“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” – Anne Lamott
I sit down to write. But nothing comes. Or rather I don’t know how to begin. I look out the window. Mist rises from the mountains. A breeze moves through the trees. Then, a bird crosses the sky. Then another. Then more. Pretty soon there’s hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Wherever they’ve been all winter, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed them until this very moment. They’re swallows, and they’re back.
All at once something swoops through my body the way the swallows dance across sky. As it swoops through, I tremble with it. Then it happens again. As unexpected on this day as the swallows’ return, joy has come back. In its absence, I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, until now.
Something goes away, and we adapt. Something leaves, and we adjust. Before too long, we come to think of this as normal. We’re fine with less, we say. We’re doing all right, we claim, and sure, we’re ok. Oh, there’s nothing missing, we tell ourselves, and yet we know it’s not completely true. Out walking the valleys, we long for the mountaintops. All winter, we dream of spring. Then we sit down to write, and nothing comes. Or rather, we don’t know how to begin. And yet we do.
In the absence of joy, I’ve made myself happy with contentment: good books, long walks, meaningful work, and small gatherings of friends. I’ve also devoted myself to practice: Every day journaling, daily contemplative prayer and meditation, an hour every evening at the piano. All of these activities have enriched these wintery times, but nothing’s clicked. Not really. Not yet. Then, I sit down and write, and this comes. Or rather, those swallows come, and with them a longed for joy I wasn’t expecting.
The swallows that crossed my patch of sky today began their journey weeks ago, thousands of kilometers from here. There were nights they got no rest. There were days far from land. They crossed an ocean and at least one mountain range to get here. They did not do this for me. They did this because they’re swallows and this is what swallows do. And yet, with their arrival came this gift. That’s how things work. Some might call that grace. I do. It works like this.
One day you’re working you’re way through less, just showing up and doing your best, and then suddenly you’re in a poem by Havez where “for no reason a 1000 birds choose your head for a conference table and start passing their cups of wine and wild songbooks all around” and you feel like dancing again. If the swallows have not arrived for you yet, please know they’re on their way. In the meantime, keep at it, and don’t give up. Take it day by day. Take it bird by bird.
Read: Isaiah 38:14