Jonathan Franzen talks a lot about birds. They’re his thing. In his latest novel-opus, Freedom, birdwatching functions as a massive metaphor for…well, you read it and tell me. He also frames his essay on the loss of his friend David Foster Wallace around a birding trip, falling far off the grid somewhere in the South Pacific to reflect on their friendship and Wallace’s recent suicide.
In the course of the essay, Franzen characterizes the final difference between his own, curmudgeonly malcontented self and his friend, lodged in the depths of suicidal despair. Wallace, Franzen says, was “utterly indifferent to birds.” Franzen would spot a rare beautiful thing and point it out; Wallace would shrug and say, “yeah.” “I understood,” he says, “the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.”
I find myself at times unable to escape myself in the joy of much of anything. But I also have friends who suffer from unmanageable misery and know the difference between that and this, my own manageable discontent. My temporary inability to see the birds is just that – temporary. And even when it seems that it won’t end, with the gift of memory and the grace of hope, I always know that it will. My friends are not all so lucky.
My parents hung weird plastic contraptions on their back porch for the hummingbirds to buzz, hover, dip their long thin beaks into sugar-water, hover, buzz, and zip back off across the yard. This flitting iridescence always takes me by surprise. It seems too sophisticated for this tiny place at the base of the mountains, too tropical for an everyday backyard. But there they are, humming behind my head, drawn to me with just a tiny bit of sugar boiled in tap water, lured toward us with just a touch of sweetness.
While we’re on the subject of cranky modern male writers with chips on their shoulders: I just finished Dave Egger’s latest, The Circle. It’s an all-out screed, patterned around Orwell’s 1984: a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media; tech business monopolies; our dependence on cloud-based knowledge; the human desire to know all there is to know and the human inability to treat knowledge with any semblance of wisdom. Its characters find themselves drawn inexorably into the digital world of “friending,” “zinging,” “smiling,” “frowning,” judging their success by algorithmic online participation metrics called their “PartiRank.” The main character is so seduced by it all that she completely loses contact with her family, her friends, herself. Setting aside the sense one gets of Eggers writing the entire novel in a single, snark-fueled all-nighter, the dystopia is real enough to be terrifying. What AM I sacrificing for all the online investment? I finished the book and immediately shut down my Pinterest and eHarmony accounts.
And then I noted my completion of it on GoodReads.
And now I’m blogging about it.
I threw the windows open this morning, cool May air swirling through my apartment and wiping it clean of that closed-up aroma from being empty too often. I walked from the living room to the bedroom and was stopped in my tracks by an unfamiliar beeping. I looked from device to device, confused. Was my phone ringing? No. Did someone comment on my Facebook status? No. A random G-chat invitation? No. Did I inadvertently leave the iPod alarm on? No. I looked out the window. A single sparrow was sitting on the balcony railing, chest puffed out, beak open wide, singing his tiny little bird heart out to me. Or, maybe he was singing to himself, able to see his own reflection in the window. He sang and he sang and he sang and then, without a second thought, fluffed his wings, spread them wide and flew off.
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Jesus asked that when he was teaching to a crowd so big that they started to trample one another. And then, answering his own question, he assured those thousands who’d gotten their feet stomped on and their privacy invaded and their dignity threatened just to hear him speak – assured them that yes. Five sparrows are sold for two pennies. And yet, not one of them is forgotten before God. And, you, each of you is of more value than many sparrows.
But I get lost, confusing sparrow song for the zing of digital importance. I lose myself in the business of busy-ness, forgetting to listen for the hummingbird’s buzz. I am not so good at bird-watching. I’d rather go faster than that, or slower. In order to get noticed, the sparrows have to light right there on my balcony and sing their little bird hearts out to me. Thank God I am not God. Thank God that God, counter of hairs on my head and rememberer of every two-bit sparrow song, is.