More Birds, Less Me

Magic happens when I get out of my own way and clear a path to joy.

I grew up in a Catholic household, so observing Lent meant eating fish dinners on Fridays and abstaining from something—either a bad habit or a decadent treat, like chocolate cake. But a wise woman recently offered an alternative view on this religious practice. She told me that Lent is not about deprivation at all; it’s about invitation. She encouraged me to ask myself these two questions: What do I value that I have been neglecting? And can I invite more of this neglected thing into my life?

My spirituality has shifted away from Catholicism, but I feel intrigued by this shift in perspective on Lent. After meditating on this topic, I know my answer to those questions: I value communion with Mother Nature, I appreciate my connection with wildlife, and I cherish the feathered friends who visit my bird feeder: The downy woodpeckers, cardinals, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, and mourning doves. Due to a recent unfortunate conflict, I became disconnected from the birds I love so much. In a vulnerable moment, I chose to journey away from my heart; luckily, I found my way back again. Here’s what happened.

About a week before Christmas, several old pine trees were chopped down near my rental unit. I received no advanced warning about this tree work and I was not home at the time of the incident. Around mid-day, a neighbor called and told me she saw a large tree branch fall on my beloved gazebo-style bird feeder and smash it to bits. I later found the unrepairable shards of the plastic seed bowl left on the ground and its former contents, shelled sunflower-seed pieces, scattered everywhere.

The feeder pole still stood erect, but now was bereft of its purpose. I stood, shocked, holding the pole with one hand. I began to grieve the loss of a possession I had kept and a practice I had maintained for several years. After I cleaned up the broken pieces, I wiped the tears away from the corners of my eyes and considered driving to the store to replace the broken feeder, “I could buy another one.” Such an action would restore the tangible thing, the object, I had lost. It would also restore my birding practice. I could wake up the next morning and look out my window, see the birds again, and it would be like no incident had ever happened. But an incident did happen… and something intangible had also been lost.

As I stood there in contemplation I felt the hurt feelings begin to simmer and move more deeply into my heart; I shifted my awareness away from stoic problem-solving and toward pathos. With every moment that passed, I embraced my victimhood just a bit more until… a realization: An injustice was done here! I could not help but think of an old ethics-teaching cartoon I’d seen as a child in which there’s an older man sitting in a comfortable chair in his living room reading the newspaper; cut to a group of kids playing baseball in the street; one kid hits the ball in the direction of a house and breaks a window, shattering glass everywhere; cut back to the older man, now befuddled by what has transpired. The story ends when the father of the kid who hit the ball stops by the older man’s house to apologize for the accident and the damage, and offers to pay for the broken window. In that moment, with the broken feeder pieces laying at my feet, I felt like that older man–I wanted the father of the bat-wielding kid to make amends, to fix what had been broken. Or, at least to offer an apology. So, I approached the management. I figured they were not liable for the damage and probably would not replace my feeder, but it was the Christmas season. I value kindness, fairness, and consideration; maybe, just maybe, they might be feeling beneficent and offer to make things right.

Well. They were not interested in replacing my feeder. Not only that, but they were largely unsympathetic to what had transpired. In fact, they said the feeder, as my personal property, was not allowed on their property—I had been in violation of policy this whole time! After living in my rental unit for over a decade, this came as perplexing and upsetting news to me. Many tenants kept bird feeders and other personal property on the grounds, so it sounded like an unenforced policy. In the end, a compromise: I could keep a bird feeder on the property, but any future damage to it would amount to my lost dollars. I returned to the scene of the accident/crime and yanked the feeder pole up out of the ground, feeling angry and disgruntled by this turn of events.

I was so much in the habit of bird watching that countless times during the subsequent week I would instinctively lean over my kitchen sink expecting to see a pair of cardinals feeding, but instead discover only an empty patch of grass. I’d feel a pang of sadness in my heart to remember, “Oh, yes. The feeder is gone.” For about a month I vacillated about replacing the feeder— I wanted it back, but I also feared, rather irrationally, that some other calamity would befall it. I was hesitant to re-invest my heart. If only I had received advanced notice about the tree work, I would have been happy to move the feeder out of harm’s way! It would have taken me five minutes. Five minutes! Just a little consideration for my beloved possession… But no.

So, I held some resentment about what I believed was an entirely-preventable accident. I received unsolicited advice from all directions. One person urged me to replace the feeder immediately and tried a variety of tactics to compel me to action, including trying to guilt my inner helper, “The birds are voracious this time of year! They need food!” Another appealed to my inner fighter and supported my cause with statements like, “Don’t let them win!” But I remained stoic and tried to forget about the feeder altogether. I worked hard to convince myself that nature walks would fulfill my birding needs, until about a week later when a relatively new neighbor reached out.

One afternoon, I was walking towards my car and this neighbor was about to drive away in hers when she called out from her open passenger window, “Hey, Theresa!” then motioned me over. I noticed she looked pained, with furrowed brows: “What happened to your bird feeder?” I approached her and shared my now well-honed story of injustice, adding a hefty dose of self-righteous indignation about property policies, and grumbling complete with dramatic gesticulations. She smiled, then told me how much she had enjoyed watching the birds at my feeder from her window, how much they had brightened her day, and how sad she had felt when my feeder suddenly disappeared. “I feel so alone without the birds,” she lamented, with a bit of surprise. “I’ve never kept a bird feeder, but the birds… they become like friends, don’t they?” I stood there for a few minutes, listening to her share memories of bird watching at my feeder. I recalled how fascinated I was when I first started birding over 15 years ago; she was just like me! I noticed myself smiling as I listened to her. “Yes, the birds do become friends,” I agreed, and shared a few fun bird-watching stories of my own, including one that featured a pileated woodpecker mother feeding a juvenile seeds from my feeder (I smile now just thinking about that special day).

My neighbor then offered to contribute to the cost of a replacement feeder or seed. Upon receiving her kind gesture, I could not help but put my hand on my heart. Oh, my heart had become hard over those few weeks… but now I felt a rush of feeling… and then an opening… all the resentment I was carrying, all my carping about unfairness, all my mental crap… just fell out and landed at my feet. What was wrong with me? Why was I holding onto this petty grudge? I thought I had given up on holding grudges years ago… I know that saying, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Why was I depriving myself of joy?

I said to this newly-inspired birder, “I feel so moved by your kind words. I’m really glad you found joy in watching the birds. I love watching them, too! And I’ve missed them. Truly, I have.” For a moment, I considered accepting her offer to contribute to the cost of the bird seed, which does add up. But then I decided, No. Keeping this bird feeder is one thing I can do to show kindness to her. “I appreciate your generous offer,” I said, “but I will replace the feeder and provide the seed—I still have most of a bag left. But if the bowl starts to get empty, or I get neglectful, and you feel inspired to contribute, feel free. Thank you for reaching out to me. You helped clear my head about this.” Obviously, I was not the only one suffering a loss of connection, of beauty, of spiritual fulfillment. A new feeder would be a gift to my neighbor, to the birds, and to me.

I decided to let go of my lingering resentment and instead invite compassion and understanding. After all, I could empathize with the management. Tree-cutting accident or not, they needed to uphold their policies and boundaries with tenants; if they paid to replace my broken personal property, then they would (in theory) need to do the same thing for the other tenants. That could become costly. And, sure, they could have given me advanced notice about the tree work, but that would assume they knew the feeder was mine. They also could have removed the feeder from its pole themselves, but maybe they didn’t think it was in harm’s way. Maybe I was out-of-line in assuming a lack of consideration.

I also could empathize with my own sadness and disappointment. I value compassionate communication and I work hard to offer it to others. I did not receive it when I needed it, in my vulnerable state, but in those situations I know there is not much I can do except offer myself empathy. There is only one person whose communication I can control: Mine. This, I know all too well. Clearly, continuing to consider myself a victim had amounted to living in a self-created state of deprivation and sadness. And who needs that? Something needed to change.

The new bird feeder with a couple of happy mourning doves

As I write this essay, I feel grateful that the Universe delivered this uncomfortable conflict to me–this reminder to shift from deprivation towards invitation, towards joy. What really mattered was the birds! Of course, I knew that in my heart; I simply was not listening. I had lost sight of was most important. As sometimes happens, I got in the way of my own joy. A few days after speaking with my neighbor in the parking lot I bought a new feeder, dug a new hole, re-aligned the old pole, then filled the bowl with sunflower seeds. Within hours the doves returned, then the cardinals, then the woodpeckers, then some sparrows… All is well between us now. We are a flock reunited, giving and receiving love, just like we always did. Plus, my neighbor is happy. And I am joyful! My personal Lenten lesson? More birds, less me.

Epilogue

A few weeks after I replaced the feeder, my bird-loving neighbor left a lovely banana coffee cake outside my apartment door. She rang the bell, but I was asleep–sick with a virus. When I looked outside, I found the cake along with this note. It would appear that a mutual love of birds is beginning to feather the nest of a new friendship!

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