Dedicated to the Honorable Cynthia McKinney and Everyone from the Free Gaza 21 Movement now incarcerated in an Israeli jail. Your bodies are imprisoned but you demonstrate to the entire planet the joy and wonder of minds and hearts as free as the finch parents below, whose caring for their young reminds me this morning so much of what you are doing for the world. I send this to you through the air, a meditation on peace and the possibility of co-existence, with all my love and respect. May we all be free. May we all speak our truth. May we begin to know, whatever the hardship, that punishment is sometimes part of our reward.
© 2009 by Alice Walker
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When we arrived at our place in the country this summer we discovered a family of house finches had made a nest in my old Kikuyu market basket that hangs on a nail beside the back door. When I was in Kenya in the mid-Sixties I practiced carrying things in such a bag, made of raffia or sisal, the way the market women did: suspended by long straps from my forehead. This didn't work for me, and later when I bought the one I have now, in the Seventies, I made sure it had shorter straps that meant I could wear it as a shoulder bag. I used it that way, off and on, for over thirty years. Carrying lip gloss, keys, sunglasses, shopping lists and candy bars, all the trivia of the handbag, in its capacious elegance. Gradually its vibrant colors faded but it seemed as sound as ever, so I continued to use it to carry books and a portable typewriter, journals and lunches, finally even my first computer. Eventually, in its old age, I found the perfect use. Because it is light and sturdy, with leather straps as firmly attached as when it was made, I was able, by placing my arms through the straps, the bag on my back, to use it as a backpack. As a backpack it is ideal for going down to the garden for a quick collection of whatever's ready to pick, and then an energetic climb back up the hill to prepare whatever I've found for lunch or dinner. Or even for breakfast, since I enjoy spinach and collard greens in my morning smoothie.
I had counted on being able to use it this summer too. But no. It is occupied. The first day here, as we dragged out the deck furniture and snapped the tablecloth onto the table, I thought I heard an unusual amount of chirps and cheeps. I noticed two adult finches across from where I stood watching me closely, hopping up and down, running back and forth, and shrilly calling each other's attention to the fact of intruders. I have to say that alarmed birds always make me feel outlandishly huge. I soon realized I must be between them and their nest. But where was it? Years ago barn swallows had made a nest just above the door, raising a family and eating at all hours of the day and night; their droppings made a grayish pile just as one stepped outside and so we all stepped quickly, coming in and out, hoping not to be hit. Understanding they preferred their location, I had a platform built for their nest that made a kind of porch, hoping that would catch the droppings. Instead, they were insulted by my gesture and, after they'd hatched their brood, never chose that spot again. It took a moment to realize the finches had found, for them, the perfect spot to hatch their eggs and raise their brood until they are big enough to fly away. My old market basket, hanging faithfully there on its nail, where it had hung throughout the winter. Sure enough, peeking in, and I'm sure giving their parents an awful fright, my companion and I saw a ragged little nest made of mud and straw at the bottom of my basket and in it, several pebble size birds.
We decided to wait them out, and made an elaborate show of disinterest in the doings of the hatching basket. My cat, Surprise, was of course very interested, and was caught more than once too close for comfort to the basket, her watchful tail doing its slow, about to pounce, dance. We moved the table, and the chairs, to a distance she could not negotiate. We were more concerned then about the safety of the tiny parent birds who were forever bringing food to their young. Hardworking and wary, they would hover for a long time, waiting for a chance to bring food to their babies, while Surprise was obviously thinking about bird chops for herself. Miles the dog was not a problem. He seemed to enjoy watching the parent birds and other visitors that came to drink water from a fountain shaped like a woman holding a bowl of overflowing water in her arms. We refer to her as The Goddess, and sometimes she is surrounded by dog, cat, humming birds, lizards and dragonflies, as She, Goddess incarnate, benignly smiles and holds out her bowl of ever-flowing water to whoever comes.
One evening we noticed a wonderful quiet. Next morning, too. The baby birds have been taken by their parents, we said, peeking into the empty basket. They have flown away! We were happy for them. I was happy for me. Now I could have my basket back. Two days passed; cold days that made going down to the garden uninviting. On the third day we saw our old friends, the finch parents. Were they the same parents, or different parents? We couldn't tell. They were parents. They had that look of anxious industry we remembered from years ago, rearing our own young. Oh oh, we said. Sure enough, when we peeked into the basket, another set of eggs!
I didn't think this was possible. My companion said.
I didn't think it was likely. But there they were. A second set of eggs.
And today, lots of cheeps and chirps, which means another set of baby birds. And there are the parents hopping onto the railing every five minutes with another bit of seed or wriggling creature in their beaks. We have been so hospitable, too hospitable, maybe. Yet, I really like it. That they've found my market basket hanging empty and made themselves a home in it. The air feels filled with flying creatures that take us for granted as part of their landscape; involved in their own dramas and journeys, they aren't particularly bothered by us. Maybe this is what co-existence feels like.