Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Empty Nest Syndrome

One of the characters in my new novel Little Island is an empty nester, her only son having just left for college. I am an empty nester now too, as I spent the summer feeding baby birds at the Vermont Institute for Natural Science. It was a life-changing experience.

I've printed the beginning of the blog below. But a picture really is worth a thousand words, so click here for the text with photos. (http://vtnature.blogspot.com/2013/10/empty-nest-syndrome.html)

For the past three months I have been one of many volunteers feeding orphaned baby birds at the Vermont Institute for Natural Science (VINS). A dozen robins, several grackles and European starlings; a few phoebes, chickadees, and nuthatches; one cedar waxwing, one flicker, two mockingbirds, a hermit thrush, and a few song sparrows, among many others, have passed through our facility.
In one week’s time, a hatchling, which somewhat resembles a clam with a beak and legs, becomes a nestling: a soft pile of feather and bone wedged into a nest. By the following week that soft dumpling is in the fledgling room, having discovered one morning that he (or she) has wings, but isn’t quite sure what to do with them. Staff members furnish these fledgling enclosures with tree branches and trunks (custom designed for the species of bird) and what were so recently clam-like hatchlings, soarand occasionally crash land, from perch to perch, teaching themselves to fly. Had they not been orphaned, their parents would have taught them how.
Before they learn to fly, baby birds engage in four primary activities. The first two are eating and pooping. We baby bird feeders are responsible for what goes on at both ends. The most practiced and least squeamish among us develop the dexterity to catch the little gelatinous missiles before they hit the side of the nest or the floor of the incubator or box. Barehanded. It’s not difficult, really, to judge when the bird is about to send one off. They hike their bottoms up to the edge of the nest and let fly over the side. At least that is what their genetic programming tells them they are doing. Nestlings aren’t especially coordinated, and occasionallyquite often, actuallythe gelatinous goop lands in or on the nest, or even on a nest-mate.
The nests, I should point out, are not charming assemblages of twigs and leaves, bits of seed fluff, and the occasional aesthetic decoration that you see in the wild. Ours are utilitarian nests that we construct from Cool Whip containers, washcloths, paper towels, and toilet paper, wound into a coil the correct diameter to accommodate the number of nesting birds. Sometimes this will be a clutch of four. Sometimes a single, orphaned birdthe family cat or dog having dispatched its siblings and parents.
The third baby bird activity is making noise. They chirp, peep, screech, tweet (really)… Merely sliding open the door of an incubator that’s housing a clutch or two of hatchlings elicits paroxysms of delight from its occupantsor so I interpret the boundless enthusiasm. As the door slides open, the hatchlingslying limp in their nests, lids shut tight over bulbous eyes, the only signs of life the almost imperceptible beating of their miniscule heartsshoot upright on bandy little legs, sometimes nearly launching themselves right over the side of the nest in their exuberance. Beaks open, they peep as though their lives depend on it. Which, in the wild, would be true. It is thrilling to receive such a hearty welcome.
At this stage we feed them formula, delivered via syringe, down the gullet. Baby birds need a lot of sleep (the fourth activity). All that excitement: the opening of eyes, the standing, the squeaking, sometimes so exhausts the little fellows that they nod off between swallows. A gentle tap, tap on the side of the incubator, or slowly closing and reopening the door is enough to startle them awake and, up they spring, beaks agape, necks upstretched, so happy to see you. I’m aware that I’m anthropomorphizing here. Theirs is a programmed response, having nothing to do with me. Still. What a feeling.
Once the hatchlings become nestlings we offer them tiny bits of scrambled egg, mealworms, fruit, and soaked cat food. Generally, tiny beaks open obligingly as soon as we appear (generally hourly), and eagerly accept six to eight morsels. Some species are greedy and noisy: grackles, for instance, and will keep begging. Others, phoebes and bluebirds, are fussier and satisfied earlier. These species seem more independent, more interested in growing wing feathers and learning to fly than being forceps-fed.
Once the birds are in the fledgling enclosures, dishes of water are introduced and experiments in bathing begin. What fun! The sheets and towels covering the floors are soon soaked. Changing a wet sheet in a five by six foot enclosure, housing five bobbing robins, a grackle, a starling, and four phoebes sailing around overhead and scolding, is not easy. It also has risks. Hats are recommended. At this point the birds are also given dishes of food so they can learn to self-feed. The bluebirds, ever inventive, spend far more time liberating mealworms than consuming them.
Feeding them in these enclosures is an exercise in patience and faith. They are now mobile and believe they are ready to fly free. Think adolescence. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s been fed and who hasn’t. Birds occasional land on the food dish you’re holding, or your head, shoulder, or hand, making feeding even more challenging, but also great fun: A bluebird on the hand is worth any number in the bush.
The birds, once fully-fledged and self-feeding, are moved to an outdoor aviary, where they can perfect those flight skills they’ve so recently discovered. And then we say goodbye. I can only hope that the birds will be able to translate what they learned at VINS into the wild: encounter blueberries, say, and with a flash of recognition, know they’re safe to eat.
Bidding farewell to a group each week after my shift¾knowing that, by the following week, they might be gonewas both heartwarming and heartbreaking. I grew attached to these little duffers, who trusted me to show up with my syringe or forceps at the prescribed time, to remember who’d been fed and who hadn’t, to make sure everyone got enough, and to keep their enclosure clean. I tried not to bond, since these were wild creatures that, sadly, wouldn’t benefit from learning to trust humans. But I did.
And now nesting season is winding down, and birds are getting ready to fly south, even, I hope, some that I helped raise. The counters in the VINS “nursery” are nearly bare of boxes, and empty Cool Whip containers stand stacked in the corner like beach chairs at summer’s end, reminding me of all the fun I had with my little feathered friends. I wish those fledglings long lives, smooth sailing, and many healthy broods of their ownnone of which ever need care in our facility, because that would mean they’d been orphaned.
A mother’s job is to raise her children to become independent, but then, when they gain that independence, we grieve, not only for the little ones we’ve lost but for who we were and what we had. It is a mother’s nature to care for another. My baby birds are grown, the nests are empty, and I miss them all greatly.

Friday, October 11, 2013

It Takes Courage to Share One's Story

I like to teach memoir, because memoir bridges the space between fiction and non-fiction. I encourage students to employ tools of the fiction writer: character, setting, and plot. Fiction writers have three avenues from which to generate material: observation, imagination, and investigation. Memoirists have all these available as well.

One difference, it is said, between fiction and non-fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. The memoirists’ work does not have to “make sense,” because it is believed by both author and reader, to be “true.” 

But a memoir, by definition, is drawn from memory, and memory is notoriously fallible. “Memory has its own story to tell,” says Tobias Wolff. Not only do humans view events through a “selfish” lens, we also remember them this way. This does not make them false. 

I encourage students to make their stories vivid and interesting. Not to lie, but to employ what I call, The Buttercup Principle. A former class participant once wrote a piece about spending the summer on her grandfather’s farm. “My grandfather had a calf,” she wrote. “I think its name was Buttercup.” 

Do you feel duped by her having given the calf a name that might not have been true? As soon as you hear the name can’t you picture that calf? I can. It’s a jersey in my version. It has a wide, wet, rubbery-looking nose, soft brown eyes, a cowlick on its forehead that sticks straight up, and it’s knock-kneed. 

Making memoirs interesting does not mean making them up. (If you do that, just call it fiction.) It means make them colorful and alive. Add dialogue and detail, but only if they cleave close to the truth. As long as the fundamentals of the story are true, readers receive such embellishments with open arms. 

Most importantly, though, memoir needs to find a universal truth. “Most good memoir turns out not to be about the memoirist at all…” says Bill Roorbach in Writing Life Stories, which he co-wrote with Kristen Keckler. “The reader becomes a stand-in for the I, and the life of the I becomes the life of the reader.” 

We read other people’s stories to better understand and appreciate our own stories and lives. Therefore, the memoirist must answer the all-important question: so what? She must dig down to find the meaning beneath the events. Because it is this meaning that will resonate most deeply with the reader.

We often find, when we read a memoir, that long forgotten events in our own lives surface. We place ourselves into another’s situation and ask, What would I do? Would I have been so brave? Maintained such good humor? Chances are, of course, the memoirist was neither as brave nor good-humored at the time of the event, but rather gained those through the perspective of time. Looking back on an event is quite different from living through it. Also, the act of recalling and retelling, promotes learning. The author gains wisdom, temerity, and humor. 

And it takes courage to look back and examine one’s life so closely that you can recreate it for another in a way that informs and entertains. It makes one vulnerable and exposed in a way only a few are willing. 

All those who submit their work for publication or into a contest show this courage. 

In beginning to tell your story you surpass probably fifty percent of people who say, “Boy, do I have a story to tell.” Half of them will never begin to tell it.
In completing your stories you surpass seventy-five percent of those with a story to tell. Some begin, few finish.

In submitting your work you surpassed ninety percent of those with stories to write and the gumption to write them. Very, very few take that final step and send it out into the world. Where, I am sorry to say, it will be judged.

I recently had the honor of judging such a contest. I enjoyed each and every one of the entries. Each had moments of greatness, of pathos, of humor, of beauty. I was asked to pick two winners, and so I went with the two that spoke most to me and possessed elements of good drama. Each had an “arc:” a beginning, middle, and end; presented vivid, sympathetic characters; delivered a “message;” and answered the question, “so what?” Each conveyed a deeper meaning, a universal truth, in the events.