American Robin

 

A robin.  Its evening elegy in early spring.  Somewhere in the violet hour, in the ink-black pattern of branches against the sky—I couldn't see where—a robin was perched and raising its benediction at sunset.  And does any common song, human or non-human, speak as movingly to the heart? The wood thrush is mystical and sings to the soul.  The robin is elegiac and speaks to the heart.  And its day's-end praise is not its morning's; there's a sobriety, and even a touch of sorrow, that we hear the lowering sun evoke from the robin.  Praise in spite of sorrow; sorrow in spite of praise.  Affirmation, yes; but also resignation—already the solemnity of autumn touches the robin in the hope of spring—the sense that the robin has only arrived in its summer haunts to return to its winter, and that nowhere can ever be home—but a resignation always deep to lament and shy of regret; there are no tears in the robin's elegy at all—if you like, there are no tears in the robin's eyes; and isn't it for that very valor, that stalwart dignity of the robin at day's end, that there are sometimes tears in our own?  The feeling valor of the robin and the cold indifference of the world: that's the gulf that we feel should be filled with our tears. And beautiful—oh that most of all.  The robin's elegy is beautiful. And is it beautiful because it is true, or true because it is beautiful?  It is true, and its truth is consolatory, and therefore it is beautiful.

 

If the robin weren't so common, its evensong would be no less regaled than the fabled nightingale's.  That neglected prophet of the green backyards of our childhood, the robin redbreast!  How our personal robin managed to locate us in the maddening Mandlebrot of suburban-American cul-de-sacs will likely always remain a mystery.  But it wintered just east of our private Eden, and arrived in spring with  tidings of our noble sorrows to come, once the mysterious ailment that arises in us provisional immortals is at last definitively diagnosed—as mortality.  And yet for that very pervasiveness and persistence, the way its music has accompanied springtimes from our very beginnings, the robin calls back, if only subconsciously, so many memories, so many past experiences, so many people and places that have left us forever.  And the more years we bear in our heart, the deeper the past the robin can evoke, and the richer and also the more ambivalent its performance becomes.  And not one robin, mind you!  There is a continuum of singers in the robin's song: who knows how many robins have passed through your life to raise their elegy from a tree in your midst—and again, who knows, maybe that life would for once appear sensible if it were carefully measured out in robin-years and analyzed in that way.  And you yourself are in a continuum as well—the succession of listeners moved by the elegy of the robin.  How vertiginous is that Escher-like corridor of spacetime where a particular you stands listening to a particular thrush!  The way that ageless encounter extends beyond both the beginning and the end of your life, in a seemingly infinite series of such encounters dissolving into the blue distance, you can feel yourself, in the ostensibly willful act of listening to a robin, vanishing to a point of purely mathematical significance.

 

The robin isn't always elegiac, to be sure.  Across the day it heckles, it whinnies, it halfheartedly rehearses its carol, in a midday fit of petulance it may even retract its evening’s praisegiving; it sounds the alarm of war should a rival set a claw its territory, and it sings for a beloved, occasionally with a breathless beseeching that seems to test the limits of its sanity—and sometimes even our own.  You’ll see one hopping over the earth, aristocratically prim in posture but looking a little squalid, like some minor royalty forced into exile, destitute now, reduced to living in its last set of formal attire.  In its rather unbecoming white eyeliner, it detects a tremor in the grass, then eagerly extracts from below an earthworm, which after a self-conscious gaze around it hurriedly devours, a detestable meal, consumed without a trace of decorum. Thus all day the robin lives much as we do, in a flagrant travesty of the deepest yearnings in its heart.  And is the robin only elegiac for that?  Is its evening carol only an elegy to the closing of the disgraces of another day?  No, what the robin reveres is the impression of that day on the spirit, the world once-removed to the spirit, the only world we can love and mourn and affirm. The longing we hear in the robin is not for the irrevocable but the unattainable: not the yearning to live in one unending day, but to spend all of our mortal days in eternity.

 

Listen: the robin's evening recital is a series of inscrutable syllogisms.  You can hear the robin, sometimes patiently and sometimes desperately, applying its mysterious logic to the events of the passing day.  And there are pauses in its pursuit that arrive like moments of mystification, as though its line of reasoning has reached some illogical impasse, maybe on account of one of the insoluble contradictions in our lives, which it acknowledges with a moment of thoughtful silence, before embarking on another train of syllogisms, just as earnestly, and likely just as futilely, until the sun’s last light disappears from its eye, and it is time to sleep and prepare for a new but surely no-less imponderable day.  Or listen again: the robin is carefully enumerating our day's blessings, like an understudy—maybe a forgotten correspondence student—of the recording angel.  It evokes our blessings episodically, in feeling bursts of recollection.  And suddenly there are so many, too many blessings to tally before the sun leaves the sky!  Truly, how blest we are and have always been!  Doesn't the robin tell us that every springtime evening? And our gratitude always arrives like a revelation, because we are always more grateful than we know.  And then, refreshed at daybreak, the robin will recite our blessings again, like a meticulous roll-call, just to be sure that none had absconded during the night.  But it's strange about our blessings: however many we have to count, and however carefully we add them up, somehow their sum is always sorrow.  And why is that?  Why sorrow?  Why does the robin sorrow us in enumerating our blessings?  Is it because our blessings have to be counted at all?  Because we know they are counted in a perfectly indifferent cosmos?  Because we the thankfully blest are no longer certain who to be thankful to?  Or because none of our blessings can be immortality, for us and for those we love—and the more blessings we have to count, the more obvious that painful omission becomes?  Or is it our unworthiness, is it all our unspeakable betrayals of our blessings, blessings we have not sufficiently shared—is it because we have so often led our lives as though we weren’t the blest at all?  But examine again the depth of feeling that the robin's inventory of our blessings evokes: is it really sorrow?  Through the lens of a tear, can it still be called sorrow?  It is not rather our joy?  Yes, it is our joy objectified by the robin.  It is our joy in a rich but barely recognizable translation, returned to us by the robin with all of the thrush's elegiac wisdom.

 

You weren’t.  You were.  You are.  You will be.  You won’t be.  But the robin’s elegy will remain.  For all its sense of finality, the robin’s elegy, like all that is elegiac, is only a cathartic means to a beginning, to one more day of life on Earth.  But just once or twice in your days it may also be a means to the eternal, to an experience of the eternal. When the sun has fallen behind the horizon, and all that had stood detached in the dusk is rapidly claimed by the night; darkness steals the last silver from the branchwork of the trees, and the robin, the heroic robin, in what can only be a lingering afterimage of the sun, is invisibly closing its elegy.  There is only the elegy of the robin, and you.  And then in the featureless darkness the passing of moments ceases; you can no longer distinguish the past from the present, yesterday from tomorrow, hope from despair, without from within: there is only the elegy of the robin. You are the hearing of the robin by everyone and no-one. You are the hearing of the robin in the bliss of selfless being.

 

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