If my childhood were a mosaic, I would name one piece Blue Jay because that is the sound I heard from within an air-conditioned museum of a house. The sound pierced silence, reminding me of the stillness my world was made out of during the chilled hours my parents were away, when my brothers were places I can’t remember. I am forty-one now, and the Blue Jay’s call freezes me for a nanosecond. It is a bee sting. A shard dragged across an eye. The Blue Jay reminds me I will die alone. The Blue Jay teaches that this world is broken. Morning has broken, and the Blue Jay cackles.
Yellow pine, hickory, and oak populated our land. Cardinals and chickadees chirped and flitted. But it’s the Blue Jay tattooed on my brain. The tattoo is neon. Phosphorescent. A nuclear button the size of an ant. A small buzzer. Like the game, Operation, when the flimsy tweezers touch metal, a red nose flashes, and a caustic alarm sends shivers.
“Blue Jays are known for their intelligence and complex social systems with tight family bonds.”
Perhaps the grating call is an equivalent to the isolation people feel when viewing photos on social media – those photos of friends and acquaintances living their best curated life, creating a sense of less than for the viewer. The lonely voice within could say: Happiness isn’t really possible because I will never have the love that allows for this kind of photographic engineering.
A Blue Jay’s language is diverse, known for its “’whisper song,’ a soft, quiet conglomeration of clicks, chucks, whirrs, whines, liquid notes, and elements of other calls.” The jeer is what I hear. The jeer is a stab. My kid brain didn’t know about the conviviality of Blue Jays. Are they rubbing their family bliss in my face? This is a silly thought. No, they are the rich family down the street who bullies with their fluoride smiles. Their tufted hair, matching outfits, and perfect hygiene.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been a latch-key kid, the Blue Jay would sound like family. Maybe if the house hadn’t been designed by a Fay Jones architecture student, I would have been insulated from Mother Nature. Instead, rock, wood, and twelve-foot panes are the skin I grew up inside. I spent hours tree gazing from my bedroom window.
“There was a more traditional house up the street,” my father said, “but your mom wanted this one.”
Why couldn’t ya’ll have been in it more often, I wanted to ask.
But, that’s not true. I can’t put my finger on what I missed, and to lay blame isn’t a precise reckoning. If I sit still, a more candid truth roots itself in the eeriness of life having an expiration date. Some children are witnesses to actual death – brutal or slow and agonizing. As if taking a bite of the apple, they enter a world of knowledge that adults hope their children never learn.
I was never a witness. I didn’t empty bedpans or clean feces or blood. I didn’t have to navigate uncomfortable smells or confront my parent’s mortality. Rather, I sat by myself in a house with the Blue Jay cawing outside a window.
I love my childhood home, and I should love this bird. It’s clever and highly evolved. Blue Jays assisted in oak colonization after the last glacial period. Surely there are ecological benefits we are not aware of. And yet, my brain chemistry is in this arranged marriage with the Blue Jay’s song.
The question inside the question I never asked my father is why he and my mother couldn’t protect me from the human condition. I realize this is ridiculous, and yet it’s exactly what my child self demanded. Perhaps this partially explains my generation’s tendency toward hover parenting – to preventing a child from sitting with their own silence. Perhaps this is why I want my ashes scattered in the ocean – to return to my essential elements. We are stardust, after all. Is it not easier to be an ocean than a human?
When I was small enough to hide in a cupboard, I was not wise enough to appreciate what the desert fathers wrote about silence, that it is something to be cherished. As if hiding in a quiet house would shrink this hour of desolation.
My mother introduced me to spirituality via bird burials. When I encountered a dead bird in the yard, often a Blue Jay, I found my mother, and she grabbed her Book of Common Prayer and dug a shoebox out of her closet. There is a constellation of consecrated shoeboxes dotting the horizons of my childhood soil.
Lawrence Durrell writes, “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?” Maybe this is what mystics mean by God is in the silence. Raw and unfiltered, this foreknowledge terrified me, and I darted to the cupboard. In this sense, I wasn’t alone. God was too much, and the Blue Jay was that friend you thought you didn’t like much, absolutely convinced of your dislike, but then you found yourself in a situation with this friend and someone else who was unkind, and the friend called them on their stony heart when you were too afraid to speak. You felt relief and gratitude for their courage, now realizing you had been wrong about your friend.
Or, maybe it’s a case of both/and. God is also in the Blue Jay crying out – inking itself into my little body – screeching, jeering, and singing the different songs for “Hey! I’m right here.”
Sources: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/