These particular birds
On my changing relationship to home
This is a story about home, but it began at Lan Su Chinese Garden.
The Portland Japanese Garden is rightfully famous, so you might not be familiar with Lan Su. This little oasis is tucked in a shabby pocket of Portland’s Old Town Chinatown neighborhood.
I became a garden member this year so now I get free admission. This has transformed the tenor of my visits. Even though it’s only a few minutes from my house, Lan Su used to be a once- or twice-per year destination and a place to bring guests. Now, it’s one of my swing-bys, like a favorite cafe or street mural. If I’m in the neighborhood I can pop in for a quick visit without a second thought.
A couple weeks ago, I stopped in for a late-afternoon stroll, intending to gather up what vestiges of winter light I could. But by the time I parked and made my way through the entry gate, the light was already fading and a sharp chill was in the air.
I walked over the intricate pebble mosaic toward a table where I noticed staff members pouring tea. A membership perk! Never one to pass up a free gift, I took a paper cup. Inside was a full flower bloom floating in steaming golden liquid, like some sort of magical fairy brew. It was chrysanthemum tea — literally, a dried chrysanthemum flower steeped in boiling water.
Lan Su Garden is oriented around a reflective pond rimmed with water lilies and stocked with koi. Even though you can see skyscrapers and hear city noise beyond the garden walls, it’s hard to believe you’re downtown. I gazed out onto the water, breathing in the fragrant steam as I waited for the scalding tea to cool.
I became aware of fluttering in a nearby tree. Bird-lover that I am, I turned toward the movement and noticed a small group of chickadees hopping among the leafless branches, chittering away as they pecked at tufts of moss and lichen.
It’s not like this was a rare or unusual bird sighting. Chickadees are common in Portland. I see them every day in my back yard. I look out my kitchen window every morning and watch them feed at the feeder as I drink my coffee.
It dawned on me as I stood there observing these chickadees that they’re probably not the same birds who visit my back yard. These particular birds were strangers; lovely, but unknown to me.
My back yard chickadees look identical and are just as wild, but we share homes. I’m not saying I’m Snow White or anything, with friendly forest creatures landing on my shoulders. But the individuals who frequent my back yard feeder are my neighbors. Who knows, seeds they gather from my feeder might feed their babies.
When my kids come home (an event that grows less predictable each year), they tease Rael and me about our attachment to the back yard wildlife. This is where I admit we don’t just feed the birds; we also leave a few peanuts out for the squirrels, crows and jays. The kids insist we fuss over the animals because we no longer have children to fuss over. They find it all a bit maudlin, in an adorable way.
I laugh along with them, but I know that’s not it. I miss my kids — their energy and physical presence and unique them-ness — but I don’t long for the days when they were babies or toddlers. Home felt smaller then, tightly bound by the intensity of the four of us. There was always something to clean up or fix or manage or cook, every inch occupied, every breath breathed.
Home is bigger now, and I don’t just mean because fewer of us live here. It feels less circumscribed by my house and more available to those not directly related to me, including, it seems, my non-human neighbors. My kids’ absence feels like space rather than lack. Not always, but more often than when we first became empty nesters.
I sipped my chrysanthemum tea, finally cool enough not to burn my tongue. The chickadees scattered in search of better foraging, or, perhaps, warmer surroundings. It was the cusp of evening and even the hot tea could no longer chase away the chill. I took a few more sips then turned toward the exit, tossing my cup in a bin. Outside the walls of the garden, I was back in the city. I buckled myself into the car, and headed home.
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A few things
I’m FINALLY over my cold. It hung on for almost two weeks! I know so many folks who are sick right now. Be careful out there. In case you missed it, the government is sending out free COVID tests again. Order yours at covid.gov.
I just made my first Instagram Reel in which I share my post-Hanukkah method for getting melted wax off the menorah.
I finished reading DOPPLEGANGER by Naomi Klein (affiliate link; here’s my policy). It answered some of my long-standing questions about how (and why) conspiracy theories take hold, and the destabilizing mirror world online. Have you read it? There’s so much to talk about in this book.
A lot more has happened since we last spoke, but I need more time to process. Even this tiny story needed a couple weeks to percolate.
I loved this series of airport glimpses by. Something to carry with you into the busy holiday travel season.
I got some exciting news from my publisher about PARENT HACKS. I’ll share more when I know more. For now, I’ll just point out that my little book fits nicely into a stocking and looks cute wrapped, so if you need a gift for a new- or expectant parent, there ya go.
That’s it for today, friends. I hope you’re heading into a lovely weekend. As always, I’d love to meet up in the comments to talk about anything this letter brought to mind. 💬
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