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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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

JCK March 28, 2009 at 10:27 pm

I’d like to think that I would have protected my little girl from that sight, too. Nature is brutal. We always want to think it isn’t, but it is. And we are in it, too…

McSwain March 29, 2009 at 12:22 am

Wow. That’s a brilliant analogy. I think there’s a book there.

And yes, I know. I’ve been there. Lucky to have not been caught in the spines, and hoping every day that my son learns to sit on that cactus–that damned cactus that the court system makes him return to every other weekend. Brilliant.

Treasia/TruckersWife March 29, 2009 at 6:40 am

I’ve landed on the spines of that cactus several times myself. After many attempts to learn to fly away and land safely somewhere else I finally done so. The decent to land was seamless and sure as I cruised in for that soft landing. Never to fly away and into the cactus again.

Dharmamama March 29, 2009 at 6:55 am

I was very touched by this. Thanks for your insight, and perspective. Some people have said that our non-coercive, consensual living, unschooling life isn’t “real” life, and is not preparing the boys for the real world. I’ve always believed if the world is really that bad, I wanted our home to be a place they could come and get away from it then, be completely themselves, and accepted for exactly who they are. This gives another beautiful image for that – I want to be a safe place to land.

I know I’ve said it before, but I love your writing.

Dharmamama March 29, 2009 at 6:56 am

Oh, and? I don’t think the world is really that bad.

jenrantsraves March 29, 2009 at 7:20 am

I agree with McSwain – this is the beginning of an amazing book. “How to Land” is a fantastic title to a book. You have something here.

Andi March 29, 2009 at 7:23 am

Beautifully written. And I completely identify, having had a traumatic childhood myself. I am still dealing with the ramifications of “learning how to land” and the way that has colored my personality in the years since. I take comfort in knowing that my daughter doesn’t have to walk on eggshells around me… she lives in a world of happiness, love, hugs and cuddles and has never known anything else. The cycle has been broken.

slouching mom March 29, 2009 at 7:36 am

Oof. You KNOW I get this.

Daryl March 29, 2009 at 8:27 am

It seems for you, thankfully, the circle has been broken … (((J)))

Jenn @ Juggling Life March 29, 2009 at 9:35 am

You are really making lemonade out of the lemons you were handed as a child.

Tara Wermuth March 29, 2009 at 11:01 am

That was amazing.

maggie, dammit March 29, 2009 at 11:29 am


You know, I’ve never even heard of this kind of bird? I wonder how little we all understand about each other simply based on our cultural/geographical differences? As a Wisconsinite, I can’t even fathom the idea of a desert, let alone a desert wren.

There’s so much to mull over in this post. Beautifully written, as always, my love.

anothermama March 29, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Wow. I’ve been reading for a couple of months and never commented, but this… well, you hit the nail on the head. From another one who learned how to land. Thank you. for this.

david mcmahon March 29, 2009 at 2:46 pm

May I bow to the power of this post …..

Louise March 29, 2009 at 2:50 pm

As I was reading this I realized that although we had the same big family growing up, because our nuclear family was not the same, I never learned something like this. Oh, I have learned it in different ways and later, but even the matriarch didn’t affect me inthis manner when so young. I learned to avoid it, not land. And that is still my coping mechanism with the idiots of the world. I just stay away from them when possible. There are times I can’t, and I manage, but I’m guessing you land much better than I do. I guess it’s one of the benefits that comes from your horrible past. But your kids, they will learn to land from you, not the hard way.

Hilary March 29, 2009 at 3:32 pm

How beautifully your related this sadness of nature the to the sadness of nurture. I’m sorry you had such prickly beginnings but you’ve certainly learned how to give your children a soft place to land.

fancy feet March 29, 2009 at 8:29 pm

I don’t know what to say….I loved this…I can relate…you have said volumes here….and back to I loved this.

Jessica March 29, 2009 at 8:37 pm

I know of that anger and I was “unsure'” for a good portion of my life. Eventually, I became the one that was feared and now I’m grateful, so grateful to say that “she” is gone to another place and hope to never see her again.

the mama bird diaries March 29, 2009 at 9:05 pm

how wonderful that you can protect your daughter from what you have had to endure.

V-Grrrl March 30, 2009 at 3:25 am

Why does my mind go to the Merchant of Venice demanding a pound of flesh?

I am thinking of the high price you paid (and continue to pay) for wisdom…

mrs.chicken March 30, 2009 at 7:28 am

My girl, only 4, already knows too much about death. I wonder now if I should have shielded her better.

Lovely, this.

Green Girl March 30, 2009 at 10:16 am

I know. Geography is a tough subject.

Mrs. Chili March 30, 2009 at 10:55 am

You are a sister of my heart. Yes. Just yes.

Coco March 30, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Some days I wonder if I am the grown wren, landing safely, or the doomed baby bird, impaled on the spines. It is a journey, I say to myself. A journey, walking through the washed glass of my childhood and now the rocky shores of motherhood.

You have such a way with imagery.

Suzanne March 30, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Holy mackeral, that took my breath away and I wanted to cry for the baby bird, for you, for your daughter who is so lucky to have you as her mother.

Margaret March 31, 2009 at 7:05 am

What a powerful piece. I am another who made it my lifes work to provide a safe place to land. Another pattern broken. Your words moved me to tears. Well done ongetting Post of the Day.


Shannon March 31, 2009 at 8:45 am

Hi Jennifer,

I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, but this is my first time commenting. This is, as usual, a beautiful post. Isn’t it amazing that people can turn out to be as talented, inspiring and caring as you are even after having such a prickly and dangerous place to land while young? Although my story is not exactly like yours, I know what it’s like to have “home and hurt come as a package deal,” and how challenging it is to overcome the insidious aftermath of that kind of start in life. Thanks for your wonderful writing.

AmyAnne March 31, 2009 at 9:15 am

I think I would find myself fascinated by the spectacle of the baby bird impaled on the cactus. I would probably walk around it mesmerized and then remember my daughter was with me. It’s interesting that I could work so hard to change the trajectory of my life yet be so fascinated with tragedy. There’s a quality therapy session.
Nice post.

Alicia March 31, 2009 at 10:28 am

Jennifer, Wow, I love this!!You have such a gift with your writing! thank you for sharing!

Debbie Davis March 31, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Wow, this is an amazing post. It’s a great feeling to break negative cycles. Congrats on the POTD Award from authorblog.

Eddie Bluelights March 31, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Amazing Post!
And many congratulations on David’s POTD
Best wishes

anymommy March 31, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Things of beauty, the bird, your writing and you. This is one of the most thought-provoking and beautiful posts I’ve read yet. Thank you.

Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah March 31, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Absolutely beautiful.

katherine. March 31, 2009 at 8:54 pm

david sent me…and I am very glad he did.

Chris April 1, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I’m sorry, Jennifer. I thought I commented on this beautiful piece. It amazes me when you produce a dynamite post like this. So much in relatively few words.

Emily R April 2, 2009 at 5:41 pm

not sure we’re ever ready for them to know the rest…

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