A Birdbath's Welcome, Women's Voices, November 2008
The birdbath extended from my front porch like the graceful curve of a ballerina’s arm. When I moved into the house, almost two years ago, I saw it as welcoming, the polite gesture of after you from a kind hostess. At the time, I had no idea that this wide flat bowl, perched on a pedestal of intertwining branches, would become a symbol of transformation. But I always liked how it looked, and warmed to the prospect of birds splashing and drinking in its generous bowl.
When I first moved into the house, the winter rains had filled the bowl with water. But the birds didn’t arrive, and I longed for them. I’d been going through the legal proceedings of my divorce for the past year, a thoroughly disagreeable process, and I had the burning desire to witness pleasure in the world. What could possibly be better than seeing birds dip and drink in the open vessel that my home provided? If a blue jay or chickadee could quench their thirst on dry days, then I felt, even during these frustrating times, I could find my own well to drink from, somewhere, somehow.
One cool afternoon in March, I stuck my hand into the icy water, and my fingertips slipped along the bottom of the bowl, slick with algae. Ick. Birds could not be lured by murky water. No wonder they hadn’t come. I chastised myself for such a lousy offering to the animal kingdom. Something had to be done.
The birdbath’s pedestal was screwed into the porch railing; the bowl was attached to the pedestal. Tightly attached. I yanked and pulled and tugged to break the bowl free. It didn’t to budge. But I could not bear to lay eyes on a dirty bowl of water day after day. So I decided to make do.
To remove the soft coating of dirt, I scraped my fingers along the bowl’s bottom and sides. The water fogged brown. I sloshed out as much water as I could with cupped hands, spilling it in claps onto my porch floor and my beloved deck chair. Seymour, my cat, darted beneath some accommodating bushes. My fingers became numb, my shirt sleeves got soaked, but I was determined. I had to clear away the muck and make room for fresh, clean water.
My divorce was a lot like a nightmare I had once. In the dream, I was at some party, having a miserable time, and I decided to go home. I dug into my purse, and found my keys gone. Some woman, a stranger, informed me that a man I’d never met before had taken them. “Why?” I asked.
“No idea.” She shrugged and walked away.
I called after her, dying to know what this man looked like, or where he’d gone. But she ignored me.
I wandered from house to house in my search, talked to dozens of people, all of whom were completely indifferent to my desperate and growing unhappiness. Their coldness sliced my frustration into hopelessness. All I wanted was to go home. As night climbed into day, my head spun with the words, Why? Why? Why? None of it made sense, none of was fair, but I was forced to continue searching, trying to keep my faith, trying to stay as sane as possible.
This was exactly what I was forced to do in trying to reach a financial agreement with my ex-husband to finalize our divorce.
Cleaning a birdbath may seem like an ordinary task, but for me on this chilly afternoon in March, it took on terrific importance. Here was a task that I could complete, a task that was in my hands, a task that, once accomplished, would bring me joy. So although my shirt was half soaked and I felt like a madwoman splashing water all over the place, I also relished the determination and recklessness that heated my blood.
Twenty minutes later, legs quivering with exhaustion, I had lost a lot of my feverish energy. But I pushed myself to finish. It was almost done. Wet shirt slapping cold against my chest, I dragged the hose up onto the porch. Almost done. I ran fresh water into the bowl. The water was sand brown. The bowl hadn’t been cleaned thoroughly enough. Damn.
I sighed deeply, attempting to quiet the angry burn in my stomach. My lawyer had called that day, informing me of another “difficulty” due to my ex’s ongoing denial of spousal support. It was one of a long line of rebuttals that I’d encountered from him in the past year while my legal fees grew and grew and grew. I just wanted the divorce to be over. I wanted my life back. But no end seemed in sight. I gazed at the birdbath, water a dusty brown, and sighed again. The endless dance of compromise. At least it looked better than before.
Over the next month, when I glanced at the birdbath, my chest tightened with regret. Every other week, I sloshed out as much dirty water as I could and replaced it with fresh. But the bowl was never completely cleared, and as a result, neither was I.
In May, the California heat intensified into the nineties. I repeatedly found the birdbath empty, a chalky line rimming its interior, a recollection of water. I would fetch the hose, and fill its emptiness, feeling satisfied and replenished, as if slaking my own thirst. But there were always days when I forgot about the bowl’s existence, and even forgot my hope for birds’ splashing and drinking. Occasionally, I thought of filling the bowl with pine cones, leaves, and dried lavender, a potpourri from the land. Certainly, it would create a different kind of welcome at the front of my house, one of earth fragrance and beauty. Then I could never find the bowl empty. But I had to wait until the lavender came into full bloom. Maybe June.
I never got to it. I became preoccupied with planning a six week trip to France, scheduled to leave mid-June. I vacated my house weeks before I actually left.
All through my trip, the divorce staggered on. Out of the blue, my ex-husband decided that he wanted rights to my writing, the short stories that I’d published while we were married. I said no. I’d already agreed to amazingly low spousal support in hopes of severing our ties quickly, but I would not agree to give him half of my writing. Absolutely not. We found ourselves at another stand off.
When I returned in mid-July, it was apt that the birdbath was dry. Compared to the regular showers and glossy greens of France, the Northern Californian landscape was parched. The hillsides looked like Tatami mats. The scorched grass around the house sandpapered my bare feet. The leaves of my beloved dogwood tree curled brown with thirst. My French journey had been deeply fulfilling, but once I had landed home, I felt dried out, depleted, exhausted. Curiously, my body held onto water, bloated eight pounds. My rings no longer squeezed onto my swollen fingers. My puffy face was unfamiliar.
In the next two weeks, I returned to myself, catching up on sleep, remembering the dimensions of my house, my schedule, my body. The apple trees outside my living room bloomed fruit. In my absence, my landlords had nurtured a vegetable garden and I ate fresh summer squash and slices of tomatoes heated with spicy basil. I planted zinnia and coreopsis in flower pots outside my dining room window, and the golden yellow and bright pink danced in the sun, celebrating. Next came red geraniums and white zinnias. I became besotted by the pleasure of color, seeped into it, and gazing out my window in the morning, felt nourished and loved by the Earth’s beauty.
My lawyer called in August. After the stand-off all summer long, my ex-husband released any claim to my writing and relented to pay a greatly diminished spousal support. The good news: he wanted to pay it all together, in one big clump, rather than month to month. I rejoiced. Finally, after eighteen months of negotiation, we had reached an agreement. I was free.
It seemed only natural that my birdbath would be filled again. A week after speaking with my lawyer, I dragged the hose up to the porch. Clutching the edge of the birdbath, I felt a click beneath my fingertips. The bowl gave way, suddenly loose from the pedestal. Did I break it? After tossing the hose aside, I couldn’t see how it had been attached in the first place. There were no screw holes, no marks of any kind. Perhaps some kind of glue had been used?
Amazing. Something that refused to budge six months before was suddenly free. I broke into a happy dance, twirling, hooting, Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo! Halleluiah! every cell in my body awake with wild joy. It hardly mattered how the bowl was attached or why or where—only that now it was free. Free! The word rushed through my limbs, tickled my scalp. Days had passed, but I hadn’t felt free from my divorce until this moment.
Finally, I could hold the bowl in my hands. What a privilege! Seated on the porch steps, cradling the bowl like my own child, I cleaned it thoroughly. The chilled water splashed silver in the afternoon sun, the redwood steps warmed the soles of my feet. I inhaled deeply, relishing the pleasurable scent of metal. Birds chirped from distant trees, and for a few minutes, I gazed at the clusters of lavender in the garden, sprinkling pale green into the air.
I filled the bowl to the rim, and set it on the pedestal. There, within the water’s perfect stillness, I could see the reflection of the gray bowl, and at the same time, a faint blue sky. I peered closer, the outline of my face came into view, and it hit me. I had loved him once. My ex-husband. The enemy. I had loved him with all my heart. I had loved him fiercely, just as I loved the earth now. Amidst all the tedious legal back-and-forth, all the obnoxious he-said, she-said, all the nonsense strategizing and posing, I had forgotten this simple truth. Now the love returned—just at the time when I was losing it, just when I realized I was free.
Something broke deep inside of me, and tears poured down my face.
The birds continued to sing. I watched the ornamental grasses wave a golden-green, whispering their comforting secrets, and the earth reached out her arms in radiance and warmth. I rested there. The wind caressed my cheeks dry. I stood by the birdbath for a long time, gazing into its clear water. If it did not welcome birds, it certainly welcomed something else.