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Oh, to Be a Canary: On William Wharton's Birdy

16 June 2024


Oh, to Be a Canary: On William Wharton’s Birdy



Oh, to be a canary.


One thing I loved about Wharton’s book, Birdy, was all the detail about birds—specifically Birdy’s breeding canaries. Perhaps there is a reader out there who would be bored by Birdy’s detailed, intricate descriptions of canary life, canary behavior (flight, play, mating, hatching, etc.), but that reader is not me. These captivated me, as a birder myself, and reminded me of life’s marvels (amidst the omni-present suffering).


A few things Wharton would have us learn from Birdy’s canaries: we’ve forgotten how to play, and death is a part of life—and as such, just not that big of a deal.


First, what Birdy learns from watching his canaries fly is that once we grow up, as humans, we forget the value of play. Joy for joy’s sake. Birds don’t forget how to play: they sing and they flit and float because it feels good to do so, not always because there is some purpose to those actions. Birdy writes of his canary, Alfonso, “He flies because he isn’t afraid and not just because it’s what birds are supposed to do. He flies as an act of personal creation, defiance” (70). People, on the other hand, have lost this sense of play. Al notes, “Games are something we’ve made up to help us forget we’ve forgotten how to play. Playing is doing something for itself; Birdy and I played a lot” (208). Birdy sees it too: “I think people lose the real fun in things by measuring, scoring, wanting to win” (222). What can we do to bring play and joy for the sake of play and joy back into our lives? Wharton suggestions that these are essential elements to make life worth living, when Birdy says, “I just need more time to put it together, to figure out what I can do so my life will become fun and I can stay alive” (301). I might suggest that we can recapture this joy, this sense of play, through creation, as Alfonso the bird does. For sure, bringing a new piece of writing into this world makes me feel whole—every time, without fail. Even when that writing is just absolute poppycock rubbish, it is better to have been brought into this world, and I am better for having brought it.


Another thing Birdy learns from his canaries, from Perta, specifically, is that death is a part of life. When Perta’s son dies, Birdy feels compelled to mourn the loss with Perta: “When I try to speak of him, of his death, of my sadness, she only gives me the same response; ‘Yes. He is in Echen’” (244). Perta does not wallow in this loss. Perta has little, if any, conscious thought of it at all. She cannot seem to comprehend any meaning to it beyond a simple natural state: we are born, we die. I’ll admit I admire this in Perta and every bird I’ve ever encountered in my yard. I envy it even in the tortoise I helped across the street today: he had no clue. Can we aspire to such non-attachment to life? Is it possible for the human mind to accomplish? My thoughts turn to Thich Nhat Hanh. Did he achieve it, himself, before death? I want to believe so…I do.


Another thing Wharton tackles throughout this novel is the inspection (and debunking) of the sane/insane binary. I experienced a sort of mental health episode the past few weeks. My therapist even went so far as to give it a startling diagnostic label. Yet seeing nothing whatsoever “insane” about the episode, I have no choice but to wonder: what is sanity? Wharton begins to address this as Birdy inserts himself into his own dreams as a bird. The more often Birdy appears as a bird in his dreams, the less and less his waking life feels “real.” He begins to wonder which life is waking and which is the dream state. Rightly so.


This theme evolves beyond dreams over the course of the book, however, as Birdy is stuck behind bars in a psych ward, acting entirely like a bird, and Al is trying to get Birdy to “come back” and be normal so that he can be released. But which is crazier, the reader is given to consider: pretending to be a bird or living/trudging through real life? Birdy says, “I’ll tell you, Al, I’ve been thinking. Maybe crazy people are the ones who see things clear but work out a way to live with it” (300). He continues…

“Listen, Al. I think what I’m trying to say is, we really are loons. We’re crazy because we can’t accept the idea that things happen for no reason at all and that it doesn’t mean anything. We can’t see life as just a row of hurdles we have to get over somehow. It looks to me as if everybody who isn’t crazy just keeps hacking away to get through. They live it out day by day because each day is there and then when they run out of days they close their eyes and call themselves dead” (301).

Some days, I admit, I wish I were normal. Sane. Either able to achieve non-attachment to life, like Perta, or at least keep “hacking to get through” without this crushing weight settled upon my chest. But like Al says, “I’m stuck. I can’t seem to make myself different and I can never go back to fooling myself the old ways” (300). There is no going back. There is only this, and I can only hope to find the best ways to make life joy-filled and fun, while it lasts.


Finally, a theme I appreciated in this book was the message linked to all of the above: there are fates far worse than death. In his time with the Army, Al learns truths about suffering that most of us will never understand or encounter in our everyday lives. He was in the trenches surrounded by gun and cannon fire and realized from his own terror that he was, in truth, a total coward. I mean, I feel he was too hard on himself: who wouldn’t be terrified, witnessing such violence and gore? Still, through Wharton’s depictions of Al’s experience in the trenches, I learned that it’s not death I truly fear; it's suffering. I fear the suffering that accompanies death: both my own and others’. Given the suffering Al encountered during his stint in the Army, death seems a blessing. A boon. A relief. An escape. What’s more: we can create such visceral, tortured suffering in our own lives if we are not careful. There need not be a war. It happens between ourselves and others when we do not look to see our own injuries, our truths, and the ways we strive to control those around us for the sake of our own egos. It can be avoided, though, through awareness, awakening, mindfulness—and ultimately acceptance (not resignation).


The acceptance of a canary.



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