A Release of Birds

I woke up at 3:50am today.

It was a dusky time, before dawn, cloud cover shadowing any light emanations from either the sun or moon, and I opened my windows to let in some night-freshened air. The familiar sounds of birds entered the windows, wafting and then entwining with the dewy fresh air. Familiar birds, Robins, House Sparrows and Finches. They were familiar, yet not so familiar. I hadn’t heard them in a long, long time.

Over the months that have become a year and a half in my current home, I’ve kept the windows shut: it’s noisy outside, with Yonge St traffic on one side and the whirring of rooftop HVAC systems on the other. Then there’s the dirt and dust that these mechanical urban denizens kick up and into everything. And then there’s the smell, usually awful, of a neighbouring apartment dweller’s cooking, coming from their kitchen vent, so conveniently located just below my most accessible window.

But this morning, this so very early morning, there were almost no vehicles on Yonge St and no one cooking next door. There was just me and the birds and the fresh air. It brought me back to an earlier time, my adolescence, when I was a Wildlife Biology student and would relish the opportunity to get up so early to go out birdwatching. And, so I did.

As I pulled off my nightgown and put on the simplest of pants, a wool t-shirt, and moccasins, a song floated into my ears, filling in and smoothing the gaps between bird chirps. It was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

It was so very fitting. Usually, these musical ‘earworms’ of mine have a message, so I allowed it to meld with the actual birds calling in the growing dawn outside with the memories of how I once used to prepare for birdwatching, the wee hours of the morning portending auspicious and precious and sacred encounters out-of-doors.

I was so very surprised at how fast I was ready to go. These days, it could take me a half an hour to get ready just to go out and get a can of cat food and loaf of bread from down the street. Instead, there I was, all dressed, my nice lightweight monocular around my neck and clipped to the pocket of my waxed cotton down-filled jacket. Off I went.

The song now wafted along with me, in the background of my mind. What was Leonard Cohen singing about? While preparing my Leonard Cohen lectures, I recalled seeing a photo of him looking fondly out a window, trees and shrubbery just visible on the periphery of the frame. Was he listening to the birds that had inspired this song one morning, early? I understood the song so much better now.

Birds appear a few times in the Torah, performing a variety of duties and awakening the imagination to the lesson being shown by them. Most of us are familiar with the dove that was released from the Ark in order to see if the flood waters had receded enough to go out onto the dry land. Different birds are released, one being a Raven. Eventually, a bird returns with an olive branch, evidence that there must be enough of a true peace on the land to sustain a tree and its fruit. We feel joy and relief, and understand that when one endures a real or metaphorical storm of Biblical proportions, there will be a new world opened to us.

In last week’s Torah portion, there is a sacrificial rite performed that requires two birds. It is the ritual performed when someone has recovered from צרעת tzara’at, a whitish skin affliction in humans, and also of surfaces such as walls or leather. Tzara’at is almost always cured by a spiritual transformation in the Torah, for example when Moses’ sister Miriam is afflicted after behaving in a manner that seems defiant to God, and Moses pleads אל נח רפא נה לה Please God, Heal Her Now.

The ritual signifying the end of a person’s tzara’at requires two birds. One is killed and the blood is drained into a basin with water. The second bird is released but not until after being dipped into this basin with the first bird’s blood mixed with water. When I read this, I understand that what had been is now passed away, and that what will be bears the memory and essence of that past being. There is no clean and complete break from who we once were, we are the same person, but have now been released from whatever unresolved spiritual bondage it was that had been disabling us.

How we go forth is important, too. What did Noach do when he, the most righteous man God could chose to build the Ark and assemble all the pairs of creatures to be preserved in it, finally set out into the newly washed world? He got drunk, had incestuous relations with his daughters, and resumed being who he was before the Flood.

That is one way to do this stepping out into a renewed world. Right now, we are all in our third year of pandemic. We keep releasing the Doves and Ravens, but are they bringing back signs of dry land yet? It depends upon who you ask. Some people thought there was no need for an Ark in the first place, that the coronavirus pandemic was a hoax. Others believe that their is good dry land out there, because, after all, it’s been more than two years already and it’s time to get back to enjoying life – which is a desire for dry land not supported by evidence from our communities of scientific scouts.

In fact, the first day the mask mandate was lifted here in Ontario, I went out to buy a pair of walking shoes and had to drop everything and run out of the store because two people came in, wearing no masks, stood right next to the bench where I was trying on shoes, and one of them began coughing and not even attempting to cover her mouth. Just like the old days, before the pandemic. Those halcyon days, when you could cough anyway you wanted to, and never bothered to wash your hands unless they looked dirty.

We all do want to be released, if we’ve managed to stay afloat and aboard this great Ark of the Pandemic. But a few things need to happen: we need good evidence that the land is good and dry. And, we need to carry some of the essence of who we were before the Pandemic, so that we can be reminded of how to leave behind beliefs and behaviours that didn’t serve us well, and move forward.