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Elegy for Two Cardinals

Rothko's "Orange and Yellow" (1956)

Our bathroom has a small rectangular window above the throne, at eye level when the royalty is male and nature’s command of the moment is more Old Faithful than scatological. The window gives on a portion of our backyard, on a hedge that demarcates ours from the neighbors’ — actually, neighbor, sans s, now that divorce has reaped its grimness on that half acre — then the neighbor’s backyard and house with screened-in pool to the left, and, to the right, sloping wilds toward a brush-infested ditch and waters looking stagnant as late-Jurassic evangelicals. I was performing the monarchial function the evening of the year’s first day (“and god said Let there be water, and there was a trickle”). I looked through the window, as I usually do when my vessie’s vasselage decides to brook instead of flash-flood out of my kidney-stone infested Arab-American pipeline (my only consolation on that score is that I’m in good company: Montaigne was a ferocious sufferer of that vile malady), and there was a cardinal hopping in and out of the hedge. It was hopping back into the hedge and out at different places like it was a Penn & Teller illusion. Then I realized that it was a Penn & Teller illusion. There were two cardinals playing cache-cache. When one hopped out, the other one hopped back in with Cercle du Soleil synchronicity. Finally one of the two hopped out and stayed out, conquering our side of the yards, chirping its one-note chirp at regular intervals and picking at the leaves of grass to balance out its rhythms. The other, it seems, like Burt Lancaster in “The Swimmer,” must’ve found himself another backyard to flirt with.

I stood there watching the cardinal for five minutes and wondered first about the day that was ending, the early and quick dusk, the year that had blown off like just another squall and how wasteful we are with time, how easily we spend it refusing merely to be active observers of the life around us. Watching television, as we apparently do about a third of our lifetime, doesn’t count. It’s to observation what Spam is to food: a processed version of something that has no more resemblance with its original than McNuggets do with poultry. William Faulkner would say: if you want to understand human beings, watch children at play. That was before “educators” demolished childhood the way English departments demolished literature. If you want to understand why schools destroy humanity, watch how children’s play has been colonized and defaced by the impulse to package every moment into something planned and organized in educators’ image of what play ought to be: At all costs, nothing approximating two cardinals playing hide and seek with their Penn & Teller impersonations.

I’m as guilty as the worst of them. I’ve turned my older child’s days into regimens of Instruction and Responsibility, as if every moment wasted is a moment lost to … what, the competition from China ? The kid who’ll take her spot at Princeton for having logged those extra hours On Task? With my younger son I’m more Faulknerian: his existence, his play, is enough to reassure me. He’s my cardinal at play, although I’ve yet to make the required leap and let his sister be the second cardinal more often than I let her before she abandons him for her Cheeverian prowls of suburban backyards: she just got fitted for her braces, the ritual that, in America, is more religious confirmation and initiation into adolescent sexuality than anything the Yanomamo Indians have ever ritualized in their Neolithic eternity. And wasn’t it just a few moments ago that she was herself a three-year-old, as oblivious to time, Absaloms and John Cheever we all have a right to be?

“And I think about the past—how orderly, clean, and sensible it seems; above all, how light. I sit in a well-lighted yellow room thinking of the past, but I seem, in relation to the past, to be sitting in darkness.” That’s Cheever for you, in his sadly wonderful Journals. Except that the past doesn’t seem to me ordered at all (my Lebanon childhood, ordered? The grandest gift to that childhood is that it wasn’t ordered or light, though lit: that was something else, no thanks be to nights of flares and deflagrations and tracer-bullets). And I wasn’t sitting in a bright yellow room but standing at my throne, as I recall, trying to make yellow (did you know that Amelia Earhart named her favorite car the “yellow peril”?) while observing that pair of New Year cardinals eulogize the remains of their day.

There were those years once, millennia, before cars, televisions, subways, suburbs and gross domestic products, when an individual could spend three hours observing a pair of cardinals pick at the wild grass on the prairie, when fifteen individuals over fifteen years could spend their three hours a year each observing pairs of cardinals pick at the grass, when the accumulated wealth of microcosmic information gathered along the way would have added up to a set of treatise on ornithology or color-plated masterworks by Audubon. I think I’m being too precious, unnobly savaging nature’s original observers with Dillardisms. “It's as though our authors have all been forced to absorb something as exquisite as, say, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” the critic J. Bottum wrote some years back, “a book of semi-mystical nature-observation that has been mandatory at writers’ workshops for years. And once a writer’s been anniedillardated, the prose gets finer and finer, and the point gets smaller and smaller.” So it has.

I heard Cheryl call out my name three times, Pierre, Pierre, Pierre, pretty much like the cock that caught Simon Peter with his soul in the cookie jar, though it was more dusk than dawn and as betrayals go I think mine haven’t been quite of messianic proportions, though I was about to commit a minor one now: I did not respond, not wanting to frighten the cardinals. But my bit, ma bitte, was done: “Whilst thus,” Ralph Waldo wrote in his own watering of nature, “the poet animates nature with his own thoughts,” I animate mine with my pee.

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