Moments like this kindle sparks of life in me: pausing meal prep to watch birds gathering on the feeder I hung outside the kitchen window; keeping a field book handy so I can learn their names; discovering that the new birds showing up, those who look both like and unlike cardinals, are not a different species but the adolescents of the adult cardinals with whom I’ve become familiar. I am stirred with unanticipated joy and wonder.
I came across a Rainer Marie Rilke quote in a friend’s art shop recently which reads “If you stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.” It puts me in mind of the “little way” of St. Thérèse and her sense of calling to steadfastly perform small acts of love, engaging in even the most irritating or irrelevant-seeming moment with her whole heart.
As a stay-at-home parent, I can concur that if you are not tuning in to small things, most days will feel like a frustrating waste. Even before I had kids, though, the times I can recall feeling most whole have been those attending to little things in my environment, sitting in the woods and watching a spider trip over leaf litter, walking the same hill everyday and seeing cursed brambles that tear at my clothes transform to blessed, plump blackberries I collected with reverent glee.
Lately I’m feeling very stumped by concepts like meaning or purpose or calling. I’m finding concepts like what I “should” be doing or what I’m “meant for,” that have occupied my thoughts for so much of my life, now feel like dead-ends. I am struck with a stony recalcitrance when called upon to share from my life. Taking the simplicity I’m learning to value and trying to add a meaningful spin feels a bit like grabbing a measuring tape to assess Rilke’s “immeasurable,” and in doing so, causing it to shrivel to insignificance again.
Giving space and attention to the avian lives around me is more a compulsion than a calling. I wouldn’t consider it particularly purposeful. It is nothing I need to become an expert in nor to offer as a gift to humanity. It is more a gift to myself, a gift of beauty that has helped me feel more grounded in this locale and expanded my sense of community to nonhuman neighbors as they too scavenge for ways to flourish in this particular space. As for the birds, it’s unclear how they feel about being watched (but they certainly appear to enjoy the seed I put out for them).
Another wild creature who shares my environment is my three-year-old daughter, Nim. Unlike her older siblings, she is one who becomes deeply engrossed in imaginative play and is extremely disgruntled when the bubble around her fantasy world is shattered. Woe to the one who sits on the couch where a baby doll is sleeping. Woe to me when I respond to calls of “Mom! Mom!”, little realizing that it is not her real parent who is wanted. At times, even looking in her direction as she talks to her toys is disruption enough to bring her to tears.
An invitation to join her in playing with her favorite toy set, a trio of tiny triplet bunnies, is not to be scoffed at. A few days ago, receiving one such invitation, I resolved to set aside whatever tasks were occupying me and join her in dressing and undressing velvety bunnies smaller than my pinky. We fed them from dishes so very tiny that my grown-up hands could hardly manage them and arranged soft miniature blankets over white plastic bassinets.
The activity bore a remarkably close resemblance to the work I set aside in order to join her. While I no longer feel magic in make-believe as she does, I do hold space for the extreme privilege of having been invited into her world that she normally guards so stridently.
When I try to share a bit of my own inner world and observances, to set aside busyness and sit down to write, I meet resistance. My mind is a formless void, my pen is dead weight, my blank paper is glaring up at me. I think part of the problem is this feeling that I need to design some truth to reveal, to impart something both informative and original that gives purpose to my writing and by extension to my being. And I don’t want to do that right now.
Could be I’m not cut out for the writer’s life. I have always had a complicated relationship with words. On one hand, I’m often drawn to crafting words that name, recount, preserve or help illuminate obscure experiences that weave strands of small, individual experiences into a larger, shared tapestry. On the other hand, I’m wary of using words that inevitably seem to draw limiting conclusions and to concretize thoughts and feelings that yearn to flow and evolve. It is a conundrum.
Writing publicly invites the reader to explore their own meaning or just take this moment as an opportunity to glance into a little corner of our shared world. Reticent though I may be, I keep finding myself in this position of welcoming friends and strangers in to observe my thoughts and experiences that would otherwise be overlooked or inaccessible or stridently guarded.
I don’t know if it makes any difference to anyone at all that the red-headed, gray-winged bird I’ve had as a frequent-feeder is not a Purple Finch but a House Finch. There is pleasure in being able to recognize him for who he is rather than what I had assumed based on something someone once told me.
It is curious to discover, now that I know his name, that the House Finch is not indigenous to this region. However, after being set free from a pet shop in New York, they are now ubiquitous throughout the United States. Charming and innocent as this particular bird seems to me, it is in fact considered an invasive species which threatens the native Purple Finch whom I mistook him for originally. Taking some time with this small, ordinary bird has taught me one thing: we have more in common than this backyard in a West Virginia holler.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker Movement, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.