Thursday, January 06, 2011

Counting on nothing

Dark-eyed junco. Harris’s sparrow. Crow.

Blue jay acting like a street thug without the street cred. Tree sparrow with its chestnut cap and crisp white markings, a tidy little bird of impeccable demeanor.

More crows freckling the pale sky. An endless river of crows flowing northwestward from their roost, silently attentive, their beady black eyes missing nothing.

Below, bristling with hoarfrost, dried sunflowers and prairie grasses rattle like castanets in the cold southeasterly wind. I’ve been outside all of ten minutes and I’m chilled to the bone. Shadows are long and the sun climbing heatless and wan, a shadow of itself. An impostor.

Red-bellied woodpecker with his scarlet Mohawk. Eastern bluebird slurry of speech. Titmouse, gray and drab, the color of winter woods.

These birds and more would have been counted on this day had I been counting, but I am not. Should have been counted. Instead of being counted, they flitter through the yard to the thicket where they set up a raucous keening. I wonder if the yellow tabby returned. Yesterday it violated the holy of holies, the inner sanctum of the rabbit’s warren beneath the brush pile, an investigatory breaching before hastily departing at the sound of the back door flying open. A wise and canny move, but undoubtedly a minor reprieve at best. Its death sentence impossible now of commutation.

Scanning the yard yields nothing of danger. Maybe a sharpie invaded the thicket and now sits immobile, waiting. Or a merlin. A merlin would be nice, fast as greased lightning, unerringly deadly, winter visitor from the Arctic circle.

For a moment I hesitate midway between the house and the slumbering garden, weighing my options. I think of the shotgun propped by the back door and the row of yellow shells lined on the bookcase but without visible confirmation of the tabby it’s best left alone. Approaching the thicket would only add stress to my avian neighbors. And so I hold back, dangling in a state of limbo.

Mostly I think of what William T. Vollmann wrote in the latest issue of Harpers: To not decide is to decide.

Which is not altogether fair, for a decision was made. It wasn’t easy nor was it satisfactory, but it was made.

I’ll do one better than Vollmann: Even a wrong decision beats indecision.

But I’m not sure I entirely believe that.


Stay inside long enough and it becomes impossible to go out. Walls that once provided refuge entrap and imprison.

Lately I’ve been suffering from panic attacks. They’re never far removed, hiding just beyond the periphery of vision. Sharks circling for the kill. When they strike my chest tightens like a clenched fist, my heart hammers, my ears sing. I can barely breathe but gasp like a fish out of water. I can only guess what it’s doing to my blood pressure.

Maybe they’re not panic attacks as such. Maybe they’re anxiety attacks, if the two can be distinguished apart. Anxiety implies worry or unease, typically when associated with an imminent event, according to the dictionary. Which, in this case, would certainly fit the bill. Panic is defined as a sudden uncontrollable fear often causing wildly unthinking behavior. In my experience it has the opposite effect, more like a prison lockdown. Rigor mortis of the brain, complete immobility of nerve.

When Lori is nearby I mask the symptoms and try to act normal but with limited success. Last night she studied me for a while and said, “You look so sad.”

It was odd hearing her say it. I didn’t feel sad. I felt scared, though I couldn’t say why.


The anxiety grew worse as the year’s end neared. I’d put off preparations for the annual Christmas bird count until it was upon me, a dateline which only exacerbated my anxiety. I found myself unable to find any desire other than to hide, and also unable to pick up the phone to call landowners for permission or to notify feeder watchers. Even an e-mail to newspaper asking to squelch the press release remained half-done, written but not sent. A perfect metaphor for the stranglehold life has on me.

Or I have on myself. It’s hard to decipher the true cause.

I have a few ideas. My teeth worry me, the expense involved with getting them fixed when by all rights they probably should be yanked. As one was extracted earlier in the week, the tooth I broke at the bottom of Butler Wash, and subsequently filed down at the hotel and then forgot about until it reminded me in no uncertain terms of my neglect. Fine, then, out you go. Adios.

I’m beginning to suspect that life degrades into a series of subtractions. Things that once seemed essential slowly lose their emphasis without viable replacements. The bird count was always the highlight of the birding year, and has been for two decades, and now the thought brings nothing but turmoil. So I waffled and fretted and drove myself batty until in a fit of spite I summoned the courage to call it off.

Maybe next year, friends said. Absolutely, I replied, knowing full well that once tradition is broken the link can rarely be repaired.

The count was only the surface of an underlying psychosis, though. Writing has become a chore, partly the result of my reclusiveness. Without the beckoning world there is nothing to write about but my fears. My hearing fades behind a wall of white noise. I’ve grown paunchy and out of shape. I’m a slow reader, a bad typist. I’m probably a bore.

Give me a few minutes alone with myself and I’ll find plenty to fault. But I weary of pointing the finger at myself, of recriminations, of anxiety. I want more. And I think somewhere in our back yard I might find it.


Canada goose in tuxedoed finery, winging northward. I shiver and shake and wish I’d dressed for the occasion, too. Something layered, something warm. The cold is the least of my worries.

Yellow-shafted flicker, mustachioed, bobbing to its own tune.

The keening ceased from the thicket. Birds flitter out in ones and threes. I spot a goldfinch drab and colorless, a flower waiting to bloom.

Thickets are the abodes of small gods, Jim Harrison said. They’re self-contained wildernesses. Refuge.

I step closer and scan the underbrush for movement. I want a Lincoln’s sparrow, petite, finely barred, secretive.

I want more. I’m not counting anything except everything. And this, I think, is how it’s done: one step, two, three. The start of a journey.

I can do this. I only have to count what matters.


Jenni said...

You are certainly not a bore, and you are less alone in your feelings than you probably think. This is a difficult time of year for many people for all the reasons you list and then some. Having a daily routine and a job that pulls me out of the house for a while each day forcing me to interact with others has been helpful for me this winter. The cold and grey usually drive me inside. I shut myself off from the rest of the world seeking electric light and warmth. For a while it comforts me, but my world eventually grows darker and colder than the January skies. I need to be outside soaking up whatever natural light there is, breathing fresh, clean air. And, as much as I need to be alone and have quiet, I also need other people. It's a delicate balance. I can do this. I believe you can, too.

Count what matters. I count you, for one. Your words and images to you may be just an outpouring of your soul, but to others they are a lifeline and a thing of true beauty.

Tom Parker said...

Jenni -- Well, um, wow. I'm touched. I thought it was just me but now I've heard from several others with the same problem. Like you, I need sunshine and clean air. In a pinch (this being Kansas and winter) I can get away with just clean air. What I've been doing is forcing myself to get out and do what grounds me, such as taking backroads to work on Mondays and wandering through the yard. Now to broaden my horizons, some. Thanks for sharing--I count on readers and friends like you.

k said...

Hang in there, Parker.

Bud Simpson said...

Tom, I truly envy your ability to let us in. This is a tremendous feat of strength for some, impossible for most. Life's subtractions make room for the additions when the veil lifts, and it does, somehow. I'm renewing my family history research pending the return of habitable climate and a living wage. It's just enough to muffle the noise for now.

Keep on.

Tom Parker said...

Bun, er, Bud -- "Muffle the noise" – I like that. A perfect description.

Kim -- I'm hanging!

shoreacres said...

Ring the bell that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in...

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- What a magnificent quote you gave me--and timely, too. This new whatsit has got me puzzled and frazzled and woozled, but I'll get through it. I hae Lori and I have friends like you and Jenni and Bud and Kim and all the rest. I'm a lucky man and I cannot for one second forget it. I just have to focus on that light splintering through the crack of my imperfect bell...

Tom Parker said...

Make that "have." Long night. Gonna be a longer weekend...

Suzanne said...

You are actually the least boring person on my blogroll. I was left adrift of truly interesting insights and things to read after Jesse White Crow finished walking across America and writing about it. You have a way with words that is rare.

About the panic, it's a black dog for sure. For many years it visited me and then as mysteriously as it appeared, it left me. Over 25 years now without an attack, so there is hope.

I want to tell you that your writings remind me of Loren Eiseley. Have you read any of his work? He was a scientist but his writings are the least scientific of any I've read. He was an astute observer. Like you he had the patience to be still and watch and see what others do not.

Keep up the good work. I'm going to send you some links , etc. Check your e-mail.

Tom Parker said...

Suzanne -- Thanks so much for the kind words. They keep me going week after week—a good thing. I've read Eiseley some but need to revisit his works. I'm in a reading frame of mind which is perfectly suited to the latest wintry episodes. As for patience, unfortunately it seems to extend mostly to watching for wild rabbits (or feral cats) and napping, but when approaching the writing it goes on strike. I need to flog it into submission. Also a work in progress. Life is never dull, anyway.