In Charge of Birds

We follow the robin as long as we can,
our eyes tracing the curlicue of her path.
She hops behind bushes and we crouch
to find her. She floats to a low branch

and we marvel at the effortless levitation,
the slightest stirring of feathers. I watch her
as my son does, as though this were also
the first robin of my third spring on earth.

When she finally disappears
my son pleads more bird more bird,
looks at me as though I could rise above
the white pine, comb its needles with my wings.

As a child I mistook dreams for reality,
was sure I could fly, that once I’d soared so low
over the stairs, I’d grazed its beige tufted carpet
with my fingertips as though it were hillside grass.

I tell my son I am not in charge of birds,
that they are bound only by a contract
with worms and the open beaks of their babies,
the flow of tropospheric currents

and whatever genetic programming
turns their bodies south each winter
as though they were compasses
that cannot be held in our palms.

We walk to the park and I promise him
we will see more birds. We will pull them
from the sky with the force of our desire.
They will fly low over the hillside.



Click here to read Ariel Friedman on the origin of the poem.

Image: Photo by June Admiraal on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Ariel Friedman:
As hard as it is to be an artist and a mother, what’s harder still is keeping these two identities separate. So instead of resenting my child for taking time away from my creative work (and vice versa) I intentionally aim to let each inform the other. I wrote this poem after a spring morning walk into town with my two-year-old son. A bird had caught our attention and every time she darted out of sight, my son would ask for more. Then she’d reappear, me feeling grateful to postpone my child’s inevitable sorrow at her flying away.

This poem speaks to the urge to protect our children from simple truths: that birds are not under our jurisdiction; neither are most things. Whenever I explain some version of this to my toddler it is always with a positive spin (e.g., the promise of more birds, or that the dead flower will turn into dirt and help new flowers grow) because it makes me feel better for bringing him into a world riddled with pain. But I am wondering about the ethics. How long can I delay the inevitable truth-telling about the world we live in? How long can I let him believe that our desire is what pulls birds from the sky?

I think in some way an answer is offered by the poem. As a child, I woke from a dream in which I could fly and remember marveling at how real it felt, how light, how possible. That dream-memory was indelibly imprinted inside me long before the harsh realities of human existence lacquered over it. So for now, I sugarcoat where I can. I let my child believe things that I hope might end up feeding him for a lifetime.

Ariel Friedman
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