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For The Birds

The sky over Banderas Bay is still heavy with gray clouds from the previous day’s storms when my friends and I embark on our last adventure in Puerto Vallarta. Cool air greets us, a respite from late summer’s humidity; the ocean murmurs behind us. We climb cobbled streets to meet our guide, Fernando, at a nearby OXXO, a convenience store chain with ubiquitous presence all over the country. Early morning traffic whirs along the road. Fernando waits for us next to his air-conditioned touring van. He dispenses warm hugs and hellos. We board the van, eager to leave the city for a morning with the birds. “Let’s go, girls!” says Fernando, blue eyes smiling.

The drive to El Tuito follows coastal Manzanillo highway 200 and veers southward and inland at Boca de Tomatlan, climbing from sea level into oak and pine country. Fernando inquires about our lives and professions, while providing little windows into his path from Mexico City to cetacean studies and Puerto Vallarta. We are all educators, so we describe boarding school life and offer statistics about demographics. (I don’t mention that I am a newly-minted former educator because the wounds to my ego are still fresh. My friends kindly uphold my omission.)

We spend all morning in the temperate mountain region, relishing the clearing cloud cover and a break from the heat. At over a thousand feet above sea level, the air hums with sound: the buzzing, chirping, and chittering of creatures that thrive in tropics. Fernando spots birds from barely perceptible movements in the abundant, green canopy, and he shuffles our bodies and our lines of vision to accommodate seeing what he sees. Within minutes, we’ve spotted nearly a dozen different birds, among them a male blue-black grassquit, small and, appropriately, bluish-black with white spots in the crook of its wings. Fernando, who warned us at the outset that he was a serious “bird nerd,” puffs with joy. “Look at him!” he says. “Watch… He will jump to announce his territory.” Sure enough, the grassquit bounces in place, a single spindly branch propelling him upward: Here I am! Look at me!

In the distance, a black-bellied whistling duck alights on a tree. Fernando says: “Quick! Two o’clock!” The group pivots as one, binoculars at the ready. The duck has large, ringed eyes that give it an inquisitive appearance, and long legs that match its bright coral bill. It is cuter than the average dinosaur’s descendant.

We drive further inland to Rancho Primavera, a destination known for its birding opportunities. Heavy blushing mangoes dangle from grove trees. Unseen birds entice us with birdsong. The caretaker’s dun-colored dogs follow our trek through the grass. Fernando whistles a series of staccato pygmy owl toots and, in turn, flushes out a cinnamon hummingbird, which we track as it zips through undergrowth. As if on cue, Fernando points to a blue-capped motmot resting on a low branch. It fixes us with its red gaze. We coo.

A male elegant trogon, resplendent with a brilliant red breast and shimmering green body, flits through high branches near the lagoon. It holds a moth in its beak; the moth’s wings flap wildly. The trogon divides its attention between us and the insistent call of a nearby female, reluctant to reveal the location of its nest. We turn to leave, and the trogon disappears from sight.

Photo Credit: (Who else but) Fernando

Fernando walks several steps ahead, his short brown ponytail swishing. He waves his arms: “Come on, girls!” We fall into a single line on the moist terrain, four birds in tow.

The tour concludes at a family-run El Tuito restaurant. Fernando confers with our young server, the proprietor’s daughter, whose shy smile betrays amusement over our group’s limited grasp of the Spanish language. We order beef machaca with eggs with tortillas, salsa, and Pacifico beers all around. Fernando chooses eggs with locally made panela cheese. We raise our eyebrows at the lack of peppers in his dish. He laughs. “I know,” he says, smiling ruefully into his plate. “I’m a weird Mexican.”

Thank you, Restaurante El Mariachi!

Fernando teases us all the way back into the city, no longer a guide but a friend. We exchange contact information while saying goodbye. He has an evening tour to run before going home to his beagle, Leia.

Later that evening, we lounge in the pool. Our eyes savor the sunset; our limbs bob in the cool water. We are, for a short moment, unburdened. Soon, my friends will return to their jobs at the school where we met. They’re girding themselves for three weeks of in-service; I know, because I used to attend the compulsory monotony, too. As we twirl and weave through gentle waves, recollecting the day, laughing, and singing along to ABBA’s “Fernando,” I find myself wishing that this year will bring them to new heights in the areas of their lives that truly bring them joy: their creativity, their pride and rewards of work, their connections with high school learners.

I choose not to think about the fact that I won’t be returning to teaching with my friends. Instead, I’m reminded for the hundredth time of Emily Dickinson, my gap year muse: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul / and sings the tune without the words / and never stops – at all.”  Relaxing in the pool, still warm from memories of the day, I feel like I’ve just stepped into the sun after a long spell in the dark; my cells and spirit reunite, a small bird on wing.

© 2017 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Angels Among Us

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My students and I recently finished reading Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli. The book’s narrator, Misha, is a young boy of indeterminate age – probably 8 or younger, we decided – who has been living on the streets and thieving for so long that he has no recollection of his past otherwise. His innocence provides moments of humor but also confounds us. How could a child lack memories? How could a young boy exist without knowledge of birthday cakes, baths, and medicines?

Intrigued, I asked the students about their earliest memories. I was surprised that many of them cited memories from age two and three in some detail, while others, like me, were older when their first memories formalized. They recalled sensory details: the fur of a brother’s Halloween costume; hiding in the back of a closet, skin brushed by low-hanging clothes, dark shadows around them. I made my best case for memory’s lack of specificity; they returned with the observation that one person’s memory rarely matches another’s, so an individual’s memory is specific to him- or herself. I suggested that sometimes the stories families tell create a mental image that then supports a family-centered reality. Some agreed; some didn’t. The discussion made me wonder if and how the acquisition of knowledge nudges certain memories to the periphery while other memories remain static and dependable.

*

My first memory dates back to age five. Like my students, the details dwell in the senses. I lay in my bed at the house on King Street, tucked under a Holly Hobbie blanket. It was night, and a small column of hallway light fell across my bed. My grandmother, who at the time was undergoing treatment for a cancer she didn’t conquer, sat at the edge of the bed, stroking my forehead. Her sapphire eyes shone in the dark. She wore a velvet robe and turban to match her eyes. Before I fell asleep, I imagined that all angels must look like my grandmother.

*

Misha gives significant thought to the presence of angels. He polls others: do they believe in angels? Some do; others scoff at him. A kind doctor convinces Misha that angels exist, and Misha eventually comes to think that we each have an angel who lives within us.

In the book, Misha is something of an angel himself. He begins life with no one to guide him, yet he intuitively senses right from wrong. He pilfers food wherever he can, but he shares it with those he cares for. He doesn’t have to share any of it – the book is set in the Warsaw ghetto, and everyone is sick with starvation – but he does anyway. I have read Milkweed several times, for pleasure and in preparation for discussion, and Misha is one of the unforgettables: the characters we adopt as real, for whom we root, worry, cry, and laugh as if they were one of our own. Misha made me reconsider the nature of angels.

*

Misha has no recollection of his life before orphanhood. When the book’s big brother-figure, Uri, bestows him with an elaborate personal “history,” Misha’s response is nothing short of jubilation. He loves his story and recounts it to anyone who will listen. His memories evolve over time, altered by oral embellishments.

I identify with Misha in this regard. I never knew my mother’s parents or the details surrounding so much of what made up her story. I have only her journals as a window to her past. Instead, I embraced my grandparents’ rich history growing up. My grandfather completed his autobiography shortly before he passed away. I love to share his stories: finding thieves searching his bedroom in pre-WWII China; coming face to face with water buffalo on a hunting expedition in Tanzania; developing a hospital built on education for those afflicted with leprosy. My pride in their legacy of accomplishments is an integral part of who I am. Like Misha, too, I’ll tell my story to anyone who will listen.

*

A couple weeks ago, my father gave me a collection of china that belonged to my grandmother, noting that it was one of her three “most prized possessions.” She carried it everywhere she lived during her missionary career. The set contains twelve of everything – plates, salad plates, teacups, saucers, bowls, soup bowls, and a pitcher, serving bowl, and cream and sugar set – a simple bamboo design in immaculate condition, despite many years of traveling abroad.

I had no idea this collection existed, much less that my grandmother treasured it. Dad supplied these details. I have few recollections of my grandmother; she died right around the time of my first clear memory. Sometimes I speculate whether she might have been an actual angel.

I know from what my grandfather has written that she was instrumental in sponsoring my mother’s passage into the States. If not for her, I might be one of thousands of Julias scrapping for money and success in the Ukraine. My grandmother’s drive made my life as it exists today possible. I held back tears when my father, eyes sparkling and mustache twitching, said, “She would have been delighted for you to have them.”

Dad left as suddenly as he came, and I attended to the collection, hand washing every piece, holding very tightly, and then towel drying each one. In an hour and a half, I had built neat stacks, each dish separated by a paper towel buffer. My palms tingled, as they do whenever I feel excited. This was a treasure I never anticipated, but will cherish. It represents something much larger – a tangible connection to the lives my grandparents led in service to the Lutheran Church, and to a woman I remember, if only a little, adoring. If Misha were with me, I would have told him that often angels live within us, but sometimes they like to travel.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2014

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