Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: Slip puts life in focus

For my birthday, along with shirts, ties and a cake glazed with almond frosting, I found several bags of birdseed on the dining room table.

The birdseed, though not expensive, ranks as my favorite present of all. The sacks of safflower, sunflower and thistle seed are an invitation to fill my backyard feeders, then sit by the window for a few minutes each day to see what I can see.

Most of us don’t pay much attention to nature until something big happens, like the winter storm that visited south Louisiana last month.

The storm certainly got my attention. As the mercury plunged, I slipped on our icy driveway and broke my elbow — remembering, on my way down, that I hadn’t lost my footing so quickly since junior high, when I tumbled to the floor of a skating rink after failing miserably to handle the wheels on my feet.

The accident brought me to an urgent care clinic, where I got an X-ray and referral to a specialist. It’s a sobering thing to spend the morning of your 50th birthday phoning an orthopedist, but the break was only a minor one, and I’m able to carry my arm without a sling.

My biggest problem, in the first few days after my mishap, was that I couldn’t touch my left hand to my nose, a challenge of no real consequence unless one is trying to pass a sobriety test. But I’m not a big drinker, which is maybe for the best, since I was able to fracture a limb with nothing more potent in my system than coffee and cornflakes.

As an impromptu birthday present, the doctor gave me a paper copy of my X-ray, which offered a timely if unwelcome reminder of personal mortality. Like Hamlet holding a skull, I looked at the picture of my milk-white arm bones and thought about the silly Halloween skeleton that rests under my middle-age skin each day, happily forgotten until some calamity forces me to acknowledge it.

I folded the paper and stuck it within the pages of “Under Magnolia,” Frances Mayes’ new memoir about her Southern childhood after World War II. Mayes’ latest book goes on sale in April, but an advance copy had crossed my desk, and it’s been good medicine on gray February days.

Mayes opens “Under Magnolia” with a reminder that beyond flesh and bone, what really makes us human is our capacity to read the landscape and take it as a daily gift.

“My philosophy is stare attento, stay attentive,” she writes. Mayes lives abroad much of the time, and italicized expressions from other shores decorate her prose like the inscriptions of old coins. But her main message is that new insights can also be found in familiar surroundings, if only we take the time to look.

So I load my bird feeders with seed in these weeks of late winter, then retreat to the den and sit by the window — waiting, for the few minutes I can spare, for something to come along and surprise me.

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