Bird’s Eye View: On Belonging

By Sarah Shoen

Editor’s note: This essay reflects our second winter installment of creative writing. Sarah Shoen is a Newport resident and the founder of Little Bird Wellbeing, a massage studio and apothecary in The Point. You can follow Sarah and her musings on Instagram @littlebirdwellbeing.


three in the afternoon at a roadside cafe in abiquiu, new mexico. just a mile from the ghost ranch, engulfed in shades of dust, blush and terracotta. sitting at a picnic table in the sun, tibetan prayer flags and a white-winged dove fly above me. inside there are a few empty tables, a cat napping in the corner and a person behind the counter. they come out with my tall glass of beer and set it on the blue hibiscus oilcloth, the subtle hints of honey and citrus landing on the back of my tongue. their dress is pink, a-lined and trimmed in white. it is quiet and we chat for a moment. i ask, “are you from here?” “no” “do you live here?” “yeah.”

revisiting a dream, i am traveling down a winding road for hours, or maybe just a few minutes. the passing of cliffs and clouds and the occasional tree. is it cotton or cherry? or perhaps it’s the people, the land, the vastness. the pace. dirt paths, and patterns. of highway signs and songs on repeat. and never understanding or getting tired of the vibrancy of cornflower blue and shades of pink that is undoubtedly the southwest. i tap my fingers along the leather steering wheel, counting the time it takes to see a bird in the sky. until the next one. until the next one. or another person nearby. until the next one. until the next one. it has been humbling, and detailed. and my mind feels almost childlike. hand hovering out the open window, perched and light as a feather. and i feel this momentum building. but somehow it doesn’t feel like a rush. and i promise i have had too much coffee. certainly i am okay with this. and yet i explain to a friend, over a long-winded voice message, “feel your feet on the ground.” and so there i am, boots on an untethered trail as the light arrives. the sand and dust are untouched, but it’s the exact opposite of loneliness. there is a type of silence in this external environment, and sacredness within this internal landscape. “feel your feet on the ground,” i tell myself. but will i ever listen? now here above the river, i marvel at age and how bones feel. and maybe i should take better care. will i ever listen? but i don’t worry about that now. today is quiet. this dream of mine. all of which feels like space. vacant. a simple, yet profound gift. to ward off the noise. isn’t it just noise, after all? after all. and after all of it, space. here comes that song again. traveling past an abandoned church, four letters in the distance. a post office and a few trucks. the sign that reads “cafe” and i keep driving because i’ve had my fair share. and where are my feet? and surprisingly the lyrics aren’t as old as this sky. or the clouds. and damn, i want that tumbleweed in the middle of the road to come crawling over my chest. stop me in my tracks. and say, stay forever. but few and far between the wind blows and the song plays on and i smile. and no, i am not aware of the time, and the song continues. and i finally listen. “gentle on my mind” plays on the jukebox from inside, and i watch from afar the pink dress and silhouette moving effortlessly across the tile floor, hands washing the countertop. the prayer flags flap and the bird flies in circles.


i once read “write only about the things you’ve experienced.” sand between toes, can you feel it? a rusty bike chain, can you hear it? in a sentimental mood, on repeat. and the same group of folks that congregate at 8 o’clock every morning at the coffee shop on the corner. one of whom i loved about a century ago, and since then and hereafter. dark roast has returned, and the tables are outside. the details that are considered less than worthy to the passerby. but for some of us that have lived here long enough to pick up on these subtle yet profound details, this is what gets us by. the idiosyncrasies you haven’t forgotten—how your lover takes their coffee, memorizing a street address long after they’ve left. and somewhere in the middle there are train tracks to cross, and a bridge too, and a picnic at dusk, though we forgot everything but the bread and wine. in a sentimental mood, naked after midnight, drifting somewhere off the van zandt pier. from a distance the echoing of jazz musicians across the harbor. we’ve covered ground, our legs working overtime climbing every hill, following the sound of the guitars and trumpets. our arms in the wind on the way down. and is this what it feels like to stay in one place? slow and steady and then all of a sudden, an interruption of sounds and color. a train of thought worth exploring. in a sentimental mood, the streetlights and crickets make sure we get home while the smell of beach roses infuse our sheets. bare boned and exhausted with joy by the end of august “we are a couple of toucans breathing in sherbet and flexing our wing muscles.” we lick our wounds and soothe the tops of our sun kissed shoulders with salt water and ripe strawberries. our mouths stained, our hands dirty from harvesting all morning. if you’re lucky you’ll stumble upon a pearl. in the gentle fog the sandpipers come and go, to and from, across the interstitial space between land and water. like the sandpipers we seem lost on purpose this time of year. interstitial space between imagination and romance. not for another person, but for a season, and its cadence. i don’t know what to say to you. what i mean is that if i said what i wanted you would get very bored because it would be like this—i love you, i love you, i love you.


the exhibition of light, its subtle changes over the coming days. goldenrod holding on, but perhaps best to let go. it will all leave and return one day. i read recently that birds rely heavily on the olfactory sense. memory intertwined with scent, and how this can outweigh even the orientation of sun and stars and the magnetic pull of the earth during migration. the instinctual blessing of nostalgia, and so it goes. especially this time of year. the tempo begins to change, and the wind bellows forth. water covers rock, high tide and the golden hour. years ago you taught me how to fish. how to build a fire. we once watched a hawk die, and then come back to life. “no one will believe us!” to which you’d reply, “that’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

waldosia: a condition characterized by scanning faces in a crowd looking for a specific person who would have no reason to be there.

yesterday afternoon, somewhere near the river, it seemed like you were there all along. no one will believe us! sure, and that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

winter solstice

unfolding from the fetal position, crawling out of bed and stumbling towards the percolator, the world is quiet for a moment. out of my window and a hundred miles away i watch you watching them. a picturesque scene of white and wood and bearing witness to a vatican of cardinals. it is believed that the cardinal is a reminder of a departed loved one. a single redbird remains, there among the roots and trunks and ice, content and patient. there is a holiness here, as you watch the bird tend to its day. first singing, then preening its feathers, and then eventually its absence. as you fall asleep in the early evening the snow begins to fall, and the swedish votive carousel spins a hundred miles away. the wax drips onto oak. half empty bottles, our teeth are various shades of burgundy and we’re listening carefully. your daughter is across from you, and a warm dog sits in your lap. we talk of creating homes and stories and hiding places, seeking shelter. you tell us about the church on the upper west side. an invitation from a priest to join a celebration. i imagine it is dark, the space illuminated with a string of lights and ten thousand candles, melting. the room is anointed with myrrh and frankincense, poinsettias lining the sanctuary. there among a crowd of families you sit quietly, alone. you are scanning faces looking for someone who would have no reason to be there. is this the resurrection of a place in time? with profound reverence she says, “i understand.” i am on the outside looking in, bearing witness to a mother and her daughter and years that have passed without ever having said a word. “the archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten.”*

in the absence of sound, the carousel slows down and laughter breaks the silence.

spring, again

i order a paloma, and the jukebox plays. “it’s all out on the sea, it’s all out on the old railroad as far as I can see. swing and turn, jubilee. live and learn, jubilee.”** sweat coats the back of my neck. paloma, derived from the latin word, “palumbus,” a symbol of peace. i am taken back by the desert, the jemez mountains off in the distance. two thousand miles from the shore and its loyal foghorn, the range somehow looks exactly like the rocky coast i have learned to call home. inside my blue jean pocket i rub the outer layer of a shell i’ve found on that dusty trail. how did you get here?

the ice melts right away. watered down they turn to me and ask, “are you from here?” “no” “do you live here?”

the prayer flags sway and the dove circles.

*Quote from “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
**Lyrics from “Jubilee” by Jean Ritchie