About the Bird

EmilyTwo things happened before the bird.  First, my boss arrived at work early and surprised us all with a box of coffee and pastries from Gregory’s Coffee. I love it when he does that, so I felt the day was off to a promising start. He’d brought it all in a reusable Gregory’s Coffee shopping bag, which I claimed immediately. That was the first thing. The second thing: I left work and walked to Union Square to go grocery shopping. I’m going to a pot luck with friends on Saturday and I needed stuff. I bought it and headed to the train. This is everything before the bird.

So, now I have my groceries and I’m walking south on Lafayette towards the train station on Houston and I see this pigeon sitting on the sidewalk. I’m getting nearer, expecting it to move or walk away at my approach, and it remains still. I stop about two feet away and I can see its breathing…fast and steady…the way I breathe when I’m trying to stay calm…the way my dog breathes right before I leave him behind — full of fearful anticipation. I get closer. It still doesn’t move and I notice that its left leg is jutting out awkwardly in front of it. I look up, a nest. It must have fallen. I set my bags down and stand in front of the bird, trying to figure out what to do. Two women stop and lament the bird’s fate with me. A man with cane, near toothless, ragged, and seeming to be in his fifties came over to inspect. He raised his cane and waved it over the bird’s head and as he did so the women and I shouted, “No! What are you doing?! Don’t!” He grew irritated and mumbled that he knew what he was doing and waved his cane again in defiance to our protestations.

I firmly said, “Stop it! You’re scaring it.” And his irritation grew to anger.

“You think I’m heartless? I’m not heartless. I was just checking to see…”

He hobbled back over to the coffee cart where he’d been standing, mumbling that he wasn’t heartless the whole way and the women, arm in arm, strolled off. Another woman saw the bird, stopped, took out her phone, snapped its picture, then walked away. I recoiled at a move that felt so casually callous and tried not to judge her. I failed at first.  The man with the cane spoke up again.

“You see how it didn’t move when I waved my cane? It’s sick…or its leg is broken. Either way, it’s gonna die there.”

I looked at this man and knew that he was right. I saw that he was concerned and his earlier words echoed in my heart. “You think I’m heartless? You thought I was gonna hit it?” A voice inside me asked, “Shaun, do you care more about the life of this bird than you do about another human’s heart?” He was clearly homeless or very poor. How many people take a look at him and decide who he is based on what he doesn’t appear to have? I dialed 311 and as the crazily long message played I turned to him and said, “I’m sorry I shouted at you earlier. I was afraid for the bird because I don’t know you. I don’t think you’re heartless. I didn’t mean to offend you.” His face melted like butter and he smiled the smile of a little boy who was seen in his proudest moment. He looked like a cherub. I realized I’d narrowly missed that moment. I often exhibit battlefield nurse syndrome and can miss the forest of someone’s feelings while tending to the trees. I was grateful he spoke up and showed me where I misstepped.

The operator finally came to the phone and I told her what was happening. She transferred me to wild animal rescue who told me that if I brought the bird to the Wild Bird Fund uptown they would take care of it.

“So, wait…I have to pick this bird up and bring it to them? They can’t come get it?”

The man with the cane overheard me and grumbled, “They’re probably gonna euthanize it. There’s too many pigeons. We got too many pigeons. They don’t care.”

“What are they going to do to the bird?” I asked.

“They’ll take care of it, try to mend anything that’s broken. See if it’s sick…They’re a rescue, but you have to bring the bird to them.”

My heart began to race as I realized what I was being asked to do.

“Ma’am, I’m afraid of birds. I’m not kidding.”

She stifled laughter and told me to take a towel and wrap the bird in it so I wouldn’t have to touch it. There were no towels laying around on Lafayette Street as per usual so I thought quickly. I was wearing three shirts (my office has the AC cranked up to 1,000) and I could take one off and just wash it later…AFTER I PICKED UP THE BIRD.

I got the address of the Wild Bird Fund from her and hung up. By this time the man with the cane had left and I stood there and looked at the pigeon. The man with the cane was right…this poor little bird was going to die here. There was no way in hell I was picking it up.

After a moment, the pigeon began to hop towards me. I moved my bags out of its way and stepped back and it hopped towards me again, so closely that it was now resting its head on my shopping bag…the same heavy breathing…it was so small…it seemed to be exhausted. I thought, “This bird knows I’m its only hope. It’s begging for help. If I walk away, I will never forget this and it will haunt me. Fuck. I’m gonna pick up this fucking bird.”

I took the Gregory’s shopping bag out of the other bag, which was a perfect fit for her. I took another old bag out to grab her with and tried to steel my nerves. My heart was racing and tears welled up behind my eyes. I felt like vomiting. I reached out to friends on Facebook for guidance and decided that I was just going to stand there until I got the nerve to pick her up and put her in the bag no matter how long it took. A moment later, a boy who looked to be about 18 or 19 walked past us. He had longish, dirty blonde hair that was falling in strands from underneath a worn, dirty cap and his face and hands were swollen and covered in street grime. His clothes were torn. He was carrying a few clothes and a plastic shopping bag in one hand, in the other hand was a large, flattened out cardboard box. Everyone else had walked past. He stopped. He saw me looking at the bird and asked with a friendly manner, “Is that your friend?”

Inside me flashed a glimmer of hope. He had an air of kindness and openness so I told him what was going on. After a moment’s hesitation, he made several attempts to get the bird into the Gregory’s bag with his bare hands like a superhero and finally succeeded. I looked at this small, helpless, feathered creature I was one step closer to rescuing and decided to call her Emily for Emily Dickinson’s A bird came down the walk… Hello, little Emily.

I thanked him profusely and introduced myself. His name was Justin. I told him he was kind. I told him he was an angel. I told him he saved me. He searched my eyes with a half-smile. He had something to say, but reluctance reduced it to, “Ummm.” He tried again, screwed his face into a grimace and finally asked, “Do you think you could help me get something to eat? Like, a dollar or something?” Hell yes, Justin…HELL. YES. I gave him what I could and he seemed relieved that it was so easy to ask and receive. His kindness was worth so much more. Justin is a rock star. He walked on towards Bowery Mission with my grandmother’s purple coin purse in his hand.

IMG_6004Emily and I rode the B train up to the Fund on 87th and Columbus. She was so light in the bag as if she weighed next to nothing. She was so calm. Maybe she was in pain. Maybe she was tired. Maybe she was dying…I felt so much love for her. I was also so grateful that I didn’t have to touch her that I could have cried. Inside the Wild Bird Fund, I handed her over and in exchange was handed a form to fill out. They confirmed that her leg was broken. She was probably going to make it. Another bird, a European Starling I learned, saw me and perched on the chair next to me. I jumped when it landed and at the woman’s quizzical expression I told her I was afraid of birds. I think the Starling must have understood that because it promptly jumped on the hoodie I was wearing and continued to jump on various places on my body every time the woman removed him. The woman I was dealing with remarked how strange it was that he was doing that. He was usually rather shy around people and she’d never seen him jump on anyone before, let alone multiple times. I did not feel special. It wasn’t until I was riding the train home that I saw that there was bird poop on my hoodie and backpack. I was shat on by a Starling. My day is complete. I am going to take a shower. My heart is still racing. This is everything after the bird(s).

Shout out to Christine Verleny who called and offered to come and help me wherever I was (I didn’t get the message until I was on my way home). Shout out to Justin and his radiant beauty. Shout out to the man with the cane and his boyish heart. I hope I see those two again soon.

This is a European Starling. The dots on its belly look like hearts. They can be aggressive if you’re afraid of birds and they will punk you if you show them you’re afraid. I think they get off on it.



The Golden Spot

About six or seven years ago, my friend Edith gave me a gorgeous succulent plant for Christmas. I love having plants around the house because they remind me of my great-grandmother and I looked forward to adding it to my mini home garden. Another friend who witnessed the gift giving told me that if I clip the ends back then it would bloom every year, and she advised me with such authority that I took her word for it without double-checking. Since I clipped the ends it hasn’t bloomed, not once. I thought I’d destroyed its ability to flower and have always regretted that ill advised pruning.

A few days ago I looked at it and saw two blossoms with more on the way. It only took seven years. Something beautiful that I thought I’d destroyed lives again and is more beautiful than I imagined it would ever be. This past year, the past few months especially, have been all about faith, process, and renewing hope in dreams I long took for dead. The process of renewing hope in something you want badly is a painful one. It’s difficult and there’s so much risk involved, but it must be done and I’m finding myself hungry for new challenges and new breakthroughs.

Speaking of challenges, my friend John recently reminded me of how beneficial The Artist’s Way is and I’ve decided to go through it again. I remember the freedom and inspiration I felt last time I did it and I can feel my excitement growing. My main obstacle with pushing through new things is and has always been negative thoughts and fear, so one thing I’m using to help with this latest attempt at the book is running…which I hate.

A few years ago I found myself dipping my toe into the Cross-Fit craze. There’s a Cross-Fit box near my home and I was making good money at the time so I took the plunge. In one of my first classes I was doing a rep of something horrendous involving crunches, a medicine ball, and burpees when I felt my body begin to revolt. My thoughts began to race and in them I heard, “I can’t do this. This is too hard. I can’t do this.” I started to make up my mind to stop and another voice crept in and said, “You can do this. You’re being asked to work much harder than you’ve worked in a long while and you’re not used to it, but you can do this. Don’t give up.” Mind over matter.

I listened to the voice and kept going, and over time I felt my body and endurance getting stronger. I applied this mind over matter/self-encouragement principle to other areas of my life—college, writing endeavors, self-discipline—and I saw fairly significant results. Several weeks ago my lovely friend Kathy was recently encouraging me to challenging myself with running, which I hate doing, and she said, “The worst parts are getting started and coming to the finish, but once you get going you’re in the golden spot.” Words to live by. Words to create by.

Again, mind over matter. Having a physical activity that mirrors the mental act of overcoming challenges and pushing yourself to do your best is key for me. So far this month I’ve run twice a week and plan to increase it to three times next week. Let’s see what blooms next.

The Permanent Delegate

It was reported today that yet another act of vandalism towards the Jewish community has occurred, which was the second incident in a week. Our current administration is littered with open racists, misogynists, and homophobes. Rights of America’s disenfranchised and vulnerable are being attacked, and around the world men, women, and children continue to be slaughtered and tortured in the names of gods and men. This poem I encountered in high school springs to mind and my heart breaks at its relevancy.

The Permanent Delegate
by Yuri Suhl

My name is Jew
I come from the land of skeleton
They beat me in Berlin, tortured me in Warsaw
Shot me in Lublin, and I am still here
The ash of my bones a glowing monument,
A fiery headstone

I am the scorched hair of a virgin’s bright curls
Smoothed and patted by anxious hands.
I am a maddened mother’s futile tears
Soothing in vain a hundred anguished hurts.
I am the boiling of blood the shriveling of flesh
Smoldering ash of six million.
Ashes of body, of brain, of vision, of work
Ashes of genius and dreams
Ashes of God’s master stroke, man

Count the limbs gentlemen
Match them if you can in pairs,
It can’t be done.
For I am one ghost out of six million.
Out of all the ashes I have become one
And the dream lies broken
And spit on.

I am here to tell you gentlemen
It’s a lie
The world is not yet Hitler-Free.
Millions see it, condemn it
Cry out my pain and warn you.
But you are moved
Like a granite statue by the prick of a pin.
Therefore I have come
Uninvited, unwelcome
Bringing a message from the land of skeleton.

I am grafting my ash to your souls
I am hanging my dreams around your necks
I am blotting out the sun from your day with my shadow
And I am tearing the quiet of your night with the shrieks of my torture.
I will pick at your brains with my maggots
And I will beat at your conscience with the hands
Of a million dead children.

Yea, though you split the atom to infinity
You shall see my face before your eyes
I sit at all the round tables
At every conference, I am a delegate
My credentials signed by six million from the land of skeleton
And you will never get rid of me
Until the world is Hitler-free.

Ambien Dreams

Have had insomnia for a few months so my doctor prescribed Ambien. Here are some of the things I dreamt about while under Ambien’s influence.

#1 – I’m with my mother and her boyfriend in a supermarket, the same supermarket in all of my dreams, and I’m trying desperately to find an iced honeybun. All I can find are cinnamon rolls and none of them have the caloric content listed. The more I search, the more I’m filled with shame. Now I’m in line with a shopping cart full of milk, bread, etc…no honeybun. My mother and her boyfriend are at the cashier. Her boyfriend is Jay-Z (my mother is not Beyonce). The cashier notices them and I’m mortified that she’s going to say something or make a scene. My mother is way too old for Jay-Z. Jay-Z also happens to be married. He pays for the groceries.

#2 – I’m in a rabbi’s office. He’s also a divorce lawyer. A man I used to love (in real life) and I have gotten married and are now getting a divorce, rather, the man is leaving me for another woman. We’re waiting for my soon to be ex to arrive and the rabbi/lawyer tells me that my husband is an idiot and is making the wrong choice. The rabbi/lawyer is Louis CK except that he’s dark haired and dressed like an orthodox Jew. His paternal sweetness makes me want to cry. Husband shows up and is greeted with silent rabbi/lawyer scorn. “She loves you, you know. You’re a schlemiel.” The ex leaves, stunned, and the rabbi/lawyer sits me down and makes me pour out my heart. It’s the first time I can admit how much I love the man who’s leaving me without embarrassment or shame. Suddenly, I notice that the Louis CK rabbi/lawyer has an earring in his right ear. I think, “This dude is very cool.”

#3 – I was a spy and the villain (I didn’t know she was a villain yet) gave me a purse shaped like a black cat that opened at the neck like a Pez dispenser. I put something in it, but I don’t remember what…something she gave me. They showed the tuxedoed man I was with (my spy colleague, I think) and me into a dimly lit room that you might find in a wealthy older man’s house. Dark red and black leather everywhere. Fancy pen in a pen holder on the desk, beverage tray with decanted spirits, huge globe on a stand… It was cold. The moment we were in there I knew they were going to kill us. I pulled a transporter device from my pocket that looked like a stopwatch and I put my arm around my colleague so that I could save him too. For some reason, my skin had to be on his skin for transport so I lifted up the back of his dress shirt and and put my bare arm against his skin. He had no idea what was going on so when I did this he misunderstood. He turned to me with this soft look in his eyes, said, “Oh, Shaun,” and moved in for what I presume was a kiss. I pushed the button on the transporter and the next second we were in the parking lot. We looked up and the floor we were on exploded. I noticed he had forgotten the cat purse that I really liked and he said, “Yeah, sorry.” I then realized that the thing she had given me which I put in the cat purse was probably an explosive of some kind so it was good he’d dropped it. Although I didn’t mention it then, his tender misunderstanding had deeply moved me.

20 Years

video-undefined-22A0241D00000578-86_636x358I’d seen an advertisement for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy during my junior year of high school and there were two things that grabbed my attention: “acting” and “New York.” I’d fallen in love with the danger and mystery of New York ages ago and longed to live there, and acting…I lived and breathed it. I decided then and there that I would go to that school. The audition was in St. Louis, MO, about a four drive away from me, and I bought a bus ticket, booked myself a hotel room where they were holding the auditions, and three months later received word that I would soon be living in New York. So, fresh out of high school and full of a distorted sense of invincibility I made my way into the arms of destiny, history, and adventure. I remember feeling that my life was about to begin, and I remember my excitement being tempered only by the heartbreak and worry on the faces of my grandmother and great-grandmother. I remember thinking that their worry may very well be justified, but live or die, I had to go.

I arrived here about 10 days early so that I could enjoy the city before school started and stayed in a hostel on 148th and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. I had about $200 to my name and I was scared to death. My roommate in the dorm-style dwelling was a stripper named Jackie who resembled Aileen Wuornos. She had curly, blondish hair and a friendly, easy way about her. She seemed as fascinated by my Midwestern naiveté as I was by her profession and transient way of living and our mutual curiosity became a bond of sorts. She decided that she would be my protector and city guide, and on my second day she brought home a subway map and circled all the stations to avoid after 11pm, and showed me how to find my school, Lincoln Center, CBGB’s, Times Square… I remember sitting on the roof of that hostel at night with this wild and tenderhearted woman who had come to represent the strangeness and beauty of New York to me and feeling that I was home. That feeling has never left me.

That was 20 years ago this month. It’s been a long, winding road since that wonderful week on St. Nicholas Avenue and I’m grateful for every moment of it. I wonder where Jackie is today. I hope she’s alright, and I hope if she ever thinks of me that she has an inkling of how much her kindness meant to me. I hope, if I’m lucky, that I’m able to be a Jackie for other wide-eyed kids full of dreams and hope. I hope I can do this beautiful city proud.

Happy Anniversary, loves.

The Heart is a Muscle

Have you read How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps? It was written by comedy writer, Aaron Bleyaert, and it is one of the most stunningly gorgeous things I’ve read in a while. It was like someone drizzling warm, melted caramel all over your tongue while a brook babbled nearby in the summer sun…if you’re into that kind of thing. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and read it. I’ll wait…

Did you read it? Incredible, right? The first time I read it my heart hurt so much I nearly retched. I actually had to take a break and come back to it, and after making it all the way through I sat there stunned and hurting. I’ve been him, I’ve been the girl who obliterated him, and it was excruciating to relive it via Aaron’s words in such detail, especially as I’m trying to get ready for pilot season and I really thought it was just about weight loss. I learned so much from reading this and I’m humbled by his bravery and the bravery of people like him. He leans into the pain. He walks right up to it, memorizes its scent, and walks on, broken and unashamed.

My natural instinct in the face of heartbreak, or any emotional pain really, is to avoid it and pretend it doesn’t exist. That, to me, seems logical. If you touch a stove and it burns your hand, remove your hand — avoid the source of suffering. But, here’s the thing…the heart/soul doesn’t work that way. Any emotion we feel is like water — you push it away and it seeps in anyway, maybe not in the area you’re pushing it out of, but it gets in, baby. You can drown in it, or harness it’s power to feed yourself and others. That’s something most of us kind of know, but seeing that principle vulnerably eked out so beautifully and devoid of judgement in Aaron’s post drove the point home in the way memorizing a passage from a self-help book won’t do. His courage inspired me. I cried for him and the beauty of it all I decided that day that I’d be a bit more like him and lean into the pain a bit more. I decided not to push away the thought of lost loves who memorized my idiosyncrasies and held me so closely their heartbeat rang in my ears, friends who proved inconsistent after walking with me through storms, people I’ve wounded horribly by being fearful and careless…or on a less personal note, image after image of children fleeing Syria with more memories of terror than joy, or news headlines announcing the senseless loss of 10 college students in Oregon. I want to memorize the scent of these wounds and ask God to help me make perfume from the pain.

I’ve actually been trying to do this more actively for the past few years, but the stress of school and political turbulence has taken it’s toll. This week was a much needed reminder to get back to that place and the odd thing is, leaning into the pain hurts less than avoidance. It begins to feel sort of beautiful after awhile. You feel connected…and brave. Funny that. I’ll find the balance one day soon, but until then I’ll just let my heart break and see where it takes me. Lifelong goal: live bravely and make art that breaks my heart.

The heart is a muscle…muscles get stronger the more you use them.


Hope and Risk

Yesterday, as I was on my way to an appointment, a woman with a beautiful French braid along the side of her head was staring intently at a woman who’d just gotten on the train and had sat near her. She got the second woman’s attention and told her there was something on her…feathers, or something. The second woman was having trouble seeing where it was so after a brief hesitation, the braided woman reached over and gently picked the feathers from the second woman’s face and hair. I was so struck by this random kindness and gentleness by both of them that I had to remind myself to stop staring. It seems so small, but the fact that the first woman took a chance and basically groomed another woman in such a tender, maternal way and that the second woman received it was one of the loveliest things I’ve seen in a while. There are so many beautiful things in this world that are nearly impossible with risk, right? How many memorable moments begin with a tiny leap of hope and trust? How much generosity is in that leap?

I think this is all swirling about because of a playwriting class I began last night with Rogelio Martinez at ESPA. One of the things he spoke about was how much trust and hope we need to do what we do…to pound our hearts out onto a page in hopes that it’s a beautiful, meaningful thing even if no one agrees. Lord, have mercy.  I suppose we leap because we must. Without risk…without faith, hope, and love we die. 

Artists, lovers, subway mamas…I am in awe of you today. It could be the lack of sleep has made me maudlin, but let’s pretend it hasn’t. xo