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?

Bird portal

Gabriele Munter, Breakfast of the Birds, 1934

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.

Gerard Hobson, “In The Park” (linocut)

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.

Artist unknown

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.

Kongo Bairei, illustration from “Bairei Hyakucho Gafu,” 1881

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.

Common Yellowthroat

I am in awe at the aliveness of birds. And so grateful.

A prayer for commuters

Emmy Lou Packard, “California Morning,” ca.1950s

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)

Office park nature

Look at them all.

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.

—A.R. Ammons

Also in the neighborhood today, the usual assortment of locals—

tufted titmice
red-winged blackbirds
Canada geese
house sparrows
herring gulls
blue jays

oh, and a northern mockingbird, singing so beautifully.

That’s funny said the bird

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 
eating bread 
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