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Stop, Nest, and Listen

Within the arms of the tree lost to the hurricane I found a nest. Deep and empty like a soup bowl slurped clean, it was cradled between two branches. In wind strong enough to topple the tree, it had somehow remained whole.

Both the architecture and the construction were solid and the removal of the avian residence from its perch was difficult. The finesse with which the twigs and leaves and other bits of natural ephemera had been woven together was obvious at first glance and I knew that one ill-advised tug could send the entire structure falling to the ground and disintegrating into a dusty pile of yard waste.

Lift. Pull. Twist. Turn. I maneuvered the nest while doing my best to avoid swallowing a dangling chinaberry or putting my eye out with a protruding broken limb. Eventually it came loose and I lowered my arms, now burning from having been held above my head for so long, to see that the nest was much bigger than I’d first thought.

All of the nests in my house – and there are more than a couple – are about the size of a large grapefruit, like the ones the relatives from Florida used to bring in the red string bags with the graphic labels. This one, the one that survived the hurricane, is more the size of a head of iceberg lettuce – not the ones in the grocery store now, but the big ones from the 70s when we first started eating salad and iceberg was the only kind of lettuce and French, Thousand Island, and Italian were the only dressings. This nest was built, it appears, by a couple with aspirations.

I took it inside and, with so many other post-hurricane chores to address, set the nest down in the bowl in the middle of the dining room table, the pastel-glazed bowl I bought at the university ceramics sale one Christmas. It generally holds fruit – a dozen apples or oranges –, but it was empty and handy and that’s where the nest landed, its outer twigs catching on the rim of the bowl so that it hung like a double boiler.

That was nearly three weeks ago. I’ve walked past that nest in that bowl on that table at least three hundred times. Headed out to work in the morning, coming in at night. From the couch watching the baseball playoffs to the refrigerator for something to drink and back again. To the laundry room to load the washer, to empty the washer, to load the dryer, to empty the dryer. Back and forth and back and forth.

And this is the thing: I’ve seen the nest – had the image register on my retina and travel to my brain for identification – every single time. But not once have I stopped and looked. Not once have I slowed down to touch the tiny leaf stems and curly root hairs that were woven together to make the lining soft enough to incubate eggs. Not once have I paused to note how many different shades of brown and gray it would take to reproduce that nest on canvas. Not once have I broken stride and acknowledged the magic and the mystery surrounding the fact that a bird with only a beak and two clawed feet as tools and debris as materials, a bird weighing less than two ounces managed to engineer and construct something that withstood a hurricane.

This is a sin. To him, or her, who knows to do good – who knows to pay attention and be amazed, who knows to be grateful for the miraculous, who knows to take the time to watch the world unfold – and does not do it, to him, to her, to all of them everywhere, this is sin.

On the front porch, in morning light turned golden by the October sun, I pause to listen to leaves on the holly trees rattle like a dancing skeleton and dew heavy as rain drip from the roof onto the brick steps with flat splats. I look across the road to see the white polka dots of cotton bolls and the narrow green stripes of pine trees rolled out like the fabric of an Easter dress. I feel the breeze and taste the air. This is my repentance.

After the earthquake Elijah heard a still small voice. After the hurricane I saw a nest.

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