Stop and Smell the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks

It is well documented (by his proud documentarian dad) that our 6-year-old son is a budding ornithologist. An admirer of all things feathered. A wing-loving Wingert who once mowed down an entire category of avian-themed Double Jeopardy questions without flinching. When he was four years old.

Greyson is our bird boy. In the past, he has been similarly obsessed with Christmas carols, cars and trucks, Caspian songs, farm animals, big cats, and various other genres of land animals. But for the past year he has been transfixed (eagle-eyed, if you will) on every single bird that exists. Heck, he even makes up birds that don’t exist, as if 10,000 species isn’t quite enough for him.

The latest stage in Greyson’s feathered fixation is fascinating to me. Previously his interest was primarily in reading bird books, sorting endlessly through his bird cards and cut-outs, and watching YouTube bird videos. Other than observing our bird feeder through the dining room window, he mostly wanted to stare at images of birds, in books or on screens, and read facts about what they eat and where they live. His interest was largely academic and encyclopedic.

But as of last week, he wants to get up close with the real thing.

Which is both deeply delightful and… a little difficult.

Each time we have gone outside or to a park in the last week, Greyson has gravitated toward the trees and craned his neck up to search for birds. While Violet swings and slides at a playground, Greyson wanders away from us and birdwatches. And while we hike on the Appalachian Trail, Greyson meanders off the trail and stares up at the tree branches. Which means we don’t get very far.

It’s logistically tricky when you’re presiding over two children, one of whom wants to go-go-go and the other of whom wants to stay in one place. But so far, Violet has been patient and accommodating with her big brother. As for me?

Well, I admire him. That’s the first thing to say. I look up to anyone who specializes in something, who can distill the world into one central focus. I love that Greyson, for as long as he has been able to construct a sentence (and maybe even earlier than that), has drilled down into one subject at a time and gradually rendered himself an amateur expert in that subject.

And taking the time to appreciate nature on a granular level is such a good and pure intention. In my desire to get from point A to point B, and to get some exercise in the process, I can easily lose sight of that. So my birdwatching boy is slowing me down. And slowing down is good.

Our minds operate at constant warp-speed these days. Our attention pings from worry to worry, from distraction to distraction. Our eyes dart from one screen to another. We rarely sit quietly with our thoughts, or even just sit quietly focusing on one thing (that isn’t on a screen).

But Greyson doesn’t look at screens all that much. When he’s inside, and when he’s not occupied with his sister, he plays with toy birds, sorts through bird cards, pages through bird books, and writes out lists of birds.

When he’s outside, he is now bound and determined to search for and stare at any bird he can. He exhibits patience in waiting for a bird to appear, and when it does, he eagerly walks toward it in hopes of seeing it up close.

And these are countercultural acts in 2022. Being intentional, slowing down, focusing on one thing at a time, being ambivalent to screens, and noticing the natural world are all things that don’t come, well, natural to us these days. So God bless Greyson for embracing these practices.

God bless him for unintentionally being intentional.

But I would be remiss not to also point out that our 6-year-old is a compulsive fellow, and compulsions are not always easy to manage. When we’re outside and Greyson insists on bird watching and bird seeking but then it’s time to come home, it doesn’t go over well and he can sometimes go to pieces.

It’s not like fussing exactly. I am well acquainted with his fussing jags, when he’s petulant or obstinate. But this is more of a sadness. Like he’s heartbroken at missing out on seeing some of his beloved birds. It’s frustrating to manage, but also oddly endearing.

In any case, Greyson is not good at drawing boundaries around his avian hobby. Not even remotely. And I’m not always good at knowing how to manage the ensuing friction.

I don’t know if Greyson would be clinically categorized as OCD. But I do know that he’s obsessive, and I do know that he’s compulsive. I’m not convinced that calling it a disorder would be helpful, though. In my mind, we’re all obsessed with something. Some of us are just more compulsive about it than others.

And my boy is compulsive about — and compelled by — all God’s feathered creatures.

When I think about what 6-year-olds obsess over in 2022, be it video games or Disney shows or other interests that require staring glaze-eyed and slack-jawed at a screen, I am grateful.

Grateful that we lucked out and were gifted a son who somehow hearkens from a pre-screen era. An era where the natural world was more than enough to enchant and enamor us.

A natural world which has been graced, to Greyson’s delight, with 10,000 species of enchanting birds.

So many birds to watch! So little time to watch them.

But our bird boy is doing his best to see ’em all.

A Tale of Two Kitties

When the cost of food soars, there’s only one reasonable thing to do: Willingly take on multiple additional mouths to feed! So with that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to the 5th and 6th members of our family, whose mouths we are quite happy to feed.

One is a handsome, slate-grey stray cat our friend took in but wasn’t able to keep. We have made him our own (though it’s been a bumpy road) and dubbed him Caspian.

The other is a gorgeous, also-slate-grey rescue cat we visited at the shelter and quickly fell in love with. We have made her our own too (down a road with notably fewer bumps) and dubbed her Moksha.

Caspian is a go-getter. Moksha is more of a stay-putter.

Why those names? Well, Caspian is the all-time favorite band of every single adult human being in our house, without exception. (And I think we’ve convinced the kids too.) They are a band that has written the heart-expanding soundtrack for my life since I turned 30.

Meanwhile, Moksha is the name of a jaw-dropping, soul-fortifying, 9-minute opus from one Caspian’s first albums.

We love this band so much that we didn’t even consider any cat name options that weren’t Caspian-derived. We also named our previous cat — a kitten we briefly adopted who didn’t work out — Ríoseco, which is the name of another of our favorite Caspian songs.

Naming cats after rock bands. It’s how we roll.

But how do these cats roll?

Well, Caspian is a bit of a handful. He never once met an instruction he liked (or felt remotely compelled to follow). His greatest ambition in life is to ascend to the highest surface in any given room, like he’s trying to level-up in some kind of vertically oriented video game. If he could transcend the ceiling, he’d do it in a heartbeat. His ethos appears to be: “There’s nowhere to go but up.” (It’s probably a good thing we don’t have an attic.)

Caspian wants to nestle inside every nook and creep into every cranny. Every time we open a door to the outside, he turns into Steve McQueen and plots his great escape. He doesn’t walk; he darts. If the cat adages are correct, then curiosity will, um, kill our beautiful boy within a year — despite his very generous allotment of slightly less than 10 lives. But I’m confident that his inquisitiveness won’t prove fatal.

He’s also very sweet when he curls up next to you on the couch while you watch The Haunting of Hill House (though he hasn’t displayed much interest in the show yet). And once he laid right on my chest, which I took as a the highest of compliments. Caspian’s a good guy, just wild at heart. Once a ragamuffin stray, always a ragamuffin stray. Heck, I used to be one of those. Maybe we can bond over our shared vagabond past.

Then there’s Moksha. She’s our sweetly serene, shy but self-possessed girl. We were never planning to have 2 cats, but we adopted her because we wanted our kids — especially Violet, cat lover extraordinaire — to have a cat who gladly accepted affection. And our girl is always happy to be petted. She is especially ravenous for under-the-chin scratches, which instantly activate her bass-heavy purring amplifier. (I think Jani, Caspian’s bass player, would be impressed.)

Moksha is a consummate napper, and Dani has concluded that she’s an emotional eater too. This has resulted in quick weight gain since we adopted her a month ago, due to her nibbling dry food every time there’s a disturbance of any kind. So we lovingly call her our “chunkamunk.”

She is a peaceful soul, and not a big talker. But her occasional meow (really a mew; she’s not really a fan of the letter O) is adorable enough to melt the hardest heart into blood pudding. Her love language is affection, and she often sleeps the entire night at the foot of our bed, nestled on the comforter.

When we brought Moksha into the house for the first time, we followed a rigorous protocol, laid out for us by a warm-hearted and intensely cat-savvy friend, for keeping the two cats separate to help ensure a successful transition. For nearly three weeks, Moksha stayed in our bedroom, Caspian had free rein of the rest of the house, and occasionally we would swap them out. Only at mealtime were they next to each other, on opposite sides of a door.

When we finally let them meet, it was a little dicey as they got to know each other. But they have quickly learned to coexist, play-fighting at times but in a way that (our cat-expert friend tells us) is normal and healthy. Caspian is the provocateur, and Moksha lets him know when she’s had enough.

Personal boundaries are important to establish, and so are boundaries of the felinal variety. Caspian and Moksha establish their red lines with paw swats and gentle bites. Good for them.

Greyson likes the cats. He gets along fine with them, but they don’t usually factor too much into his day. Violet, however? Our girl loooooves those cats. I have never met a 4-year-old more in tune with an animal than Violet is with these two.

She does everything you could possibly hope or expect from a child her age. She sweetly pets them. She gently chides them when they go somewhere they shouldn’t. She helps feed them (and would gladly do it all by herself if we let her).

She watches intently every time we clean a litter box. She talks to the cats, sometimes at a volume we can’t quite hear, because the conversation wasn’t meant for our ears. She’s connected to the cats and she takes responsibility for the cats and she has quickly become something of a cat connoisseur. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

The road to this point was a bit rocky over the last two months. We weren’t sure if we would keep Caspian after the first few weeks. He just seemed too wild, and too intent on getting out of the house. And when we brought Moksha home, we worries that they would not get along. That Caspian would antagonize Moksha, or be territorial.

But I’m so grateful we stuck it out until things leveled out, and that they have each other to play with.

It feels good to finally venture back into the world of pets, after many years of dog life (until our beloved Taz passed away right after Greyson was born) and one year of cat life (while the kids were very small). Three years later, it’s satisfying to have some furry feline friends for our kids to play with. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that we’ve quickly grown to love ’em too.

So… Greyson and Violet, meet Caspian and Moksha.

May you be the best of buddies as you grow up.

May you forge many happy memories.

And despite what the adage says…

May you all be ever curious.

Acorns and Embers

I managed to wake up before my cat the last few mornings. Which is no small feat, because that guy never hits the snooze button.

It’s been a while since I saw the dark side of the sunrise, and as a result I haven’t blogged in 4 months. This despite the fact that writing, for me, is an antidepressant. It’s free therapy. And the act of writing is pure alchemy. It is the single thing that most consistently and most viscerally makes me feel like myself.

In mid-summer, mental health drifted maddeningly out of my grasp once again, as did clarity and creativity and the physical ability to drag myself out of bed before the last possible minute. It is only in the last two weeks that I have felt a flicker of momentum.

July, August, and September were not momentum months for me. They were treading water, feeling adrift, keeping my head above the surface months. Despite an abundance of sunshine, it was not my brightest season.

I didn’t crashingly bottom out this time like I did in spring 2021, when the two ravenous wolves of anxiety and depression feasted mercilessly on my mind. When I could barely take my kids outside without feeling the weight of the world pressing down upon me. When insomnia ravaged my body and melancholia ravaged my mind.

After suffering with that affliction for a while last year, I sought help from a doctor. Despite being a thuddingly tone-deaf, bombastic fellow, the doctor gave me an antidepressant that effectively helped restore my baseline mental health 3 or 4 weeks later. That was a truly dark night of the soul, and emerging from it was one of the most triumphant emergences of my life.

This time around, in my current mental health downswing, I’ve been more functional. It’s felt more like a mental fog uneasily resting on my mind rather than a 2-ton anvil brutally squashing my heart. I’ve felt more flailing than flattened. More discombobulated than decimated. More down than out.

But regardless, it sucks to not feel like myself.

And I’m ready — months past ready — to move back into the light.

Which feels precarious to say in mid-October since the actual light is starting to fade, and I know what late fall and early winter can be like for me. December and January can be bruising months for my seasonally affected self.

All the more reason to tenaciously summon my will in autumn and gather acorns for winter.

All the more reason to wake up early, well before the kids do (and that darn cat), and start writing again.

All the more reason to, as Thomas said, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The light that glows in the golden autumn sky a little less each day.

And the light that still glows deep inside my weary soul.

Even if it’s just a spark. A flicker. A dull ember.

But an ember can be awakened.