“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
The patio at my parents’ house in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is one of my favorite places to be. From the front, their house is unremarkable – a neat, cared-for home in a neighborhood of similar (if less-cared-for) homes, in a city in a desert where a three-year drought has turned the entire place into a matchstick waiting to be struck.
Except this back yard.
In the mornings, we get up at 6:30 a.m. and, when it isn’t too windy, bring our coffee onto the patio. The early morning sunshine is warm, and the day’s watering begins almost immediately. This attention to watering is what has helped my folks create an oasis of green in their little postage-stamp sized piece of the desert. I sip my coffee and marvel at the ordered beauty of this yard and patio.
At some point, Dad gets up and tends to the birds. Every day, he fills the feeder next to the bird bath with seed. Almost as soon as he walks away, the birds swoop in. They eat, occasionally they squabble. They take a quick dip in the bath. If the hummingbird feeders are nearing empty, Mom has already boiled the water for the preparation of sugared water that fills them. Soon, the tiny thrumming bodies are zooming around our heads. All kinds of birds come to this yard – finches, doves, robins, thrushes, jays. Humming birds, ruby throated and ferrous. One morning, Mom pointed to the back wall (which is just above waist height) and there was a covey of wild quail, notoriously shy of humans, nervously deciding whether to get any closer to the feeding frenzy.
Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that, when I’m in New Mexico, my camera is typically attached to my hand. But these morning bird-watching sessions, though offering a great opportunity to practice, have remained unphotographed. My camera, and often also my cell phone, remain inside. I have wanted to keep this time as peaceful as possible, to be fully in it as opposed to having the experience mediated by a camera lens.
The past few mornings, especially, I’ve welcomed this coffee and bird time. It has come at the end of nightmare-filled nights. The dreams have been filled with bugs, betrayals and residual stressors from a job I no longer have. It has occurred to me that my waking self has been avoiding thinking about the enormity of the tasks waiting for me at the end of this New Mexico interlude, though my sleeping self is clearly in touch with that reality. Taken as a whole, the process of starting over feels overwhelming, regardless of the adventure and excitement inherent in such a move. It will be a lot of work to find a job, to move into a place and settle in there. It will take time to establish new relationships and renew old ones. It has been so long, do I even remember how to do any of these things?
When things feel overwhelming or tasks feel insurmountable, there is a tendency to experience a certain paralysis. Not that the will stops being willing, just that the brain stops being able to process it all. Just that the heart quakes a little with fear that you might not have within you whatever it will take. This fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from tears “for no reason” to heart palpitations to nightmares like mine. The first step in mitigating the effects of feeling overwhelmed has always been, for me, recognizing it for what it is. The second is learning to break it down into smaller pieces or component parts and creating a plan to tackle those pieces one at a time. This is one situation in which seeing the trees may be more important than seeing the forest – forests are vast, while trees are familiar and huggable (i.e. we can get our arms around them). An important note about creating a plan – for me, having a plan is key. However, sticking to that plan is not – which is a good thing when the way forward is riddled with unknowns. I’m usually pretty flexible and adaptable; I can adjust in mid-stream.
Which brings me back to the birds in my parents’ yard. Some come every day, expecting to be fed. Others happen upon the feast and gladly partake. All of them have to take what comes – whether that is delicious feed or an attack from larger, predatory birds who swoop in and cause the avian crowd to scatter. Each morning on the patio, I watch these creatures respond to what they find, and I am fascinated. Sometimes, the variety of birds that happily co-feed is surprising. Sometimes, the larger birds bully the smaller ones – a few of whom give up right away and fly off looking for a more peaceful breakfast venue. But others are more tenacious. They dart away then back quickly, avoiding the bully skillfully, if cautiously. Some birds approach the food tentatively, perching on the edge of the birdbath to take a look. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but it sure looks like joy when they discover the bird bath has water in it, and shower their wings with cool droplets tossed from their beaks.
The Irish writer, Robert Lynd, said “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.” Morning coffee on my parents’ patio isn’t silent, but it does offer a pause before the start of the day’s activities for us humans, to enter briefly into that world the birds inhabit. It is impossible not to relax and let the lingering effects of nightmares dissipate in that world. Birds definitely live in the “now”, and when you watch them, you do too. That is the gift “Dad’s birds” offer each morning.
The birds offer a lesson, as well as a gift. Their lesson is beautifully captured in this quote from J.M. Barrie, creator of the magical Peter Pan: “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” The future holds what it holds, regardless of your plans, they tell me. This moment holds seed and water and sunshine – make the most of it. Tomorrow, or the next day, there may be a brown-headed cowbird bogarting the seed. You’ll manage the cowbird when it happens: have a little faith, and take things as they come.