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Exploring Creation Through the Lens of Faith

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Before Was


Herewith. These birds living near me.

The laughing gull, settles on a post, satisfied to perch, looking over an ocean of food. A wary eye on me, the black-capped seagull keeps: Every move, every gesture, the smallest hint of change in my behavior is scrutinized. I take one step too far, and the gull leaps with a two-wing flap to the next post. I slowly approach that post with my camera ready. He flaps to the next post and the next until I’ve frustrate the bird, and he sails off. Didn’t he know I just wanted a picture?

I open my front door and walk outside. A pair of barn swallows swoops out of the nest they’ve built underneath the eaves of my house. They fly acrobatic rolls and careen through hairpin turns and rush at my face before breaking off. Their chicks poke their heads up from the nest and open their mouths. I stand and watch the show. The two barn swallows are joined by neighboring squadrons of swallows, and they launch a choreographed, Blue-Angels-styled attack. They zoom and zip, and shoot up and out, then down and at me. I stand in awe; the little creatures trying so hard to scare me away. Don’t they know? Can’t they see? I’m in and out of my house twenty times a day. Every time is their first time.

I nearly step on the killdeer before I see her fanning her wings as though she is wounded. I bend down and she scurries off ten feet in front of me and stops. I walk towards her again, and again she acts injured. When I get too close she runs ahead of me again before once more acting injured. I realize I’m not being entertained but lured away. So, I turn around and retrace my steps. The killdeer flies around in front of me, lands, and feigns a broken wing. I’m not buying it. What does she not want me to see?

I am torn. What do these birds mean? This life they live? At the intersection of instinct and reason. The door to the metaphorical is open, and it is my nature to walk through. But I want to resist that temptation, at least for today. I want to stay here, at the literal level, and just let the birds be birds. I want to be content with the shades of color, the aerial gymnastics, the maternal. These birds are glorious things, creatures that fly and stage shows. And I am reminded of something Picasso supposedly said. Someone asked him about the meaning behind a painting. He said, “Do you ever know what the birds are singing? You don’t. But you listen to them anyway.”

The sermonizer in me wants so badly to make a point – the itching mouth wiping the philosophy away with a dropped napkin. I want to tell you the birds mean this or they mean that. I crave the mental convalesce of the figurative world, a finger in the sky pointing to something other than birds – something sacramentally touched with imagination and insight. And even now, this confession of mine runs the risk of doing exactly what I’ve tried to exorcize.

But not today, not now. The birds are just birds. This time, this real, ordinary time. On my front porch. In front of my car. On the shore of a lake. The birds under my ass and behind my knee are birds before anything I’d rather please. And I neither understand nor can I explain why it is so damn hard to be just with the birds. Everything else is memory. Everything else is abstraction. But these birds, these birds are present-tense birds, where they can only be birds before anything else. Before the was that will take them away from now; before the was that will take me away. And maybe, because it is so hard to be here – now – I am always more comfortable in the dodgy recesses of mind and abstraction, somewhere in the purgatory of memory. The god Was is the tempter, the deceiver, pulling me away. But the birds. The birds on my porch. The birds in front of my car. The birds on the lake shore. Right now, I am with the birds.

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