Friday, July 16, 2021

Merbah Jambul

Um, I've been making more birds. In spite of my resolve to stop so that, if nothing else, I might move on to other projects. It's hard sometimes to declare something finished, especially when it's open-ended and you feel as if you've just scratched the surface with its potential. I have no self-control in the face of this kind of temptation, but help arrived in the form of a bathroom remodel in late June. This bathroom opens into my sewing room, so in preparation for the dust, debris and disorder, I plasticked-and-taped my sewing closets shut and cordoned off my entire sewing room with tarps. Which meant that for the last four weeks, I haven't been able to access my fabric and notions stash. This sounds somewhat masochistic, while also dubious in that I can easily go to the fabric store and buy new fabric if I wimped out, but hey, I had to try. My sewing machine itself is exempt from the lockdown so I can deal with mending and alterations and other utility sewing emergencies (I forgot to also liberate my thread box so these mends have sadly all been with white thread regardless of fabric color - not pretty at all), but I'm happy to say that this arrangement is working so far. Sometimes we need serious, drastic intervention when we're out of control, was my reasoning. 

Before the Great Sewing Room Quarantine, though, I made three more birds - a last hurrah, as it were. This first one is a red-whiskered bulbul

Photo credit:

These bulbuls are found in Asia and in even some of the warmer parts of the US like Hawaii and Florida. They're sometimes kept as pets and trained as songbirds for competitions. Growing up in Singapore, I knew them by their local Malay name merbah jambul ("jambul" means crest, and "merbah" is the name for bulbul. I've also heard them called merbok jambul although I haven't been able to find what "merbok" means). 

We kept one of these birds as pets during my childhood. I have vague memories of my dad building a cage with bamboo skewers and my brother and me putting chunks of papaya and little cups of water in it, whistling to the bird and hearing it singing its sweet song back. I also remember that it was injured at some point - we always suspected it might have been attacked in its cage by a larger bird - and after it had recovered, Dad released it so that it would no longer be vulnerable to predators. We thought we might have seen (and heard) it singing in the nearby trees some time after, but it could have just as easily been wishful thinking - after all, who doesn't love a story about a wild thing set free who returns to to say hello? 

My Dad's birthday was in June - it's the second one since he left us - and as expected, I was fragile in the days leading up to it. It was partly due to it being just a week from Father's Day, which was nobody's fault but the commercial marketing surrounding it felt like a relentless assault regardless. Case in point: I was sitting in my car and the radio DJ reminded us to "not just send a card - give your Dad a call!" to which I responded, "Yeah, well," and refused to have the pity party that was threatening to throw itself. And part of it was having been bombarded with graduation open-house invites which, while celebratory for the accomplishments in an especially challenging year, mask the loss of childhood and innocence, a bittersweet caveat which mothers might mention in passing but which nobody talks about, not really. And maybe another part was being still unable to fly to Singapore more than a year after Covid started and since we lost Auntie Laura. 

The sum of all those parts felt like a lot all at once, I think. Much of the year, I'm mindfully able to stay in the blessings of the present, but these milestone days are hard. Either the memories come thick and fast while I'm miles away from the ones with whom sharing them feels like healing, or else they don't come at all, and I wonder if I've somehow also lost the parts of myself who were daughter and niece.

So it was in that context that I thought I might make a bird that reminded me of home and Dad and being a kid in the house where I grew up. 

I don't know if it helped, but it felt intentional, and if there's anything I've learned about grief-from-far-away, it is that often you have to be intentional in order to move forward. I finished this little guy a few days before Dad's birthday and sat at my sewing table wondering if I should have expected an epiphany. The thing about grief that's funniest to me is how everyday it is. I always think it comes in big gestures, borne aloft on words like tribute! and honor! and legacy! Which it certainly can be - a couple of my grief group friends have launched movements, bestowed scholarships, organized benefit dinners and other wonderfully meaningful things, for instance. But more often than not, it's mundane and common and intimate and persistent, inserting itself into my family, personhood and psyche, quietly refusing to be left behind with what once was and insisting that it continues - powerfully, transformingly - to be.  

Sorry - didn't mean to get all metaphorical on you. Finding words for what's going on inside me helps. Most days it feels like I'm making things up as I go, and it's haphazard and crazy, yet there's also a sweetness in letting go and seeing what the world throws my way. The universe, I've found, has tremendous resources at its disposal.  

And I did survive my Dad's birthday, incidentally. It was a testament to resilience I didn't know I had, and to a God who knew me better than I knew myself, expending those resources to carry me through a couple of especially tough days.  

But let's talk about the bulbul, shall we? It isn't very colorful, as far as birds go - mostly dark brown with a black head,

white cheeks, red whiskers, 

brown spurs on the sides of its breast

and red feathers on the underside of its tail, a feature I used as a child to identify these birds when they were perched in trees overhead. 

I really liked the outcome - quite different than the other birds I've made so far, which rely largely on rainbow-bright coloration to feel distinctive. I showed it to my brother on a Zoom call and was pleased that he was able to identify it.   

Hope everyone's summer is going well! I'll be back soon to share the other two birds, both much more colorful than this bulbul (with one of them especially so)!

1 comment:

  1. I really like this bird! Thank you for introducing me to the bulbul. And for your thoughts on grief. The mindful processing bit especially resonated with me.


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