This Story Does Not End The Way That I Wanted It To

Many of my long-time Dear Readers know that I consider the magnificent Eastern Blue Jay …


…to be the Top DoG in the bird world.  Lucky for me, these little miracles of evolution are native to my home state of New York and are frequent visitors to my backyard, and during their Summer molt they usually drop a feather or two my way. Since 2004 I have been collecting these tiny gifts to put on display in my Museum of Blue :P1040939

However, as far as collecting Blue Jay feathers in the past few years, my heart hasn’t been in it. Three years ago my mind became preoccupied with a very ambitious project — writing and illustrating a book about a world tour of gardens. I know it doesn’t sound all that perplexing a job: You go visit a garden, you paint some pictures of it, you write about how nice it is, and you’re done.

But I wanted to avoid the usual dreadful garden vocabulary and I wanted to up-end the cliche garden philosophies and I wanted to make illustrations that were not botanical in nature — I wanted to make pictures that portrayed the soul of the place. On top of all that, I am not all that smart. So I had to think hard. It took up a lot of my brain power. And so it came to pass that, in the Summer of 2012, I was so busy pondering hard on garden things that I only picked up four feathers:


The way that I figured out how to avoid using  the usual vocabulary of garden writing was that I made a list of dreadful words that are so often used by garden writers that they stab me in my mind’s eyeball every time I read them. The list includes the words:

Sacred space, Communion, Magical, Jewel or jewel-like or gemNurturing, Benevolent, Abode, Haven,  or Glade.  All those bad-poet words that make you go yeeeeech.

I also banned the word “Nature” from my book, but then I put in a quote from Dorothy Wordsworth that contained the “N” word…and I kind of regret that now. How awesome would it have been to have written an entire book about gardens and not mention nature once???

In 2013 I was still cogitating on putting together nine garden stores that were completely cliche-free, void of any reference to renewal, or solace, or seeds. My garden philosophy is very rigorous in that I believe that gardens mean something that is specific and individual to every garden. My brain was sorely over-taxed by the task, so I’m amazed that in 2013 I still had the sightfulness to spy  these dainty gifts in my backyard:


Last Summer, 2014, this is what I gathered, Blue Jay feather-wise:


In 2014 I had not only a garden book to bring into being, but I was caring for a very, very old and completely time-consuming cocker spaniel called Boogie Girl (her story is here in a blog post called Happiness is a Warm Puppy):


This brings me to last Summer, the Summer of 2015.


My garden book, rife with digressions on dive bars, 1970s haute couture, rainy days, English tea, and not living in Cleveland (sorry, Cleveland), is done!

Just this past Thursday, the industry Torah, Publisher’s Weekly, has read it and reviewed it:

Vivian Swift (Le Road Trip), inspired by the ineffable beauty of a poinsettia tree she encountered in Brazil, tours nine gardens from around the world in this seductive illustrated travelogue. She starts in Paris at the Square du Vert-Galant, meanders to Marrakech, lingers in London’s Physic Garden, and roams through Rio de Janeiro’s Midnight Garden. In Key West, Fla., she pens a polemic about pines; visiting poet William Cullen Bryant’s Cedermere, she sings a paean to his pears. As Swift sees it, gardens pay “homage to this wondrous Earth.” Each chapter includes maps, inspirational quotations (as well as an “ancient Celtic prayer” she “just made up”), and a benedictory essay. Throughout, there is loveliness and wit through whimsical words (such as doodad and dithers) and pictures. Her splashy watercolors, washing joyfully throughout, include a lesson on how to paint fall leaves. Color illus. (Mar.)

So I guess I pulled off what I had set out to do — and made it look easy!

And so, in 2015, I put down my paint brushes and pushed myself away from my computer and I became, once again, a Blue Jay Feather Collector. Starting in June, I gave myself the goal of collecting five — 5 — Blue Jay feathers.

The way you collect Blue Jay feathers is, first of all, make your back yard a good space for Blue Jays. I do this by putting out bowls of dry cat — which they LOVE — in high places, out of the stalking range of any resident cat.

It also helps if you have a nice assortment of tall trees in your back yard, which I do, because Blue Jays love to look down on plotting cats and screech at them. They also like to perch high on a branch and send out a flute-like flows of rapturous calls, which are the songs that they only sing to one another.

Then, each morning, preferably shortly after dawn but definitely in the hour of your first cup of tea of the day, you have to walk out in the dewy grass of your backyard and send a request, very politely worded, to the Blue Jays and the Universe that goes like this:

Please let me see, today, the gifts that are everywhere in front of me.

It helps if, while you are requesting this mindfulness, if you can hold in your mind the image of a Blue Jay feather.

I was surprised at how surprised I was at how, almost immediately, it became very easy to find Blue Jay feathers!


I knew that 2015 was going to be a very, very good year for collecting Blue Jay feathers when, in late June, I found FIVE in one day.

Somewhere deep in the back of my brain I know there is the belief that life is good. I believe that in spite of the randomness of evil and the prevalence of human stupidity and the misery of history-in-the-making, that life can still be wondrous. That belief gets re-awakened and strengthened every time I find a Blue Jay feather just for the asking…and I hope you know that you, Dear Reader, are free to replace Blue Jay Feather with any other totem of your heart’s desire, which you will indeed find, too, simply by asking for the eyes and spirit to see that it is always there in front of you. And, naturally, by doing the work it takes to make your little acre of earth a good ground for those things to drop into.

So how good was the 2015 Summer of collecting Blue Jay feathers?

It was this good:


Yeah, it was 40-Feathers good.

But I was not ready to let things be. I guess I got a little greedy. Maybe a bit cocky. Maybe, even, a bit entitled. On the first day of Fall this year, I put it out to the spirits in my backyard that I wanted proof-beyond-doubt that I was the Universe’s favorite child. I wanted to find ONE MORE Blue Jay feather.

It was while I was pacing the backyard for the third time, with nary a Blue Jay feather in sight, that I thought about the moral of this tale (because I knew I was going to have to blog about my 40-Feather Summer). And I concluded that not finding that one last Blue Jay feather was even better than finding that one last Blue Jay feather because it would show that the Universe wanted me to learn something fine and elegant about the search itself…how it’s the quest for the Blue Jay feather that connects us to the profound mysteries of consciousness on this little speck of blue in the cosmos.

Which is how I wanted to end this story, all philosophical and Zen-ish.

And then I saw this:


Which turned out to be this:


Which is a “flight” feather from the wing of a Blue Jay (I hope you can see the ridge of blue on its outer edge):


I can’t tell you how astonished I was when I picked this one last Blue Jay feather up off the ground. It was completely unexpected, and ridiculously gracious of the Universe, and hugely annoying. I already had it all planned out, about how I was a better person for not finding that one last Blue Jay feather and all.

There goes my  grand finale, my message that it’s the search for the Blue Jay Feather of the Soul that gets us out of bed in the morning after yet another atrocity of hate, or apathy, or stupidity (check the latest news cycle). And what about my uplifting morale about how being a Being of the Search is a fine, fine way to live, in that it gives you a reason for living and does wonders for your personality and keeps you too busy to conform to what society wants you to do, which is to stop thinking and go shopping? That’s gone, too. And now, all I have to show for all that hard thinking is a crappy little Blue Jay feather. I mean, WTF?

Well, at this point, all I can do is feel amazed and overwhelmed by love and gratitude. Thank you, Universe, for the abundance of your gifts, thank you for letting me see that your gifts are everywhere, thank you for the mysteries and the meanings of your vast and life-giving (and, sometimes, even loving) presence, and thank you thank you thank you for always being open to interpretation.

Happy Thanks Giving, everyone.

13 Comments, RSS

  1. Linda June

    YOUR BOOK IS FINISHED???!!!!! How can I order one? Is there some pre-purchasing on Amazon? I must check. Thanks for this blog about feathers. I always feel luck when I find even one! Ate myself silly today, but it was all delicious.

  2. Mary

    What a nice read to start my day !!
    My book(s) are on order at Barnes & Noble. Tell us, please DATE when we can expect to read your lovely stories and history of great/small/large Gardens around the world.
    You’ve been to Rio de Janero?
    Can’t wait to read about it.

  3. Megan

    After a career in television of over 35 years, I am now not watching television news, it’s all so depressing and I think at times the whole point is to make people afraid, there are a great deal of happy things happening in the world. Congratulations on the bird feather collecting, we have finally enticed some birds into the garden and we have a tall watering ‘sculpture’ there was a bird on it today as it slowly turned in circles, we watched and watched as the bird sat going backwards in circles, he was quite dizzy and had a job to fly away in a straight line. Most incredible things birds.

  4. Deborah S. Farrell

    I had to stop reading this to see what my 5 mo. old puppy had in his mouth: a screw. I have no idea where he found that! But I realized that A) he is the embodiment of seeing all the gifts that are everywhere in front of him (and they all go in his mouth) and B) I could make a collection of all the things I pry out of his mouth over the course of a month.

    Also — I keep imagining opening up the New York Times Book Review some Sunday and seeing a review of all 3 of your books. Yay!

  5. Diane from Denver

    Thank you Vivian for this important blog entry. And so well-written! I’m copying out some of it for my own Journal today. Growing up on Long Island (Garden City),
    seeing blue jay and cardinals was a regular thing, not a special event as it is now for me, living in Colorado. Blue jays are very rare here in East Denver and there are no cardinals. The scarcity of the jays makes them ever so much more appreciated. I have several artificial Cardinals that are Christmas tree ornaments and will look for some Blue Jay ornaments now. Thank you for reminding us of the extraordinariy in the ordinary and how important it is to keep looking, looking, looking. Wave hello to L.I. Sound for me and charming Sea Cliff where we spent so many happy hours, exploring. Cheers, Diane

  6. Deborah S. Farrell

    I had to stop reading this to see what my puppy was chewing on: a screw. I have no idea where he got that. But it made me realize that A) he is the epitome of seeing the gifts that are everywhere in front of him (and chewing on them), and B) I can start a collection of things I pry from his mouth over the course of a month or so, and then photograph them.

    You lost me at leaving out nature. The focus on everything but in gardens is what sends me screaming into the void.

    Even so, I keep imagining opening the New York Times Book Review some Sunday and seeing a review of all 3 of your books (a glowing review, of course).

  7. Patricia

    I’m heading outside with Blue Jay eyes (in my garden, Steller’s Jays) to see what the universe has for me.

    Or maybe send out my visiting sister? She has agate finding eyes … even found a rare Ellensberg Blue agate in the middle of float trip down the Yakima river.

  8. I’ve been on a bit of anti-want kick. I’m so sick of the all the Black Friday ads, and the intrusiveness of wanting when I’d rather be pausing to give thanks for all that I’ve already been blessed with. Not just sick of it all, but a little crabby about the ubiquitious ads on TV, radio, newspapers, online, and people standing in line in the rain and the cold when they could be home with their families celebrating the love that’s right there across the table asking if they’d like a scoop of ice cream on that love pie.

    And so THANK YOU Vivian for reminding me that sometimes wanting is a healthy sign of reminding ourselves of our place in the Universe. That wanting can mean just paying attention and being grateful for the gifts that the universe showers on us.

    And for doing all of that without one cliche, or trite, or tired phrase. I’m so thankful for your blog today!

  9. Kirra

    Congratulations on the great review! Looking forward to getting my pre-ordered copy when it’s out, reading it first, then buying copies for my friends and family! I like an unexpected story ending, it also goes to point out again you shouldn’t ‘assume’ something, catches me out too.

  10. Oh Vivian, your post is flawless with its thoughtful lesson and joyful ending. I am inspired and in awe of your thoughts and words — and I will hold this one in my heart, especially during this season but really, always.

    Three cheers on the great review. My copy has been on back order from Amazon for as long as I can remember and I’m hoping it will ship soon. I hope even more so that it is out for Christmas, though I’ve yet to see it. A perfect gift!

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