Saturday, August 20, 2016

THE CARDINAL SIGNATURE


This morning following a heavy rain yesterday, I went to the French doors in the living room and opened them to discover a brilliant cardinal sitting under a table on the porch. He flew up and away when he heard the door open, which symbolized for me that his upward flight spelled good fortune for my house. And I heard “ere he flew out of sight,” a familiar “cheer, cheer.” I chose to accept that message from the State bird of Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

A year-round resident in any environment, the cardinal is a family-minded bird, and both male and female care for the young until they leave the nest. A notable aspect of the male’s color is that he changes from a brilliant red to mousy brown to match his wife’s color and to serve as camouflage when they are parenting, so that both of them are known in the bird world as being in the process of raising their babies. I’ve never glimpsed this phenomenon, but I know a few parents who could take a lesson in caretaking from the cardinals!

For Christians, cardinals symbolize the cross, but for Mexicans, it is also emblematic of Quetzalcoatl, lord of the four cardinal points from which the wind blows. The cardinal’s feathers link it with fire, vitality, and passion -- three qualities consonant with a long life of creativity.

During my childhood, I was given a book of birds with color photographs printed on linen paper that I prized. When my mother read to us at night, the bird book with the photo of the cardinal became my favorite. On a trip to California, I was transporting the book, among many other cherished volumes from my childhood, for my grandchildren to put in their library, but four boxes of them were stolen from the van at a stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Those thieves didn’t know what was stored in the boxes, or they would’ve left them behind and taken only the Gameboy, computer, and tapes for the Gameboy, but, to me, the contents of those boxes held an entire happy childhood.

This year as I was writing my latest book of poetry, A Slow Moving Stream, my oldest daughter, who suffers from numerous illnesses, spied a cardinal on her lawn and snapped a photograph of it. The poem that I wrote about this incident is probably the only non-thematic poem in a book about the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. But it somehow belonged as a symbol of the resilient Acadians’ journey toward settlement in the New World, as well as a message of hope for my daughter’s recovery from illness. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

“Not even the cats could touch her bird,
they had been searching for prey
and now sat coiled at my daughter’s feet,
dazzled by the bright color.

It landed in the midst of grief,
a gift on the skin of illness,
eyes throbbing with light
ready to unleash happiness

in twelve days, twelve weeks,
twelve months — predictions, yes,
but singing in her best dress
small and red,

the changed shape of my mother
splashing brilliance in new arteries of joy,
carrying my daughter in her arms,
purified and safe, back to her roots.”








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