A few years ago we lived in a neighborhood next to a golf course. The lawns were green and sparkling. The sidewalks were flat and maintained. The houses were craftsman style and beautiful, and shaded by old trees that grew in avenues of towering green. Everybody had a garden and almost nobody had weeds. I loved living in that home. Anywhere we walked was beautiful. I can remember only one corner where an old twisted tree had pushed a piece of the sidewalk into jagged shapes. I liked it because it was different, and because the rest of the smooth sidewalks made it easy to walk to. Every street was polished and beautiful. I could live in the middle of a city, I thought, if I could live in a place like this – perfect and beautiful. Peonies in this yard as the spring grew to summer and roses across the street when summer got older. Magnolia next to the purple house, blooming in the springtime and a lilac hedge anywhere you look.
Our new neighborhood isn’t exactly new anymore, either to life or to us. It’s not a golf-course neighborhood. The sidewalks are cracked in most places and crumbling in some. Sometimes the curb slopes down to the street and sometimes it’s like a mile-high drop, though maybe that only matters to people with stiff knees and those like me who are trying to get a stroller across the street. The trees are well enough old but you’ll see untrimmed dead branches striking brown through the thick summer foliage. And there are crows here. Every time we visit our family in Minnesota I see the finches and hear the robins and Mom points out with enthusiastic energy every time she sees a bluebird. But here there are squirrels and crows – it’s not to the exclusion of other birds but when I’m out walking the chipped sidewalks in the evening cool, it’s the crows I see and hear, flying sometimes ominously and sometimes beautifully through the particular sunset gold.
A steam of crows flies overhead one evening while I walk; I hear them above me and stare at them with a fascination I don’t exactly understand. The collective noun for crows is murder: a murder of crows. They did not feel like murder on this night. They were so low I heard their wings rushing like hurried breaths in the night air. The first word to mind was phalanx. Syllables that rise and fall and breathe, rapid like wings. Phalanx. Is that the collective noun for swans? I wonder if I would rather see swans this evening.
I have been walking with urgency – tired and almost discontent with the chipped paint, with the overgrown and untamed quality of our neighborhood. A long week of parenting and staying in to avoid the rain, of wanting to write and not writing, has made me unable or unwilling to look for the silver linings. Bright dahlias big as small melons, alpine sunflowers growing riot in every second yard. Green things poking up undaunted between pieces of a sidewalk. The way morning sunlight filters into everything even when you see it through the shadows. Some days it all becomes just an excuse to miss the quiet shady green of the golf-course neighborhood streets with the level sidewalks and the perfect craftsman houses in their white trim.
But it’s the same in that moment with the large black fluttering as it is when, on an endless weary day, I walk under the whispering silver maples or see the composite sumac leaves like double vision and always feel a particular sort of joy that is more like satisfaction in the rightness of things. The crows and their wingbeats and their shining thick black feathers against the gray sky couldn’t belong anywhere else but that moment above the street and in a second I recognized that I couldn’t belong anywhere else either. These sidewalks and the houses are both a little chipped but the imperfect flowerbeds are still blooming and wild, and the glow from the sun in the fold of the mountains still sits in the air above us like an early promise of tomorrow’s sunrise.
I don’t suppose that we’ll always live in this faded network of streets; there’s a budget growing to the size of a down payment and we talk how long a daily commute would be from this or that part of town, whether we’d be close enough to our church and how long the drive up to the mountains would take. But maybe the crows will live there too, wherever there is. I’ll still have the streets and sidewalks for walking in, cracked or crumbled or perfect, and in all hope and likelihood the sun will still float out a golden evening haze from a fold in the western mountains. But until then. Until. I’ve still got these old chipped paths to walk on and still those crows that fly in a long phalanx, black and glorious and misnamed against the blue or gold or gray sky with a rush of wings like even breaths.