For those who know me at all, there is a very well-known fact that permeates my existence. I am not very fond of birds.
Ok. Understatement. I am terrified of birds that are within close proximity of me. Or ones that surprise me by flying out of a bush at me. Or that look at me funny. Any bird that does not announce itself in advance causes me great stress.
Once, when I was in 6th grade, my uncle stepped inside my Grandma’s kitchen to show off his pheasant. Mind you, I was sitting on the sofa at the far west end of the old farmhouse. My uncle was in the kitchen, at the far EAST end of the house. There were two rooms between us. But when he dropped the wing tips to show the side of those pheasant wings, I was OUT! I mean OUT! The next thing I remember (to this day) is waking up to my Grandpa gently patting my cheeks! My whole family was peering down over me waiting for me to recover from fainting!
And if I were to be completely transparent, the bird doesn’t even have to be “whole” or alive to be terrifying. A dead bird in the street causes as much anxiety as a single feather (especially BIG feathers). My little brother used to be able to lock me in or out of my bedroom when we were kids simply by lining the threshold of my doorway with pheasant feathers. I would hide in (or totally avoid) my bedroom door until someone, usually my mom, would remove the feathers so I could enter without hyperventilating.
On another occasion, in the 4th grade, all of my grandparents were gathered around our kitchen table in the mobile home to celebrate my brother’s birthday. It was a little tight, but we were all seated around the table. I was sitting between my grandmothers. I will never forget! Mom always let us choose our favorite meal for our birthdays. Then she would go to town, making the best birthday dinner possible. My brother had chosen fried chicken! His favorite!
Chickens are my absolute WORST nightmare.
The story goes like this: At around 18 months of age, my grandma took me to the hen house to gather eggs. She was carrying me when she approached the door and her other hand was full of egg baskets, so she wasn’t able to knock before she entered. Who knew hens needed to be notified BEFORE someone entered their chamber? Grandma set me down on the floor of the hen house. I let out a blood-curling cry about that same time and scared the old hens out of their ever-loving, pea-brained minds. In the midst of the chaos, the hens knocked me over and flapped all over my toddler sized body! Grandma had to call my mom and hour later to come get me because I was still unconsolable!
Even telling this story gives me goosebumps, so it obviously impacted my formative years in a massive way!
Back to the fried chicken dinner for my brother’s birthday. I can eat fried chicken. Not my favorite, but I can do it. I just have to talk myself into it. On this day, my grandma, the one who raised chickens and eggs, didn’t ask me which piece I wanted, she simply put a wing on my plate. I avoided it for the longest time. I remember everyone was talking and laughing around the table while I was contemplating my fate with the chicken wing.
Finally, I mustered up enough courage to attempt eating it. As I began to pull the wing apart, my imagination took over and that wing came to life right in my hands. I flung the chicken wing up into the air and almost knocked my chair over when I ejected from it to flee the chicken in my imagination!
My Quaker grandma grabbed a hold of me and pulled me in close. “Good heavens, child!” she said as she hugged me to the safety of her side. My chicken-raising Methodist grandma reached behind her on the floor, picked up the chicken wing and put it back on my plate! Then she pulled it apart and took a bite saying, “See? There’s nothing wrong with this!”
As an adult, I have worked very hard to NOT allow my phobia of feathered creatures affect the way my children respond to birds. I have learned to tuck my fears way back into the archives of memory in order to not faint if a bird surprised or got too close to me. Mind you, I have never tried to overcome my fear, because that brings a whole other set of fears to the forefront! But suppressing the phobia has been advantageous over the years. And I do believe my children have a healthy relationship and understanding of all things feathered, which I count a huge victory to my parenting efforts.
But then yesterday, while driving my husband’s car out to the farm to check on the horses, I had a flashback experience. A few days ago, Craig was so proud to have discovered a nice big feather of some sort while working on my brother’s farm. It might be from a hawk, or a vulture (really? He could get excited about that??) Or from another very good-sized bird. He showed me the feather with great satisfaction, then tucked it into the sun visor of the truck.
I happened to be headed to the farm last night at dusk. The sun was low in the sky. I was watching the road extra careful to avoid the deer who often graze in the ditch near the farm. Without thinking I reached up and flipped the sun visor down. Out of nowhere this HUGE, unidentified feather swooped down and landed between my chest and the steering wheel!
My heart began to pulsate fast and my throat instantly swelled up so I couldn’t breathe. My initial instinct was to eject! But I had to keep driving. I don’t think I screamed, but I am not 100% sure about that!
Then logic began to take hold…it’s only a feather. It’s not attached to the bird. Heck, we don’t even know what bird dropped it! My breathing slowed even though my heart continued to pound in my chest. Somehow, I managed to stay on the road while I flicked that stupid feather over my shoulder somewhere into the back seat. (Which reminds me I need to remember it’s in the back seat so it doesn’t sneak up on me again in the next day or so)!
Which is why I was taken by my sudden obsession over a family of Robins.
Early in May a pair of Robins built a nest on the downspout support of Mom’s garage. It took them exactly one afternoon to completely resurrect this perfectly formed nest. I watched them from my perch on the backyard swing. Back and forth from the yard to the nest site, carefully placing each twig, string, and treasure in place. They were tireless, relentless even. Here they would come. Then off they would go. One after another, until the job was completed.
Then the rains came. Almost two weeks of rain and wind, cold, and mist. I’d check on the robins who were hunkered down in their home-made nest. It became apparent they were taking turns sitting on eggs. Craig climbed up high enough one day to report there were three little blue robin eggs in the nest.
I watched expectantly. Morning and evening I would check. Mom kept an eye out during the daytime. And then one day the Robins were both gone. No one was visible in the nest-home. And as I watched, one came back carrying something in their beak! Sure enough, the eggs had hatched. A new Robin family was taking up residence right there on our drain spout.
The rains let up finally and the parent Robins once again worked without stopping to keep the babies fed and protected. When I mowed the yard under the downspout, the mama stayed on the nest, completely sheltering her young ones from the noise and danger. I thought how brave she was to stay put with that loud machine rumbling right under her house. She didn’t flinch. And surprisingly, neither did I.
Another week passed. Mom and I could see the little babies sticking their necks way up any time the bushes rustled, in anticipation of one of the adults bringing back a snack! When mama or daddy Robin did come back, they always had a bite of something for the babies. They never returned to the nest empty-beaked! Not once did the babies go disappointed.
There was a great purpose in the flight of the parent Robins. Out to the yard they would go. They’d hop around in the grass for a bit, listen, hop some more, then all of a sudden they’d pluck something out of the grass and return directly to the nest. Within moments they were back at it. While one was hunting, the other was feeding. They were never too far away. From sun up til sun down they repeated their efforts. I would have been exhausted, but the Robin couple didn’t seem to mind. They stayed attentive to their calling, purposefully and determined day in and day out.
Then one day one of the baby birds got brave enough to spread its wings. That was a little nerve-wracking for this bird fearing woman! But I watched (a little further away than my earlier observation points). It would spread those wings out then march around, almost tipping its siblings out of the nest on several occasions.
Imagine how surprised I was to find myself seriously concerned that someone might actually fall out! Who would help it? How would it learn to fly from the ground if it even survived the fall? My husband assured me birds had been learning to fly and leave the nest without my concern since the beginning of time! But I was still scared for the safety of the newly hatched, feathered creatures of God’s design. The world is such a dangerous place! There are predators, and cars, and all kinds of ways for birds to meet their Maker! Nothing is guaranteed in the world outside of the nest!
A day passed before I could get back to check on the flock. Sure enough. One of the babies was gone! There were two left and Mama and Daddy Robin were still feeding them when I got home late one evening.
Another day passed. I missed the flying lessons. But on day three, the nest was empty.
No one was home.
The babies had flown away.
No one returned to the nest that night.
Mom and Dad Robin no longer had need for the nest.
How does that work?
A month has passed now.
The nest is still empty. Still attached to the downspout. Unattended.
Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe after we’ve raised our children and prepared them for the world “out there”, after we’ve nurtured, instructed, fed them, disciplined them, loved them, coached them…maybe after all that, the lesson is not so much that we helped them fly away. Maybe the message is for those of us still attached to the original nest.
Up until this point I thought we raised them up to send them off so they could return to us. But maybe, I’m thinking of this all wrong. Maybe the point is, we are to go to them! Maybe the Empty Nest is the symbol of safety and consistency, and persistence. And just maybe that Empty Nest gives us permission to move on with our own goals and dreams! Maybe that Empty Nest reminds us that the hard work of raising up the young ones is time well-spent. But maybe the time comes when our “calling” takes us in a new direction.
I’ve taken some criticism over the years for pursuing my own dreams and goals. But maybe that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do! There was a time when all of my purpose, all of my energy, all of my everything went into that nest. But now the nest is empty, so maybe it’s okay to leave that nest to build something new.
The Empty Nest sitting there on that downspout reminds me of so much. Of family. Of joy. Of the kids when they were babies. Of how quickly they grow up and spread their wings. Of love. Of how important it is they build their own nests. Of laughter. Of how strong the nest at home remains after they depart. Of the importance of visiting their nests! Of the critical element of faith in the upbringing…faith enough to fly! Faith enough to return to the nest if need be. And faith enough to build their own nests when the time comes.
The birds still sing in the mornings. They still visit Mom’s bird feeders all day long. My favorite bird songs are their nighttime songs. The night time songs are more soothing. They sing with a different tone at dusk than they do at daybreak. These feathered creations of God’s design surround us whether we’re aware of their presence or not. They go about their business all day long, then do it again, day after day after day, fulfilling their calling. And somehow I am comforted by that.
Even so, I still must talk myself into entering the barn alone at dusk to fetch the oats and brushes for the horses. The Barn Swallows are deep into evening routine by that time, swooping low to duck into the barn doors at a very high, very dangerous rate of speed (if you ask me!). I could move the oats closer to the door so I don’t have to actually walk INSIDE to reach them, thus avoiding the dangerous diving birds! However, there is a wildness in God’s mercy, and on occasion I choose to test myself. See how far into the barn I get before feeling faint!
Having survived the BIG feather in sun visor last night, I walked in boldly into the barn, daring the Barn Swallows to come at me. I survived. In fact, I happy danced a little, proud of my minor accomplishment!
I suppose the Empty Nest might even be a sign of Hope. There is so much yet to come. The Empty Nest is but one chapter.