I was looking out the window yesterday, waiting for one of the kids who would be arriving soon. I noticed a bird perched not more than five feet away. I slipped around the window until I was hidden by the wall, and slowly opened the window so that I could get a better look, without the glare on the glass. Then I returned to the couch to observe. The bird’s tail bobbed sharply and rhythmically, up and down, up and down. Every few seconds, it ruffled its feathers all over, then rotated its head around backward, preening. I took note of the markings: brown back, flecked with black and white; black crest and throat; white chest and mask.
In doing this, I had a visceral memory from childhood. We had a large, open yard that was home to many animals. I had come across a bird floundering in the grass. As it saw me approaching, it floundered, panicking. I remember sending out with all my might my “I’m not going to hurt you” vibe, which I was certain animals could hear (you’ll be hard pressed to convince me they can’t even now). Slowly, I crouched down and reached out my hands. The bird didn’t fight it. Gently, I picked it up, being careful not to force the injured wing into any position. I remember the weight of that bird. Its heat. The sheen of its black eyes, so close. Feeling the rapid flutter of its heartbeat against my palm.
I took the bird inside to my mother, a nurse. I knew that she could fix the wing. My mother acted as though my bringing this creature inside was the most natural of things. She held out her hands and I gingerly transferred the tiny patient to her. She held it up in front of her face and gave it a looking over. “It’s a starling,” she said. I was fascinated that she knew what kind of bird it was just by looking. “Yup. It’s wing is broken.”
My mother sent me out to find some small worms. Quickly, I did so and brought them back. By that time, my mother had constructed a makeshift nest out of soft fabric, in which the bird was resting comfortably. My mother mashed the worms with some warm milk and sucked some of the formula up with an eyedropper. She ran the tip of the dropper along the edge of the bird’s clamped beak, releasing a drop. I watched wide-eyed, wondering if this would work. The droplet of white ran along the ridge of the beak and disappeared. Then, as if a switch had been turned on, the bird flung its mouth wide open, waiting. My mother placed the eyedropper deep inside and squeezed the plunger. The bird’s throat pulsated. This ritual went on a few more times before my mother stopped, despite the bird’s protests.
My mother cared for the starling as if it were an infant, feeding it every few hours, even through the nights. The wing had been set, though I can’t describe exactly how she’d done it. In a couple of weeks, she announced that it was time to see if the bird’s wing was strong enough to fly. We took it outside. It was in no hurry to leave and we had to coax it. This was a bit of a conflict for me. My eyes stung with sadness to say goodbye. I was worried that the bird might feel we no longer wanted it, that this was why we were shooing it along into the yard. I sent out my vibes again, stronger than ever: “It’s time to fly! We love you! And you can come back any time!”
The starling hopped forward, looking back. It fumbled with its wing. Had it forgotten how to fly? Hop. Hop. It ruffled its feathers all over. The wings flexed. It turned its head around backward, as if checking the engines. One more hop and then –
Off it went. My heart soared with it. It worked! He surely would have been eaten by an animal had I not found him. And my mother, who was more magician than nurse in my mind, had fixed it.
So, here I was, sitting on my present-day couch, watching this bird and remembering. The bird began twitting its call: chip – chip – chip – chip – cheroo. I remembered the thrill of knowing what a starling was. This bird was definitely not a starling.
Why is it that we lose our sense of wonder as we leave childhood? Why do tide pools and ants and the veins of leaves – or the curiosity to know what kind — lose their ability to fascinate us? I pondered this. One possibility is that, as children, we are encountering so many things for the very first time. Perhaps newness was a primary ingredient in wonder. And, in a verb sense, I suppose that is true. I cannot wonder about what I already know.
Yet, in the noun sense, I think a sense of wonder is something we can have for a lifetime. I think it is not something we necessarily lose, but something we let go for the sake of trading it for “more adult things” like … like … jobs. And bills. And being serious. And looking straight down, to be sure my feet take exactly the same steps they took yesterday.
My perched friend flitted off and I grabbed my laptop from the coffee table. I did a quick search: Massachusetts birds. This led me to several sites filled with pictures. I was surprised to see the sheer number of birds native to this area! I scanned the pictures. I narrowed it down to three. From there, I followed links to sites for bird calls, where I listened to recordings. The first was definitely ruled out. The second was a maybe. The third – was it. Chip – chip – chip – chip – cheroo! I’d found it! I’d been observing a house sparrow.
And you know what? Just as I had all those years ago when I was a small boy, I was thrilled at knowing. I felt connected to the world in a new way. I now knew what a house sparrow was by site and by call.
Of course, keeping – or regaining – a sense of wonder goes beyond gaining mere academic knowledge. If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to find that, like so many things, I believe maintaining a sense of wonder at the world around us – is a choice.
A choice to take time for little things.
A choice to admit that we don’t know it all.
A choice to take ourselves a little less seriously.
A choice to notice.
And that, of course, affects how we view everything – and everyone – along the way.