All About Love

Songbird Birdsong

When Hidden Dramas Create Secret Plays in and on Strange Stages



Songbird Birdsong is a novella based on the ancient Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seed. In the Kisa Gotami story, Kisa, a poor woman, marries into a wealthier family.  She has a son who dies, but Kisa believes he is only sick and seeks medicine for his cure. She is advised to see the Buddha and when she does, with her son in her arms, the Buddha advises her to collect mustard seeds from every household where no one has ever died. Kisa returns to the Buddha without mustard seeds, but with wisdom and acceptance. Eventually, Kisa becomes enlightened.

In Songbird Birdsong, the Kisa character is Keisha, a devout evangelical Christian. She marries a much wealthier man, Buzzy Cosely, a preacher’s son, who is the Mt. Holyoke Christway Church choir director and pianist, as well as the heir apparent to the Cosely Christian Hour televised ministry They have a son who dies, putting Keisha on a psychiatric, psychotherapeutic, and spiritual healing journey and leaving Buzzy in grief and confusion. The couple separate and Keisha moves into the Three Jewels Monastery in the Los Angeles hills. In this excerpt, she is meeting her spiritual guide, the Buddhist nun Venerable Sun Moon, for the first time.

KEISHA WAS WAITING IN THE SAME HALL she had sat in before she entered Venerable Bodhi’s office, but this time she was waiting to enter Venerable Sun Moon’s office, expecting the same set up. When she was invited in, she was surprised by how much stuff was in the office – a cluttered desk, three chairs, black mats and red and yellow blocks like in Venerable Bodhi’s office, lots of books like in Dr. Adebi’s office, and plenty of art on the wall. Keisha walked over and looked at each piece for a few seconds until she got to the last panel. Venerable Sun Moon, accustomed to watching her clients’ and directees’ body language, took note. She saw that Keisha was wearing a cross around her neck, and a wedding band.

Keisha returned to the first piece and took a few steps back to take in the entire panel series. 

“I’ve never seen a bull fight like this one.” 

“Did you say a bull fight”? 

Keisha remembered that she needed to speak above the rawness of her vocal chords.

“Yeah, bull fight.  Never seen one like this.” 

Venerable Sun Moon assumed Keisha was referring to the Spanish Running of the Bulls tradition, but decided not to correct her since this was their first meeting, since Keisha was acclimating to the space, and because upon reflection, Venerable Sun Moon saw for the first time that the ox-herding images were like a bull fight. This woman has insight.

“I see.” 

Keisha turned around, “What do you see?”

“Pardon me?”

“What do you see?” 

Venerable Sun Moon paused. “I try to see what is revealed, and what isn’t.”

Keisha was uncomfortable with Venerable Sun Moon. She had never spoken to a nun before. She couldn’t make out what Venerable Sun Moon was about. She had a weird name. Venerable Rising Sun Setting Moon. Keisha couldn’t place her age, couldn’t place her race, couldn’t place her accent. She thought it was sacrilegious that a woman would shave her head (or did she have cancer or alopecia? Maybe she was a lesbian?) Keisha’s long hair, groomed nearly all her life, was a sign of glory to God. 

Venerable Sun Moon picked up on Keisha’s dripping discomfort. Keisha was reticent and angry. Venerable Sun Moon wondered if she was feeling weak, maybe self-conscious?

Keisha remembered all the things she never told Dr. Adebi, a Black woman, so why would she tell this woman anything? She also felt betrayed by Venerable Bodhi but wasn’t sure why. Until she realized she’d wanted to have him as her counselor. She felt slighted. Why had he passed her on to this strange nun?

After they sat in silence for about five minutes, Venerable Sun Moon asked Keisha, “What brings you here?”

Keisha said nothing. Venerable Sun Moon bent her neck from side to side to try and make eye contact with Keisha, whose head was bowed.

Peering up, Keisha asked, “What in the hell are you looking at?” 

Venerable Sun Moon’s body went from relaxed to rigid. “I noticed you were looking down and I thought I could make a connection with you through our eyes.” 

“Well, that didn’t work, did it?” 

Keisha felt that her personal space had been violated, and that made her silently question why she was there. She wondered how an upstanding Christian woman like herself had ended up in a Buddhist monastery. Then she remembered that being an upstanding Christian woman didn’t prevent her from letting her son die. She wondered how a Black woman could wind up in a place where there were no other Black people. She wondered if she was selling out the Black folks for praying for her to have a son who died young. She became fearful that God, the jealous God of her faith, would punish her even more. She knew her family would never set foot in a Buddhist temple and would never tell anyone at Mt. Holyoke where their daughter was. Yet somehow, despite millions of misgivings, she stayed in place. It helped that she had nowhere to go but an empty house. Or she could apply for a visa to return to New Dixie with her tail between her legs.

Keisha’s mind continued to wander. She considered that she had come back to her senses, so to speak, but she wasn’t sure if being in reality was better than being out of her mind. Thinking Joshua was sick, not dead, had probably saved her life. She resented her husband for abandoning couple therapy with Dr. Adebi after their son died. Now, all she had was this bald-headed, racially ambiguous nun with a strange accent in a plain robe and round glasses, strangely all worn with a hint of elegance, trying to get in her business.

Keisha, with a voice as resonating like chalk on a chalkboard, yelled at Venerable Sun Moon, accusing her of not being able to relate to being Black, to being married, to having a child, to having that child die, to having a career, to having a talent, to being famous, to being rich, and to losing it all.

She asked Venerable Sun Moon, “What would you know about anything that I’ve gone through?”

Venerable Sun Moon, accustomed to stillness and possessing the ability to stay still even while agitated, responded in just a few words.  “I see that you are in pain and I am here for you.”   

“Amanda was there for me. Buzzy was there for me. Venerable Bodhi was there for me. What do you call this?” 

Venerable Sun Moon paused and closed her eyes to gain composure through mindfulness of her body, breath, and thoughts. While growing up as Ursula, Venerable Sun Moon had been certain that the mind was the center of all knowing, not the body. Things were different now. This is going to be too much for you. 

Venerable Sun Moon brought a smile to her face, opened her eyes, put one hand on her chest, and gently raised her other hand.

“I have something for you.”

She handed Keisha a book that had been resting on her desk. The book was small; it fit in Keisha’s hand like a paperback novel. It was filled with blank pages made of rough paper. The cover was painted with swirls of turquoise that looked like streams. Within the blue swirls were thin, gold arches that resembled ocean waves. The winding streams were bordered by swirls of black with gold dots of various sizes. Keisha’s head and neck were swimming with the curves of the streams. The winding stream-oceans were separated by other swirls of brownish-gold. Looking carefully, one could see darker, curly swirls within the brown-gold ones. Keisha’s eyes widened. Many white birds with black tail feathers, black necks, red chins, and golden legs and beaks seemed to fly above the swirling landscape of blue-brown, and their wings spread out wide. Keisha sat up and puffed out her chest, as if she were one of the birds on the cover. She examined the book, flipped it over and back, then opened it again. 

“What am I supposed to do with this? Read a book with blank pages? Is this some kind of Zen trick?” 

“Oh, you know something about the trickery of Zen?”  Noticing Keisha’s fixation, she added,  “Don’t you find the book beautiful?” 

Keisha nodded. 

“Did you notice the one bird with its wings down while all the other birds seem to be soaring?” 

Keisha nodded.

Venerable Sun Moon paused and closed her eyes. Keisha took the hint that maybe she should do the same, and she did.

“That book is yours and so is this.” She handed Keisha a small rectangular black box. 

“What is this?” 

She opened it and a black plastic cylinder with a long cap slid into her fingers. She tried to pull the cap off, but it wouldn’t budge. So she twisted it and it came off, and a shiny gold tip was revealed. 

“That’s a fountain pen.” 

Keisha had seen these in fancy stores but had never used one.

“What am I supposed to do with this? Are you going to give me an inkwell, too?” Keisha laughed with all the sarcasm she thought she had contained. 

“Try it.” 

“Is there any ink in this thing?”

“You can unscrew the bottom to see.” 

Keisha separated the tip from the rest of the pen, and it was empty. Venerable Sun Moon handed her another small box with the words “ink cartridges” on it, and Keisha opened it. She looked at Venerable Sun Moon, who said nothing, and Keisha shook out a cartridge from the pack and placed it in the pen shaft, smiling. Venerable Sun Moon smiled as Keisha wrote her name on the first page. 

“Green is my favorite color. How did you know?” 

Venerable Sun Moon nodded in her not-knowing.

Venerable Sun Moon explained the healing practice of haiku writing for people who didn’t want to talk, but who also wanted to get their heads on straight. 

“This might be an auspicious time for us to observe the subtle changes in the seasons.”  

Keisha, thinking about Wayup, blurted, “What seasons? This is L.A.! It’s hot, then it’s on fire, then we’re desperate for water, then it’s hot again!” Taking delight in her own weather commentary, she continued, “Yeah, I can observe that.” Having reclaimed her defensiveness, Keisha sucked her teeth in judgment of Venerable Sun Moon’s hoity-toity spirituality. 

“But can you write about it in seventeen syllables?” 

About the Author

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D., is a pastoral counselor.  She is the author of the forthcoming novella and film project Songbird BirdsongCasting Indra’s Net (2023) and is co-editor of Black and Buddhist (2020).  More about her work can be found at

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