We live in Los Angeles, in a house that has a parking lot for a backyard, so we’re always searching for ways to get the kids into nature, as they say. I hear of friends in Kansas who demand their children play at least a few hours in the backyard during the summer, kicking them out the back door like garden snakes that have somehow slithered into the house. We don’t do that; they might get run over. Instead we spend a lot of time at the park, or at the beach, trying to look up at the sky and past the distraction of the spinning ferris wheel that sits atop the famous pier. City dwellers can surely relate to this longing for a sky full of stars and fields of idyllic, uninterrupted countryside, and my husband Scott and I felt it strongly in the last weeks of summer this year, so we decided to take the kids on a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. I’d read online about the Top Ten Swimming Holes in Los Angeles and was interested in one nearby. I imagined an old tire swing in the branches of a weathered oak, overlooking a watering hole where the kids could swing into the still water. I would dress them in cutoff shorts and bandanas. I knew that this was the wrong thing to imagine, but my inner Harper Lee was having a field day with the details, so on the car ride over, I indulged those fantasies a bit.
We paid $12 for parking, which I felt like Harper Lee would really disapprove of, and then took 30 minutes figuring out at which trailhead to begin. The path was clear, well-worn and, though it was meant for hiking and not for driving, better manicured than most roads in most parts of the world, I’d suspect. Trash cans and picnic tables and somebody’s forgotten can of spray-on sunscreen. Our ears reached the swimming hole before our feet did, and the sound of literally hundreds of people splashing, jumping, and playing snapped me back to reality. This was no more my watering hole than the city was mine. It was ours, and the over-crowdedness of this quaint little swimming hole was not lost on me; I was not the only one dreaming of a little idyll. I was not the only one feeling a little bit separated from reality, the grit of real dirt and miles of space uninterrupted. I felt insulated from real nature. I wondered about this as we exited the parking lot, passing the rangers who regulated today’s hiking experience and glanced out the window at transplanted palm trees and the manufactured grass the city had taken to installing since the drought began.
What would my children’s childhoods will be like, since so much of their surroundings is covered in concrete? It is nice concrete, to be sure. Smooth, good for biking and strollers. But concrete nonetheless.
I think about this when I consider how insulated I am from the rest of the world. Syrian refugees are as real to me as the graduating class at Hogwarts, and I can barely fathom what life is like for a mother, just like me, who must flee for her life, dragging protesting babies into a crowded rowboat rather than a minivan.
Lord, hear our prayer.
I want to send money, send my extra Moby wrap, send my love and luck and something more than just love and luck. These gestures seem so small, don’t they? They feel like nothing. Opening your front door to someone is different than clicking the Donate Now button on a website, like I am helping to fund some new sort of cat cafe upstart or Zach Braff’s next movie rather than food and socks and medical attention for the displaced. I want to make up a guest room for these runaways. I want to fling the sheets in the air and find all the extra pillows. I want to make a huge pot of soup and more cornbread than my glass casserole dish is equipped for. I want to share the bathroom and listen to stories, late into the night, of the courage and fed-up-itude it took take to finally go.
The Pope called on all the parishes in Europe to take in at least one refugee family. My heart aches to be able to do that, and I wonder how I might. Me, whose biggest complaint some days is that the spout on the expensive conditioner she bought doesn’t reach all the way to the bottom and so there’s no way in God’s good world that I can get that last bit of conditioner from the bottle. I might have to take the cap off, maybe even hold the bottle upside-down for a few extra minutes as the hot water runs down my back.
Insulation from pain, hunger, disease, cursing, the chill in bones from never being warm, the fear that comes when you realize you have no home, no safe place to sleep. Thermoses should be insulated. Attics should be insulated. Should I? Should my children? I alternately thank God that they are and pray that their hearts are not– that the thick shell that lines their drink containers would never replicate itself in the way that they see the world.
The Beatitudes are nothing if not a warning against insulation: blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted, the insulted. Jesus gives us a character sketch of a person who is up to her eyeballs in the mess. A person who suffers, who is uncomfortable and unguarded, whose outfit is dirty, mismatched, ripped. Insulted, Jesus says; not insulated.
I wonder how to deal with this paradox in my context, where Jessica Alba shops at the same Target as me and where most all of the homes are million-dollar homes. Geographically and economically, I am far from up to my eyeballs in the mess. Even homeless people are scarce around here; the city shoos them away like bunnies who are disrupting the garden. So I read on the internet about the refugees, the widows, the childless and the lepers. I send donations when I can. I pray about how I might become a Beatitudes woman, with a heart that is vulnerable and soft and motivated and full. A woman who opens my door. A woman who, as Kelley Nikondeha has written, “can name [those who suffer] and stand in solidarity with them.”
Peanut butter smothered on empty toilet paper rolls, then covered in bird seed. I’d hesitated at the Dollar Store, wondering if the Finch blend or the Wild Bird blend would be best. I finally decided on Wild Bird, which delighted Miles and Evie with its strangeness. We placed our makeshift feeders on the branches of a half-dead azalea bush right outside our living room window. We made sure the little birds would have plenty of space to land and enjoy the seeds. We went inside, with dreams of the little flock of birdies that would soon arrive. We waited.
And no one came.
So we kept watch over a few days, noticed some bare spots where something had come– perhaps in the early hours of the morning?– to sample the seeds.
One day, after taking the dog for a walk, I noticed him. The dog and I quietly sneaked inside.
“There’s a little birdie near our feeders,” I told the kids. And much to my surprise, both blonde heads snapped up from their coloring at the kitchen table.
“Is it a wild bird?” Miles asked.
I thought about the tiny creature hopping at the base of the azaleas. Wild? Well, he was brownish and cute–Probably a finch, I thought ruefully–tiny and timid and looking like one of Snow White’s friends, but sure, technically, wild, too.
“Yes,” I said. The kids dropped their markers and ran to the window.
“I see him!” Miles said.
“I see him, too!” Evie practically shrieked with delight. “The wild bird!”
Far from disappointed in this overall average and underwhelming bird, my two little ones splayed pudgy fingers on the glass. Sweaty palm prints I’d have to clean later. They kicked their feet out behind them, facing the wrong way on the blue sofa: away from the television and out at the world. For this was nature, too. It was here, right outside the thin glass of our picture window. And the wild bird hopped about, pecking the Wild Bird Seed we’d bought just for him.
We don’t have to go far to find what is right under our windows. And though it is not some exotic hawk, this wild bird is my neighbor. This bird sings from the telephone wire, even as the traffic whizzes by, and I begin by feeding him.