One of my favourite poems is ee cummings’ may my heart always be open to little
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
I love it (though I change the masculine pronoun to be more inclusive). I recite the first few lines to myself almost every day when I see the tiny birds around our place: wrens, finches, sparrows, and others that I can’t identify. The superb blue wren is gorgeous, with its small round body, electric blue feathers, tiny legs, flirty tail. It hops around our veggie patch, and loves to perch on the top of the garden stakes we’ve hammered in to hold up tomatoes. I always draw in a breath and stop, when I see one. And wherever there’s a blue wren, there’s usually a brown one, the female partner. As I’ve watched, though, I’ve noticed how beautiful they all are, not just the bright ones — even sparrows that we tend to think of as ordinary and common. They gather on a stretch of unplanted veggie patch and have dirt baths, gradually burrowing out hollows in the ground. At times, when there’s a flock of them, their brown feathers blending with the dirt, it looks like the ground is moving.
We have a large terracotta saucer that we fill with water for a birdbath, and the birds fly in from a nearby tree where I’m sure they check out the lie of the land, to see if it’s safe to come down. One by one, they gather around the rim of the saucer, dip in a beak to drink, and then dive in, shake, flutter their wings, spraying water around, and hop out again. It’s all very orderly and respectful, each one apparently waiting their turn. At least that’s how it looks from my human point of view.
I’ve read lots of great poems about birds, but cummings, for me, has caught something about the vulnerability of these little creatures, and the something more that goes along with that. Sometimes I think the birds look self-sufficient, but I’m not sure it’s possible to be vulnerable and self-sufficient at the same time. I’m still thinking about that one. It’s more that, as I watch them, these little birds seem to just be. They inhabit themselves, wherever they are: thoroughly bird, thoroughly there. And, as I read the poem, that ability to be at home with who we are is only possible if we learn to live happily with our frailty and our limits, and even to celebrate them. I love that idea! The ‘secret of living’.