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A realization

I want to say something about a collision of doves and pigeons. Until recently, I'd always lived with both in the thoughtless peace of unrelated ideas and things.

Pigeons are always with us, I thought. They are stupid and not clean; they will eat anything. Pigeons waddle noisily in groups of wing up awkwardly when bothered. But I knew that I wouldn't be harmed by them, despite the ominous intimations of Du Maurier and Hitchcock. Pigeons are drab and annoying, but social and comforting; they always seem safe. Pigeons are what my brother and I chased on Fifth Avenue in New York when we were children.

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When I was an urban 23-year-old mother, my infant son and I daily fed pigeons in a small gray park near Grant's Tomb. He laughed at them in rolls of articulate baby pleasure. He threw them bread crumbs with swinging, uncoordinated arms, and he, master of pigeons, cooed when they flew wherever he directed their food.

There are as many years between his infant adventures in New York City and today, as between that time and my own childhood chasing of pigeons on Fifth Avenue -- the Central Park side -- with my braids and oxford laces flying in the heat of the hunt, overjoyed to be in a race I could not win.

But doves, I thought, doves signify the Holy Spirit, are solitary . . . accompanying a voice from heaven . . . Noah's bird with olive branch in beak was signing peace. Cooing pairs are birds of lovers.Doves, white and pure, shining, led Curdie's Princess safely home through trollish dangers, to her grandmother's arms and heaven.

Twelve years ago I left the city and came to the country to read and teach of birds and men and women, of love and God in Middle English lyrics, to check avicular names in ordinary sources. The wings of my life fluttered erratically; my son and I went our separate ways, as sons and mothers do.

A week ago, I looked up from the breakfast table and out the dining room window at my birdfeeder, an old Easter basket suspended insecurely from a crab apple tree. It pleases me to see the birds fly and feed, observe their order of society, the grace and dignity they make of necessity; the utter and brilliant rudeness of the jay as he demands, like a two-year-old baby, that everyone get out of his way; the quick grace of titmice as they share perches; the alert shyness of the cardinal, who flees so quickly at the most distant sights and sounds that I have to ask myself whether such crimson has really been there. Once I even saw a downy woodpecker unaccountably bathing in my basket of birdseed. And then, one day I saw a pigeon, soft brown and gray, strutting on the ground below the higher activity of the birdfeeder, sorting through scraps of seeds and crumbs -- a pigeon here in rural Connecticut. For a moment I thought, "He's found me out, he senses an urban birdfeeder; there must be some subtle city odor that hangs about the feeder and the feed. He's a stranger in a strange land, looking for some kindred soul. How beautiful he looks."

My son, visiting from school, said, "That's not a pigeon. That's a mourning dove."

In the crash of enlightment that belies cognition, in the certain realization that jumps beyond the limitations of the mind, the distinction I'd unthinkingly decreed between doves and pigeons was annulled. All that a dove signifies, its pristine solitude, its clean vocation, informed and illuminated the noisy habits and the awkward flight of the pigeon; and this marriage gave light and assent to all pigeons and whatever I've ever had to do with them. It was an awakening light that revealed the holiness to be seen in the most desolate city park and below the most tenuous rural birdfeeder.

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