Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts

Right now I am in Austin, TX, where Ben Stevens, one of my best friends in the world, lives with his partner Jen. (Yes: Ben and Jen. They rhyme. They know.) They live in a house with a disarmingly polite dog (Brodie; he is frightened of water and looks somber and calculated when he begs to get up on the sofa), two cats, and a turtle. They eat brussels sprouts for dinner and have a list of all the directors whose movies they want to watch together (it's Miyazaki right now). Jen studies poverty in sub-Saharan Africa -- they just visited Malawi a month ago and saw hippos and giraffes and all the other beautiful things one would expect to see on a trip like that. Ben is an engineer with a graduate degree and a paycheck, like exactly zero other twenty-somethings I have ever met. Maybe it looks good from the outside. And that is because it is good. Outside and in.

What I remember about meeting Ben when we were 14 was that he had pink hair and pleated khakis and a cello case. I had pink hair and a see-through orange backpack (!!!) and a Jem and the Holograms T-shirt. We had our first conversation on a field outside our high school. The details of the conversation are long gone. I had a gym class crush on Ben's best friend, Daniel Christiansen, so I am sure that I was secretly trying to glean information about Daniel in my conversation with Ben. I don't think I thought, in that moment, that this person would be a main character in my life story. Daniel Christiansen, maybe, but probably not Ben. And yet, here I am in Austin.

Last Friday, having just arrived in Austin, Ben asked, “Hey, how would you like to go watch the purple martins roost at the Highland Mall?” Purple martins are the largest kind of swallow in North America, and they are the only swallow that has a dark breast. They chirp clumsily — they sound sort of like happy gurgling babies absentmindedly enjoying an afternoon — and dive bombastically. I knew these things about purple martins before last Friday because I am categorically a bird person. There have been many times when I’ve nearly killed human people by dangerously swerving a car because I saw an interesting-looking avian thing on a wire across a highway. “YES I WANT TO SEE THE PURPLE MATINS ROOST AT THE HIGHLAND MALL. OBVIOUSLY THAT IS A THING I WANT TO DO,” I said to Ben. “Said” is a euphemism for “wailed inappropriately.” 

Junior year of high school, when I was just starting to get into birds, Ben and I liked to take the bus after school into downtown Portland, where our favorite activity was “walking around.” We walked around Burnside Street (and sometimes we walked around Powell’s Bookstore, but not as much as you’d think, because we were young and didn’t have much money, and Powell’s when you don’t have much money is torture). We walked across different bridges. We walked along both sides of the river. While we walked, we mostly talked about music (Ben Folds, Rilo Kiley, Tool), or Consititution Team (yeah, I know), or which of our friends were kissing which other friends. But sometimes, as will happen on long and aimless walks with close friends, we slipped into conversation about our lives and our dreams. Sometimes it got dark. Ben never cried, but sometimes I did (granted, I’m a crier, but it’s still a big deal to cry around someone of the opposite sex when you’re a teenager). And — although the details are hazy here — that is probably how we fell in love.

To tell you the truth, when we got to the Highland Mall, my hopes were not high for the martins. It was already 7 p.m. and there were only ten or so martins circling miles and miles overhead. I thought maybe the cloudy weather was confusing the martins, and they’d all kinda decided that roosting didn’t sound that fun that night. Maybe they’d gone somewhere else. There was an optimistic lady  from the Austin Audubon Society wearing a flannel vest and a stark gray lesbian haircut who insisted that the martins were on their way. Ben went to look at Subarus at a nearby Subaru dealer (he’s in the market, as a person with a paycheck can be); Jen went to buy French fries at the Jack-In-The-Box. I stayed behind to read up on facts about martins. Indeed, they roost in the tens of thousands, and they migrate like that too; if you built a little box in your back yard you could watch that kind of action all the time. I remained skeptical as I listened to the Audubon lady rattle off “the martins are coming” speech to a woman in a wheelchair with her thirteen-year-old son. 

Ben and I broke up in college. We had gone to college together, so it wasn’t the distance. It was the timing and the natural change of things. Like our first conversation, I don’t really remember the details of the break-up. It was the least memorable break-up of my life. It felt less like we were breaking up, and more like we were agreeing not to have sex anymore because we were in college now and there were lots of people to have sex with, suddenly. The only thing I remember is that this conversation is that it took place in this local park that contained a comically angry goose. Like, you walked anywhere in the vicinity of this goose, and it flared its nostrils at you and spanned its wings and went at you like it was Russell Crowe with a cell phone. I remember thinking that the goose was amazing and smart; that it was incredible how birds learned to adapt to humans in a way that no other sort of animal really has. They aren’t domesticated, but they’re also unafraid. I guess they figure they can fly away if things get too scary.

Ben and Jen met at a bird roost, actually. Portland — where Ben and I are from, and near where Jen was doing an AmeriCorps residency — is famous for its chimney swifts. Books have been written about them. Poetry has been scrawled across the internet in their wake; people make elaborate screen prints and paintings and ‘zines in their honor; people become obsessed. The name alone — chimney swift — evokes a certain mysterious, antiquated aesthetic. Ben says the fan worship lives up to the hype: the swifts swirl around the sky over this elementary school chimney, and then they funnel down into it en masse, like bits of ash being sucked into a vacuum nozzle. Of course, it’s possible that Ben’s opinion of the chimney swift roost in Portland is higher than most people’s would be. After all, the chimney swift roost at the Chapman School in Portland is where he met the love of his life. He knew pretty early on that Jen was important. I remember him saying to me, over a plate of shared dessert during one of our rare post-collegiate ritual hang-outs, “I think this is big."

My third boyfriend — the one right after Ben — was this guy I’ll call Max, and I was crazy about him. He was an introvert and an artist; he loved London Calling and wore a T-shirt that said “Republicans for Voldemort” on it. I was much more emotional than he was, and often took his lack of emotion (read: I never once saw him have a public meltdown, ever) to mean that he didn’t really love me. Eventually, he got bored of that routine and broke up with me. I was shocked and horrified. All I could do was call Ben, who took me to my favorite coffee shop and listened patiently while I listed everything bad about Max and cried into brown napkins as The Smiths moaned wearily off the hipster barista-DJ’s record player. Honestly, I think if I had been Ben in that situation, I would have blown me off — after all, we had broken up just a year and a half earlier, and I had not been a very good friend for that duration, as I was so busy fawning over Max. But Ben never blew me off: that’s just not really his thing. The day Max broke up with me I said to Ben, “I want to get a tattoo.” Ben said, “OK,” and drove me to the cheap walk-in tattoo shop on SE Grand Street. He held my hand while a man with gauges in his ears the size of children’s fists copied the picture of a house sparrow I’d handed him onto the back of my neck. It took five minutes and cost me $25. It’s still my favorite tattoo.

It is hard to explain exactly why some birds roost in gigantic flocks (like the swifts and the purple martins). One possibility is that older birds are better able to find foods, and younger birds roost with them to follow their elders. Another theory is that birds like to be close to each other to keep warm at night. We can never know for sure, because humans can’t talk to birds, and so much of what they do will always be a mystery to us. That’s one of my favorite things about birds: their idiosyncrasies are observable to the common man (unlike, say, tigers — who do not like humans much and do not willfully cohabitate with them), but their mysteries remain largely inexplicable.

Ben and Jen dated for just ten months before they decided to move to Austin together. Jen wanted to finish her undergraduate degree there, and Ben liked the engineering program at the University of Texas. Jen is from Austin originally, and Ben had been living in Portland for a few years out of college. They did not hesitate. I think sometimes you find something that is beautiful, and it satisfies a deep longing you’ve held for ages, and you are somehow able to move through the fear and doubt that necessarily quakes within you when something seems too good to be true. Robert Burton wrote in the seventeenth century that the only cure for the melancholic sickness of love is to enter into it with abandon. So that is what they did.

The purple martins came. They came with such force and triumph that I was surprised I’d ever been skeptical that they’d come. Indeed, there were hundreds of thousands of them, swarming so thick at points that they transformed parts of the sky into a canvas painted solid black, stretched to crack. People gathered, too: to watch, and to marvel. I heard a kid say, “I have to follow JUST ONE, just to see where it goes and what it does.” No one knows exactly why martins roost in giant flocks like that, sure, but to me, it looked a lot like Manhattan. Someone decided that this tree behind this Jack-in-the-Box was the place to go, and that guy was The Cool Guy, and now rent is reeeeeealllly expensive.

If I was a purple martin, and you’d followed my path from the day I met Ben on the field until today, you’d see me starting to follow this other purple martin (that one would be Ben, in case this analogy is a little far-fetched), and follow it for a long long time, and then dive away, and fly somewhere else entirely, occasionally coming back to fly alongside it again. Even if just for a long weekend. 

We must look very mysterious to birds, too. The way we love, and change, and attach, and separate, and trust, and lose trust, and trust again. Also, we have cars and lawnmowers, and I’ll bet birds think that stuff is crazy

One day, a few months ago, I was feeling very lost and very sad and very alone, and I decided I would look through pages of books on my bookshelves until I found something that would help. I came across this Cheryl Strayed passage that made my bones feel warm, and I copied it into my notebook to read again when I needed it:

We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith in that, to put it in a box, and wait.

What a gift it has been to watch this person I love change. I had this funny feeling in the pit of my stomach while I vacationed inside Ben-and-Jen’s (one word, proper noun) perfect family world for a few days. I don’t feel it often, because I am unfortunately often envious and more competitive than I wish to admit. I felt happy for them. They found each other, amidst all the mystery and confusion of the crazy human landscape. They found their spot on the tree. How perfectly beautiful to fly past, to stop for a while, and then, with gratitude, to fly away.