The Worry Bird

Don’t take on so. That bird you’ve made at the end of your bed is the tangled ball of feathers that is reluctance. So don’t take on so. He seems like a lead weight, anchoring the blanket ever faster, ever tighter to you. You might even feel the boulder like mass of him, immovable at the entrance of your day, but he’s lighter than an empty cigarette packet. In a minute you’ll see.

There now, so. In this heroic minute, in the hesitant light of the morning as the dawn shames the streetlights, the form of it will be revealed, and it will be revealed to be ridiculous. It is a Quentin Blake drawing of a hungover raven. Its head is too round, its body embarrassingly prolate; a marble balanced on an egg. Its eyes are wallowing and dulled – a direct result of introspection. It is black, unkempt, and its down looks like it has been glued on, unlovingly. A Sesame Street reject. It is the putting-off bird. The bird of the long finger that knows that nothing will change whilst it tarries. Its day is made up of thinking about the task in a flaccid, non-committal way, whilst singing “the-thing-to-do, the-thing-to-do”, rocking from one foot to the other.

But there it is on the foot of the bed, scrawny legs dangling. Its head is bowed and it slouches into itself. It hasn’t bothered with its wings and the inky feathers are at odds with each other, lolloped as they are on either side, curving up, plaintively. Now and then this scrag-end bird, this pocket-rolled, lint-covered liquorice allsort sitting at your feet takes a breath, and sighs. It sighs to let you know its there, and rolls its bobble-hat head, and curves its eyebrows up in the middle. “Ah, pity me”, you think. But don’t. That’s its game. With your sleep-twitched foot, give him a boot. Right in its scrawny feathered backside. There’s a sure way to rid this bird, for he’s easily thrown by making the bed.

And so to the dawn chorus of your flocking emotions. Over there, on the other side of your morning coffee and through the steamed up window is anticipation, which twitches like a starling with skinny legs. It is found hanging on the wire. It soaks up the electrons of passing missives and whispers until electrified and fizzing, which naturally is quite catching for those around. Starlings on a wire buzz and twitter until, stumbling with excitement, they form a murmuration like a smudge in the sky.

Joy is to the blackbird; fleeting but with song you could recognise anywhere. Watery-eyed and glistening, this one flies higher, or hockets between events of the day in the hedgerow of happenstance. You know he’s there, and you’d like to look on him longer, or hold him in cupped hands, close to your chest, and ask him to sing to you. But you fear if you hold him, you’d lose him, so you’re content with the knowing that you’ll hear him now and then and when you do, you crane your neck and stop what you’re doing scanning the skyline story of steeples, branches and weather vanes pointing to see if you can see the vector of the song. It is no mistake that the blackbird, with its golden nib, is seen as the poet of the treetops.

Anger is the firebird. The hurtling flame rushing down the days in haphazard trajectory. The problem with this bird is not so much the noise it makes, for at least then you know where it is, but when it is silent and flying, it rains embers, which enkindle smouldering hurts, or char delicate structures such as the nest made by hope. In looking back at its flight path, the events touched by its flame look blacker than they might have otherwise, charred and scarred, and it is hard to see in front of the bird because of the furious brightness of it, the glare of which distorts the path ahead.

But there is another bird born of fire – the one that I would prefer, which is the phoenix. That form of anger which is necessary. That righteous anger. The kind that bursts from destruction. This bird only takes flight and enkindles where there is darkness that needs exposing and his flight is only ever elevating, leaving nothing except a stream of light behind that makes you strain your face heavenward.

In this aviary, the place of intemperance has already been ascribed to the yellow bittern, and even though I think this is probably unfair, I am too enamoured of the poem to separate the bird from the poet. Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna wrote a poem about the yellow bittern – “An Bonnan Bui”. The colour of the bird, bui being the Gaelic for yellow and its propensity for guzzling bug water – these facets of the bird lead Mac Giolla Ghunna to associate himself with it. He weaves a poem that links them with a golden thread. The thread is spun light. The light that glistens when one recognises ones form in something other – in something other. The bird was born with this colour. Cathal’s took some cultivating, but the poet tugs on this thread and draws the bird nearer to him, calling it “heartsome namesake“. The poet sorrows for the bird when it dies from thirst.

But the bird that I would not twitch for, the one I wouldn’t hide for, is the worry bird. This bird is bloated, like a tennis ball left out in the rain. This bird tries to roost in the top of your stomach or the bottom of your chest, but don’t let it. Once within you, it puffs itself up like a glass bauble growing on your breath. It feels like a suppressed belch when kept within – uncomfortable and with spreading consequences. The thing about this bird though, is that inside of you it’s useless. Outside of you its harmless. It cannot fly. Its wings are stunted from the lack of letting go of its perch as a fledgling. Its form is so self-inflated it has as much chance of finding a graceful vector as a beachball does of reaching the moon. Its eyes cannot focus on one thing for too long, and so it never pitches on its target.

So what to do about the worry bird? Get him out. Belch if you have to. Don’t feed him on your hopes or desires. Whisper him to the dawn chorus or spill him with ink onto a page. And don’t be embarrassed if your friends hear you eructate. They’ll do the same at some point, for this one’s a common or garden bird. And once he’s out, tell him that though he be but real, he be feckless. Feed the blackbird in preference to him. Give him slim to none pickings. Shake the perch he’s clinging to, violently if you have to, but shake him loose, until his wings are forced to grow, quill by quill. Teach him to watch the other birds and to sing a song of willing. Make him nest with hope.

You see Porter saw grief as the thing with feathers, and Dickinson, hope. I think that they are both right. It is all in the eye of the ornithologist, and they will all flock together in the vault of your sky. There cannot be only one kind of bird. For example, we’ve failed to mention the Dodo of Lateral Thinking. But hope – hope has the nicest song. Hope has the song that fractures the bleakest of concrete mornings. Dickinson said that it doesn’t ask a crumb of you and that’s true in as much as it doesn’t ask you to feed it, but it does ask you to look for it. It might seem rare, but actually it is abundant. However, it is adept at camouflage and will be hiding in the most mundane of places, such as on your pillow, or in your reflection in the mirror, or in the depths of the strains of a dialogue with someone you love. And when it nests it spreads itself neatly over its brood of little burgeoning hopes, which, when they’re ready, fly to nest in the darkest places until they are needed.

*An Bonnan Bui, by Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna (1680-1756).

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