Starting Small: Bushtits, Beethoven, and the Art of Memoir

The forest is in high gear these days, with everyone busy at the different tasks of life in springtime. Uncertain speckled juvenile robins are trying to copy their parents as they forage on red elderberries.

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

Juvenile Robin in elderberries

The park is ringing with the cawcawphony of teenage crows arguing with each other…

Juvenile crows on rooftop; 2 on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

Juvenile crows on rooftop; two on left objecting to the one on right having the treasure (a conifer seed)

…and harassing their parents for one more, another, another feeding they don’t have to get for themselves — yet.

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Parent feeding juvenile crows

Flicker parents pry the ground open in search of ants, beetles, and other bugs to deliver to their hungry young, still in the nest for just a bit longer.

Male Flicker feeds two young - more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

Male Flicker feeds two young – more aggressive one is blocking its sibling

A pair of Bushtits are busily helping the forest economy through new-home construction. It seems late to be getting started, but they’ve chosen a lovely spot in an aging Pacific Madrone, with a nice view of Puget Sound. The husband harvests the dried flowers of a nearby oceanspray and carries them over to the nest.

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

Male Bushtit harvesting dried oceanspray

He then disappears into the opening they’ve woven into the lengthening bag, it wiggles for a bit, then he reappears and flies off to Avian Home Depot for more hardware. His wife arrives a few seconds later with some soft fluff in her beak: bedding for the tiny eggs that will become these tiny birds, perhaps?

Bushtit brings fluff to nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Bushtit brings fluff to nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Their nest is the woven story of the forest: tube lichens from Douglas Fir bark, silk webbing from our Cross Spiders, dried grass, Madrone flower petals. Reading a bushtit nest, you learn where you live.

* * * * *

I’ve recently begun considering a memoir of some kind, stretching myself to write in a new style. But although I’m comfortable writing academic pieces, I’ve never tried anything as intimate as a memoir. How on earth do you go about it? Being the aforementioned trained scholar who’s spent decades honing my scientific research skills, I put them to good use: I went to Google and typed “how to write a memoir.”

Behold, up came William Zinsser’s marvelous essay on the topic, creatively titled “How to Write a Memoir.” Zinsser begins by relating his father’s annoyingly straightforward and angst-free writing of his own memoir: the man just sat down in his favorite armchair with pencil and paper, wrote the thing out in one draft, had it typed and reproduced, handed copies around to everyone in his family, and was done.

Since it isn’t that easy for many of us, Zinsser taught memoir courses. A woman in one class wrote about her journey to Poland to unravel her Jewish father’s early life in the village he escaped at 14, one of few survivors to do so. Zinsser describes his own World War II experience of riding across North Africa in a “forty-and-eight”: a train car that could hold forty men or eight horses. Like a peephole camera, the tiny lens of a single short time span allows a whole world to come into focus on the page. You don’t have to write the Whole Big Drama Of Your Life — you just have to start with one memory, and then another, then another. You can trust Life to shine through your life.

* * * * *

On the spur of the moment a couple of weeks ago, Rob and I decided to attend our local stage theater’s penultimate performance of the season, “33 Variations” by Moisés Kaufman. In the play, Katherine, a contemporary Beethoven scholar, seeks to understand why the great composer used such an unremarkable rustic dance theme, written by his publisher Diabelli, [1] as the basis for a grand range of complex variations, working far beyond the original task even as his health is giving way towards the end of his life.

Katherine’s story is interwoven with that of Beethoven. As her own health deteriorates from ALS, she is able to see that in her life as an academic, her search for the universal has led her to disregard the particular, the individual—especially her quirky daughter. Ultimately, Katherine comes to understand Beethoven’s motivation and his genius in the Variations: he is glorifying the profound beauty of the mundane, showing that even a mediocre theme, a rustic dance, the simple events of a single life, are the shimmering seeds of the transcendent.[2]

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day! sings Jesus in the carol of that name, as he dances the redemption story “for my true love.” Transcen-dance: a grain of sand becomes the world, an hour holds eternity. A little nest is a mosaic containing a forest full of dances.

* * * * *

Zinsser’s final advice for writing about your life is: Think small. Moments become memoir; motifs become meaning; one life becomes a lens to the drama of history. A bushtit, second only to the hummingbird as tiniest in the forest, weaves her nest from the inside. The setting sun illuminates her form as she performs her own rustic dance, transforming the small bits of the forest into a home for her true love.

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside nest  (Click for 90-sec video of her work)

Male Bushtit (upper left) holds decoration as female works inside their backlit nest
(Click here for 90-sec video of her dance)

[1] You can hear Diabelli’s theme here: by clicking on the first item, “Tema: Vivace.”

[2] In the piece’s title, Beethoven chose the unusual term Veränderungen, rather than the more traditional musical term Variationen. Why? Veränderungen implies transformation rather than simply variation.


6 responses to “Starting Small: Bushtits, Beethoven, and the Art of Memoir

  1. Trileigh – This is lovely. In our nature journaling workshops, several people indicated that they wanted to begin journaling for therapeutic reasons – due to the loss of someone special in their lives. The discussions were really all about memoirs, but I hadn’t made the connection until reading this piece. Healing, dancing, celebrating life and nature – something we should all do more of. As always, thanks for sharing your beautiful images and words.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Diane. I want to encourage you to think about writing a memoir as well; you think about everything so deeply and write so beautifully, it would be a wonderful piece.

  3. Ah shucks. Thanks Trileigh. Not sure what my story would be; I find it easier to write about other people and things.

  4. Loved it all. Loved this: “Reading a bushtit’s nest you learn where you live.”

  5. My favorite book on exploring the process and practice of memoir is Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away.

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