Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Small blessings: birds and a balcony

The view from my divan
Life is not all glamour and glitterati for this style blogger. I know this comes as a surprise to you, but it’s true. Recall that I have a back injury. In the first year of my infirmity, I was virtually entirely bed-ridden. Just getting up to go to the washroom was an ordeal that required great courage and caused great pain.

There's not much room for food in a freezer full of ice packs. They also happen to be my very least favourite colour.
Now, over four years later, I’m a lot more mobile, but I still need to lie down and rest several times a day or my pain becomes so overwhelming that I tremble and feel sick. Depending on the time of day and the quality of my pain at that moment, I lie on heat or ice. Muscle pain responds well to ice. Nerve pain, that shrieking, electric pain down the legs (a.k.a. sciatica), prefers heat. I have a freezer full of ice packs and I’ve killed several heating pads over these years.
Bed rest is boring. It’s dead dull. I used to jog miles and miles, go for hours long, bracing walks, go to the gym, go to movies, run errands, teach four courses on campus per semester… all without a car. In other words, I was an extremely physically active, able-bodied person. Lying down for big chunks of the day is not in my nature.

Nor is patience.

Chronic pain is exhausting and deeplydepressing. It can feel soul-killing. Anyone faced with such a huge life change must devise coping strategies or go completely crazy, and, believe me, there have been times when I’ve been sure I was crazy and my spirit was indeed broken. 

Some of my coping strategies may be dubious: I watch far more television than I ever did before; I have a double martini every evening before bed. Some are a bit “woo-woo,” as Beau would call them: I light incense during my evening bath; I try, and usually fail, to meditate. 
A squirrel's slow realization that she's being watched: endless amusement for bed-ridden me. (You can see the ledge that I had trouble stepping over in the first month of my infirmity.)
But I’ve learned that one of my lifelong impulses – finding joy in very small beauties – is one of my very best coping strategies.

In this, I take great inspiration from Jane, a very dear friend of mine who died of A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) a few years ago. It’s a cruel, cruel disease that slowly paralyzes its victims -- whose minds stay alert -- until they can’t speak, walk, eat, or, eventually, breathe. The only prognosis is slow death. A.L.S. is the disease you will hear about most often when people are arguing in favour of doctor-assisted suicide.

I have never known anyone to deal with terrible infirmity with such incredible grace and good spirit as Jane did.
Hummingbirds are extremely territorial so I only have two coming. This female has yet to be named. Care to help?
At her request, I’m sure, Jane’s family set up a bed for her with a view of a huge window, and, outside that window, they planted a garden to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. 
A male northern flicker: It's got polka dots, stripes, colour, size... It's got it all! (Birds are very hard to photograph, especially through a window and when back-lit so my photos of them aren't grand.)

Jane and I were bed-ridden at the same time and would write to each other every day – about the little things that kept us going. And they were little things: the changing of the seasons, the quality of the light – and birds. We wrote a lot about the birds we saw through our windows.

As I slowly got better, Jane slowly got worse, till she was writing her emails with the one finger that she could still move. Finally, her emails stopped. Five days later, she died.
My divan, upon which I rest often and sometimes try to pretend I'm a convalescent Victorian. If anyone knows of nicer heating pad covers, do let me know. The chair is my cat's Cuddle Chair. See below.
My cat refuses to get on the divan with me but loves to be on this chair and get cuddles when I'm resting or at my computer. Thus, it's The Cuddle Chair, and is known as such to all my house guests.

A flock of pine siskins. They are very susceptible to salmonella and I sometimes feel that my balcony is a hospice for them as they die. It's kind of fitting, given my own infirmity, but it's hard to helplessly watch their suffering.
Was it in direct tribute to her that I put up a bird feeder on my balcony? I hired someone to help me make some changes to my home. I got a lovely divan, since I might as well convalesce in style, and placed it so that I can watch my birds while I have my several daily lie-downs.

Honeysuckle vine in winter

Bushtits (yes, go ahead and giggle). They are tiny and now their food is safe from starlings because of their special feeder that I bought on this day.

Quickly, I started educating myself about local birds (with a lot of help from the nice folks at Wild Birds Unlimited). I put out more feeders and different foods to attract as many different types of birds as possible. I even put honeysuckle and fuchsia out there, for the hummingbirds. And I get a lot of birds, about fifteen varieties, from hummingbirds (who are here year round) to downy woodpeckers, from towhees to bushtits.
Clockwise from top left: a female downy woodpecker; a towhee; a chickadee; a male house finch and some pine siskins.

As I get better, I can get out more, but there seems to be a kind of Murphy’s Law that, on the most beautiful days, my back hurts too much for me to go out. 
Yes, this really is my view. I never cease to be amazed at my good fortune in calling this city my home.
Top: a pine siskin. Bottom: a female house finch. Though only siskins have yellow feathers, both looked golden in this light. They also carried on a lively conversation with each other for a while.
My hair is getting fuller and curlier again as my pain levels lower. The whole system suffers with severe pain. And, yes, see, my hair really is auburn... in the right light. It's so variable that people frequently ask if I've dyed it, something I've never done in my life.
At least now, I can step over the ledge between inside and outside and sit on my balcony, looking at my mountain view (on those rare sunny winter days), watching the world go by, and holding very still while some of the braver birds join me. 
Blouse: Everly; Bracelet: from Jean Queen; Ring: vintage; Jeans: Reitmans; Boots: Jessica
This one's been coming longer. Her name is Madame Celeste Bang Hummingbird. She's very bold.

Hummingbirds are particularly bold, tiny as they are, and will come right up to my face to decide whether or not I’m a flower. I admit to sometimes wearing red to lure them to me. It never ceases to feel like a visitation from the land of Faery when they come.

If I didn’t have my balcony, I don’t know what I’d do.

I still call and write to Jane’s husband to tell him about my birdies. And he tells me about his.

My cat loves the view too, especially now that we have birds.
It’s the little things that save a life, or make the remainder of a shortened life worth living. 

They are what I call Sublime Mercies.

Morning moon and morning crow.


  1. Charlotte, thank you so much for sharing this post with me today. You are right on the money with it. I cried reading about your friend, and smiled, and cried a little more, reading about how you still keep up with her husband and her birds. Thank you!

  2. Her husband, who is now eighty, started slowing down physically pretty much right after her death, and I know he misses her. Theirs was -- and is -- a very great love story. I still think of her whenever I see a butterfly.

  3. Beautiful post, I am so touched and beautiful YOU