Bird Watching

Bird Watching June 30, 2012

My son JaiMichael, who doesn’t want me to scare the bird, says to be quiet before I walk onto the front porch. He is watching through the storm door, studying the work of this busy homemaker. She is perched on the top of our mailbox, its lid open, trying to maneuver a leaf clutched in her beak. Later, after she has flown away and JaiMichael lets me out the door, I look in the mailbox to see the beginnings of a nest, fashioned since I brought in yesterday’s mail. From the stuff of earth a mother bird scrambles to make a home. Nature’s instinct is grounded, even for those with wings.

I notice beneath my feet floorboards that were mended last week. They are not painted grey like the boards around them—boards that I walk across thirty times a day. They are fresh cut pine. Seeing their grain exposed, I remember that I’m standing on trees. I am surrounded by a forest, cut and re-fashioned by hands more precise than a beak, but no less dependent. I do not know enough to make a home with my own two hands, but I am inextricably bound up with people who do. By the work of our hands and the grace that enlivens them, we are all busy homemakers.

But how easy it is to forget the wood beneath your feet, the hands that make a home, the fragility of every nest, the spirit’s need for a place on earth. God is everywhere, it’s true. But I am not. I am tied to a place, dependent on its people. I am counting on the pine boards beneath my feet and on Jeff who nailed them there last week. This is a fragile nest, and I am a bird.

JaiMichael calls from inside to tell me that he is hungry. I walk to the kitchen, empty the contents of an instant oatmeal packet and add the milk and water. When we have eaten, we walk across the porch, down the front yard, and around the corner to say morning prayer with brothers and sisters in our community. I open the Book of Common Prayer and read a psalm: “My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed” (Ps.57:7).

Walking home I sing a song I’ve learned to love at the church across the street from our house. “Woke up this mornin’ with my mind stayed on Jesus…” Truth is, though, that I didn’t wake up with my heart fixed or my mind stayed. I was distracted by the day’s to-do list, an exchange from yesterday that annoyed me, unrealistic hopes for what I might get done today if I just got started a little early—and all of this before breakfast.

Stability of heart does not come naturally. But the simple rhythms of tending to body and soul—making oatmeal and saying prayers, keeping house and singing songs—bring me back to a center, to a still point that is fixed in this place. I do not know how to eliminate distractions (even if I shut down my email, turn off the cell phone, and drive to a pristine retreat center, my thoughts are still with me).

But I can stick to the rhythms that are given to me by my church and community. I can listen to my son and watch the birds more closely. The desert mother Amma Syncletica said, “If a bird abandons the eggs she has been sitting on, she prevents them from hatching, and in the same way monks or nuns will grow cold and their faith will perish if they go around from one place to another.” I hold this fragment like a leaf in my beak. I’ll take what I’m given and build with it.

This reflection is an excerpt from my book The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Paraclete Press).

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