Make A Little Birdhouse In Your Soul

The starlings are back. For each of the past three years, they have returned to gather a chaotic pile of damp grass, peeled bark, and matted bits of twine, threads still unraveling even as they are tucked away. One day a silky puff of cream-colored fur appears, the next, a waxy red leaf. I marvel at their ability to make do with such a seemingly uninhabitable place, an old crook of drainpipe beneath the roof of my apartment building, but this is what starlings do. I watch them, thinking of home. 

 

Twenty-nine places in twenty-seven years. Never allowing myself to need anywhere or anything or anyone long enough to stay. 

 

I think this is not true.

(Maybe it is partly true.) 

 

The starling was introduced to North America in 1890 by the “American Acclimatization Society” as part of a plan to introduce all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works. From 1890-1891, somewhere between 60-100 starlings were released into Central Park in New York. The entire North American population, which now numbers more than 200 million starlings, is descended from those birds.

 

For three years, I lived in a green place. Another home in another country, another language, another love, a whole continent of other. When we bought the farm, I used every cent of my 401K plus the sale of my home in Philadelphia plus a loan to buy four acres of organic Brazilian mountain wild, climbing with venomous snakes, bee swarms, and twirling vines. A reckless, irrational, sonho maravilhoso – a marvelous dream. We were warned that it was an “Escritura de Posse,” a deed of possession, which meant that it was stolen land, legally acknowledged as such by the Brazilian courts. No matter who tried to own her, the land would only ever belong to herself. This was something I understood.

 

Three years of hippy vegan mountain living and a grueling, cancerous death later, I sold all four acres to trusted friends. I sold the car and the farmhouse with all its contents and everything I owned because I couldn't bear to look at it any more than I could afford to ship it all back. The friends sent me back to this country with a few thousand dollars cash and a promise to send payments every month, but after a year of hit or miss wire transfers and constant pecking, my emails to them went unanswered. Three years have passed without a response, and the debt remains unpaid. 

 

Starlings are “egg droppers.” When they’re feeling competitive, they swoop into unattended nests and steal eggs, dropping them from great heights. Glossy and pale blue.

Abbey Ryan, 5493  |  5445 (murmuration), 2013, ink and Sumi ink on paper mounted on maple panel.

Abbey Ryan, 5493  |  5445 (murmuration), 2013, ink and Sumi ink on paper mounted on maple panel.

 

I shadow them on Instagram. It’s a habit leftover from my psoriatic childhood, a craving need to pick at what hurts. I never comment. During Lent in March, my grandmother’s crystal vase appeared on social media, filled with purple flowers. In another image, my wide ceramic serving platter lays upon the table where I once ate, now covered in vegetables grown in the same deep red soil from which I plucked radishes and held them to my nose, gleaming in the sun. In the background of another photo, I see the edge of the couch and the plum-hued, embroidered pillow where a fevered head once lay. 

 

The bookshelves are still lined with my books. Sometimes I go to the shelf to look something up, only to realize that the collection of poems is gone, the wine opener, the twenty years of scribbled notebooks, and then I am reminded of the real loss, which nothing can replace. On New Year's Day, four of my glasses appear on another friend's newsfeed, spilling over with champagne. On Facebook, my striped green headband adorns the head of the smiling tenant who has now closed her restaurant in Rio. Even her wife has retired from the Brazilian stock exchange to become an artist, courtesy of me.

 

What is this urge we have, to take and to tame, to plant a flag and make it ours? Mountains laid flat, pipelines drilled, verdant body ravaged, beaten and exposed. Children pulled from the bomb-shattered ruins of cities of no longer. A world of ours and never ours.

 

(What if we claimed none of it?)

 

After four years back in this country, I’m still re-acclimating myself to my first language, which feels remarkably lacking in color and texture, strangely devoid of physicality and emotion by comparison. My brain offers up idiomatic expressions like uma mala com tres cocos, a “suitcase with three coconuts,” to describe something frustrating, and I wonder if this language of metaphor and music has a home in this country that has become so hard. The words stay stuck in my throat, so I remake them with my hands.

 

Last week, Ben Carson, the "neurosurgeon-turned-housing secretary," paid a visit to a homeless shelter in Ohio. He nodded approvingly when he learned that the shelter had been very intentional in its decision not to provide televisions, and he smiled at the dozens of bunk beds stacked in rows. HUD Secretary Carson went on to explain that compassion means not giving people “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’”

 

Today, I am loved by a painter who gathers broken eggshells and fallen bumblebees on our walks while we save and search Zillow for something like home. Our leftist, rainbow-flagged Philadelphia neighborhood is being bought up by commuting New Yorkers who can no longer afford the city that once flung open its doors. Trump Tower costs New Yorkers an estimated $308,000 taxpayer dollars for a weekend visit, so the owner flies south, where he can drop bombs over chocolate cake and build walls without having to sign for the check. 

 

(Who watches over you?)

 

The Philadelphia suburb of Glenside is stacked yards with playsets and lawn sheds. Germantown is rattling cobblestones and Quaker school pacifism flanked by the occasional gun shot, once Lenni-Lenape, Iroquois, and Shawnee. The house in Wyncote might work, but open the windows and everything is highway. Elkins Park is knob and tube and asbestos, Roxborough is vinyl siding and concrete. Horsham is office complexes, one after the other after the other, flat, brown brick buildings and anonymous green lawns. We stop in front of an Open House built on land that once grew potatoes and corn, and it’s full of American flags and riding mowers. Somewhere is a hidden language of territory and codes, but we only have Google Maps. Everywhere I look, there is something that tames or cuts. 

 

“An estimated 1/3 to 1/2 of returning female starlings nest in the same box or area in consecutive years. That is why it's even more important not to let them nest in the first place.” – Sialis, website for the preservation of bluebirds

 

In a small split-level house in a nondescript neighborhood, the basement walls are lined with neatly stacked boxes. While my wife checks the walls for signs of moisture, I run my fingers lightly along each dusty label, whispering: “Cognitive Psychology. Poetry. Russian literature. Sci-Fi.” In the master bathroom, I creak open the medicine cabinet. It’s an invasive, freakish urge, but I can’t help myself. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Toothpaste. Nail clippers. A brush matted with dark, curling hair. A bottle of Cialis. Men with their boners. Families and their children. 

 

Last month, I watched a documentary about small brown children flying on the backs of trains headed north in the quest for better. They call the train, “La Bestia,” the beast. When the filmmaker asks the children what they plan to do when they reach the United States, a dirty twelve-year old boy grins: “I’m going to be adopted by a nice lady, and she’ll find me a tutor. Then I’ll get a job and bring all the money back to my mother in Peru,” and at that moment, I thought: “YES. That’s me. I can be that lady.”

 

There is a small pink bedroom at the end of the hall. When I step inside the doorway, the letters R-A-C-H-E-L stretch across the wall in purple and silver glitter. A bookshelf full of picture books. A nightlight in the outlet by the light switch. A canopy bed. A small desk, neatly stacked with papers. A framed note reads: 

“Dear Rachel, We are so proud of you.  

Love, Mommy and Daddy.”

 

In my twenties and thirties, ovulation always came with a sharp stab. Sometimes I winced and held my side, laughing, “Oh man...I just dropped an egg.” Thinking I had plenty.  

 

The backyard is walled, but climbing with life. Rain pounds the slate roof, and I close my eyes and breathe it through, craving the thunder and flash, imagining a life without storms. Although everything about the house feels like it could be right, it has all the wrong light. Not enough light for a painter. 

 

We get into the car, and rain runs down the windshield in ropy streams. I put on my seatbelt.

 

“I want to leave them a note."

 

She starts the ignition. “Honey, that would be weird.”

 

I sigh and run my hands over my skin, rubbing and pushing at the wet. “I know, but they seem so happy.” I yank down the vanity mirror and watch the house fade to green behind us. “It would be weird, wouldn’t it?” I ask, answering myself.

 

“Yeah,” she smiles, and puts on the blinker. “But it’s what I love about you."

 

We turn down another street in another town. 

 

They Might Be Giants' 1989 hit 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' is "barely three minutes long, but it changes keys 18 times." – Slate Magazine


  Leigh Hopkins' featured column Secret Circus is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. At a time when government secrets can be revealed in 140 characters and our nation loves a show, Secret Circus blends personal essay with political commentary.  In 2010, Leigh left a 20-year career in social policy and education reform to move to Brazil, where she ran a retreat center and founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Her writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and at LeighHereNow. Leigh lives in Philadelphia with her wife, a painter, and their nervous Jack Russell Terrier.

Leigh Hopkins' featured column Secret Circus is a 6-month series on Corporeal Clamor. At a time when government secrets can be revealed in 140 characters and our nation loves a show, Secret Circus blends personal essay with political commentary. 

In 2010, Leigh left a 20-year career in social policy and education reform to move to Brazil, where she ran a retreat center and founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Her writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and at LeighHereNow. Leigh lives in Philadelphia with her wife, a painter, and their nervous Jack Russell Terrier.