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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

Our household has been patiently (and not so patiently) stuck in a long season of waiting for decisions around some important and exciting opportunities. Everyone has something up in the air. Applications, interviews, tests, hopes, and dreams are all out there, and now we watch for the mail, check messages compulsively, and try to make friends with the suspense…. Not all the news is in yet, but slowly we’re hearing of decisions. There’s been celebration and disappointment both. We busy ourselves making the corresponding choices and plans while we await other news.

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Jacques Prévert, Illustrations and Translation by Mordicai Gerstein

More than once I’ve pulled a favorite picture book off my shelves to read to myself—a reminder to take a deep breath and remember that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” (Julian of Norwich). The book, How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird, was a gift from wise women in my life. I’d never seen it before and I shudder to think I might never have come across it had they not given it to me—although maybe the universe would have conspired to get it to me another way. I am a fan of Mordicai Gerstein’s work, after all, and I desperately need this book in my life.

This is a spare book—few words, beautiful illustrations. It speaks to sustained hope, fate and faith, hard work and luck, and events happening in their own time. Written in a gentle “how-to” format, we are shown how to paint a bird.

First, paint a cage with an open door. Then, in the cage, paint something for the bird, something useful and beautiful, but simple.

The young artist takes the painting and puts it under a tree, hiding himself behind the tree. Seasons pass with the boy and his painting under the tree, the painted bird cage empty.

If the bird doesn’t come right away, don’t be discouraged. Wait.

We’re reminded that it doesn’t mean our picture/future/chance won’t be good—just that good things cannot be rushed. For many things, there is a season.

If the bird comes and enters the cage, we are told to “gently close the door with [our] brush.”

 And then—oh then, we have the deep, deep wisdom of the book! The young artist demonstrates how to erase the cage, one bar at a time, taking care not to harm the bird’s feathers. Once the bird is left in all of her sweet glory on the blank canvas, the boy paints the tree, “with the prettiest branch for the bird.”  He paints the green leaves, the summer breeze, the smells of a summer day, the songs of the bees and butterflies.

Then wait for the bird to sing. If it doesn’t sing, don’t be sad. You did your best.

 The grace in this picture spread does my heart such good. Don’t we all need the occasional reminder that changes can be made if things do not work out as we hoped, that often they don’t, and that any number of paths might be good? We tend to forget these truths in the waiting and the worry.

The book ends in celebration with the bird singing a riot of a song, but I appreciate that it is acknowledged that this is not always so. And yet…all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well! This I believe—this I want our kids to believe. What comes, comes; what doesn’t, doesn’t. As long as we’ve done our best, chances are we will find our way. Often our way, if not the destination itself, turns out to be a joyful surprise.

It seemed too obvious to gather everyone in our individual and familial angst and read this book. So I’ve just left it lying about…. I’ve seen them pick it up, turn the pages and smile, then gently put it back down for someone else to find.

This is a picture book you don’t outgrow. I’ve been very grateful for its gift during this season of our family’s life.


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