A spark bird is first love, the bird that ignites a heightened interest, an out-of-the-blue fascination. I was sparked by the Bewick’s wren, a small bird with a big voice. Not brilliantly hued like a cardinal or bluejay, my starter bird, my first infatuation, is gray-brown with stark white eyebrow stripes and a perky, black-streaked tail. I first singled them out in my backyard during last summer’s Covid quarantine by their trilling, buzzing song, then, to my surprise, attached the voice to the innocuous creature that perches on a railing, scratches in the shrubs.
Spark comes from the Old English spearca, “glowing or fiery particle thrown off.” Figuratively it’s a stimulus, a trigger—something that incites action. It can even be a little brown bird.
My first Tosca, at San Diego Opera in 1996, lit my fire for opera. I enjoyed it before then but had attended only a few unmemorable performances. This was the spark that led to season tickets for twenty-odd years, trips to San Francisco and New York to see reigning superheroes, volunteer stints with San Diego Opera as a supernumerary and light walker.
Just as a wildfire spreads when sparks jump fences and roads, opera triggered my desire to learn Italian, the language of opera. Lessons at the Italian Cultural Center, online studies on Duolingo, and attempted chats with the handsome Francesco at Pappalecco, a neighborhood espresso café, failed to produce results, and my interest fizzled.
Shoshin in Zen Buddhism means “beginner’s mind,” having an attitude of receptiveness when studying a subject, like a novice—or someone who’s been sparked. In her memoir, In the Country of Women, Susan Straight cites James Baldwin as her model, “someone endlessly willing to look at something new and feel continuous wonder.” We see it in his writing—James Baldwin exemplified shoshin, his inquisitive beginner’s mind fueling spark after spark.
Virginia Woolf recorded the first flickers of each of her books. “A gleam of light” became Jacob’s Room. To the Lighthouse ignited from kindling that surrounded her childhood summers in St. Ives. Before it was finished she had another spark: “One sees a fin passing far out.” After she’d completed The Waves she noted, “I have netted that fin.”
I spark easily—some flames burn long and strong; others fizzle out. Virginia Woolf’s diary inspired my enduring fascination with her life and work, and her writing sparked mine. When I first read A Writer’s Diary while on an extended stay in England thirty years ago, it almost burned my fingers. The fire leapt high and it continues to burn.
Like first love, infatuations can be fleeting. A spark can sputter and die if the fire isn’t fanned; ashes grow cold unless they’re repeatedly stoked. But a flame needn’t be an inferno—passion can subside into an abiding affection, a steady, lasting devotion.