Watching the Birds Watching Me

I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad not [to] be downcast. When you are so sad that you ‘cannot work’ there is always a danger fear will enter in and begin withering around.

A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.
~Maeve Brennan in a letter to writer Tillie Olsen

My window is a book of birds.
I draw back the curtains
and there they all are,
scribbling their lives in the trees.

Bird in the holly tree,
invisible mentor,
your cheerful philosophy
is a glittering chain of light
slung between us,
drawing me ever closer
to the source of your joy.

The silver thread of your song
guides me through the dark
as surely as the night
I first heard you,
improvising on a theme
of beauty and truth
in the holly tree out there.

~Hugo Williams from “Birdwatching”

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

The windows are dressed in feathers where the birds have flown against them,
then fallen below into the flowers where their bodies lie grounded, still,
slowly disappearing each day until all that is left are their narrow, prehensile bones.

I have sat at my window now for years and watched a hundred birds
mistake the glass for air and break their necks, wondering what to do,
how else to live among them and keep my view.
Not to mention the sight of them at the feeder in the morning,
especially the cardinal in snow.

What sign to post on the sill that says, “Warning, large glass window.
Fatal if struck. Fly around or above but not away.
There are seeds in the feeder and water in the bath.
I need you, which is to say, I’m sorry for my genius as the creature inside
who attracts you with seeds and watches you die against the window
I’ve built with the knowledge of its danger to you. 
With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants:
the sight of you, the sight of you.”

~Chard deNiord, “Confession of a Bird Watcher” from Interstate

I made the terrible faux pas of running out of suet and bird seed this week. My little feathered buddies fly up to the feeders by our kitchen window and poke around the empty trays, glance disparagingly in my direction, then fly away disheartened. There is no free lunch today.

I am no birder; I don’t go out looking for birds like the serious people of the birding community who keep a careful list of all they seen or hear. I don’t even track every species that comes to visit my humble offerings here on the farm nor do I recognize the frequent visitors as individuals. I just enjoy watching so many diverse sizes, colors and types coming together in one place to feast in relative peace and cooperation and I’m the hostess.

Birds are my visual and tangible reminder that the good Lord provides, buoyed by the help of hospitable humans who set out irresistible treats next to big windows. These delightful creatures have such autonomy and genuine glee in their daily existence until they forget their boundaries and slam headlong into invisible glass, too often falling to the ground for good. Then the farm cats are gleeful.

I know all about the warnings to stop doing communal bird feeding: spreading bird diseases too easily among multiple species who come together to feast, attracting vermin and assisting their burgeoning population growth, assisting predators like my aforementioned farm cats in their decimation of the wild bird population, encouraging wild birds to ignore their usual migration urge to seek better feeding/breeding climates so they often die prematurely.

As a trained scientist in animal behavior, I understand it all. As a human observer seeking to enjoy feathered friends during long gray winter days, I ignore it all.

Pardon me now, as I better head to the farm store to replenish my bird feasting stash. See you all later.

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Dawn on our Darkness: Heaven in Ordinary

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”

A kind of tune, a music everywhere
And nowhere. Love’s long lovely undersong,
A trace in time, a grace-note in the air,
Borne to us from the place where we belong
On every passing breeze and in the breath
Of every creature. All things hear and fear,
For faintly, through our fall, we too may hear
The strong song of the Son that undoes death.

And one day we will hear it unimpaired:
The joy of all the sorrowful, the song
Of all the saints who cry “how long,”
The hidden hope of all who have despaired.
He sang it to his mother in the womb
And now it echoes from his empty tomb.

~Malcolm Guite “A Kind of Tune”

When the sky is painted in pastels and the air is brisk with breath and movement, I sense a kind of tune leading me back to thankfulness and wonder rather than worry and fretfulness.

Even in ordinary times of stress – yet especially when we are drowning in sadness reaching for any rescue at hand, the song Christ sings to us is the prayer He taught us to pray – Thy will be done.

“How long, O Lord, how long,” will be answered in the fullness of time – in a manger, in a tomb, in the skies of heaven. Heaven is found in the ordinary but with God and His gift of His son, nothing, but nothing will be ordinary.

For Thine is the glory forever…

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Dawn on our Darkness: I See You, I Am Here

Once I saw a fire
across the water
reaching high into the night.
So I lit my fire.
My fire was small
but it was enough to signal to the other,
I see you, and I am here.

Now, whenever I light fires, I wonder who’s watching –
the trees, the grass, the flowers, the fireflies, the moths, the birds,
the ocean, the clouds, the moon, the stars,
the very ground I rest upon?
Testing for echo, I send my calls of light into darkness.
Even when all I receive is the gift of silence,

I am comforted because
I see and I am here.

~John Paul Caponigro “Test for Echo”

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Luke 12:49

Unless the eye catch fire,
Then God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
Then God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
Then God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
Then God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
Then God will not be known.
~William Blake from “Pentecost”

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”

I need to turn aside and look,
to truly see, as if for the first and last time,
this kindled fire that echoes from the hills,
illuminating even the darkest day and never dies away.

I am invited, by no less than God Himself,
through the burning bush never consumed,
to shed my shoes, walk barefoot and vulnerable,
to approach this bright and burning dawn,
even in the midst of darkest midnight,
as a babe in a manger is sent
to kindle a fire in each of us.

Then can I say, sending out my own echoed light:
“I see you! I am here! Consume me!”

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
Within our darkest night,
you kindle the fire
that never dies away,
that never dies away.
~Taize

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Dawn on our Darkness: A Shadowed Earth Reaches Up

   the season quicker now
the darkening—

no longer the leaves
fluttering down

but the whole shadowed earth
reaching up, taking hold
~David Baker “Quicker”

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

~Robert Browning from Andrea del Sarto

My branches are bare during this season of letting go. As starkly revealed as I am, perhaps darkening days are a blessing – less spotlight on my plainness in silhouette – all knobby joints and awkward angles and curves.

One thing I know though: in this season I prefer the shadowland, yet I still reach up, trying to hold on to the promise beyond me. In fact, so many of us have kept grasping at what we know is there but cannot see, God has come down to grab on to each one — and is still hanging on to us.

We are not too plain to be lifted, welcomed, cherished as we are, into heaven’s arms.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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Ah, What If?

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
~Samuel Coleridge  “What if you slept”

This mountain, this strange and beautiful Shuksan flower that appears suddenly as we round a corner on the hour drive up the Mt. Baker Highway:  this mountain has one foot on earth and one foot in heaven – a thin place if there ever was one.

The only way to approach is in awed silence, as if entering the door of a grand cathedral.  Those who are there speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.

Mt. Shuksan wears autumn lightly about its shoulders as a multi-faceted cloak, barely anticipating the heavy snow coat to descend in the next few weeks.

I hold this mountain tight in my fist, wanting to turn it this way and that, breathe in its fragrance, bring it home with me and never let go.

Ah, what then?

Home is not nearly big enough for heaven to dwell.  I must content myself with this visit to the thin edge, peering through the open door, waiting until invited to come inside.

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Antidote to Bitterness

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come–
~Chinese Proverb

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.


Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.
~Sara Teasdale, featured in “The Wood” in Earth Song

…then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

I need reminding that what I offer up from my heart predicts what I will receive there.

If I’m grumbling and falling apart like a dying vine
instead of a vibrant green tree~~~
coming up empty and hollow with discouragement,
entangled in the cobwebs and mildew of worry,
only grumbling and grousing~~~
then no singing bird will come.

It is so much better to nurture the singers of joy and gladness with a heart budding green with grace and gratitude, anticipatory and expectant.

My welcome mat is out and waiting.

The symphony can begin any time now…

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An Enticing Driveway

What lies at the end of enticing
country driveways, curving
off among trees?


The big trees enclose
an expanse of sky, trees and sky
together protect the clearing.
One is sheltered here
from the assaultive world
as if escaped from it, and yet
once arrived, is given (oneself
and others being a part of that world)
a generous welcome.
It’s paradise
as a paradigm for how
to live on earth,
how to be private and open
quiet and richly eloquent.

It is paradise, and paradise
is a kind of poem; it has
a poem’s characteristics:
inspiration; starting with the given;
unexpected harmonies; revelations.
It’s rare among
the worlds one finds
at the end of enticing driveways.

~Denise Levertov, “A Clearing” from This Great Unknowing.

I’d made up my mind to it, I’d stay in and read.
But a light shower, earlier, had imbued the woods
with a peculiar sweetness
that drifted in through the open window
and tempted me out of doors.

And now, with the mountains reflecting
that last slanting light
that dusts everything in gold,
there was no help for it;
I felt an enchantment
that encouraged me to venture to deeper realms,
deeper far and more mysterious
than my favorite armchair would have allowed.

I paused at an opening in the trees,
where a russet needled path
beckoned inward with an irresistible charm.

Under a canopy of branches,
a tiny bird flitted back and forth,
as if to guide me on my way;
and, on either side, forget-me-nots nodded,
sprinkled there, no doubt, from a truant elf’s watering can.

A curve ahead…
and I took the strange fancy that at its end
I would find a thatched cottage
with a chubby “Hansel” peeking ‘round the corner.

Ah, such is the magical quality of a little lane
winding its way through the woods.
I will return often to wander here,
where dreams and reality
merge and meet
in the moment.

~Melody Rhodes “A Country Lane”

I have always longed to live at the end of a long driveway but have not ever had that opportunity despite living in some lovely rural settings. I think I come from highly practical people who saw long driveways as unnecessary fluff when you can build your home right next to a road.

So, driveway-deprived as I am, I look for enticing country lanes wherever I go. It is partly the anticipation of what my imagination might find beyond the curve and the trees, but much of my pleasure is in looking for the perfect lane to make the mental journey.

Life of course is never perfect and certainly there is plenty that impedes the journey to my destination. Yet I know what all is promised and how I must persist to get to that most heavenly of homes, waiting just around that curve.

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Summer Nap

In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

Pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Soundings” from Naming the Stars

As a young child, I remember waking from my summer afternoon naps to the sights and sounds of our rural community. I could hear tractors working fields in the distance, farm trucks rumbling by on the road, the cows and horses in the fields, a train whistle in the distance and the ever-present birdsong from dawn to dusk.

These were the sounds of contentment and productivity, both together. Surely this is how heaven must be: always a sense of something wonderful happening, always a reason to celebrate, always a profound sense of respite and sanctuary.

Even now, there is that moment of awakening of my heart and soul from a summer nap when I try to listen for the chorus of angels outside my open window.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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To Seek the Whole…

… why should I not sit, every morning of my life,
on the hillside, looking into the shining world?
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

 
Be ignited, or be gone.
~Mary Oliver from “What I Have Learned So Far”

How often do we miss the fainter note
Or fail to see the more exquisite hue,
Blind to the tiny streamlet at our feet,
Eyes fixed upon some other, further view.
What chimes of harmonies escape our ears,
How many rainbows must elude our sight,
We see a field but do not see the grass,
Each blade a miracle of shade and light.
How then to keep the greater end in eye
And watch the sunlight on the distant peak,
And yet not tread on any leaf of love,
Nor miss a word the eager children speak?
Ah, what demand upon the narrow heart,
To seek the whole, yet not ignore the part.

~Philip Britts “Sonnet 1” from Water at the Roots

We are born nearly blinded, focused solely on our emptiness – a hunger to be filled and our need to be held.  As we grow, our focus sharpens to fall in love with those who feed and nurture us.

Eventually we discover, challenge and worship He who made us. I need to seek out and harvest the beauty growing in each moment.

This world is often too much for me to take in as a whole — an exquisite view of shadow and light, color and gray, loneliness and embrace, sorrow and joy.

With more years and a broader vision, I scan for the finer details within the whole before it disappears with the changing light.  Time’s a wasting (and so am I) as I try to capture it all with the lenses of our eyes and hearts.

The end of life comes too soon, when once again my vision blurs and the world fades away from view. I will hunger yet again to be filled and held.

And then heaven itself will seem almost too much to take in – my heart full to bursting with light and promise for the rest of eternity.

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Secret Purple Wisdom

There’s always an iris
amusing and amazing.
Today, wildly purple stretching
to search dark colors,
open and about to reach.
Reach.

Even the vase holds on,
shows courage for both
who touch the beautiful,
alive and color to color,
evoking how one can love another.
Longer to live, shorter to die.
~Eloise Klein Healy “Iris”

What word informs the world,
and moves the worm along in his blind tunnel?

What secret purple wisdom tells the iris edges
to unfold in frills? What juiced and emerald thrill

urges the sap until the bud resolves
its tight riddle? What irresistible command

unfurls this cloud above this greening hill,
or one more wave — its spreading foam and foil —

across the flats of sand? What minor thrust
of energy issues up from humus in a froth

of ferns? Delicate as a laser, it filigrees
the snow, the stars. Listen close — What silver sound

thaws winter into spring? Speaks clamor into singing?
Gives love for loneliness? It is this

un-terrestrial pulse, deep as heaven, that folds you
in its tingling embrace, gongs in your echo heart.

~Luci Shaw “What Secret Purple Wisdom”  The Green Earth: Poems of Creation 

He gave Himself to us
to wrest joy from our misery-

A mystery is too much to accept
such sacrifice is possible.

We are blind-hearted to the possibility:
He who cannot be measured unfolds before us
to reach us, overwhelming our darkness. 

I prefer remaining closed in my bud,
hidden in the little room of my heart
rather than risk opening by loving another
in full blossom and fruitfulness.

Lord, give me grace to open my tight fist of a bud.

Prepare me for embracing your mystery. 
Prepare me to unfurl,
to reach out beyond myself.
Prepare me to bloom wildly purple.

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark
our hearts and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal in darkness we
lie down, blind-hearted, seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility
is hid all heaven in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
Oh, let salvation dawn!
~Carol Christopher Drake

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