Elizabeth Wallace is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in Calgary, and is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Calgary
“They are mating – right outside my window!” I manage not to vocalize this to my patient who is on the other end of this Zoom psychotherapy session, but I am filled with awe and privilege as I view my newly discovered bird companions vibrating with creativity right before my eyes. The sprightly, variegated creatures are at eye level because I am now working as a psychiatrist entirely from my home office, which is on the second storey of my house in central Calgary.
The pandemic has taken me to a new space and a new level – quite literally. In normal times, I spent little time at home, and not much at all in this small office space looking out on a treetop. Early in the pandemic I discovered that the bird traffic up here is dense, while roads are emptied. In the midst of grieving the loss of so much normalcy – my professional office, the drive to work, the freedom to come and go as I please, my Zumba classes, in-person meetings with patients, colleagues and friends – I discovered a multitude of flying, warbling little creatures, lives intertwined with this leafing tree.
I never paid much attention to these birds before, nor to this tree. Their names are unknown to me. But in late March I began to notice these brief sojourners on bare branches, feathers fluffed out in the cold, chirping, fighting and flighting. I noticed the fine etchings of feathers, and the pulsing of dark throats as they proclaimed their being in insistent, staccato notes, as well as engaged in occasional irritable spats over branches. April arrived and slowly, slowly, we made friends. I opened the window more and more often, sad when the winds were too cold to allow it. I noticed curious bright eyes that looked right into mine, as I navigated the screen-play of anxiety, discovery, and uncertainty before me. To my surprise, my patients began to comment on the delightful chirping of birds as a backdrop to my voice. Perhaps the birds were speaking louder than me. I began to imagine the birds as my co-therapists, conveying an implicit message of hope, continuity, and purpose, more potent than anything I could put into words. Bird therapists, helping my patients, sending vibrant coded messages, activating a sympathetic nervous system buzz in us that had been muted by screens. Then it dawned on me that the birds, and their tree, were actually my therapy, one of the things keeping me alive.
I began to have bird memories. Memories of waiting for the school bus as a child, out in the country, listening to a three-note bird call that I learned to whistle in reply. Calling back and forth each spring morning. Companions starting the day together. I can still whistle that cadence. I remember proudly bringing a crumbly, grassy bird’s nest for show and tell in grade one. Fat robins pulling worms under the spreading oak tree in our farmyard. Thimble-sized hummingbirds sipping day lily nectar in my mother’s flower garden just outside our kitchen window, wings whispering of tropical locales, in this Northern land.
May arrives in my office bower, and an explosion of activity. Flocks of parents and children appear on the sidewalk below. Brightly coloured t-shirts and bicycles with streamers, scooters zooming, skateboards. Dogs and strollers. All at home because of the pandemic, and the neighborhood is blossoming. Now, I eagerly return to my perch each morning, viewing the ever-shifting theatre of life before me, on and just beyond my laptop. I watch the faint greening of branch tips, promising buds, followed by tender emerging leaves. I watch the beaks jammed full of long tatters of dead grass, twigs, mossy bits. Sometimes beaks so impossibly loaded I want to laugh out loud. I do laugh out loud when a speckle-headed hopeful arrives with a beak stuffed absurdly full of a white fluffball bigger than his head. They bring offerings of feathers to me, proud of their latest finds. I spruce up my nest also. Perhaps we are birds of a feather.
One day, a black-headed bird with brilliant white stripes chirps loudly all day. This is a particularly compelling song and I fantasize about what he or she is saying; what message is being sent out into the world? Ancient bird words, older than humans, so insistent and clear but a mystery to my ears. All falls into place that afternoon when he – now I realize it is a “he” – is joined by a plain brown bird and the spark of life ignites, and future begins, just beyond my screen.