It was just a splash of red against the gray asphalt. It was like a marker at the crossroads of a busy intersection. Like all those traveling north, south, east and west, my foot was to the metal and my eyes only took a single moment to see that this scarlet spot was not an abandoned candy wrapper or a soda can flattened in the surrounding haste. Instead, laying on the ground was a fully formed male cardinal, its exquisite life cut short by a wind that took it off course or a car whose speed matched the velocity of its outstretched wings…just so. I wondered if the driver even saw the impact and was now feeling the sadness I felt at witnessing its dead body. I breathed a sigh…a sort of prayer.
This moment in a summer day is still traveling with me. It has now been more than six weeks if not longer and I can still see the fallen bird, its brilliant red shining forth one last time. I have thought about this winged one more often than I would like to admit. Its beauty. Its vulnerability. Its untimely ending, an ending I glimpsed in just a second of my own beautiful and vulnerable life. In the briefest and yet deepest of ways, I felt connection to that bird whose flight was cut short as it headed for food or its nest or wherever it is cardinals fly to in an ordinary day that turned out to be not so ordinary.
Summer now gone, this is the season when birds and people are changing their patterns. Some are heading south and others are turning inward in anticipation of the winter to come. It is a time of great beauty…colors are turning in tree and plant…some animals are storing up food and growing warmer fur or feathers…some people are preparing their homes for colder days and storing up projects for longer nights. The summer days are past and autumn, the time for letting go and preparing for the journey of winter is upon us.
An attention to these seasonal patterns can be a great connector, I have found. As humans we can often believe we are the center of it all, the wiser of all the creatures. But all we need do is observe the squirrel carrying multiple nuts as big as its head up a tree at lightning speed, jumping between precarious limbs, and we know the same feat would be impossible for us. Their winter prep makes ours look quite feeble and it engenders awe in me. I am blessed to watch their work and to feel a strange connection to knowing we will both go into the winter and, hopefully, will emerge intact when spring arrives again.
This attention to the connection and the patterns of ordinary days turned extraordinary is holy work. It is, at least for me, the recognition of a deeper Source that runs through all life…that holds us all…and for some reason I feel it more acutely this fall. Perhaps it is because fall so tenderly holds the beauty and the vulnerability. Perhaps it is because the image of the cardinal is still shimmers in the recesses of memory.
I am not sure when the sight of the dead cardinal will leave me. When it does it is likely to be replaced by another reminder of connection with Creation, the joys and the loss that are the waves we all ride. At least I hope that is the case. In being a steward of the red bird’s memory, I was reminded of how singer/songwriter Peter Mayer writes about his experience of seeing a red-winged bird. He describes it as “shining like a burning bush” and “singing like a scripture verse”. He goes on to say the sight makes him want to bow his head because everything is holy now.
Beauty. Vulnerability. Connection. Ordinary. Holy. A bowed head seems just right for this autumn day.