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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The House Finch Waits to Flee Like a Bird

I first sighted the house finch yesterday afternoon. From inside the window at my writing table I saw him hopping, then walking slowly about the deck. He did not fly but he did not appear injured. He was quite handsome, sun glinting off his bright red back feathers.

After some time a female appeared, a walking in similar circles, accompanying him. They looked back and forth but did not approach each other. Maybe they were mating, but no signs if so. Maybe the nest was nearby and he was protecting it. This struck me as impractical—a nest so low to the ground. After some time she left.

My friend arrived for our afternoon gardening. He agreed on the injured bird theory, but after more observation decided this guy was a fledgling trying to get his flying act together. The female was probably mom urging him on.

An hour later the house finch lifted up and went for the window screen where he hung for five minutes. Then turned and wheeled for the Norway spruce twenty feet away. He made it. He perched on a low branch, chirping occasionally. Figuring he’d soon be off, we planted carrots and arugula, dug perennials to move to the cottage garden, and stopped when the sun was low in the neighbor’s trees. Walking back, we checked the Norway spruce and found no house finch.

We put our tools in the shed, and walked up the stone ramp. There he was, almost right back where he started from, pottering around under the stone overhang. The ramp is just off the deck, no more than twelve feet from the house. Maybe that is why linnets are called house finches—they like to hang around the house. Sometimes they are called dooryard birds. Maybe his balance is not developed enough and clinging to a branch all night too scary. He would rather take his chances on terra firma. When I discovered him, I thought him bewildered. Now I have decided he is sure of himself. He knows that he must wait until he is ready, until the world is ready for him. I go to bed apprehensive. There are cats and hawks in the neighborhood.

Soon after sunrise I went out. He was still here, out and about, hopping around, a bundle of feathers. I scattered some sunflowers right at his feet. He had to be hungry, but he ignored my offering. He wandered the driveway and the stone patio for the next hour. When I left the house at 7:30 he was nowhere to be found.

Yesterday afternoon all I did was check on this bird. Bam, I look out and he’s in my life. A bird not behaving like a bird. A bird not flying to the feeder. A bird not minding a human approaching. The house finch stepped in, my concentration fled. When I could not see him, I went searching. If I were to name him, I’d call him Louis. There’s a pair of them, you know. A pair of interrupters who have asked me: how did I feel in different times of my life, how did my feelings affect my actions, what can waiting and watching teach me.

What started as a lark, following some significant person for a year of my life and responding to that life, has turned into something far more than a subsuming research project that results in some artwork. The individual’s lifespan and the historical events that frame the subject’s life populate my head. Most of my days I am more at home in 1958 or 1924 than 2011. I reckon biographers live this way every day. Although they may have a deadline, it is likely longer than a year. They probably selected their subject because the history and world the person inhabited was familiar to them. But I have this one-year deadline. Unless, always the bottom line, I die before October 4,  I must leave Armstrong in a few months and begin anew. I’ll be only beginning to believe I might know a little something about this amazing man.

In the middle of the night I say Armstrong is too much to handle. But, I signed on for this giant, I have abdicated control. Organizing this Stoptime Louis Armstrong Festival on July 6 is a crazy thing to do. I am as scared as that house finch trying to levitate off my deck. But I just reported that the house finch wasn’t scared, that he was waiting, when the time was right, he’d fly. And so like Louis Armstrong. He had a superb sense of timing. Musically, naturally, but far greater than that. He knew how to move through the world. He knew how to wait—for Joe Oliver to ask him to play in his band, when to let his star shine brighter and stronger than Oliver’s, when to let Joe Glaser take care of things, when to let the women go, how to wait in the wings off-stage, when to speak his mind, when to keep quiet.

Better to think about waiting another way. When does waiting profit us? For the fledgling, waiting is learning timing. Armstrong learned early on how to take advantage of his opportunities, how to make timing work for him. Some of us have time to prepare for death and he was one. He was greatly weakened in his last two years. It’s difficult even all these years later to see him in those last performances. He never gave up. In public. He knew when to tell the old stories that he repeated again and again, when to sing and when to let others make the music. Hal Miller gave me a DVD of Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1970. Miller said that it was hard to watch. It is. Armstrong strolls through a long practice session on the Newport set; he speaks to this good friend and that one, Bobby Hackett, Tyree Glenn, Wild Bill Davison. They have their instruments and keep right on playing. Louis does not have his trumpet. An interviewer asks him questions. He responds and at the same time keeps right on talking with his friends. He talks about the brass band in New Orleans, how the funeral march starts, and we hear “Flee Like a Bird.”


When I wrote my February 25th post on Armstrong’s letter to L/CPL Villec, I reported that I’d finally found the song, learned the words, no longer had to wonder what that famous tune was. That seems like years ago. I have read or heard Louis tell that story dozen of times since then. He was good at repeating himself; all I have to do is wait and this happens.





Here is "Flee as a Bird" from The Great Chicago Concert recording.




Armstrong knew what he was waiting for. He kept company while he waited. It was still a wonderful world even if he had to ride the chair elevator up the steep stairs from the first to the second floor in the Corona house. When I visited the house last August, I’d barely met the man. His laugh, his rolling eyes, his handkerchief, I could see all that, but I did not know him. I didn’t know what a moldy fig was or why or when he got angry about where jazz was going. I saw him with his trumpet at his chops, but I’d never seen him in the late 1920s, early 30s, all nip and tuck in that white suit, running back and forth, bending at the waist, so jumped up with delight he couldn’t stand still if someone tied him up. I knew him in the 1950s and 60s, when he was called an entertainer—musician, a long gone descriptor in most everyone’s book. I couldn’t imagine he had to ride upstairs. Flee like a bird. 

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