If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
—Mary Oliver, from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
Early this morning I was beside a local pond, spotting my first Baltimore orioles and yellow warblers of spring, and trying to count a restless flock of cedar waxwings.
A little while ago I checked back in with the New York Times, and now I am trembling and sick with horror.
How are we to live in this world
where orioles sing and men kill for no purpose, dragging civilians from their homes and shooting them on their front walks
Some days I think I have an answer, but right now I have nothing but an ocean of sadness
and the memory of orange and black under a cloudy sky
This is my second spring as a birder, and everything feels simultaneously new and familiar. It’s like picking up a book I loved the first time and rereading it a year or so later: It’s the same book, but I’m noticing so much more. Last year all robins looked the same. This year, the males and females look obviously different. Practice and study have trained my eye for detail: She looks paler; he has a darker head. I notice their white eye-rings, a field mark I ignored last year. I am learning to look, learning to pay attention.
I live in a suburban apartment complex, rows of townhouses with neatly trimmed ornamental shrubs out front. But all around the periphery, and even in between some of the apartment rows, are areas of trees and scrub that no one ever touches. There are even a couple of adjacent ponds. Birds like it. Just this morning I saw or heard:
a hermit thrush a red-bellied woodpecker a northern flicker some blue jays some crows a ruby-crowned kinglet chickadees tufted titmice house sparrows house finches goldfinches song sparrows grackles red-winged blackbirds and of course robins.
It looks inviting to me. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about inquisitive humans. But one female robin has chosen this rather sad-looking bush for a nest site instead:
I watched her flying back and forth yesterday with beakfuls of muddy vegetation. After a while I followed her to see where she was getting it from. I found her digging through the rotting leaves next to a bit of stream, picking material up and tossing it aside again. Nope… Nope… Nope…. I wondered what her criteria were. Her face and bill were covered in mud, and she had a huge blob of mud on her breast, but she kept at it, though it was late afternoon, and I was sure she must have been building since breakfast time. I didn’t remember ever seeing a dirty songbird before. I felt respect for this hardworking robin and her high standards in the matter of nesting materials. Is she a young bird, building her very first nest, or a seasoned pro? Did she use this very same bush last spring, or is she going purely on instinct? She’s got a hundred million years of evolution to draw from; I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.
I was careful not to show too much interest in the nest while the builder was around, but the next day there was no sign of her, so I took a peek.
I hope she ends up using it. Last year I didn’t get even a glimpse of an active nest, and this year I’m hoping to do better—though of course you have to be discreet. You don’t want to alarm the parents, or alert possible predators to a nest site.
My second bird spring, my third pandemic spring. Haven’t we been here before? Sometimes it feels like we’ve fallen out of normal time. We were two weeks into Lent when my state first went into lockdown in 2020. I remember holding church staff meeting on Zoom, saying to each other that we hoped we’d all be back in person by Easter (four weeks later). We’re still in the middle of it. In the same place but different—dodging the same virus, but a different variant. It feels exhausting, as unending as grief when you’re right in it. How do we get out of this? Is this just what life is now? Are we just going in circles?
Westerners tend to think of time like a straight line, a timeline, with pictures and dates. I think it’s more like a spiral. The earth turns, brings us back around to another spring. The same trees bud out, the same bird songs fill the morning skies. But we’re in a different place now. I’m in a different place now.
40 years ago, a miscalculation, a split second, ended your beautiful life. They came to tell me. I felt your spirit, like a shadowy angel, hovering over me, comforting me. Then you were gone. For weeks I secretly cradled you, holding you in my arms. I imagined laying you down to sleep among apple trees, sun on your skin, soft grass under your soft body which no pain could ever reach again. How I ached to give your life back to you. You were gentle and kind and full of fun, and I would have traded places with you oh, in a heartbeat.
Now I imagine you wholly joyful, wholly free, somewhere in the vast love that fills everything. I smile, hearing your laughter, remembering your dancing eyes, and the way the dark hair fell across your forehead.
May gladness from the deep glad heart of God flow through you. May you have life and life and life and life, world without end. Amen.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
COME AND TASTE OF RESURRECTION
by Kate Layzer
“Come and taste of resurrection,”
speaks the voice so sweet and clear;
“Rise and take a new direction;
if you trust me, have no fear.”
Who am I that you should love me?
Just a creature made of earth.
Every mortal fragment of me
shrinks away from such rebirth.
Yet you stand here watching, waiting,
holding out your arms to me;
silent answer emanating:
“Love lasts an eternity.
“Put away, then, all your grieving;
free your heart from pointless strife.
Be not fearful but believing:
Now begins eternal life.”
Christ, your name is glory, glory,
hope of everlasting grace!
Deep in this unfolding story
we have glimpsed love face to face.
I wrote this hymn text sometime in the mid-1990s, I can’t exactly remember what year. It was one of those rare texts that came to me quickly, with very little “strife.” I probably wrote it in one or two sittings. A member of the congregation had asked me for a hymn on the theme of resurrection, and this was what came out. As you might guess, I was at a very difficult time in my life. Not only were my circumstances difficult, I was difficult: young, raw, tactless, graceless. I was deeply in need of healing, and had no idea where to look for it.
The interesting thing is that by trying to write honestly about a personal, internal dialogue, I ended up expressing something seemingly universal. I say this because my church has sung this hymn two or three times a year for the past 25 years, and each time we do, people seek me out later to tell me how powerfully the text affected them.
What I want to say on this Easter day in 2022 is that I’m in a very different place now. It has taken time, and brought me to places I could never have anticipated. If you had told me ahead of time where I was headed, I would have been as terrified and amazed as the women at the Easter tomb. Joy has come on paths I would never have consciously chosen. But it has been real joy. So often in my life what I’ve gone looking for most desperately, what I thought I wanted most in the world, has turned out all wrong. “Things are sweeter when they’re lost,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of his bitterer moments.
“I know — because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly… And when I got it it turned to dust in my hands.”
The Beautiful and the Damned
And yet today I know that joy is real, and absolutely, positively worth hanging on for. You have to let it come to you, though. You have to go out there and live your life, and let it come to you freely, as a gift and a surprise. At least, that’s what it’s been like for me. Maybe your path looks different.
LAST NIGHT, AS I WAS SLEEPING
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
O water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here in my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.
Last night, as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.
—Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly
If you would like a pdf of the complete hymn “Come and Taste of Resurrection,” beautifully set by composer/musician Peter Sykes, feel free to message me. Happy Easter.
THE GUEST HOUSE
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The sadness starts most years around the second week of April.
It’s not even that I’m thinking about the date. The sadness comes, and then I remember—oh, yes. It’s that time of year again.
Somehow my body remembers. I think it must be the angle of the sun, the look of the light at this calendar moment, here in Massachusetts. Something reminds me on an unconscious level. I forget, but my body remembers.
I’m grateful for that. That means it’s real. It’s not just a date on the calendar, marked with self-conscious solemnity. It’s stored more organically than that—forever a part of me. It may well be trauma that made the imprint: We know now how trauma etches memories in particular ways. But in this case, the memory is of someone who was dear to me. I’m glad my body hasn’t forgotten.
As humans, I suspect we often miss the information encoded in our bodies. I mean, where else would it be encoded? We are made of matter, we have no alternative. The most ethereal thoughts still need a neural network to run on. The profoundest mystic, wrapped in prayer, needs operative brain cells to reach for highest heaven. (In this life, anyway. I can’t comment on any other.)
Worldly information is bodily information. But people screen a lot of it out. A lot of it we just don’t know how to interpret. So we focus our attention on what we can consciously know and choose.
The birds, the squirrels, the chipmunks, the rabbits in my neighborhood are out there doing what wild creatures do in springtime. They’re singing their spring and summer songs, they’re establishing their territory; they’re pairing up and building nests, following the deep, wise promptings of their bodies, while I try to decide what to have for breakfast, and later, wonder why I seem to be feeling especially sad that day. (It’s spring, honey. It’s the second week of April.)
I suspect that most of us, most of the time, don’t really know why we are feeling what at any given moment. Feelings well up from a place our conscious minds can’t reach. I know why this time of year stirs up sadness. But what about all the other times? All those other shifts of mood, the whole emotional palette, clouding over and lightening again in shades of blue and purple, white and gray, like a New England sky in springtime. Was it something someone said? Did an old memory get triggered? Maybe something happened in my gut microbiome that altered my state of mind. Who knows.
We’re a mystery to ourselves. We only see a part of what’s going on at any given moment. We’re a mystery living inside an even bigger mystery, the universe, which is mostly hiding from us—mostly made up of something we’ve never seen, which we evocatively call “dark matter.” All of it inside the biggest and most dark-shining mystery of all.
I am learning to let the changes of mood come and go, like breezes through an open door. From a spot in the middle of the room, as it were, I register them, but I try not to let them consume me. I keep my balance by remembering what it feels like to look at birds. It’s a way of reminding myself that calm and peace are already present: I don’t have to go looking for them.
Yesterday I checked ebird for updates on a local pond, just to see what people had been reporting there. A couple of people said they had seen a common loon—despite the name, a rare occurrence—and one person helpfully added a note: “the north side of the pond.” So this morning I stopped by on my way to work.
The pond was as utterly still as I’ve ever seen it, reflecting back the morning light. I walked along the north edge, scanning the surface, mentally registering a background chorus of song sparrows, blackbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, robins, jays… and then I spotted it. A tiny blotch off in the distance, coming nearer, its wake spreading behind it. I lifted the binoculars. Loon.
I don’t know why I feel the way I do about loons, or why it didn’t happen to me until I was well into middle age. But it feels close to the center of who I am—not the emotions that come and go, but the joy and peace that dwells serenely at my human heart.
The British poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) served as a second lieutenant during World War I. His poems from the trenches are some of the most powerful war poems ever written. On the eve of Holy Week, amid the grief and horror of the brutal war being waged against Ukraine, I share his poem EVERYONE SANG.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on — on — and out of sight.
Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Prince of peace, have mercy on us. Suffering one, have mercy on us. Flesh of our flesh, have mercy on us. Lead us into peace.
One year into the pandemic, when I had pretty much reached my lowest ebb—
exhausted by the virus, by 4 years of ugliness in Washington, by QAnon, by racist violence, by anti-immigrant rhetoric, by rising antisemitism, by unchecked climate change, by assaults on indigenous water rights, by the relentless polarization and politicization of everything—
sad because the beautiful community meal I run for homeless and food-insecure neighbors had been a bag-lunch-to-go service since the start of COVID, and it just wasn’t the same as sitting down together—
weary and jaded and finding little to hope for in any direction—
just like that, I started looking at birds.
I really had always meant to pay more attention to them. But except when something dazzling would happen to get my attention, I never seemed to think about them. Chance encounters would root me to the spot: the mournful cry of a curlew at dusk on a Scottish hill, a silent-winged owl sweeping over my head on a California ridge, an oystercatcher with bright orange bill at a beach in Massachusetts. Moments of pure wonder, followed by forgetting.
That was how my journey with God started too. Funny.
March of 2021 was my bird awakening.
I honestly can’t remember what happened that made me suddenly up and buy a pair of binoculars.
Most birders have what’s called their “spark bird”—the bird they saw that suddenly made them fall in love with birding. If you’re a birder you probably have one; or if you ask a birder you know, they’ll tell you the story. But I don’t remember any spark bird. I’m not actually sure what set all this in motion. Just like other times in my life when something new has begun to stir, it seemed to happen slowly, and then all at once. I probably wondered, as I waited for the binoculars to be delivered, if this was going to be one of those dumb impulse buys that would eventually end up in a corner as clutter.
When they arrived, I got my first inkling that birding is a serious learning curve. Binoculars are tricky at first. You have to get used to the weight of them, learn to aim, focus, and track. Everything wobbles, like learning to ride a bike. Getting a bird into view at all took patience and practice.
But after a while I did begin to see things. And as I looked, something very strange happened to me.
I was flooded with joy and peace. Bathed in lightness.
But why? Where did this feeling come from? I can’t tell you. Discovering birds is like discovering God—it’s just a thing that happens in the heart, impossible to describe. Like gratitude, like compassion, like falling in love, like those moments when hope suddenly stirs and you feel yourself coming back to life, this kind of joy is a gift of pure grace. It just happens.
All I knew was that birds were wild and they were beautiful and I loved them.
I ordered bird books. I downloaded the Merlin app. I began learning their names. I knew nothing, but it didn’t matter. Everyone has to start somewhere.
Birds, where have you been all my life? Right here. Everywhere, all around me, all the time.
Life is always offering itself us to us, always opening, always, inviting, no questions asked. But sometimes we’re too preoccupied, or too lost in grief or worry or pain to be able to perceive it.
Birds became my portal back into loving the world again, at a moment in my life where I felt nothing but bleakness. It was like those fairy tales where the little bird shows up as a messenger or guide, pointing the heroine to the journey she must take toward new life.
In the year since, I’ve looked and learned, read and studied, wondered and asked questions. I’ve had good bird days and no-bird days, walks in the woods seeing absolutely nothing and moments of sheer bliss raising my binoculars to something new and utterly amazing. My first Steller’s jay on a trip home to California. My first glossy ibises in Connecticut. My first common yellowthroat last spring. Each one a little explosion in the heart, like seeing your beloved come into view after a long absence.
I am in awe at the aliveness of birds. And so grateful.
I step out into the dawn air to hear the morning music of the birds, the cardinals, the robins, the wrens. But it’s muffled by the steady hum from the nearby freeway. Streams of commuters are bearing down on their day, speeding toward their many responsibilities. I say a prayer for them before going inside.
Imagine beginning your day by singing just for the joy of it, just because your little slice of earth has turned back toward the sun. Imagine beginning the day with gladness first, before you remember all the things you are dreading, before you make the coffee, before you look at the news.
Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the Word!
—Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965)
A long stretch of chilly days, typical New England early spring. I’ve been spending way too much time on the couch lately, so this afternoon I finally made myself take a walk, even though there just hasn’t been much to see out there, bird-wise. I’m restless for migration season to start. But I put on my coat, grabbed my binoculars, stepped out the door—and heard a red-tailed hawk scream. Yes, there it was, circling the roofs of our apartment complex. A male announcing his territory to any and all competitors, wheeling and gliding on the wind.
But that was just the prelude. Walking through the nearby office park a few minutes later, I raised my binoculars to a bird on a branch, expecting a house sparrow or a jay, and found myself gazing directly at a cedar waxwing. And another! And—I turned and saw a whole flock of them in the trees over my head. A good 20 at least, glowing yellow and peach in the late afternoon light. I knew they liked to flock, but I’d never come across more than one or two at a time before. It was like seeing a vision.
A little further along, guys in hardhats getting off work for the day, pausing to chat for a moment at their cars. Awash in bird endorphins, I wanted to take them by the hand and say, “Come with me, I have something to show you! Something glorious, a bona-fide office park miracle; come and look!” But we can’t say things like that to each other, we can’t just bare our hearts to strangers (why can’t we, though?), and besides I doubt it would have meant much to them. (You never know, though: Bird people are everywhere.)
So instead I just entered my waxwings into ebird, along with the hawk, and continued on. The air rumbled with the sound of earth-movers in the near distance, remaking bits of the landscape for new human purposes. HVAC systems whirred in the office buildings, cars passed. On foot, uninsulated, I may have been the one soul lucky enough to have glimpsed mystery in the trees at the side of the drive, dozens of pastel-colored birds calmly rising and rearranging and alighting.
The City Limits
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold itself but pours its abundance without selection into every nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them, not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen, each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
Also in the neighborhood today, the usual assortment of locals—
robins starlings chickadees tufted titmice crows red-winged blackbirds mallards Canada geese house sparrows herring gulls blue jays goldfinches
oh, and a northern mockingbird, singing so beautifully.
by Anna Kamienska
What’s it like to be a human
the bird asked
I myself don't know
it’s being held prisoner by your skin
while reaching infinity
being a captive of your scrap of time
while touching eternity
being hopelessly uncertain
and helplessly hopeful
being a needle of frost
and a handful of heat
breathing in the air
and choking wordlessly
it’s being on fire
with a nest made of ashes
while filling up on hunger
it’s dying without love
it’s loving through death
That's funny said the bird
and flew effortlessly up into the air