Café Blue Heron
A haven for the contemplative
I’m sitting inside one of my favorite Chicago cafés and I can think only of what I saw two days before in the early hours of the morning.
On a walk through a neighborhood park with my dog, I spotted something odd through the trees on the other side of a small pond. There’s a bench there that faces the water. Slivers of low bright sun had created odd dream-like shadows, obscuring the view of whatever it was that appeared to be stretching skyward from the bench. Was it a low-swinging branch from the nearby tree? Was it the optical illusion of a power or telephone pole in the distance?
My dog and I moved closer across the grass near the walkway.
“Oh, my,” I sighed. I stopped and pulled my dog against my leg.
Standing tall, erect, still, patient was a Great Blue Heron, its chopstick legs rising above the bench, its long toes—although I could not see their detail in the distance—certainly had been holding lightly, but securely to the bench’s backrest. I stepped slowly toward it—about thirty yards away now—my angle permitting the sun to glint off its smoke-blue plumage. Its great beak lifted to the sky. I spoke to it in a whisper, asking what it was doing at this early hour. Listening to the breeze? Drying its damp feathers? Dreaming of fish? I had walked this park many times and had not seen the heron before. Had it been here always? If it hadn’t, why was it here now? My heart rose with its appearance, but yet I mistrusted myself and my tendency to want to place meaning on chance encounters like this one. I recalled something I had read once about the poet Adrienne Rich who also had spotted a blue heron at a strange, uncertain time and, like me, had become suspicious of her feelings about the meaning of the sighting and found herself struggling to avoid what she called “glib spirituality.” Still, there must be something the heron was revealing.
Beside me on the table in the café was my copy of one of my favorite volumes, Patti Smith’s M Train. With the heron still fresh on my mind, and thinking again of Adrienne Rich, I recalled the story Smith had written about in her memoir Just Kids. She had seen a swan as a child and had been fascinated with it. So much so that she longed to “describe her sense of it” and to explain how the encounter with it had produced a “twinge of curious yearning.” Years later, when she looked back at that sighting, Smith said she was certain that this was the beginning of her life as an artist, her need to live at the intersection of miracles and the everyday, and to find ways to share it.
I searched the web for facts about the Great Blue Heron.
It’s the largest of the North American herons. It has a dagger-like beak for snatching fish. In flight, it curls its neck into a S shape. Its wings are broad and its legs trail the tail as it flies. It’s not an uncommon bird, seen throughout most of North America. But yet, unless mating, it is rarely seen with others of its species. Native Americans believe the blue heron is a loner, a contemplative loner. Certainly, this is from where it derives its symbolism, bringing its message of self-determination and self-reliance, an ability to progress and evolve, but yet remain stable, standing on its own.
I again caught myself trying to place meaning on what I had seen, remembering how when I moved closer and closer to the great bird, it appeared to sense my approach and although seeming to remain calm, it lifted its majestic body into the air, its wings slowly sailing it far above the trees and out of sight. I had disturbed its solitude, its contemplative state of mind.
When I returned to reading M Train in the café, my second go around of the book, I returned to an early passage where Smith lists her most beloved cafés, ones she had visited. Chicago’s Lula Café in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood is a favorite. She writes, too, of her one-time longing to open her own beach café, “a small haven where poets and travelers might find the simplicity of asylum.”
I share Smith’s love of cafés, her constant connection to the solitary thoughts she discovers in them. I have sat in far fewer cafés than she has, still, I too, have found great joy in spending hours in a small simple space with a thick mug of dark coffee and a writing journal, enjoying quiet contemplation. And wouldn’t it be lovely to open such a place, to offer space to the world’s dreamers who seek meditative solitude on any given early morning.
I think I’ll name it Café Blue Heron.