Last weekend I was sitting in the drive thru of a fast food restaurant (attempting to salvage our weekend after our son hated the South American food we had for lunch) when across the parking lot I noticed a hurt pigeon. One of its wings was stretched out at a weird angle like it was broken and it seemed to be in distress. Before I knew what was happening, I had my hand on my seat belt and was screaming to my husband, “Do I need to go help that bird?!”
I should probably go ahead and mention at this point that I have zero experience with birds – wounded or otherwise. I have never owned a bird, I have never known a friend with a bird, I have rarely even noticed birds on an individual basis, my brain usually just sees “birds” as a collective. I could be in a room full of birds and probably not really notice any of them individually unless they were specifically pointed out to me. Also, contrary to my brain’s promptings at that moment, I do not have a degree in veterinary medicine. I am an English and Communications major. If something needs to be talked at or written about, I’m your girl, but damaged birds are out of my depth.
Fortunately, the bird got up and flew away before I was able to jump out the car and run across the parking lot to… what? What exactly was my plan? Was I going to run over there and just pick up that parking lot bird? Was I going to bring it back to my car? Where was I going to take it? How *exactly* was I going to help it?
I can’t answer any of those questions. I don’t know what was going on, but I do know that if I attempted to pick up a wild pigeon I ran a pretty good chance of getting my face pecked off and/or catching some weird bird disease.
So, while I’m glad that the bird was okay and my face is intact, I almost *almost* wish that the bird hadn’t gotten up and that I had run over there so that I could know what my plan was. Clearly, some part of my brain had a plan, right? I love animals and if I were to encounter an injured one, I would definitely make sure it received help, but what on earth did I think I was personally going to do for that pigeon?
All I do know is that when the bird flew away seemingly unharmed, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I turned to my husband to tell him the good news about the pigeon and he was staring at me like I was insane.
“What did you think you were going to go do?” he asked me.
“I… I honestly don’t know.”
Please don’t let this be my future.
AND I STILL DON’T.
I’ve been thinking about the whole incident for days and I’m no closer to understanding what happened or why I felt so connected to that one random parking lot bird. I’m proud of the fact that I was concerned about the well-being of a living creature and that I modeled that concern in front of my son… but I’m a bit concerned about what’s going on upstairs. If I turn into a crazy bird lady, send help.
It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, the skies were clear, there was a slight breeze, but the peacocks… the peacocks were angry that day, my friends…
A few weeks ago, my son and I picked up lunch at the grocery store and went to Mayfield Park for a picnic. It’s a popular Austin park known for its historic cottage and brilliant peacocks that wander the grounds. I’d never been, but this seemed like the perfect way to spend an afternoon with my son. Peacocks are awesome, right?
Wrong. I would soon learn that peacocks are scary and Mayfield Park is full of them.
Shortly after Kai and I sat down at a picnic table just outside the main grounds, two peacocks came walking across a low stone wall next to another family. I was mesmerized by how large and beautiful the birds were and ran over to take pictures, but the other family seemed unnerved, looking down and sitting in perfect silence. Apparently, this wasn’t their first peacock rodeo – they knew something I didn’t know yet — peacocks are super jerks.
Pretty on the outside, evil on the inside.
Now, if you’ve never seen a peacock up close, let me tell you about them. They’re beautiful birds. Their feathers are colored in iridescent jewel tones that sparkle in the shadows and glimmer in the sunlight. They sport a crown of feathers on their heads, and the males have a brilliant train that trails behind them. They have a confident, regal walk… and a big case of bad attitude.
The larger of the two birds jumped up onto the rooftop of a small building and the other perched in the tree above the picnic tables, his magnificent tail hanging below him – as soon as this happened the other family grabbed their belongings and ran away. Okay, that’s weird, I thought, but whatever, I was happy enough to claim their table in the shade and spread out our lunch.
Another interesting fact about peacocks – they’re loud. Their call is not nearly as pretty as their feathers and can be unnerving. For example, as they call back and forth to each other you may suddenly realize that there are not just two peacocks, but that you are actually surrounded by peacocks. They’re quiet, and sneaky like really pretty velociraptors…You’ll look at your salad, get ready to take a bite, hear 5+ peacocks calling to each other all around you and realize that you are about to enact a much prettier version of a scene from Jurassic World. It doesn’t matter if your phone says it’s 2 pm, it’s about to be Peacock O’Clock.
It’s about to be Peacock O’Clock. Good thing I brought my crazy hands.
We started to eat our lunches, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty good about having picked the perfect park for our lunch and thinking about what an awesome mom I was, but I’ll warn you now — peacocks can sense pride. Less than 30 seconds later a large peacock jumped up behind me on the wall and another walked towards Kai on his side of the table.
Hey Kai, look that peacock is walking towards you, let me take a picture, this is so cool… wait he’s coming fast, nope, move. Move now, Kai! Seriously, don’t just sit there, get up, now!
Hey look, he’s coming towards us, how cool! I’m sure he won’t attack us in a few minutes.
At this point I drop my phone and jump across the picnic table to grab my 8 year old who was inches from having a peacock beak in his leg and wondering what the hell had caused that to happen. I scooped our lunch into a bag as we backed into the wall… where the other large peacock was eyeballing us menacingly. We were effectively trapped between a rock wall full of peacocks and a hard place (also full of peacocks). We moved further down the wall and waited hoping that they would forget about us and just relax. There was a low bench here so we slowly pulled out our food and started eating again. The peacock which had us cornered turned and started walking towards us again.
“I don’t get it. I’m eating salad. Are they attracted to my salad?”
Kai seemed to think this was my fault and screamed “Of course! They’re mad at you for eating nature! They think you hate nature!”
I don’t hate nature. And I tried to tell the advancing peacock that, but he wasn’t listening. Then, I thought, well maybe he likes salad… maybe he’s just trying to get a bite of my salad, and (I’m not proud of this, but I was panicking) I threw a baby spinach leaf at his head. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but I think he was supposed to grab it out of the air with his beak and eat it like a Scooby snack… instead he dodged the spinach leaf and ran at us even faster.
Now, this may come as a surprise, but I don’t have a ton of experience with animals. The only thing I could think to do was to make myself look big. So I puffed myself up, balled up my fists, swung my arms out in front of me like a crazy person, looked that peacock right in its beady jerk eyes and said get back or I will punch you! And then Kai and I ran like crazy while it chased us towards the parking lot.
We were sweating and shaking, but relieved that the peacock stopped abruptly at the paved sidewalk. We made it. I was panting and trying to warn other people walking into the park to be careful which I’m sure they appreciated and didn’t think I was insane at all.
I was still confused by what had happened, so naturally, I went to Facebook for help. While a majority of the comments suggested that the peacocks were in love with me (my friends are jerks), several comments were about how my friends and family had also been attacked by peacocks at that very park. Why wasn’t anyone talking about this??
I have read tons of reviews for Mayfield Park and not once have I ever heard of anyone being attacked by peacocks. Yet, right here on my own Facebook page were comments by people I know and love all facing the same familiar shame – being chased out of a public park by really pretty birds. I can only assume that Mayfield Park is home to some sort of Peacock Fight Club, and we all know the first rule of Peacock Fight Club, right? (You DO NOT talk about Peacock Fight Club)
I learned some really important things during that lunch. For example, Peacocks are jerks and will attack you for no reason or if you are eating a salad. Throwing baby spinach is not an acceptable defense. And, most importantly, I am willing to punch a peacock if it hurts my child.
This is why being a parent is so amazing. Before I became a mother, I never had to think about what animals I would be willing to punch in self-defense. I love animals, and I would never condone hurting one, but I can tell you in all honesty, that as that peacock menacingly approached my child and refused to back away, I was willing to use Strunk and White to defend us. (Yes, I named my fists Strunk and White — I’m an English major.)
So, on the days when I feel like I’m overwhelmed, when I’m not doing enough or being enough as a parent, when I feel weak or tired, I can look back on the Great Peacock Attack of 2016 and know that I am enough. I can know that I am strong enough and smart enough to take care of my child in tense situations, and that I would do anything for my son — even if that thing is throwing my body in front of a group of charging peacocks.
Sitting in a nook where a quiet residential street turns to meet the lively chaos of South Congress Ave in Austin, Texas, is one of Candy Chang’s Before I Die walls. Unless you happen to drive through the neighborhood, or walk back that way to avoid the crowds, it would be easy to overlook. It sits in a spot where domestic life, business, and recreation all intersect. The location is a perfect symbol for the wall’s message.
If you’ve never seen a Before I Die wall, go find one ASAP. It’s a fun and truly profound piece of interactive art — just a large black and white chalkboard that asks you to consider a seemingly simple question: What do I want to do before I die? The playfulness of the presentation drew me to the wall, but the question brings me back time and again.
In the interest of full disclosure, while I visit the wall regularly, I have yet to write on it. I read it – laugh at the funny or deviant entries (there are plenty of those), smile at the profound or thoughtful ones – and then quietly walk away. I bring others to the wall and encourage them to write, but I just watch. The simple straightforwardness of the question causes me to freeze. It’s the worst kind of writer’s block… it’s not just about words; it’s about articulating desire and action.
I don’t know what to write. I want to do a million things. I want to do everything. I want to never die; I want to never grieve another loss. But, Candy Chang’s project, born from her own grief, makes me stop and face the fact that my time is limited and I have living to do. These walls are amazing because they look so innocent, so simple, but they hide in them a complex understanding of the human condition: our lives will end. Are we living them? The wall asks us to look inward.
I love reading the wall. Of course, I’m drawn to the humorous entries. My husband’s checked off desire to write on a giant chalkboard, the person who randomly wanted to slap Taylor Swift, the one who wanted to kiss a dragon. My son drew picture of Maleficent because he had just seen the movie. He is seven. He doesn’t need to worry about what he wants to do before he dies; he lives fully in the present all the time.
There are entries that are moving displays of community, of strangers trying to heal each other’s hurt. One entry read: Before I die I want to be skinny. Skinny was crossed out by another visitor who wrote happy next to it, and under it yet another wrote, You’re beautiful. The wall helps us see inside each other.
Maybe I can’t think of what to write because I’m already living the life I want. Or, maybe I’ve reached an age where I know people, have known people, who were given the deadline. I held my breath and watched them scramble to fill in all the blanks at the last minute. Or, the most likely answer is that I’m just a big pain in the butt who overthinks everything. Whatever the reason, Chang’s wall does what art is supposed to do – it disrupts. It forces me to stop, to look, to think, to act. It forces me out of the comfortable monotony of my daily rhythm. Its complexity is hidden in its simplicity, and that is what makes it so great.
If you flip the question, if you ask me what I want to do while I’m alive, then I can write a hundred things, a million things. I want to write a book, an episode of Doctor Who, be on the Muppet Show, attempt stand up, travel the world, wake up in every time zone, and on and on. But when you ask the question the way Chang has, when you ask me what I want to do before I die… well, suddenly a whole lot of things seem less important. Everything is valued differently. Playing with my son, holding my husband’s hand, feeling loved, all suddenly top the list. This board is brutal; I walk up wanting to play with chalk and walk away contemplating the human condition.
There it is, right? The point. In black and white. You step up to the chalkboard, and it doesn’t matter what your skin color is or the chalk color you use, when you fill in that blank you are the same as everyone else. You can write a joke, a fear, a wish, but whatever you write, you do it with fragile human hands. Like everyone else who comes to the wall: you are alive, you will die. Candy Chang’s Before I Die wall is a gentle nudge then, a playful reminder whispering in my ear – you are here now, pay attention, and go fill in the blank.
The Before I Die wall I visit is located at 206 E. Elizabeth St. in Austin, Texas. Find a wall near you or view pictures of walls around the world here.
I am standing in a museum surrounded by marble statues of people from worlds long gone; they are echoes of some other unreal time. History is like that to me, it never feels real.
I pick a bench in a sunny, windowed corner to sit and write. I’ve come here to try to dispel the dark clouds that have been chasing me this week… to try to numb the swollen ache in my heart. I thought the art might help, that it would give me something to look at so I could get out of my head for a little while. Maybe, it would ease some of this ridiculous pain. Instead, I feel every piece. It’s like they’re all playing on the same vibration as this depression; each one feels like a thumb pushing on a deep bruise.
I am mourning an inexplicable loss, something that doesn’t exist, has no resolution, and I am powerless to make myself feel whole. I’m a control freak, so this kind of thing sucks. All I can do is wait it out.
Is it her? Is that what they like? I compare myself to every woman who walks by and every piece of art. Notice how imperfect I am. I have a thing for perfection, or rather for being perfect.
Recently, I started to people-watch and noticed for the first time in my life how men will stare at certain women. Grown men will slow their cars to watch a young woman in shorts cross the street, a woman in a dress walking past the entrance to West Elm causes a conversation to halt while the three men crane their necks to watch her walk by. It is creepy, this level of unabashed focus that I’m seeing men devote to a woman who is merely crossing their path. I’ve never paid attention to it before, and now I can’t unsee it. It’s everywhere and I feel like I’m losing a competition. I’m pretty enough, but my strong suits have always been humor and intelligence… not the kind of things that random men notice when I walk down the street.
The modern art made me sadder. I can’t really explain why. I stared at the replicated cardboard box, sleeping bag, pack of cigarettes, marble sculpted trash bag. A marble trash bag… that’s what I feel like sometimes… a waste of materials and talent.
I can’t let go. The sky is divided – filled partially with angry sun and heavy, dark clouds. They tease rain, but won’t let it go. It is both sunny and potentially stormy, I’m caught in the tension.
The statue in front of me has no head or arms, and is missing its legs from the knees down. Incomplete or damaged, I don’t know. It’s only a replica, so I feel nothing when I look at it; none of the artistic energy of the real one is there.
I whisper to the universe, If you ever loved me, let the rain fall.
What about that statue, the topless one. I wonder if they prefer the curve of her breasts; if she meets the standard. I wonder how many would turn to look at her in a crowded restaurant or bar. Even minerals are my competition. I stare at her breasts and feel a sense of loathing for her – for her perfect breasts, their shape and lift, for her look of contentment. I feel an alliance with the male statue across from her: poorly endowed, exposed, and forced to stare forever at her ample perfect chest.
I am not enjoying marble today.
I leave and enter the calm quiet solemnity of the masters – perfect imperfection – ample bodies and vacant empty stares. I stand for a long time in front of a Flemish portrait of a man with a curved mustache. His look is so sad; he’s pale, anemic. He stares at me while I examine his facial hair. It’s so realistic; I can’t even see the strokes. I want to climb into the painting and touch his mustache.
It’s cool and dark in here which matches my mood. All around me are paintings of saints and sinners. I’m stuck, standing still in front of The Visitation. I think it’s about the Virgin Mary but all I can focus on is the donkey in the corner staring at me, upstaging everyone else. He’s looking at me as if to say, “Pfft, I know, right?” I nod. I like this room, everyone in the paintings looks like they’re rolling their eyes.
I walk a few steps, but I’m stuck again, this time in front of another portrait of a man with sad eyes and a mustache. Maybe I stop here because he’s looking at me, while everyone else is looking off to one side – like they know they’re in the painting, but want to act casual. This guy though, he looks right at me, and I can feel his hurt or maybe he feels mine… or maybe his collar is too tight.
I leave the dark cool space and find myself in the hallway, assaulted by sunlight. The clouds look like they are giving up and the sun is claiming the sky. I feel heartbroken by the brightness, I turn and give one last look at the donkey who still gets me, scoff warily at the giant reproduction of a milk carton near the entrance, and head towards my car to find that despite the sun, one cloud – one persistent cloud – waited for me, and gives rain to blanket my path.
It was an amazing night full of wonderful stories by talented writers all celebrating motherhood. I was so honored to be a member of the cast this year.
Here is the video of me reading my essay, The Vagina-Mommy Incident. It’s about the time I thought it would be a good idea to tell Kai the proper name for our genitals and how great that went…
Thank you so much Ann Imig for creating this wonderful event! And, thank you to Wendi Aarons, Liz Mcguire, and Blythe Jewell for producing the Austin show so that I could get up and say the word vagina over and over in front of a room full of people. It is an experience I will always cherish.
When you’ve been on the internet long enough, you’re eventually going to talk about cats. This is our cat, Athens. We adopted him last September, and he is an unabashed jerkface. We got him while kittens were on sale for $20 and have taken to calling him discount cat. As in, “Oh, he’s pushed his water bowl half way across the house spilling massive amounts of water all along the way that he is now playing in? Well, what do you expect from a discount cat?”
Look, just let me have my coffee and I’ll bite you in a second, okay?
We love him, don’t get me wrong, but he is a pretty lousy cat. He won’t sit on your lap or climb into bed with you. He doesn’t snuggle. He bites. He wakes us up with yowling at 4:30 am every single day even though he has a self feeder full of food. He attacks his water bowl and spills water everywhere. He randomly attacks the walls and is scratching up the molding on our doorways. Oh, and did I mention that he bites us?
Now, he does do some pretty cool stuff, but it’s dog stuff. It’s like he doesn’t really get the whole “being a cat” thing. He loves to play in water and he LOVES fetch. I don’t mean lame cat fetch where you throw the toy and they just look at you or they go get it and never bring it back. Athens plays real fetch… for hours. He wants you to play with him all freaking day, and if you don’t? Biting time. If he drops his toy next to you and you don’t notice, he will nip you on the leg. Because, as I have stated previously, he’s a jerk.
See, Athens? You are a cat.
So, why do we keep him? Well, we love him and our son adores him. And, the feeling seems to be mutual. Athens loves his boy and the two are often inseparable. Kai is gentle, and Athens plays too rough, but they still have fun and look for each other first thing in the morning. It’s like a boy and his really soft, bitey dog.
Sitting in my office writing this essay while hiding from Athens, I started to wonder… why do we even have a cat? Paul and I have always had a cat, never a dog. We say we’re not really dog people, but is there a difference? Apparently, yes. According to Dr. Hal Herzog, a leading anthrozoologist, researchers at The University of Texas found that, “Cat people were more introverted, they were more anxious, they were more interestingly open to new experiences and they were more impulsive.”
Yes, we are anxious because cats are scary.
The other night, Paul and I were in his studio recording some of my poetry for a project. Kai was asleep and I guess the cat was bored so he kept coming in and bothering us. Paul eventually started recording through the outtakes as they got increasingly bizarre. The cat kept sneaking into the room, opening doors, attacking sound foam and falling off of chairs, and eventually biting me because I didn’t know he wanted to play fetch while I was in the middle of recording a poem.
I present to you: Ava being attacked by a cat while reading poetry
I better stop writing and go play with Athens. He dropped his toy next to me a few minutes ago. I’ve tried to ignore him, but he just licked my leg and now I’m scared… Such a discount cat.
Ava Love Hanna is a writer, storyteller, and performer living in Austin, Texas. She vividly remembers the night her husband asked her if she wanted to go to Istanbul, but she thought they should have a baby instead. She stands by her choice, but is now very tired and still hasn't had a decent cup of Turkish coffee. Read more about Ava >>