Cardinals in the Snow

Male northern cardinal in a tree

March is usually a long, teeth-gritting month for me. I invariably expect the snow to melt, the days to warm, fragile green spears to poke through the dirt. And never. It just never seems to happen.

Yesterday Carl shoveled out our back patio so there would be some place for the builders to throw all the old paneling and drywall they were ripping out of our basement, and in places the snow is still almost two feet deep. This morning it was 8 degrees with a windchill below zero.

Just no.

Because of our cabin fever (and the bitter cold, obvs) we’ve been feeding the birds a lot this winter. The feeder is right outside our front window, and we’ve been loving the chickadees, woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches, juncos, little brown birds I can’t identify… and lots and lots of cardinals.

I’m never surprised to see the cardinals in our front yard. Ours is the only front yard feeder I’ve seen on our block and it’s become a hot spot, attracting a healthy population of squirrels too—gray, red, and black—and quite possibly the reason we’ve had to start setting mouse traps in our kitchen (sigh). But anyway. I still walk Ollie to sleep for his three or four daily naps, and I use the same pacing route I did with Iris, front door to back in endless repetition. There’s a row of glass panels in the back door, and I often stop and stare out into the back yard, the frozen lawn and then the tree line.

And almost always a flash of red.

A cardinal sitting in the honeysuckle bush. The telephone wire. Deep in the woods. Flying low across the yard.

Do you believe in spirit guides? Alternatively, do you hate how questions like that force you to stop learning and start defending? Yeah. That’s pretty much how I feel. Sidestepping that question, I’ve simply been enjoying the birds and finding it odd how often I see them sitting in the trees behind the house. I never used to see them that much.

So last night, rocking a sad and teething baby to sleep, I started reading about cardinals.

Just for fun.

Of course you know that cardinals, by their very name, are related to traditional Christianity, to the red robes worn by “cardinals” in the Catholic church. But did you know that cardinals are one of the rarer types of birds where the females whistle the same distinctive song as the males? Cardinals are seen as a call to self-confidence, a move to greater creativity and unself-conscious expression, the ownership of the abilities you have worked hard to cultivate and the goals you have already achieved.

Often when I’m chatting with people about my life as a stay-at-home my writing comes into the conversation and people almost invariably talk kindly about how good it must be to have an outlet, to do something creative, to not be overly fixated on my children. Like I’m painting my nails or reading Malcolm Gladwell in the bath.

And no offense to the nail enthusiasts out there (or Malcolm Gladwell), but that’s not exactly what I’m doing. And even though I usually just smile and say, yes, I’m really having fun, maybe I should start finding ways to be pleasant without delegitimizing myself.

I mean, I am a person who has business meeting with myself. There is nothing silly about dreaming big if you’re also willing to work hard. There’s nothing wrong with taking yourself seriously.

Even if you are a mom in yoga pants. With applesauce stains.


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