The significance of Small Birds

I always thought that art was supposed to help people in times of need. There is a famous story in dance history of how Martha Graham’s solo entitled, ‘Lamentation’ not only changed the publics eye of the subject matter that dance could focus on (since before her it was mostly balletic fairy tales) but specifically helped one audience member deal with the passing of her nine-year-old son. The kid was killed in front of her by a passing truck and her friends had tried to help with her grief by making her cry, but she could not. Until Martha and her miraculous spastic cure-all. 

I frankly think it looks stupid. I think the music is gorgeous but the tube costume is the dumbest looking thing since whatever it was that Nikki Minaj wore to the MTV VMA award ceremony. You can see her ‘candy raver’ outfit here:

At least Martha’s garment serves a purpose, as the costume is supposed to represent skin and how in grief you stretch within your own skin. I don’t know who is that shade of blue besides a smurf, and I’ve never seen Papa smurf dance like that but I digress.

My point is in regards to the point of art. I’ve always thought it was supposed to help in the kind of times I am going through right now, losing my Dad. But at the moment I can’t hear most songs while driving in my car without a little lyric making me cry. And I already wreck havoc on the road. Best bet is music off right now. So much for the healing power of art.

Unfortunately, I can’t turn the whole world off and I’m in that stage where I see my Dad in everything and everywhere. I know it will help in the future that I have sort of compartmentalized the world into little reminders. For instance, small birds.

If you know my Dad, or read my blog on the Festival of Nations for Alive, you know that my Dad was rather obsessed with a few things: gardening, books about Jesus and oceans/ storms (the scarier the better..about the storms and ocean, not scary Jesus books), Native American culture, and birds. Seriously Dad, why so many bird feeders? It was kind of amusing to see him get so riled up  over a type of bird he didn’t like or squirrels at his feeders and running outside to tell them to ‘shoo!’. I think the obsession really blew up when I was in college and I in my selfish way, imagine that in some way he was replacing himself as ‘the father figure’ from me to this large population of hungry nuthatches.

I would like to share a poem I wrote when I was 20 about just that. I think now, particularly the ending, works in reverse for me. Like almost any and all songs, it isn’t really helping me right now but I think  it has put the idea in my brain that when I see small birds like the goldfinch or nuthatches I will probably see and remember my dad. And I think that will help eventually. Hope you enjoy the poem.

At the Feeder

By Jessica Ruhlin



My father has never been one

To see God in nature but

I think he’s beginning to see

His long-dead daughter

In the goldfinch at the feeder.


Why else would he stare this way?

And how is he so convinced

it is the same one

everyday? and who am I

to say it is nothing but a bird

Pecking greedily for seeds

that fall to the earth?


It eats as if it has found something,

as insignificant or possibly

larger and more perfect than

The span of its wing

While we perch, looking down

from the kitchen window overseeing the backyard where

my father

On seeing a squirrel

edging toward the oblivious songbird can

Run outside, arms waving wildly,

and shoo the squirrels away.


In this moment I watch him watch the bird

And it seems there is no proof

But this moment in definition;

In a full yellow-feathered belly,

One or more hearts

Beats, sings, breaks

Before it departs.

4 thoughts on “The significance of Small Birds

  1. Beautiful poem, Jess. I felt the same way about art — I couldn’t listen to music, read, etc. for a really long time, though I did find comfort in music after several months.

  2. I don’t know about art, maybe time alone has healing power? I am thinking of you all the time. Call me if you need me. I love you.

  3. Oh, Jess. I am so very sorry to hear this sad news. I so enjoyed my encounters with your father, whom I found to be very warm, wise, and witty.

    Your poem eloquently expresses the small but significant ways we find to cope with loss in our lives.
    I pray that your family all may find sweet and nurturing ways to cope, as your father did so profoundly well.

    Much love and big hugs,

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