In the spring a friend told me about a 100 Days of Creativity challenge she saw on Instagram. She mentioned it not in the context of posting anything, necessarily, but just in setting yourself a challenge like that, to do a creative thing every day for 100 days. I decided to take on the challenge by taking photographs of birds. Well, originally I decided my project would be that I would take one bird photograph per day, and then I would draw the bird, and then I would write something about it. Because if I’m going to plan a project, then I’m going to plan to do it times a thousand in a way that is almost guaranteed to fail. I realized before I started that that wasn’t a good idea (progress!) so I backed it down to one bird photograph per day. I don’t actually know how to photograph birds, and it turns out to be not at all like photographing dogs or horses.
Almost immediately I realized that I needed to set some other parameters. First: it didn’t have to be a great photograph. It didn’t even have to be a good photograph. The point was that I was learning this, so any photograph at all was a step in the learning process. And just by the way, when you have a camera that you don’t know how to operate and it has a continuous shutter feature (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called), you can take A LOT of bad photos in a very short amount of time.
It took me about two days to realize that bird photography was going to be my gateway to meditation. I have written here before about my ambivalent relationship with yoga. My relationship with meditation is even more tenuous. I occasionally dabble in various forms of yoga, even if I grumble about it the whole time. I THINK about meditating. I don’t think I have actually ever even tried meditating, though I have almost downloaded a number of guided meditations and I have almost signed up for some meditation … classes? Is that a thing? Gatherings? Clearly, I haven’t done it.
And so the birds. The lessons started immediately. Once I got past “it’s ok to take bad photos,” I got to “look at all the things I don’t notice!” My first three weeks in the 100 days were dedicated to birds that showed up in the background (or sometimes foreground) while I was trying to focus on something else. And because I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, sometime the only in-focus bird was the one I didn’t realize was in the shot.
One thing that is true, it turns out, is that there is a lot of standing around and waiting in bird photography. A lot of becoming really still. A lot of observation. While being still. And waiting. Really, these are not my strengths. I know – or at least I think I know – that part of meditation involves clearing your mind, and letting go of any distracting thoughts that come up. I’m sure my bird photography would improve faster if I were better at this.
Another thing that is true is that I started this project about six months after my oldest sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I talked to her after she had the biopsy but before she got the results, she said “The best case scenario is that it’s the Jimmy Carter kind and I take a pill and I’m fine. The worst case scenario is that it’s the John McCain kind and I die.” The biopsy came back the John McCain kind, or more technically but no more correctly, glioblastoma. It’s not one of your more treatable cancers. The five year survival rate is extremely low, and life expectancy even with aggressive treatment is 11 to 14 months after the onset of symptoms.
My sister set out to learn everything she could about glioblastoma and treatment. She read articles and studies. She found and connected with long term survivors. She applied for clinical trials and got into one, planning an aggressive sequence of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Her goal was to live long enough for someone to find a cure. She died on May 27, 6 days after her 59th birthday and 13 days after her 37th wedding anniversary. Less than 9 months after her diagnosis.
I didn’t have much of a relationship with my sister in our adult lives. We weren’t particularly close as children, either – not in that “my sister is my best friend” way that I hear about sometimes. She was seven years older than me, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but when I was 11 and she left home for college it was pretty significant. She was kind of like a big sister in a book. She was almost magically creative in areas ranging from decorating cakes to naming dolls and stuffed animals, to choreographing, directing, building sets and making costumes for, and starring in annual neighborhood productions of The Nutcracker, to inventing complex and time-consuming games that keep us all occupied for hours on end. She was also just a sister, with all the sqabbles and jealousies and meanness that go along with being siblings.
For the last four or so months of her life, my sister wasn’t recognizably my sister. That is one of the many, many horrors of glioblastoma – it eats away your conscious mind before it kills you. I did not spend days at her bedside. I am eternally grateful that her husband was able and willing to care for her because I could not and did not. I went to see her sometimes, or to stay with her for a few hours so her husband could get a break. I thought about her every day. I continue to think about her every day. I have probably spent more time thinking about my sister in the last 9 months than I did in the previous 40 years.
I was, I am still, stumped about why I am so, so sad. I am sad for my sister, because it is complete bullshit for a person to die of something like this at barely 59 years old, and because she studied so much about it that she knew exactly what would and did happen to her, and it must have been terrifying. I am sad – and mad – that she didn’t get another 20 or 30 or 40 years to do exactly whatever she wanted to do. I am also sad for me, because my sister died. I think the part of me that is most sad is the part of me that lived with her and experienced her as that magical, maddening, creative, crazy-making big sister. I’m little kid sad. It’s a big kind of sad.
And so I spent 56 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dying. And I spent 44 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dead.
One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the title of which comes from something her father once said to her brother when her brother was overwhelmed by everything he had to write about in a school paper on birds. Anne uses it as a metaphor for writing – you don’t have to know everything you are going to write in order to start writing. You just have to take it bird by bird, one thing at a time.
Bird by bird is something I often thought of when I started my photography project. Every day there are many birds, and the more I move to try to capture them on film, the faster they fly away. It’s also been something I think of while I wait for the birds and thoughts and images and memories of my sister cross my mind. Some of my memories are things I have been told, or family legend, some words or a sentence or a moment recalled without context. Some of my memories are mine.
I remember my sister’s perfect penmanship that never stopped looking like the writing of a precocious 4th grader who had just learned cursive. I remember the three of us sisters in my middle sister’s bedroom (it was the biggest) singing songs from a falling apart book of old folk songs. I remember being on the outside of that bedroom door, furious and heartbroken that my sisters wouldn’t let me in on whatever they were doing. I remember running down to the corner to wait to see her walking home from the bus stop in the evening after her ballet classes, and walk the last block with her. I remember her fingernails digging into my arm when I said something as a joke that she didn’t find funny at all. I remember the two of us laughing and laughing over a drawer of our old childhood drawings and letters in our grandmother’s house. I remember watching my mother while she was dying, and I am shocked at how much my dying sister looks like her, when I had always thought she and I looked like our father.
One bird at a time, the thoughts and memories flit by. Some of them I am able to capture, and some I just have to let pass. Sometimes when I go outside I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. If I wait, they will begin to appear. It’s often not that they are hidden but that my eyes are just not able to see them until I settle into looking. Similarly, when I try to reach for memories of my sister I think they are few, but while I want for the birds to appear, they begin to flutter around me. Like the birds, what I see at first isn’t always all that is there. Like the birds, what I think is one thing sometimes turns out to be something else. Like the birds, my memories come and go as they want to. I hope they will keep showing up, and I hope I will keep remembering to look for them.
12 thoughts on “One Bird at a Time”
Thank you. Brilliant. You drew me in as a fellow bird freak and then so much more.
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Thank you! I did not know you are a birder! 💚
This is just wonderful. So well-spoken and touching. You are a gifted writer, my friend.
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Thank you so much!
Tessa, this is beautiful and stirring and sweet and sad…and so REAL. I know you as a wonderful photographer, but also have had glimpses of your worthy-wordsmithing. TY for sharing your pictures and your heart with us.
Thank you so much, my sister by choice.
I love the vulnerability coupled with hope. With self-honesty, with the ability to coexist with sadness, grief and the beauty of birds. You are an amazing writer, my friend.
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Thank you, my dear friend.
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This piece is profoundly beautiful. I feel moved by the gorgeous images you evoke and your candidness about love and grief. The essence of memories and their capacity to be fleeting one moment and deeply rooted the next is captured in how you describe the act of observing nature. Birdwatching has the benefit of encouraging me to truly live in the present moment. I sense that through your photography project you have been experiencing some of the same. Thank you, Tessa, for sharing this part of your life
Thank you for these lovely words, Jan. I agree completely about that benefit of birdwatching.
Your very welcome, Tessa. 😊🦅🌹🦉
T – I have been wanting to comment on this post since it was published, but I don’t know what to say because any comment I could make seems insufficient compared to the poignancy of your writing and the strength of the emotion. Grief is strange — sometimes I think it is stronger precisely when we *haven’t* been as close to someone in our lives, because we’re not just mourning the reality of what we’ve lost, we’re mourning the loss of the unfulfilled potential of the relationship. Someone we always assumed would be there to connect with is not there anymore… it’s understandable that you would be deeply affected. Sending love…