Notes from Candice Ransom

The Idea of Birds and Other Small Dreams


Last weekend at my revision retreat in Luray, I remembered a dream I once had.  My mind was relaxed by being in a different environment.  A window-crack of space opened and a sleeping memory slipped in.

When my husband and I were first married, I was filled with dreams of our future.  Some were silly, like flying to Paris on the Concorde for a café lunch of chilled white asparagus with shaved prosciutto, and flying back home on the Concorde before supper.

Then there was my dream house, a Victorian farmhouse.  I built a two-story kit dollhouse with gingerbread trim and curved shutters I glued on backward.  I painted the exterior sky blue and drew hearts on the backward shutters, papered the rooms in a cabbage rose print and furnished them with a miniature Hoosier cabinet and “iron” bedstead.  My mother stitched tiny gingham curtains.  I glued a chip of wood over the front porch that said Bramblewood Cottage, and was ready to move in.

My husband and I never shrunk to three inches and we aren’t living in a sky-blue Victorian farmhouse, but we do have a big front porch and shutters that are hung properly.

At the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, somewhere between the exercise on setting and the cookie break, an older dream fluttered through my mind.  The library I was going to create, a dollhouse of a library just for children.


Noyes Children's Library
Noyes Children’s Library

In the early 70s, I stumbled on the Noyes Children’s Library in Kensington, Maryland.  Founded in 1893, it is the oldest public library in the Washington Metro area.  Noyes became a children’s-only library in 1969.  When I discovered the mansard-roofed cottage, I was enchanted.  I stepped into a single room with low bookshelves filled with picture books, a rocking chair, and soft rugs on the floor.  I was ready to move in.

Original Noyes Library
Original Noyes Library

The idea of a library just for children stayed with me for years.  I dreamed of starting my own children’s library, a cozy cottage nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  The big front room would be the domain of little children, but I’d add a second room for the deep reading age of eight to eleven year olds, with carpeted levels, like a tree house, and wide windows to encourage daydreaming.

My husband and I discussed the little library in earnest.  We studied floor plans and I drew sketches.  When we drove into the mountains on day trips, we scouted locations.  Standardsville?  Crozet?

Last weekend, I glanced out the sunroom windows where our retreat was held, took in the slopes of the Blue Ridge rising behind us and the Massanutten range tumbling across the valley, and wondered where that dream had gone.  It had gotten lost in thirty-five years of moves and work and losses and health issues and money troubles.  I felt sad.  Such a sweet dream, so unselfish, it should have materialized from goodness alone.

And then I recalled the martin birdhouse my stepfather built for me when I was ten.  In Manassas, where we did our weekly shopping, I’d noticed apartment-style birdhouses for purple martins in people’s backyards.  We could attract those lovely martins, too!

My stepfather constructed a huge two-story martin apartment house, painted it white, and mounted it on a sturdy pole just inside our woods.  I haunted the spot, waiting for birds to move in.  But they never did.  Not one single bird.


Year after year the martin house remained vacant.  The paint flaked.  The roof peeled.  It was the saddest sight, that unlived-in house, built with anticipation and hope and the best of intentions.  Later I realized purple martins are aerialists, catching gnats on the wing, and prefer their homes away from tall trees.

When we moved into this house, I hung a birdhouse from a hickory tree branch, never dreaming any self-respecting bird would move into a gaudy ornament from Lowe’s.  Imagine my surprise last fall when I was raking leaves and glimpsed sticks poking out of the hole.  Some bird family had actually nested in it!

Recently the Universe sent me something I didn’t know I needed until it was in front of me:  a photo essay by Rob McDonald called “Birdhouses.”  McDonald photographs spaces, like the homes of famous Southern writers and the more humble abodes of backyard birds.  I was drawn to his images of miniature houses set at the edges of fields, made by hand, put up with the best of intentions.

Photo by Rob McDonald
Photo by Rob McDonald

When asked why he kept building birdhouses that were never used, one man told McDonald, “I guess I just like the idea of birds.”

I will never make the cottage children’s library happen.  Yet now I can let the idea fly away knowing it’s okay to dream small dreams while tending the bigger ones.

It’s enough to face each day with anticipation, waiting for the flash of a bluebird as I take up my current project.  I’m building a new place there, a new world to move into, in the hopes my readers will want to come, too.


12 thoughts on “The Idea of Birds and Other Small Dreams”

  1. This post so full of wisdom and realization and hope brought tears to my eyes. I am happy to learn of your dream to open a children’s library, and you will not be surprised to learn that your sister-cousin-friend has a similar dream. I have often dreamed of opening a Creative Outlet (see, I already have a name for it). This would be a studio for all artists who live in cramped homes that limit their creative expression. A place with lots of natural light and comfy couches and a kitchen where writers could words to paper, photographers could take portraits by morning windows, knitters could cozy up with friends while stitching away. You get the picture.

    I am so grateful that we face each day with anticipation. Isn’t this new place marvelous?

  2. You already have that Creative Outlet–it’s the studio in your house. Every time I walk in, I want to sit down (and I do!) and rifle through your papers and pen caddy (and I do!) and look at pictures.

    I know you greatly admire that photographer’s studio, the one photographers rent and was so well-equipped, I thought somebody lived there! But when I went back to the site, I realized it was just a room with props, a place to take photos. The Creative Outlet in your home is filled with life. Let the knitters knit in your living room, let the writers write on your screened in porch (I would!). It’s all there, already.

  3. What a lovely post. I really like your dream of a children’s library — and that Noyes Library is the cutest!

    My dream was having a small French patisserie or a cozy English tea shoppe. 🙂

    • I could see you having both, but especially the English tea shoppe. You are such an Anglophile! I think we should find a little town and build all our dreams: your tea shoppe, Donna’s Creative Outlet, my children’s library. We could go back and forth between our businesses and visit!

  4. I love that: “I guess I just like the idea of birds.” And the library, and the “deep reading age of 8 to 11,” so perfectly expressed, your good audience. Wishing you more bluebird flashes.

    • The bluebirds are staying hidden because it’s so cold, but they’ll show themselves soon. As soon as I wrote the words “deep reading age,” I realized I will never write a decent YA. Hooray for all the deep readers who are hungry for our books and don’t have to be enticed with movies!

  5. Your story about the martin house reminded me that Greg and I put a martin house in the back yard of our first home. We read up on martins and eagerly awaited the spring arrival of a “scout” bird. Lo and behold, one day I heard the distinctive martin call and rushed to the window to see a purple martin on our power line. I held my breath as it finally swooped over to the house and checked it out. We passed inspection because several days later an assortment of martins moved in and then after that the babies arrived. For years we loved watching the martins return every spring and raise their families. I
    have to say though, that as our children got bigger and spent more time playing in the back yard, the martins became slightly defensive about intruders in “their” yard. Sometimes they would dive-bomb the kids or me when I went to pick veggies from the garden. But their
    propensity for devouring mosquitoes more than made up for a few unfriendly swipes. Thank you for sharing your martin story that made mine come to mind on this snowy day here in MN where it seems spring will never come!

    • I’m so glad to read a happy story about a martin house. I think you lived in town or a suburb, a place martins find more attractive than the country and woods. Our martin house had no chance on earth!

      I’ve noticed in Colonial Beach, a small town where people put up martin houses years ago, that starlings have moved in them. I wonder if they’ve displaced the martins because I never see any.

      When I walk on the campus at Hollins, I’m often divebombed by the swallows that nest under the eaves of the buildings. It was so bad one year I carried a scarf and waved it around like a crazy person!

      Spring is dragging its tailend here, too. We *almost* don’t care if it comes or not (almost).

  6. I like your dream for a children’s library – a sanctuary. It is a beautiful thing. Maybe there is a way to make it happen. Perhaps you can approach a local council with your idea.

    I like bird houses too. I sometimes think about making a fairy home and placing it in the back garden. It would be made of real nature materials – wood, bark and moss.

    • Oooh, a fairy house! Don’t we all want to do that? You should make one and show your little girls. They’d be enchanted . . . and take a photo to share with the rest of us!


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