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Sunday, June 29, 2014

...And Sometimes, Someone Does a Nice Thing and Something Perfectly Wonderful Happens

This girl dreams of being a naturalist when she grows up. Note the turtle. 

Sometimes nice people do nice things and something wonderful happens.

Yesterday a very nice person did a very nice thing and I had a great day.

The Obamacare fiasco dominates my days and reduces them to a cold, gray drizzle. I've been fighting since November to regain access to health care lost when Obamacare came in. I've been reassured by my state senator, congressman, and hospital personnel that it's a mere bureaucratic blip and it will all be ironed out with the next submission of the next form.

Not so.

I was allowed to forget all about that yesterday and have a great time with great people and I am very grateful.

I think Jesus was right. Love really is a transformative force that changes all.

***

Back on Saturday, June 7 I received an email from Diane C. Louie, someone I have never met. The email suggested that I attend a formal dinner to honor Pete Dunne, a legendary New Jersey birder and conservationist. Of course I'd want to attend such an event; I was born in New Jersey and I've been an avid birdwatcher for forty years.

Small catch – a ticket would cost two weeks' salary.

I have made it a point to donate to the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife, the Humane Society, and the ASPCA, even as a low income adjunct professor. Giving is a platform of my Christian faith (Luke 21:1-4). Giving enhances the giver as much as any receiver. But my donations fall in the twenty-dollar range. No way I could afford this dinner.

I responded to Diane's email. I'd love to attend, I said, and participate in honoring Pete Dunne, but it's out of my league.

Diane wrote back. "You misunderstood. You and your companion would be my guest."

Diane explained that she had read something I had written about birdwatching; it might have been this blog post about Garret Mountain. Though Diane had never met me, she offered me this chance to attend the Audubon Society dinner for Pete Dunne.

Well, you could have knocked me over with … a feather.

One of the yellow-shafted flicker feathers I have in the collection of feathers sitting atop my refrigerator. Or the turkey, owl, or wood duck feathers … the blue jay or crow feathers … did I mention that I love birds?

I wanted to cry. All right, I cried.

It's been so long since I had a reason to get dressed up. And I tend to birdwatch in a catch-as-catch-can basis, and I've lived a long time without a car and so trips to birding hotspots have been out of the question, so that means I birdwatch alone. I'd be in a room full of birdwatchers, including the biggest name birdwatchers in the state – the rock stars of birding.

All right, I'm crying right now.

Do nice things, people. You can really brighten someone's day.

***

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an ornithologist when I grew up.

High school chemistry class was my Waterloo.

I was okay the first couple of months. I wasn't comfortable doing the work, but I could do it.

After that, it was as if my mind could not travel any further on the same route. I could follow the initial steps of a chemical reaction, but after, say, the third step, it's as if someone erased the white board inside my brain.

My teacher was a nice guy. He witnessed this and tried to help. I remember him stopping class one day, looking at me, and saying with genuine kindness, "Do you follow? If not, I can go over it all again."

I realized even then that he could go over it a hundred times and I'd reach that same point where I would just lose the thread, and everything in my head would disappear. I did fail chemistry class. First time I failed a class, ever. Last time, too.

I realized: I'm never going to be the naturalist I want to be.

It was maddening to me that I was so damn good at English. I never did English homework. I never studied for an English test. I could write whatever I was told to write, quickly and effortlessly, and I took the A for granted.

Given that I was so good at English, I could see right through it. I was scandalized by how novelists and poets manipulated their readers and used art to tinker with politics. Hemingway and Shakespeare could lie about women and readers fell for it. Writers were such egotists, and the stuff they made us read in school was never about people like us – working class and ethnic.

I didn't want to be inside reading. I wanted to be outside hiking.

I went to Poland. I fell in love with the country. I decided I had to write something about Poland. I went to grad school and did not study birds, as I had wanted to when I was a teenager. I studied stories, and how crafty storytellers use stories to manipulate audiences. I wrote my dissertation about stories people tell about Poland, not about birds.

I'm a writer and I'm a birdwatcher and I never really wrote much about birds. Nature, to me, is where I lose myself, where I let go of the world's cares, where I forget my vocabulary. Since I regard my writing as work, the last thing I wanted to do is combine nature and writing. That's changing.

My blog post about the snowy owl irruption of 2013-2014 was the first multi-paragraph writing about birds I'd ever done. I followed up with a blog post about why I started birdwatching, why I stopped birdwatching, and why I started birdwatching again.

***

Anna Martinez accompanied me to last night's Pete Dunne commemorative dinner. When I picked her up after work, she was wearing a t-shirt. I wanted to scream. "Didn't I tell you we'd be in a room full of rich people and we have to do this right or they'll peg us as lowlifes from Paterson!"

Anna reassured me. "I have a nice shirt on underneath."

Omigod.

She slipped out of her t-shirt. Oh, okay. That IS a nice shirt! Anna cleaned up well.

I wore a blue pastel floral print puffy sleeved blouse that my sister Antoinette sewed decades ago. I have so few opportunities to dress up it's in mint condition.

Anna and I entered a stately room with chandeliers and paneling. Courteous and spiffily attired staff proffered crab cakes, stuffed mushrooms, plump shrimp, lobster puffs, and filo pastries. Anna revealed her level of alcoholic sophistication by ordering "Something sweet." The bartender mixed a cocktail with a nautical name – was it breezy coast or sandy beach or The Hamptons? – it tasted like pineapple. I had seltzer.

Dinner was genuinely delicious. Baby greens with bacon, feta, and cranberries. Roast beef and a delicious fish that was paper white, mild, boneless, and tender. I wish I knew what it was because I'd love to have it again. Lemon cake with coconut and mango accents for dessert. The centerpiece was candles with little bird's nests, complete with tiny eggs.

Paul Winter performed twice. His second piece was inspired by wolf song, and he invited us to howl in salute to Pete Dunne. We did.

The dinnertime speeches, all salutes to Pete Dunne, to birdwatching, to conservation, to man's love for and need of the wild world, even in New Jersey, brought tears. Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine, Kenn Kaufman, who, as a teenager, hitchhiked all over North America to see birds, and David Sibley, perhaps the single most famous bird author in the world, offered reminiscences of Pete as a personal friend and as a visionary, mentor and activist of historical importance. NJ Audubon president Eric Stiles was the master of ceremonies.

***

As I circulated throughout the room, I studied nametags. I wanted to see a Polish surname. Anna said something similar; she saw only one Hispanic name. I tend to think of New Jersey as a highly diverse state. I encounter few WASPs in my day to day Paterson life.

There were many in this room.

One could conclude many things about that – one conclusion is that birdwatching will benefit from attracting more black and Hispanic urban youth.

But here's another thing to think about.

Kate Deens took the stage to encourage guests to donate money for NJ Audubon programs that benefit urban youth. There was a computer-driven illustration of a heart behind Kate as she spoke. Kate encouraged dinner attendees to use their cell phones to donate money. Kate listed the programs – through this program we will get kids to an overnight camp – through this program we will get binoculars for kids so they can better observe their natural world – through this program we will get kids into workshops…

Even as Kate spoke, the illustration of a heart behind Kate began to fill up. The well off and mostly WASP guests at that dinner donated immediately, and generously, and they kept donating, till that heart was filled up almost twice over.

I was incredibly moved by this.

I live in Paterson. I see the disconnect between Paterson's residents and the natural world. The other day I was walking across the Broadway Bridge. An old man was walking with a young boy by his side. The boy threw garbage into the Passaic River beneath them. Rather than chastising the boy, the old man actually took more garbage out of his pockets, handed it to the boy, and instructed the boy to throw that into the river, too. The boy did so.

I see, daily, wildlife in this heavily polluted river: catfish, turtles, snakes, great blue herons, great egrets, black crowned night herons, Canada geese, mallards, wood duck, ring-necked ducks, bufflehead, mergansers, cormorants. All these animals have to live with Paterson residents' garbage. In this river there are shopping carts, tires, and computers. People dump them. They are that disconnected from the natural world that surrounds them.

Last night I sat in a room full of economically well off people, many of them WASPs, who unhesitatingly and generously donated large sums of money to connect urban youth to the natural world from which they are so alienated.

And yes I did cry. Again! 
Anna and me
Bird's nest centerpiece. Photo by Anna Martinez
Paul Winter performing. Photo by Anna Martinez
Pete Dunne speaking. Photo by Anna Martinez. 

The heart indicating the splendid generosity of those present. I was so moved I cried. 
Anna got everyone to sign her program! 


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