Reflections of an Ash Wednesday

Before my mom got sick, one of her favorite activities was going out to this park that’s just outside of town. I don’t remember who in our family discovered it first, but it’s an out of the way spot that doesn’t get crowded as often as some of the other parks in town. One of the major draws of the place is the number of ducks and geese that live there year round.

During the transitional seasons, the amount of Canadian geese increases tenfold, as migrating geese stop for a time at this park, where there is food, company, and two large ponds with rocks to shelter from the wind. The parks are most popular during this time, as seeing that many geese at once (probably around 1000) is a rare sight.

For years now, my parents have been purchasing 50 pound bags of corn at the local feed store and feeding the birds at this park. Corn is better for the animals than bread, as it’s more filling and more easily digestible. When the ducklings and goslings show up in the spring, we switch to cracked corn, allowing for the growing birds to adjust more easily.

A few years ago, someone dropped off a swan at the park. She adjusted easily enough, though frequently she pecked at the smaller birds when they got in her way, and often hid back in the rocks during times when lots of people came by.

But not my mother. Mom and Dad were out there two or three times every week, sitting at the picnic table and handing out food. Reba, as Mom called the swan, was hesitant at first, wary of people and only coming up for corn when the people had moved back toward their cars. But eventually, Mom, Dad and eventually I became familiar enough to her that she began to ignore our presence – which means a lot, when it comes to birds. Eventually, Reba even ate out of Mom’s hands.

Part of the reason Reba adjusted so well to us and not to other people is that we were consistent. Every week, we showed up with our familiar blue bucket of corn and feed them generously. In return, they came to expect us and treated us as part of their community.

Since Mom’s illness has made it hard to travel, I’ve been going to the park in her stead, feeding the ducks and geese and swan every couple of weeks when I can get out there. The bucket of corn stays in my trunk, and I’ve gotten used to making the trek to both ponds (about a half mile walk) carrying a large weight. Often, the birds follow me from my car to the pond, honking along the way, knowing that a meal is coming in the midst of a hard winter.

The relationship my family has with these birds is at its heart utilitarian – we bring them food and they eat it. But over the years, I can’t help but feel that there’s some kind of communion happening here. It isn’t the high church liturgy, with blessings and genuflections and wine. But it is a connection with something greater that I can’t describe. It is, in its own way, a form of worship. When the white farm ducks come waddling up, quacking for corn and eating it out of my hands, I feel simultaneously great and small, helpless and helpful, at once a part of nature and an artificial insertion into the world.

Yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, while my twitter timeline was arguing about ash selfies and liturgical consequences of Ashes-On-The-Go, I went to the pond. When I pulled up, the flock of eight grey geese surrounded my car like a pack of annoying dogs excited to see their owner come home. In all the snow and ice, I couldn’t find the swan, and that worried me, as it’s been a hard winter and she’s an old bird. But even as I stood on the rocks above the pond, listening to the quack of ducks getting their meal, I felt a calm. Even in the chaos of the world, there are places where all is well and all will be well. There is peace to be had. Even in small, stolen moments, there is peace.