Starlings

Say a prayer for the starlings
A hot, dry wind beats their ragged wings
Have a thought for the starlings
No one ever listens to the songs they sing
Say a prayer for the starlings
There’s no welcome for them anywhere
Leave some crumbs for the starlings
They say that Winter will be cold this year    
~Randy Stonehill

When I was a little girl starlings built nests in the roof of our front porch.  One summer morning, I found a baby bird lying on the porch floor, having fallen from its nest.  The bird struggled to fly, but being too young, only succeeded in flopping around in small hopeless circles.  I gathered it up, and gently put it into a shoe box lined with an old face cloth.  I tried feeding it with milk soaked bread, but the bird did not survive, and I tearfully buried it in the back yard, in the burial place reserved for pet guinea pigs, mice and gold fish.

I thought about the baby bird and Randy Stonehill’s song “Starlings” as I watched the video for Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAWcs5H-qgQ&feature=related.  Although written a generation apart, their themes are common, turning back a corner to the shroud behind which the homeless and addicted hide.    They sadden me, and yet, I cannot ignore them.

When I was a younger woman, I regarded such people with distant sympathy.  I felt sorry for them, but figured they pretty much were to blame for their own misfortunes.  From the safety of my ivory tower, I donated to shelters, prayed for them in church, and sadly shook my head, wondering why somebody doesn’t do something.

One summer, Gabe came home from college and asked me to buy him some lightweight clothes. 

“I just bought him shorts and tee shirts last summer.  Surely he couldn’t have worn them out in such a short time!”  I mused, but I agreed and together we went to the mall. 

As I handed my debit card to the cashier, I finally asked Gabe what happened to the wardrobe he had brought to school.  His face reddened, and he explained that while he had participated in a ministry program earlier that spring, he gave most of his clothes away to a group of homeless men.  While I verbally applauded my son’s desire to put his beliefs into action, I secretly resented the fact that I was stretching my budget to supply clothes for a bunch of men who weren’t willing to work for their own. 

Several months later a young woman called my office, looking for help. She was the age of my youngest daughter.  Haltingly she explained that she had left home several months ago and had been staying on the couch in a friend’s West Side apartment.  Caught up in a cycle of addiction, she was jobless and homeless, and had finally attempted suicide by taking a cocktail of drugs and alcohol.  The suicide attempt failed- she woke the next morning feeling horribly sick and discouraged.  “I can’t even kill myself right,” she sobbed.

As I listened to her, I realized how young and frightened she was.  She sounded much like my own daughters might, when the pressures of life crush against them, suffocating them in a dark cloak of despair.   

I asked her if she still wanted to kill herself.  “No,” she replied, “But I’m afraid I will.”

I talked her into going to the emergency room, and made her promise me that she would call me when she arrived.  She agreed and thanked me, telling me that she felt like I really cared what happens to her.

“I do care.  Besides, have a daughter your age,” I explained. “I would want someone to check up on her if she were in trouble.”

Long after we hung up I thought about this.  What was the difference between this young woman and my daughters?  Certainly, there were differences in some of their life choices, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized that the line between their lives and hers was very fine indeed.  But for one or two different decisions, this woman, who felt so hopeless that she tried to end her life could easily be my daughter.

That realization opened a whole new world of clarity for me.  How had I not realized the men and women who live on the street are somebody’s children?  They were born the way my children were, were raised in similar families, with similar schools. Perhaps it is only one choice- one seemingly small decision- that makes the difference between sleeping beneath an overpass and earning a Master’s degree.

I can no longer look at people with addiction with disdain.  I can no longer turn my eyes to the ground when a stranger asks for spare change. I can no longer look through the prostitutes as though they do not exist. 

And I have to wonder about these people- these starlings who fall from their nests- who will pick them up when they struggle to once again fly?  And who will weep for them if they fail?  If not me, then who?

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