endeavours and share the blog with friends. My heart is happy.

Here is the back story to the blog.

In early September 2015, just three weeks before her 98th birthday, my mother died. I am still surprised by the hugeness of my missing her. Even so, her death allowed me to do something that had been incubating for several years–write about my life. I had tried before, in 1994. The book that resulted was dreadful; it met an early demise. I came to realize that I could not write about my young life while Mom lived. Now was the time.

I signed up for a writing course. Over the next few months the “container” for the story emerged. It would be a “journey to a name”, the story of how a baby named Geraldine evolved into a woman called Prairie.

The going was so slow that I enrolled in another writing course in the spring of 2017.

At my request, the instructor read the opening few chapters of my memoir. After calling the writing “punchy”, she asked, “Is there more?” Magical words to a fledgling writer! Not yet– but there would be.

That fall, I joined a writers’ group. My hands trembled as I read to the members the first time. The astute observations and the genuine encouragement that followed erased my reservations and propelled the work forward.

A little more than a year later, in mid-January 2019, I finished the book. I encased a hard copy in a purple folder, then buried the folder at the bottom of a desk drawer. I will know when it is time to make it public.

I became restless. Stories bubbled up. I committed their details to paper. Each month I would read one to the writers’ group. At our most recent meeting, I wondered about sharing them via a blog. Yes! And so it began.

I have eight finished pieces. My plan is to post one each Sunday for the next two months. In fact, I considered calling my blog “Two Months of Sundays”. But, the memories and their stories continue to emerge. I have the skeletons for several. I’ll see how things progress. In the interim, I hope you continue to read my posts and find something in them that resonates for you.

Coming this Sunday “Creamed-Shrimp-On-Toast–the Magic of Memory”.

Thank you again.

Love,

Prairie