Putting Myself in the Way

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When I first came to Dawson City twelve (!) years ago, I was struck by the different birds I saw. A sparrow wasn’t just a plain old sparrow anymore: it had a bold black and white striped head, and a beautiful song belted out from tree tops. Ducks were more than just mallards. Tiny, bright yellow birds flitted among the willows. I felt a desire to know them, to name them, and so my love of bird watching began. I got myself a field guide and a better pair of binoculars, and over the following five or six years, I became a bit of a bird lady.

I used to spend an afternoon sitting on a sandy spot of riverbank, my binoculars in hand. I watched the bank swallows skim bugs; watched a common merganser teach her ducklings how to dive; once saw a bald eagle defend its catch from gulls. Hikes to the Moosehide Slide, or on the trails in Tombstone Park, always included my binoculars, swinging around my neck. I started writing a bird column for The Klondike Sun, and friends would come to me with their bird queries: “What’s this little brown bird I see at my feeder? The one with the stripes?” Bird watching was a part of how I came to define myself; when people saw an interesting bird, they thought of me.

On a trip to Mexico, weeks pregnant with Aedan, my friends and I went on a bird watching tour. We rose at dawn to be collected by our guide, and went out on a boat in a mangrove swamp. We saw something like fifty different species of bird that morning. Four or five different herons, frigate birds, cormorants, ibis, scarlet tanager, vermilion flycatcher, to name just a few. It was one of my last great bird outings, before having kids.

After having kids, birdwatching was one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to wear binoculars with a sleeping infant carried on your chest. And toddlers are not known for being quiet, or sitting in one spot for hours so mama can watch the birds. I let it go, like I did writing, reading, and hiking. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d pick it up again; a casualty of the intense early years of parenting, I suppose.

Lately though, like the other passions I let fall by the wayside, I feel an eagerness to get back to it. These past few weeks, with the spring migrants making their way through, I’ve had some exciting incidental sightings: a sharp tailed grouse displaying in our yard, its wings held out to the sides, thrumming; a bald eagle gliding over the driveway where we were playing; ducks, so many and varied ducks in the ponds we pass on our drive to town. The ducks were the tipping point for me. I just could not stand that I didn’t know them, that I couldn’t name them. I decided then and there to put myself in the way of bird watching again.

I’ve been putting myself in the way of poetry again, too, looking for poems just as I look for birds. Making sure to read some poetry every day. Committing to working on new poems, to writing down the ideas and lines that come to me, following different threads like I follow a bird sighted in my binoculars. In the past month or so, I’ve organized a poetry reading with Whitehorse poet Joanna Lilley. I’ve read at an open mic and have committed to read at two more in the coming months. I’m working on some poems to complete the chapbook manuscript I’ve been thinking of for the last year. If I let my vision go soft-focus, if I leap just a second before thinking, I find that I’m pulled in the direction of poetry, of a writing life.

Two days ago, out for a walk in the woods with Colm and Charlotte, what I think was a boreal owl flew over head, a pair of robins in pursuit. I wanted a closer look, but of course, I didn’t have my binoculars with me. The following day, as we got ready for our walk, I took my binocs off the hook by the door. I dusted off the glass, and slung them around my neck. Where we rested, while the kids threw rocks, I watched a yellow rumped warbler move from tree to tree, spotted a say’s phoebe (a bird I’d never seen before). It was exhilarating! It struck me how easy it is to pick up again. How easy it is, now that I don’t have to wear all the babies, to take the binoculars with me. How easy it is to sit and observe not just my kids, but the birds, too. I just have to open myself to it, to the birds all around me, the inspiration all around me.

To practice birdwatching, poetry, running, whatever it is, requires effort and discipline, yes. It is a choosing, every time, to do that thing over not doing it. But I’m also learning that it’s a matter of repositioning, if that makes sense, like an adjustment a chiropractor would make, so that things align again. The more I do this, choose these things, the more I put myself in the way of my passions, the easier it will be to get swept away by them.

 

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Spring Fever

 

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After almost 12 years of living in Dawson City, Spring’s arrival still manages to take me by surprise. It’s the daylight, I think, that gets me the most. I become so accustomed to hibernation, to hunkering down in the long dark hours with the kids. The cold, brief days are the perfect excuse to never leave the house. But then, suddenly, the equinox passes. We adjust the clocks an hour forward, and the brilliant sunlight bouncing off the hillsides blares in through the windows like a reproach: get your kids dressed and get outside! As a concession, I open a window and let the fresh air inside after months of being cloistered.

Eventually, though, I recalibrate. Last night after dinner, with at least 2 hours of daylight still ahead of us, I dressed the kids up and took them to an empty lot with a huge snow pile at one end. They climbed up and slid down as I watched the sun slip behind the hillside across the river.

The snow buntings are back, too. They arrive every year at the same time: the weekend of the The Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race. They love to browse in the litter of straw left from one of the games that takes place over our spring carnival weekend, in the same empty lot where the kids played last night. I watched the birds land and take off as one, their stark black and white plumage flashing. I took a deep breath, looked up to the dark spruce trees, free of snow now: we made it.

This weekend we move back to our Dempster house. The interior has been finished after many years of sitting unfinished. I’m eager to settle, to stop moving. I look forward to unpacking the books and clothes and toys and kitchen things and then not packing them again any time soon. I want to start basil in our sunny south facing windows, and maybe a couple tomato plants (though I’m the only tomato eater in the house, so I can’t get too crazy.) I’m a bit nervous about the challenges we face living 40 kilometers from town, but I’m feeling stronger, confident we can tackle them. I’ve gotten better at asking for what I need. I just have to keep doing that.

Outside my office window, a strong wind blows hard pellets of snow down the street. Just last night I was thinking I’d need to get rubber boots for everyone soon–I am always unprepared for the seasons changing. I never seem to have the right gear at hand. But today, it looks like we’ll be wearing our winter boots just a little bit longer. One more month until bare ground, until the crocuses bloom, until sunset at 11 pm.

I can feel the energy gathering inside of me, can see it in my kids and in the folks I serve in the bar. We’re restless: the miners trickle back in, removing snow from their sites, getting ready for another season of pulling gold from the ground. People are ready to shrug off their parkas, put their heavy winter boots away. The kids are hard to settle come bedtime; I have to pull all the curtains to convince them it’s night. Summer is almost here, the manic time of fitting it all into that brief window of 24 hour light.

The change of season is so pronounced up here, but I wonder, do you feel it, too, where you are? Are you ready?