A Cardinal Encounter

It was a serendipitous encounter. The type made rare by the pandemic. Boy walks in park. His attention is caught by a ruby red splash over by a nearby tree. He enters the world of this colorful stranger. His new friend speaks directly to his soul. A friendship blooms.

Last year I learned to recognize the call of the cardinal, and it’s changed my life in unexpected ways.

A cardinal’s call is not the most beautiful bird song you’ll ever hear. You know that sound a smoke alarm makes when the batteries have expired? There’s your cardinal’s call. And yet, it brings me inexplicable joy.

When I first learned to identify this sound, it sparked a reaction in me similar to a chirping smoke detector. Not the annoy-the-shit-out of me reaction. Or the avoid-until-I-can-no-more reaction. But the ultimate I-give-in reaction, followed by a single player game of Marco Polo as I attentively wander the house trying to find the ailing device. 

I’d be walking the neighborhood with my wife and hear the redbird—they’re usually heard before seen—and stop dead in my tracks. I’d shout “cardinal!” then lift my gaze and try to locate the winged chirper. “There it is!” I’d announce with pleasure if I eventually found it. My wife quickly tired of my proclamations, so now I think them with the same exclamatory affect.

I don’t think I realized it immediately, but the cardinal’s chirps were a prompt to get out of my head, pause, and attentively listen, immersing myself fully in just what was happening in the moment. The feelings of curiosity, admiration, appreciation, gratitude, and happiness that accompanied the cardinal’s song left no room for the anxiety of the long to do list waiting for me after my walk.

My moments with the cardinal helped connect me more deeply to the calm that mindfulness offers amid an otherwise frenetic-seeming experience.

Beyond the reminder to be present, in the cardinal’s song I also found a reminder that I’m not alone. It’s astounding—even embarrassing if I’m being honest—how comforting my cardinal encounters have become. I’m on a walk and I hear the now-familiar chirps of this… bird… and it just makes me happy. And somehow, just knowing that there’s a cardinal somewhere makes me feel like I’m not alone. There could be all kinds of other sounds in the air and in my ears, but the chirps of this cardinal—that I often can’t even see—make me feel safe and alive. At one with myself and the world.

I think this comforting presence is what a lot of people see in the idea of God, and maybe more specifically in Jesus in the Christian tradition. That’s not my cup of tea, but now that I recognize this, it makes me wonder how I can be more of a comforting companion to myself… how can I replace the hum of judgement and analysis with a friendly internal chirp that simply says I’m here, life is amazing, you got this!

Thanks to Khalilah Charrington, Gad Allon, Charlie Bleecker and Kelvin Obakhavbaye for their feedback on this post.

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