How to land

by Jennifer on March 28, 2009

                   I look out my kitchen window just in time to see a cactus wren fly toward a small saguaro cactus and land on it, quite safely. It always amazes me to watch this, and I wonder, every time, how does the bird know how to do that without getting hurt?

Without thinking it, this line is in my head – the way a desert bird knows how to land on a cactus. My mind works to complete the comparison, and the answer rises from somewhere in the bedrock of memory and experience.

I understand. I do know something about it.

Maybe I don’t know the physiology or the physics of the bird’s technique, or how evolution handed the wren that kind of  skill, but I know what it’s like to approach something (someone) that (who) looks so unforgiving, and has the potential to cause harm. And to go toward it, because that’s the only choice you have, the only thing you know to do.

Anyone who grew up with a certain kind of parent can tell you how it works.  Any child who lives in a house with a mother or father whose temper is sharp and cruel, where the possibility of getting hurt  creates an atmosphere that is scary and confusing instead of comforting. Anyone who has ever been married to or dated or lived with someone who controls or rages…you know.

You know what it’s like to wonder if it’s safe to speak up, or to ask for things you need.

You know that the cells in the body are as receptive as the five senses to the shape of a moment or a day, how you can feel it in your bones, which way it will go. And where the senses take over, you always watch, always listen for inflection and tone, to the cadence of voice and words, to calculate where a conversation is heading. And even then, even then, that other person can catch you off guard.

And then I remembered something I saw right after we moved here, five years ago now. My daughter and I were walking around our new neighborhood. She was just three, and distracted by any little thing she found. Up ahead, in the middle of a cul de sac, there was an area planted with several different cacti. I spotted a bird’s nest in one of them and was about to draw her attention to it when I saw something else:

A baby bird caught midflight on the spines of a cholla cactus, impaled through its wings and body. Lifeless.

I remember what a shock it was, to see a thing meet its end in that way. If the heat hadn’t convinced me yet, that sight showed me how inhospitable this place could be, its landscape so different from any other I had ever known. Everything prickly and hot and dry – it almost seemed angry, the desert.

Yet, it was home. Just as the house and family of my childhood were home. As that nest in the cactus was home for that tiny bird.

And there’s the confusion. When home and hurt come as a package deal. Worse, when those who live there are too young to know there’s a way out, who can’t do much else but fly toward it and hope to stay safe.

I turned my girl away before she could see the little bird.

Because I wasn’t ready for her to learn about the circle of life.

Or the rest of it. Especially the rest of it.


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