An old friend tells me that he cannot wait to have children so he can teach them what he knows. His face displays an urgent, happy longing—as if he is a jug already nearly full, and running out of time to find a cup to catch what he’s collected. I imagine him so, overflowing with every useful skill and scrap of wisdom of his life. He is carrying both mistakes and successes like holy water. A child, he seems to mean, could receive those things in time: protect, in some way, the sweet accumulation of his own experience.
I’m beginning to think that nurture doesn’t exist, my brother-in-law informs me quietly in the middle of a lull during a dinner party. Both our gazes rest on his son, my nephew, playing by himself. Asher—at nine as inventive, impatient, tricksy, and content as he was at one—sits salty from a long day of sailing and squirming out of trouble. His face is lit by the screen of an iPad, and he is chortling to himself. His father sighs to see himself reflected so, half amused and half resigned: These days I think, he says, it’s pretty much all nature. They are who they are, and nothing you do makes a difference.
What do we bring into this world, and what do we take from it?
My mother sends me emails that bring home across the seas. The yellow birds graced us with a ballad on the palm tree in front of the house the other day, one reads. Another: The Good Lord knew that I needed cheering up, so he sent the yellow birds to fly across my path on my morning walk. She writes: Five o’clock in the morning and the yellow birds are welcoming the dawn with a magnificent symphony.
The yellow birds she’s talking about are black-naped orioles (Oriolus chinensis), one of Singapore’s most common avian residents. These are slender, jay-sized songbirds plunged in intense yellow coloring as rich as the perfectly boiled yolk of a fresh egg. Against this background, a wide, inky band of feathers passes over the eyes and wraps around the head (exactly where a bandit might tie on a mask). The black-naped oriole’s wings and tail are dipped in the same immaculate pitch, and on the downward beat of a wingflap—the two sides of its Stygian cloak whipping together, its yellow back careless of danger—this plumage has an air of rashness, of audacity.
(Photo by Yap Lip Kee.)
Indeed these Old World orioles (unrelated to a doppelganger family of birds also called orioles, the Icteridae I’ve come to know since I moved to the U.S.) can be cunning looters, stealing eggs and nestlings from other birds’ nests to supplement their otherwise humble diet of insects and fruits. They are hardy, wise. They’ve learned to thrive in the urban mess of concrete and tropical greenery that is Singapore. But bright and beautiful they are, and so are the endless variations of their metallic song.
I’m not sure how much of who I am today was dictated by birthright, how much I was taught, and how much I have clutched to myself over the years and pasted on like false eyelashes. But I like to think that even if I didn’t come equipped with either her patience or her sweetness, my mother passed her wonder down. I feel her in me when I look out the window here in the New World, catching the spark of a goldfinch or a kinglet— or a Bullock’s oriole, deep orange counterpart to its yellow cousin.
And on it goes. Home for a visit a few weeks ago, I see the same attentiveness emerging in Sophia, my six-year-old niece. Sometimes when I’m not doing anything else, Sophia said one day, I like to stand in front of the window and watch the wind. And sometimes when I’m frustrated I just sit on the edge of the bed like this and look at the yellow birds.
My mother smiled. I, too. That day three generations followed gold amongst the trees.
Hello, new Coyot.es friends. From the archives, another birdy post from the last time I was home in Singapore.