“Timeless1705 (Baltimore Oriole),” by ECHO Eunah Cho LINK
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


Mother of Thyme (aka wild thyme or creeping thyme)

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
tufted titmice
house sparrows
house finches
song sparrows
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.

Still learning.

Peace at the center


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.)

Simon Alexandre Clément Denis (Flemish), Study of Clouds with a Sunset near Rome, 1786–1801

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.

Can you see it?