Is hope the thing with feathers?

Yesterday morning, I sat outside while it was still cool and the air was full of song–I wish I could approximate the warbling trills, the notes and the way they quavered in the whispering trees. I sat there long enough that I began to see the birds, hopping from one slender limb to another in the still full lilac bushes.

It’s funny how that happens isn’t it. First you hear the song, full and expansive, and then you hear the single notes, and finally you begin to see. It takes a while. It takes a certain sort of stillness, an attention to the moment at hand.

Anyway, I had my eyes on a tiny little bird I thought might be a chipping sparrow. To tell the truth, a friend mentioned a chipping sparrow to me one day, and I fell madly in love with the name–chipping sparrow.  I love the sound of that word–chipping. And while I never looked the bird up, I imagined I saw her everywhere. Anytime I saw a little bird, I thought to myself–I wonder if that is a chipping sparrow.

So I watched this little bird flit around in the green of the lilac bushes and I thought over and over–chipping sparrow.  It’s likely that I even greeted her in my own sing-songy attempt at morning glory, “Well, hello chipping sparrow,” I probably said because I have taken to speaking to birds and trees and even rocks and cicadas and worms trying like hell to make their way across the massive concrete slabs we call sidewalks.

At some point during this birdsong/cool air/ sun-shining-through-the green-tops-of-pine-trees series of moments strung together in what almost seemed like a prayer, that little bird flew up from the lower branches of the lilac bush and lit on the chair directly across from me. I could have touched her.

I didn’t try. I still remember the day I ran around my grandmother’s yard with a salt shaker because my father told me if I could salt a bird’s tail, I could catch him. Let’s just pretend that only happened once.

“Look at me,” she seemed to be saying as she gingerly danced her teeny little bird feet on the chair’s back, giving me a full view of her chunky little body, her long beak, her warm cinnamon-colored back, “do I look like a chipping sparrow, lady?”

I’m not a birder, but I’ve had wrens in my hanging baskets before, and I knew this little chirper was a Carolina Wren. And as soon as, not a moment before, the knowledge came to me, as soon as I felt that delight and wonder at being able to name such a delicate and wild thing, Ms. Carolina Wren flew off (no, I do not know she was a she, but it’s my story). She didn’t fly far though. She flew to the ground beneath the lilac bushes, and she rustled around with a sister or two in the pine needles foraging for wren things, I suppose.

I sat there for a very long time or for a few minutes. Time slowed down or perhaps it sped up or maybe it did just what time does and kept marching on and soon I found myself mired in the day at hand.

And the day turned out to be a doozy. Last night, my daughter, Peanut, received some very sad news–two of her childhood friends were involved in a tragic accident. I sure would like to bring this essay around, to bring the little wren back, to illuminate the harsh wonder of the world we live in, but I can’t twist the story to my liking, can’t stitch it up all neat and fine.

All day long, after my encounter with the little wren, Emily Dickinson’s poem was in my head:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

 

*****

I have always loved that image–of hope being a winged thing–but this morning I am wondering if we do hope a disservice by imagining it thus. Hope isn’t ethereal at all. Hope is dogged and rough and resilient. Hope resides in the dimmest doorways and the darkest corners of our lives. Hope grows up from the disaster and the dirt, the fertile floor of grief.

Hope demands of us, we would-be-practitioners, determination. As Vaclav Havel wrote, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

I would contend that hope is in that late night knock on my door. My daughter reaching out for comfort when there is none to be had. That’s where hope settles in, that is where hope begins the growing of wings.

Despair and Hope

So Meryl Streep called donald trump out last night at the Golden Globes without saying his name even once, and he tweeted her out this morning calling her an overrated (btw, you don’t hyphenate overrated) actress and denying again that he did, in fact, mock a disabled reporter. I defy you to watch the video and not see in trump’s actions the grossest display of hatefulness and ignorance.

I don’t know what to do with this information. My first instinct is indignation–you know the kind, stomach all in knots, heat rising from the knots, brain threatening to explode out the nose, eyes, and ears with the injustice of the fact that this creep is going to be the President of the United States.

That’s how I feel at first. But then it’s despair. This despair is a full-body wash sort of feeling. It rolls on from the head down like a dark, heavy blanket someone plucked from a corner in a dank basement and threw over me while I wasn’t paying attention. In other words, it’s real.

But this particular blanket of despair isn’t thrown when I’m not paying attention, it is thrown because I AM paying attention. I could spend my time on this blog listing the trump falsehoods I’ve read in the past few days, the latest Republican-controlled Congress abuses of power I shared on FB or retweeted on Twitter, but you can get that information anywhere–it just depends on where you look. Instead, what I want to do is take a gander at my reaction to this despair–or rather to admitting despair.

I come from a long line of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps midwesterners. One of my mother’s favorite admonishments was, “Buck up.” And for the most part, that was pretty good advice. I do tend toward emotional over-the-toppery. That said, “buck up” can be internalized and when this happens, I believe it can normalize some bad shit.

When I write on this blog or in an email to a friend that I am feeling despair due to the inevitable inauguration of donald trump, my committee starts up. You remember the committee, don’t you? Some folks call the committee monkey mind while others nicely refer to them as the devil’s advocate.

I call them the committee, and I realize that most of us have one. Their voices rise from and mingle the many important voices of my lifetime, and when I admit to feeling despair, they start in with a vengeance. “Who the hell are YOU to admit to despair? Look around, ya’ big baby.” They are mean and bullying. They want me to shut the fuck up. “Look around at your nice house, your nice husband, your nice kids, your nice town. What the hell are YOU despairing about?”

And it does shut me up. I mean, really, who am I to despair? I have so much.

Whoa Nelly! (and yes, I did look up the origins of this phrase and realize that it means slow down horse–I’m okay with that)

My despair is real. It isn’t negated by the fact that I have a warm house to live in and adult children who still spend much of their time in it. It isn’t negated because I live in a small midwestern town whose mascot is a little white squirrel with pink eyes. The committee can’t negate my despair unless I give them permission to do so, and I’m rescinding that permission today.

I won’t tell myself to “buck up” as it pertains to accepting donald trump and the malicious policies this new Congress promises to vote in. And don’t get me wrong–despair isn’t a resting place. I do know that. But I believe it is a place where I can get some traction.

Despairing is human, and it serves a purpose. I do a disservice to myself if I ignore it. After all, what if Meryl Streep’s committee had badgered her into silence. I can hear them, can’t you? “What do you have to despair about? You are winning a huge award. Look at all those glowing and admiring faces out there? Seriously, Meryl?”

**

Just last night I finished reading Krista Tippett’s newest book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. This book, and Tippet’s interviews on her also essential radio show On Being, delve into the deepest aspects of what it means to be human. Becoming Wise is an essential book for these times, an ongoing conversation that juxtaposes politics and love, hope and despair in an effort to ask questions that might bring us closer to what the Martin Luther King Jr. called a Beloved Community.

 

Tippett posits that in despair, in the depths of darkness–that is where we find hope. She writes:

Hope is distinct, in my mind, from optimism or idealism. It has nothing to do with wishing. It references reality at every turn and reveres truth. It lives open eyed and wholehearted with the darkness that is woven ineluctably into the light of life and sometimes seems to overcome it. Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes spiritual muscle memory. It’s a renewable resource for moving through life as it is, not as we wish it to be.

And in Daring GreatlyBrené Brown asserts that “hope is a function of struggle,”that hope is a “cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity…”

This morning, as tears of frustration rain down my face, I am also buoyed by these ideas. We, and I use the term with love, are truly in the swamp, and despair is appropriate. I would go so far as to say that despair is essential. A clear-eyed acceptance of the muck we stand in can and will give rise to hope.

It must.