Baby on the Doorstep

Remember the old movie cliché about a baby left in a basket on someone’s doorstep? The camera would pan in on the basket and show a cherubic baby, warmly swaddled in blankets, and this moment of hopeful abandonment would form the central tale around which the movie revolved. When I was a a little kid, I thought it would be thrilling beyond words to hear the doorbell and be the one to find the baby on our doorstep – a perfect baby, and of course I would be allowed to keep it for my own, and naturally it would prove to be a far more satisfying sibling than my actual baby brothers.

Last week I got a mini-version of this story, delivered by Mother Nature and the gods of irony. It was on a night when I was feeling crabby about the degree to which my own children’s activities have landed me the full-time job of Chief Chauffeur. As I opened the front door at 10:00pm to do the final pick-up for that particular night, I was probably complaining (perhaps even whining) about how much I would prefer to climb into bed with a good book. I took one step out the door and then found myself locked in the solemn gaze of a baby robin, standing in the pool of light right outside the door.

It was a very cold and blustery night, and fledglings like this routinely die if they’re caught out of the nest on nights like this (not to mention the predatory stray cats we’ve recently spotted, crouching hopefully directly under the bird feeder). There were no signs of frantic parental robins searching for their darling, and this little one had probably been blundering around in the dark for a long time hoping they’d show up. In their absence, he found and followed our light all the way up onto the porch, driven by the baby bird version of a last hope. He was so worn out he didn’t move at all as I came closer and then scooped him up. But as I held him, he looked at me intently with his shiny black eyes and then gave a loud cheep! and opened his mouth wide, apparently deciding that I would make a perfectly acceptable step-mother.

Well, what else could I do? I put him in a box with plenty of rags on top of a heating pad turned low, and made sure he was shut away from our curious (indoor, but still murderous) cats. In the morning, following baby bird instructions found online, I got some canned dog food down his hungry gullet. And then came the moment of decision: should I put him outside, despite the stiff breeze and chilly temperature, and hope that his real parents would come back in time? Or should I continue as foster mother, knowing that if I kept him longer, it would be highly unlikely that his birdbrain parents would even remember his existence?

I opted to turn him loose to the universe, despite all the dangers and uncertainties. Wild baby birds are very hard for humans to raise, no matter how good our intentions; and although I might be able to manage the feeding schedule (internet instructions: every ten minutes!!!), I have no idea how to teach a baby robin how to hunt for his own worms as he approaches adulthood, nor how to break the bad news that we’re actually different species.

So I set him out in the warmest place I could find, said a little prayer and turned him loose, resolutely climbing into the car and heading out to work. It wasn’t so easy — somehow, finding a baby on the doorstep has a way of making us feel we’re responsible, singled out for this duty. Who’s to say what is really the right thing to do? But it did make me think a little differently about my own fledglings, for whom I really am responsible. Sam has just graduated from the University of Chicago, an excellent and mature young man now, but still clueless about what comes next. This next one won’t be my flight to make, but his — whatever the direction he chooses, whatever the dangers of the storm. I resolved to complain a little less about these years as Chief Chauffeur for the two still at home. All too soon will come the moment to turn these fledglings loose to the universe as well, with all its glories and perils — on little but a wing and a prayer.


Finding God in the Clothesline

It’s a really small gesture, I know: finally getting an outdoor clothesline so I can abandon my electric dryer. I should have done it years ago; I have plenty of space in the yard, and it’s not as though it’s news that we should be looking for every way possible to reduce our gigantic carbon footprints.

I have no excuse for why it took me so long, but finally last month I went online and ordered one of those umbrella-type clotheslines, the kind with a tall pole in the middle and lines strung around it in a square. I had to mix and pour concrete for the first time (something the average six-year-old could do, but who knew?), and used a level to get it straight in its hole. I waited patiently for the required setting time, and then waited again for the rain to stop, and ever since then — for the last thirty loads of laundry or so — I have been hauling the wet clothes out to my line and pinning them up, one shirt or sheet or pair of socks at a time.

What I anticipated in making this shift was a mix of one part relief (finding another thing to do to cut energy consumption), one part hassle, half a cup of stress because of the time it takes to pin up all the clothes and take them down again, and a scant teaspoon of self-righteousness.

What I have found instead is pure pleasure. I had forgotten how wonderful clothes smell when they’ve been dried by the wind and sun. I had not realized how meditative each of those ten or fifteen minute spans could be when I stand there, feeling the sun on my face and being saturated by birdsong as I offer the clothes to the breezes or receive them back. I find myself filled with new awareness and therefore gratitude for this partnership — the natural energies of the earth’s air and heat moving through the mundane offering of my family’s clothing. It is swift, functional, easy; it is also grace and blessing.

A friend sent me this poem in response to my laundry epiphany. I guess I’m not the only one who finds God in the clothesline…

by Ruth Moose
All our life
so much laundry;
each day’s doing or not
comes clean,
flows off and away
to blend with other sins
of this world. Each day
begins new skin,
blessed by the elements
charged to take us
out again to do or undo
what’s been assigned.
From socks to shirts
the selves we shed
lift off the line
as if they own
a life apart
from the one we offer.
There is joy in clean laundry.
All is forgiven in water, sun
and air. We offer our day’s
to the blue-eyed sky, with
soap and prayer,
our arms up, then lowered
in supplication.