Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Brief Word About "Our" State Bird

If you hold to the belief that the sighting of a cardinal is a wondrous, singular event, a rare moment akin to glimpsing the Northern Lights, a brief but amazing encounter with grace that will place the stamp of luck on your day, and you want to keep holding to that belief, do not move to east central Illinois. To put it simply, the cardinal runs rampant here. On any given day, at any given time, the pert, crested red guy with black mask, and his just-as-pert orange-tipped, beige-gray gal, can be seen anywhere you glance -- in country or town, on fence or tree branch, in woods or back yard. About as unusual around here as a tornado warning or a chicken-fried steak.

Matching the cardinal's sheer plenitude in these parts is its incredibly vast repertoire of calls, the rarest of which can only be heard at 4:30 a.m. in the bush outside my bedroom window: Stop Sleeping!-Stop Sleeping!-Stop Sleeping!-Now! Then there are the more famous lunchtime calls: Burrito-Burrito-Burrito-Eat! And, a holdover from the cardinal's days as hailer of confused drivers crossing the state line into Wisconsin: Cheese Here, Dodo! Cheese Here, Dodo! When the cardinal is feeling a bit more "impressionistic," there is the "Cary Grant": Judy-Judy-Judy-Who's She? And, in a more "international" mood, the cardinal is known to utter the obsolete Scandinavian phrase Fjord-Bjorn-and-Sven-IKEA!

Because a thousand cardinals surrounding my house every single day of my existence wasn't enough, a few Christmases ago I bought a mechanical one to have inside the house. My very own cardinal boasted "natural movement" of head, beak, and tail, cleverly triggered by a motion-activated photo sensor, and "authentic song" thanks to actual recordings provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- or, three different clacking and jerking motions and two different "tweets" every single time I walked past. Good thing the natural and authentic off button was easy to find.

A quick bit of online research reveals that the cardinal is the state bird of no fewer than six other states: Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. So much for feeling special. At least we can claim Abraham Lincoln. (If you hold to the belief that the sighting of Lincoln paraphernalia is a wondrous, singular event, do not move to east central Illinois.)

Even after having lived here for eleven years now and having seen more than my allotted share of red guys and gray gals, I do still consider the cardinal, both male and female, a thing to behold. And when I suddenly spot a single fat one poised on my privacy fence or a trio of trim youths chasing through the maple, I still feel slightly luckier than I had the moment before. I still perk and look up when I'm walking the dogs and hear any one of the cardinal's clear, liquid calls from high in a pine or oak. And the other day, turning at just the right moment to see a fleeting wisp of red amidst the all-white furniture on my neighbors' patio, an appearance as subtly striking as a brushstroke of red in the waves of a Winslow Homer painting, I still felt I'd witnessed a wondrous event. Then I fluffed my pillow and went back to sleep, on the couch.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Just Waiting for My Badge and Hat

A few days ago, on Facebook, an old college friend of mine wrote the following on my "wall": "By the way, I never got to wish you Happy Birthday. We both know how old you are; I'm not gonna write that number here. So welcome to the club!" Well, thanks, Bill, for not writing the number -- very kind of you -- but now EVERYONE knows it's something really old. I'm also a little unsure about the exuberance of that exclamation mark. Didn't you really mean Come here, my pretty, let me wheel you in...? Yes, thanks, Bill. Thanks for the reminder I didn't need.

Or maybe I do need one. Some days, the "me" inside my head is still wearing bangs and a ponytail, red Keds and a boy's striped T-shirt, still jumping the fence after school into the field next to our house, befriending the insects and garter snakes, hiding deep in the long grass until my mother calls supper. Other days, I'm the same girl, but now on the edge of the couch, rolling my eyes and sarcastically mouthing my mother's words as she doles out chores, getting sent to my room until she calls supper. (I did get out of vacuuming, though.) Or, I'm still on the edge of twenty, just before I slide into the current of bad decision-making.... Whoever I am in my mind, though, I'm not a woman of (10,530 divided by 5 minus 2,076 plus 20) and, most certainly, never ever ever -- I'll try to say it -- a luh-luh-luh ... lady.

So before I turned "it" and joined "the club" this past September, I really had no qualms about turning ... "it." I was still young, still a kid. Still weighing ballerina, fire-fighter, rock star, or lion-farm owner (I had just watched Born Free, okay?) for what to be when I grew up. But something happened between 11:59 p.m. of September 28 and 12:01 a.m. of September 29, 2009, as I rounded the corner from (7 x 5 + 13) to (add two more)....

I took it surprisingly hard, especially when the AARP and Medicare notices started mysteriously arriving with my name attached. (Not to mention a brazen offer to participate in the "Senior Final Expense Program," which cheerfully invited me to "return this card within 5 days to receive your FREE copy of the Memorial Guide Book." A bit disconcertingly, the return address was in Granite City.) I instantly tossed them. Must have me mixed up with someone else, I clucked to my inner girls as the crumpled, unopened envelopes joined the catfood-can lids and coffee grounds, some other Elise Hempel who was -- poor, dear thing -- getting old. But still those notices haunted me for the rest of the day, as I made my hundredth check in the mirror or felt my sciatica acting up again.

And suddenly I hadn't achieved a single thing in my whole waste of a life. The gorgeous, kind daughter passed through the house unnoticed. The house itself began to get hazy (but cleaner!), dissipating into dream. All of my published poems had been printed in invisible ink.

Also, a certain desperation now took hold of me. I dusted off my mini-stepper. I bought myself new glasses. I stopped drinking alcohol. I started lying about no longer drinking alcohol....

Having recently passed "it and a half," it's somehow getting a little easier. I'm not quite ready yet to fling off my denial like an airborne bra on "How to Look Good Naked," but somehow I'm feeling a little bit better. Perhaps it has something to do with my recent foray into Facebook. Where else could I apologize to my sixth-grade boyfriend for giving him the cold shoulder in junior high, joke with my brother scatologically, reminisce with a college friend about our old singing days, and chat with my former colleagues all in one place? I'm seeing my life more as a continuum, rather than a disconnected series of "snapshots," more as the perpetual Facebook news feed than the separate moments of the photo albums. The people from my past are strangely mingling with the people from my present, all of them, all of us, members of "the club," a club, believe it or not, I'm actually, just a tad, starting to want to belong to. And all of my dues are already paid up.