Reading Vesper Flights, Defining Home and Permanence
I recently began reading Helen Macdonald’s essay collection, Vesper Flights (New York: Grove Press, 2020). I’ve only read the first few essays; this is not a book review. Maybe later. This is about how a writer’s mind – mine – wanders around another writer’s work and finds pieces that connect with their own work. Not a comparison. A conversation. A nudge to reflect. A reconsideration of a topic.
Macdonald’s first essay in this book is about bird nests. How some bird nests contain bits of human-made contributions in the forms of cigarette butts, scraps of fabric, bits of wire, and more. How the bird mind might work. The seasonality of the nest, permanence not part of the equation.
….I thought of homes as fixed, eternal, dependable refuges. Nests were not like that: they were seasonal secrets to be used and abandoned. But then birds challenged my understanding of the nature of home in so many ways. – p. 3, Vesper Flights
Every time I read about nests, I remember the robins who used to nest above the light outside our back door, their nest precarious on its perch. It blew down one year. Another year, I decided to remove it once I thought they were done with their brood. I knocked the nest down and cried; there was an egg in it, broken upon the nest’s impact on the ground. I had not intended to kill a robin family’s future, only to discourage nesting on an unstable site. Part of the plan worked: they never came back to build a nest there after that.
And I've never knocked down another nest.
Reading about nests nudged me, like the author herself, to think about my definitions of home, of permanence versus impermanence. How impossible our ideas of permanence really are. Stability is an illusion to which we hold tightly. I thought about my parents’ decision when I was nine to sell their green stucco house with its plaster walls and an arch between living room and dining room, and live in a mobile home. The move was part of their plan for future freedom to move again with more ease, perhaps to another state. To travel. I didn’t think there was anything odd about the move until I was a teenager and realized school friends knew no one else who lived in a trailer. I still remember one girl named Sue who came home with me after school and stopped to stare at our living room once she got in the door. I didn’t think this would be so pretty she said, taking in the gold curtains my mother hung in the windows, our flowered velvet couch, our spotless kitchen, my mother’s houseplants. It wasn’t until much later I understood Sue expected some level of squalor.
A few years after I left home, my parents set up their lives in a small condo in St. Paul which my dad referred to as their nest. They feathered their nest with only what was necessary to let them rest when they were home. Extra rooms, expensive furniture, fancy china were all considered unnecessary. Just the basics. They were happy that way. They could – and did – pack up and hit the road any time. Like birds.
Our house – the one I share with my partner Mick, the one where we raised kids and dogs and amassed an enormous amount of books – isn’t very big as houses in Roseville, Minnesota, go. We’ve never been big house people. Our kids don’t live here anymore, but we never refer to this as an empty nest. I hate that term for people whose kids have moved out. It seems to negate the fact that someone still lives in the nest. Someone still takes up space there, feathers it with their activities that are no longer child-centered. Our daughter’s old room now holds our very full bookshelves, yoga mats, zafus. Our son’s old room holds Mick’s saxophones, an electric piano, an old clarinet. We’ve each carved out an office space elsewhere in the house.
This home, this nest feels solid. A sanctuary. But we know damn well it is as impermanent as a bird’s nest, vulnerable to the touch of lightning, the weight of a downed tree, a flood from a back-up sewer. It’s vulnerable to tornadoes, fire, acts of war. That it has stood here since 1972 feels like proof that it will stand until after we’re gone, but that’s simply what we hope for. And then we pay for homeowner’s insurance in case we ever have to repair, rebuild.
It never occurs to us to let it go, fly away. We will never be birds.