Things In Trees — A Christmas Story of Hope
A short story in three parts
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I was being groomed to be the next Rachel Maddow at the Fox affiliate I worked for – the promo department had invested a lot of time to promote my business and economic series, Saving the California Dream.
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I was trying to save my own dream. Wells Fargo was trying to steal my home in Sherman Oaks, California, right out from under me – like they did to millions of people throughout the country who weren’t mathemagicians. I was reeling from the fight. The bank had pulled a mean trick – reached out to offer a reduced mortgage during a period of a family member’s unemployment and then sent a bill out of the blue for $30,000 due in 30 days or else. Although I had family willing to help, it came at a cost that would not have benefitted my children’s future, so I had to find a way out on my own.
I started producing a series – Mortgage Meltdown Tool Kit – to help people see what options they had to save their homes. Thankfully, I knew a good lawyer. So I started there. It wasn’t long before I got a call from Wells Fargo saying, “Oh, sorry, did we say we were going to foreclose on your home unless you coughed up $30,000? Nah, here’s a refi.” This, after months on the phone with them, trying to work out a plan. Suddenly, once they got a call from my attorney, they backed down.
I still can’t believe the trauma this country went through due to predators – predators who are still out there preying. We could have helped people – we could have offered people a way to buy their homes back at .50 on the buck. But instead, the grifters, and the cons, and the amoral money men made out like bandits. And millions of people throughout America lost their dream. Families suffered.
That wasn’t my story, but I just spoke with a man who was former MAGA, and that was his story. Abandoned by the American Dream – a gateway to radicalization.
It was during the Great Recession when I moved back into my home to save it. Working in broadcast news for a Murdoch outfit had eroded my soul over time, and something magical and mystical began to happen.
It started with things in trees.
As I look back now, I realize they had always been there but I hadn’t pieced it together.
I had written a myserious owl into my first screenplay in 2011 – a true story about an American actress who saved the lives of 42 airmen in the French Resistance.
During that time, I had moved to Santa Monica by the Sea and inspired by a gamey bird I met one day, I began writing limericks about an ill-behaved one-legged gull who was always belligerent in my imagination – showing up drunk, stealing my liquor, bumming smokes, pissing on the couch, just an overall menace that I adored despite his lack of refinement. For a visual, picture Rex Harrison in the “Ghost and Mrs. Muir” but in bird form.
I didn’t realize I had a history with birds until I reflected on the topic much later.
But it began like this…
II. The Messengers
I was up before dawn in my kitchen each day getting my marching orders.
I had my own news series to produce, while also working on investigations, and writing speeches for the GM as a pro bono side hustle. It was too much for any mother, but I had nothing to compare it to – it was my life.
And the crows outside my kitchen door got louder and louder and louder. It got to the point that I couldn’t hear what my colleague was saying on the phone. So I would go outside in my backyard, and look up at the things in trees.
That was the first awareness I had of wild birds becoming very present in my life.
The house would be quiet, the neighborhood still sleeping, I’d get a call from Fox and suddenly, the crows would light up the town.
I learned later that in some Native American traditions, the crows are the messengers, and they clearly wanted to have a word with me.
At the very least, they were demanding my attention, and they got it.
That was the beginning of a supernatural force pulling me away from broadcast news although I didn’t know it then.
My career was humming along, and then suddenly it wasn’t. I detail that story in both of my books – my resistance diary, It’s Komprocated and my roman a clef, Fox Undercover – as well Confessions of a Fox Blonde – and this being a Christmas tale, I do not wish to re-open the post-traumatic news syndrome wounds more than is necessary so let’s get to the day that the California Towhee walked into my life.
I was sleeping in the front room of my house during my really bad breakup with Fox while I was still employed there and hoping for a resolution.
Tap tap tap.
A bird would start pecking away at the window facing my bed, insisting I wake up, and insisting I pay attention to it.
It became my morning alarm. I didn’t need to set a wake up call, because the little brown bird with a rust-colored bum would show up every morning at 6 am to ensure my day started with consternation.
I found out later it was a California Towhee, and it likely was doing battle with its own reflection but for me, it was my morning ritual.
I would then check my phone and start returning calls to the assignment desk, and then the crow would light up.
Although an alert person would have noticed the significance, I was not an alert person.
I was morbidly depressed by external things I could not control, and I wasn’t yet receiving what they were transmitting.
So after the Towhee and after the crow, I would somehow drag my ass to the car to begin the tragic commute to hell. By then, I’d been in broadcast news for 15 years, and although I document the good times in my previous writings, these were not the good times.
I was once again forced to turn my writing over to others after finally being granted in my 13th year a hall pass to produce my own work for myself.
It sucked. I was sad. Cinderelly back in the basement.
So as I would walk out to my car, oblivious to the birdsong that surrounded me, I would see the bullseye of shit – every morning.
I didn’t know it at the time, but a Black Phoebe was bug hunting from my Bug – perched on the antennae of my VW – so it could see where to swoop down and grab breakfast.
All I knew is every morning in my morbid state, I would walk to my car and see another turd in the very center of my flower decal on the rear window of my car. At first I cleaned them off and after a while I just didn’t care anymore.
But they always made me laugh.
I thought what a clever bird to have such excellent aim. The bird never missed. There was never one shite askew.
It was always dead center in the 1960s-style flower power decal on my car.
When I became a birder later that year, the Black Phoebe topped my list of favorite birds. It’s a little black and white punk rock bird with a crest.
But I wasn’t there yet.
I just noticed that I began to laugh. It was the one moment in my day when I couldn’t help but smile.
Such a clever bird shitting on my car.
So I’d make my way down the 405 and pull into the lot and turn stories for other people, and then make my way home.
I started to cherish Saturdays – there would always come a moment around 1 pm on a Saturday that I tried to live inside of – I still had hours of sunlight and a Sunday ahead of me. I wanted that moment to last forever.
As I walked around the neighborhood on Saturday afternoons, I started to instinctively look up at things in trees. I became curious.
I also noticed something else quite amazing – everywhere I went, there were feathers in my path. It was as if the things with wings wanted to reassure me I would be okay.
So I’d look up into trees to see what I could see and when I’d look down toward the ground, I would see feathers.
I told the story to my hippy friend – also ex-Fox – and she said, “Those are your guardian angels telling you that they’re looking out for you. That’s what feathers in your path signifies.”
She wasn’t the most reliable source, but it sounded just fine to me.
Over the next few months, during My Really Bad Breakup from Fox, I began to feel some significant shifts occurring. Seismic in scope, as I look back.
There came a day in the heat of July, I was in an edit bay when a doosh waltzed in and told me to turn some chyrons for a music critic. I heard this internal voice from somewhere far away whisper, “You were a music reporter.” And I started to feel – I don’t know how to describe it other than I began to have memories of who I was.
I must have said something out loud because a colleague told me I was becoming one of those bitter fucks and I heard him, and I acknowledged that he was correct, I was becoming a bitter fuck – and then I heard that internal voice again: “That’s simply not your nature.”
I felt my feet moving under me…
(I must pause from the story telling for a moment to let you know a flock of parrots just arrived outside my window and they are acting so crazy.)
So as I was saying, I felt my feet move under me as if I were having an out of body experience.
I walked out of the edit bay, I walked out of the newsroom, I took the elevator down to P2, and I left the building for good.
Without a thought, I drove to a bird sanctuary at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve.
I was there for hours.
I watched swallows dive for bugs.
I knew I was never going back. I was going to find another way to live.
I didn’t know what it was going to look like or how I would survive, but if I had stayed in that building another second, I would have become one of the walking dead.
Watching birds made me feel there was something hopeful in this world.
Hope is the thing with feathers.
I don’t even remember the struggle, I only remember the magic.
I threw my workaholism into writing screenplays and development deals. I found ways to survive.
I watched a million movies from the golden age of cinema and learned how to be a survivor. Bette Davis taught me to swim. Hedy Lamarr taught me as long as I had a pen and could write, I would be fine.
But it was the birds. The birds brought me home.
I could be a full-time mother to my children again. I could be present.
I was given the greatest gift that year.
My children’s father made me a bird garden.
One day after I’d left Fox and had enrolled in a six-week work stress therapy group, I had come home from a meditation class and walked into the backyard and said, “What a dump.”
I wanted a bird garden, and I got one.
I also went on my first bird walk that fall with a group of urban naturalists.
The first bird I saw in a scope at O’Melveny Park was a roadrunner.
Imagine how lucky this girl is that the very first bird I saw on my very first bird walk was one of the most spectacular birds of all – a leggy cuckoo.
It was on that walk that I learned that cliff swallows build adobes – little mud huts that are architectural marvels. I also learned that the sweet-faced mourning doves are terrible architects – something I learned first-hand in my bird garden when I began rescuing their precariously perched eggs. They were also the last to get the memo when danger was afoot.
On that first walk I also learned where I could find an owl’s nest filled with three baby Great Horned Owls.
So with my new found freedom, I would get up each morning and take my kids to school and then drive to the Wildlife Refuge to watch the baby owls. I’d watch the mom protect them, the father hunt for food. They made their home in an old hawk’s nest. I would return in the evenings with my children to see how the day went.
It was a great place to meet photographers who would tip me off to other nesting areas, and there I would learn about creek cleanups and volunteer my brood.
You’ll never look at a plastic straw the same again after having a tug-of-war getting them out of creek beds. I admit I now only use biodegradable straws made of recycled coffee grounds – I haven’t been able to quit them altogether.
Progress not perfection.
There was a part of me that was in mourning watching those birds – I was not ready for my son, the older of my two children, to leave the nest. I needed more time with him.
The day the baby owls first lit out on their own, bumping around from branch to branch was both joyful and mournful for me.
And then another magical thing happened. My son decided to take an internship with Epitaph Records before going away to college and that meant I got more time with him.
I would take him to work and pick him up and I was the happiest most joyful mother.
By the time he decided on a college game plan, I had been able to finish the job of being a mother during very important teenage years.
I owe that to the birds.
Both my children put themselves through college debt free, and I owe that to the birds.
They got me out of corporate media hell, and being an independent writer of modest means meant my brilliant kids were carried.
That first Christmas out of Fox, I spent tending to my bird garden.
I got a nyjer feeder for the goldfinches, and a wild bird feeder for the varieties of finches, doves, and sparrows that showed up each day. I got a squirrel buster because the acrobats in my yard multiplied, and I found another feeder to offer nuts to the squirrels.
Watching them each day was like watching Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in Trapeze – they were magnificent.
I also put up hummingbird feeders and watched these small bullies fight over turf wars. I spread the feeders strategically throughout the yard so there was enough for everyone.
I was running a soup kitchen.
I was growing the flock.
I would sit in the backyard and watch the rhythm of nature.
A Cooper’s Hawk would show up and everyone would scatter. Except the mockingbirds which liked to menace the hawks.
In the morning, I would come outside and see mourning doves doing yoga on my roof.
The hummingbirds became so homey they’d eat out of my palm.
Every day was like Christmas.
Now, wherever I am in life, I have my trusty binos and pay attention to things in trees.
Wild birds love bombed me out of corporate news, and I have been independent for ten years.
When I sold the house, a horrible developer demolished my sweet 1940s post-war home, and with it went the bird garden.
But I now live in a neighborhood where the birds still come to me. Red-crowned parrots are right out my window making merry as I type. A pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls wake me up outside my window each morning. Crows and ravens cohabitate on my block. Black Phoebes perch on the palms diving for insects, and squirrels are always up to something.
I am writing on my pink keyboard at my pink desk feeling the warm glow from my pink Christmas tree, which is adorned with many colorful birds.
My life is small and compact these days so I can write big.
I wake every morning to the sound of birdsong, which I acknowledge and cherish.
I am present.
I owe everything to the birds – both joy and strength.
I still see feathers in my path.
I honor them.
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(Below, a roadrunner on a recent visit to Joshua Tree, California)
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