Awarded Best First-Person Essay/Feature at the Voyager Media Awards 2019.
Michelle Langstone finds cool relief from the fires of anxiety at a bird rescue centre. This essay is extracted from Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, edited by Naomi Arnold (Victoria University Press, $30).
In a scorched room
Once I took all my clothes off in a bathroom stall and lay down on the cool tiles, just to try to put the fire out. I rested my face on my folded blue jeans, because inside the furnace I still had the presence of mind to consider germs, even if this was my demise: death by nerves on a cold toilet floor, burning alive in the middle of winter at a restaurant in Mt Eden.
When I was small, I had a grave fear of being misunderstood. I remember writing cards to my parents and drawing hearts all over the cardboard, telling them how much I loved them. Dozens of cards, just in case they forgot.
After my father was diagnosed with cancer we cleared the house of years of clutter, and I found manila folders full of my school things in the cupboard – reports and notebooks and art. Tucked among them were the cards I’d made for my mother and father. One of them apologised profusely for doing things wrong and reiterated my love, over and over, every alphabet letter a different felt-tip pen colour. I felt sad when I saw that card. Sad that someone so small should be worried already, anxious that love might run out. My parents have always loved me like I was a hot air balloon; I am full of their love and elevated by it.
Even as a child, I imagined bursting into flames mid-air. Lying under a gooseberry bush with my sister, popping the sour fruit from their papery skins with an ear out for the neighbours, whose bush we were robbing, I felt my body run quick like an electric current. Even then I could feel that the tension was disproportionate – they’d said we could help ourselves, and the sneaking was a game, but I could not match my feelings with my sister’s gleeful excitement. I got so hot I thought I would faint, or set fire to the bush and the house, and then the whole street would burn, and everyone would know it was me, the fire-raiser.
The arc of my youth was a punctured bow. Many moments of happiness, absolutely, but many moments of hot anxiousness and tight palpitation. School became more and more difficult as I tried to navigate friendships under the strain of shyness and nerves. Every single morning I would shout and fight to try and get out of going. I got so anxious I could bring on a fever, which proved helpful in the sick bay on days when it got too much and I just needed to go home.
I got so hot I thought I would faint, or set fire to the bush and the house, and then the whole street would burn, and everyone would know it was me, the fire-raiser.
Much of my 20s were a haze of smoke and embers. I remember nothing of an industry awards ceremony – in a gown, in make-up, in the midst of celebration – save the white linen napkin in my hands, and the way I lined the seam of its hem along the line of my palm, and how I looked at it again and again, like a touchstone, to draw me back into the room. The napkin white, my dress white, my palm on fire, my insides blazing. I had the sense of being absolutely wrong: in the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong body.
At some point, at a loose end and feeling hollowed by fire, I reached out to a bird rescue centre and asked if I could volunteer. I was alone in a big house in Bronte, Sydney, and had just received a recriminatory email from an ex-boyfriend that had sent me into absolute panic. It was cool outside, rainy and wet, and it was hot inside, everything molten and running away from me.
On that day, a New Zealand musician I followed on Twitter had retweeted a photo of a bird being cared for at a rescue centre in Auckland. I looked through their account, enchanted by all the birds in various states of wellness. It reminded me of the times after storms when my sister and I would climb over the fence at the end of our road and search the farmland for nests and baby birds that had been shaken from the trees by the wind. We cared for so many as children, never with great success, but with a huge sense of importance and tenderness.
I turned up several weeks later, on a wet Sunday morning in autumn, to a place near Green Bay in Auckland, to put myself to work. The two-storey house was perched on a hill up a wide driveway, and was home to a woman who dedicated all her time to caring for birds. A ranch slider door downstairs dragged open to a room crammed with cages and cacophony. You’ve never been greeted the way a room full of birds greets you when you’re first to arrive in the morning. It’s a rowdy, joyful thing – some birds are delighted, some are very cross and muttering in their half-asleep state, and many are just pleased that something is happening.
In the beginning it was my job to care for the caged birds. I learned to clean their cages by hand, to change the paper or soft towels that lined their boxes and crates and metal houses, to wash their food and water bowls in hot water, to bring them little treats of fruit, or a toy to play with, and to tend to their specific needs.
They were many parrots. Some had been abandoned. One was surrendered after his owner passed away; others had escaped their homes and were waiting to see if anyone missed them. Some had been bought for ceremonies and just let go into the sky in a flash of colour, lost in a world they had never met, a world that held no shape or safety for them. Many of the birds were anxious, their sharp eyes on me and their beaks ready to bite my new hands.
One lorikeet had deformed feet with claws that curled over, which made it hard for him to perch. His cage was full of platforms made from donated gauze sheets with plastic backing, which covered the metal wire so that his feet wouldn’t get caught. Whenever I opened the cage, this little bird would hop onto my hand and loll about, not quite standing, not quite keeled over, but sort of stumbling on his misshapen feet. His eyes were keenly bright, and he watched me intently as I made adjustments to his home. When I would move to put him back he would resist, because he liked my hand, and he liked my company, and it would always take a moment to get him settled and reacquainted with his ladder and his platforms, as if he had briefly forgotten where he lived.
There were cages with native birds, too. A juvenile ruru turned his beacon eyes on me when I lifted a tea towel to look in at him in the dark. An orphaned baby pūkeko was in an incubator, keeping warm while he grew his tiny indigo feathers. A pīwakawaka missing feathers from his fan tail hopped back and forth on a beam, impatient. Every bird needed to be cared for by hand.
We had ducks at Bird Rescue, picked up in parks because they were gravely ill with botulism, most likely from eating mouldy bread thrown by well-meaning people. When a bird has botulism its muscles get very floppy and it cannot hold up its head. A duck with botulism is a duck in absolute despair. It was my job to bathe them in the outdoor sink, to keep them clean and comfortable. I would lower them gently into the water and rest their heads on a rolled up towel that kept their beaks and nostrils above water, or I would lay their soft heads over my forearm. There, in the cool water, their tired bodies would float and sway while they closed their eyes and seemed to drift away inside. Sometimes the water would revive one of them enough that they would be tempted by a piece of fresh white bread roll. Those were very good days for my heart.
Eventually I graduated from the indoor birds and began to include some outdoor birds in my care routine. Outside around the property there were huge wooden and metal cages for birds that needed more space. There was a “swoop coop” for a clutch of kōtare babies that were learning how to fly. Their croaking radio static commentary would begin the moment they saw me approach the cage, carrying the smushed-up, stinking food I had prepared for them, and they’d watch me from beneath their baby feathers and flat heads with suspicion. They were so small and so misshapen, it was hard to imagine the sleek creatures they would become. As they grew braver, they taught each other to fly. One bold bird would tumble from the perch and catch itself and land somehow on the other side of the cage looking surprised, and the others would follow.
Nearby, one of their relatives, a kookaburra, had an old wooden cage to himself. It was taller than I was, the front entirely wrapped in mesh, with a little door to the side for giving him food and changing his water. He’d sit on that branch, alone, ruffled and seeming confused, and I would walk by and meet his gaze and think, Same.
When I met those birds, my experience of anxiety started to change. They were so much more exposed than I was, and caring for them made me feel stronger. It lifted me, being able to help. I have always been good in a crisis, so long as it belonged to someone else. Over time I discovered that in protecting and nurturing these animals, I was somehow protecting and nurturing myself.
A fisherman turned up one morning carrying a box that was thumping and swaying in his hands. He’d found a gannet in trouble out on the rocks. We kept him quiet so he could recover, in an opaque white box by the ranch slider door. The lid was made of mesh, and as I passed by I could see him, sitting very still in a corner. Even standing at full height he would not have been able to glimpse the wild he had come from. The lines along the sides of his beak looked like instructions for making paper planes, and he smelled like his home. He was a fishy, salty, unhappy wildling. I could feel his panic whenever someone moved past his cage; I could discern that anxious jolt through my own skin, as if my proximity was a conduit for transference. That gannet and I had the same urge to run, and in him I recognised the leaps and jumps of nerves that mark an anxious spirit. He was out of place, and so was I. I don’t know why that brought me comfort, but it did. He waited it out in his cramped quarters. He got stronger and sleeker and stroppier, and then he was set free. I cried when I came to work and found that he was gone. I cried in triumph and a kind of blazing fierce rage because he had endured and had been rewarded. He taught me something, that bird. I could hold on, and after the fire, there would be a new landscape.
I couldn’t stay at Bird Rescue forever. Work took me to other places; Sundays became filled with other things. The need to protect and nurture did not leave me, though. In Sydney, I looked after a little stray cat, fattened her up and found her a home. I left water out on my balcony for the birds and possums in the high summer, and spied on them through the bathroom window when they came for a drink. Some days I would just move snails and worms into safer places when they’d used the footpaths as motorways after rain. Tiny things, but acts that refocused my thoughts outside of myself.
I have learned to nurture the fragile life that is closest to me. In the middle of a round of radiation treatment, when Dad’s body was starting to break and he shook violently with convulsions, I wrapped my whole self around him and held him until it passed. We lay on the bed in our pyjamas – a tangle of bathrobes and flannel – and I didn’t let go until it subsided. I heard Time get his coat and search for his keys, and let himself out. Everything stood still. I told my dad to hold on, and I told him he was brave and was doing a good job, and I told him that I loved him. It was one of the saddest moments I had with Dad around that time, and one of the most tender, but there was no panic in it. I felt the flood of a tide come surging through my body, cooling the heat down so entirely, that for the first time in my life, it seemed as if my insides forgot they were a tinderbox at all.
I don’t think the “why” of anxiety matters to me anymore. I know that it comes when I feel I can’t communicate or I am not understood, so I try to speak bravely, I say how I feel and I ask for what I need. And then I look outwards to see if there is anyone else I can help. At times the heat starts to return, but more slowly now – like an old element on a stove that resists a little as you turn the knob, warming reluctantly. What matters is how I move it, and where I allow my focus to land. When I manage it right, like that gannet, I can wait it out and be free again. When I manage it right, I no longer land in a scorched room.
This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.