Jim just wanted to watch the birds.
It frustrated me so, the incessant focusing of the binoculars, the prattling on about beak shape and wing colors. I’d be craning my neck to try to see the lions camouflaged in the early morning grass, and Jim would be looking the wrong way. When it was time for sundowners, the kids and I rushed to gulp ours, eager to get back on the hunt for a Big Five spotting. Jim, though, he lingered. Smiling to himself as he watched something flit by and land in an acacia tree. Some warbler, maybe, or a tropical tree-sap-sucker. He told me, proudly, and probably patiently, how he identified each bird, but me, I was distracted by the baboons calling from up on the ridge. I remember thinking—and I hope not saying—that we have birds at home. They’re nothing special and not worth wasting our time on But leopards! Rhinos! Elephants! Lions! Hippos! Not to mention the swirly horned kudu and the massive wildebeest and those noisy baboons…now those were special. Now those were worth lingering for.
But Jim, Jim knew otherwise.
I’m reminded of Jim fifteen years later as I sit in my room in Bali, patio doors thrown open to the infinite steppes of the rice fields. There is a whole flock of white herons out there that fly here every day from their nest 20 kilometers away. Local legend says they’re the spirit of a villager. When he died, the herons appeared in his village, and they travel every day to the fields where he worked, returning every each night to where he lived. In the fields, there are also hummingbirds and starlings and this beautiful white and tawny bird that roosts in the frangipani trees. I’m trying to read and to write but every time I look away from the rice panorama, I think I see iridescent blue zip by. The Javanese kingfisher. Orange beak, electric blue wings. When you see it fly, you think it can’t be real. But it is, and I was lucky enough to have one land not just in the banana trees fifty yards away but right in front of my porch. I’m trying to read and write to fill today’s silence, but I’m afraid if I look away, I’ll miss the next kingfisher. So I give in, settle in with a Bintang, and watch the birds come and go in the rice field. Their whistles and hoots and melodies, and the supernatural sounds that come from the river behind me, are my day’s soundtrack.
When I found out I was going to be on the island for Balinese New Year, an unexpected long weekend at the end of my research trip, I studied the map. Where should I go? Trek Mt. Batur? Snorkel in the famous Bali waters? Hop a ferry to a nearby island? Take a cooking class? The possibilities for adventure and exploration and doing something Big were overwhelming.
For anyone who’s traveled with me in the past, this will sound familiar. There’s always a new destination, a new must-see, a new must-experience that should be made time for. Like on our honeymoon in Vietnam, where despite several episodes of miserable travel, I insisted to Fresh that we MUST got to Dalat, Vietnam's mountain honeymoon capital, and we MUST cruise up the Mekong because how can you be here and miss it? FOMO: Fear of missing out. Fear that something Big, something Not To Be Missed is going to be missed. FOMO: Wanting to cruise for lions rather than stop to watch a bird.
I studied the Bali map, but despite making an initial reservation at a Not To Be Missed spot on the coast, I decided to stay right here with my patio doors opened to the rice fields. Balinese New Year is celebrated with nyepi, a day of silence. No one on the island is allowed to work, to leave their homes, to cook, to use electricity or internet. It is a day of mindful reflection spent tucked away at home. A good day for sleeping and playing cards, my friend Made told me as we watched the ogoh ogoh parades the night before. Do nothing, he counseled me. Have relax time, he said. You worked hard in Bali; now relax, like Balinese do. In Bali, I’ve learned that they celebrate the new year with quiet, quiet that keeps away the bad spirits, quiet that gently blows the rains away, and quiet that sets the stage with your intentions for the new year.
So here I am, rice paddies before me. Sipping a beer and waiting for a kingfisher. Periodically doing a quick gecko count in my room, maybe cracking open a coconut in lieu of water, but otherwise, doing nothing. And also, doing everything.
In her book Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott recounts a story about her brother, her always procrastinating brother. In grammar school, he was tasked with doing a research report on the birds of North America, but as usual, he put off starting the report until the night before it was due. Frantic and in tears, he turned to their father. How am I going to finish this? How am I going to write? Dad, how do I do this?!
Bird by bird, son. You write it bird by bird.
I remind myself of this story every time I sit down to work, just as I reminded myself of it daily when I was finishing my dissertation. Bird by bird. But this adage, it’s not just about how to get your writing done. It’s also about how you make a life.
Our daily routine as fortysomething professionals and parents goes something like this:
Wake up late to the third snooze alarm after not enough sleep. Wrestle small children into morning compliance. Rush to school drop off, rush to work, rush through emails. Eat lunch at desk and spill on computer. Hunker into a work project, blink, and realize you’re late for picking up the kids. Rush to school pick up, rush home, rush to get dinner on the table. Say no a million times and then have an existential crisis about whether you should or should not be mediating the kickboxing match over the toy du jour. Realize it’s already past bedtime and then rush to do baths, rush to read Harry Potter, will the children to rush and fall asleep. Pause—five minutes of adult conversation over a bourbon on the rocks, and then: Dishes. Laundry. Finish work. Pay bills. Shit! Who walked the dog? Blink, and realize it’s 11pm and you have to be up too soon. Pass out. Repeat.
No time for long talks, or spontaneous dinners with friends, or dancing until 4am. No time to read or watch a movie or do yoga. No time to plan an adventure or take one. No time to even walk the poor dog! No time to have a life.
Isn’t that such a cliché, though? The young person feels like they have all the time in the world, and the old person knows there is never enough time, not in the day or in a life. The truth is, the sense of our own mortality is more wrapped up with schedules and bedtimes and housework then with the feigned carpe diem inspiration for that semester in Paris or the move to Mexico. The sense of our own mortality is there, pulsing under the anxiety when we look at our schedules and worry, How will it ever get all done? Like Anne Lamott’s brother, I sit at the dining room table frantically looking around for someone, anyone who can tell me how it all gets done. And then:
“Mama! Mama! Come here? Are those turkeys?!”
And there are, indeed, a flock of wild turkeys crossing our yard, heading back down to the river. We sit there, noses pressed against the stairway window until they’re out of sight, and then we run into the living room to get one more look at them before they are swallowed up by where we can’t see.
“Mama! Why were their turkeys in our yard?” And we talk about the wild turkeys down by the river, and how sometimes when I’m walking Buzz, I’ll see one fly between trees, which always surprises me because turkeys just don’t seem like they should fly. And then we might remember that time during our first winter on Humboldt when we watched some kind of raptor kill a bird in front of our window, and then camp out in the pine that towers over our neighbor’s house, perfectly visible from our bedroom windows. Which then might remind me of the time I watched an eagle catch a trout in Lake Superior, and then parade it right by our dining room window while I pretended to write, and so I might tell the kids this story, too. And then maybe I tell them, or maybe I just think, about how on Spaight Street, there was a nest of owlets that we spotted the spring when I was pregnant, and they were unafraid of us as we watched them bounce around the neighbor’s yard. And I might remember, too, when I first met the sandhill cranes when we moved to Wisconsin, and I was almost late for work because I had to pull over and trod through the plowed field to get a glimpse of these prehistoric looking dancers. Just like I used to make myself late biking to campus in grad school because I’d always stop to marvel at the loons and the coots diving in Madison’s lakes. And maybe we talk about hummingbirds, the ones that used to torment Cricket in Guadalajara, and the ones that used to flit up to us when we were mini-golfing at my grandparents’ house. Maybe we talk about the vultures over the beach house that one Thanksgiving, or the red-tailed hawks that are the harbingers of spring in the Midwest, or the peacocks that meowed like cats when I was researching in Ahmedabad. Or maybe we talk about the eagle’s nest that Papa found in Eagle Harbor, or the bird family that’s squatting in our now-abandoned old gutters. Maybe we talk about the Wild Kratts epidsode about the peregrine falcon, or the Loony Toons pip-squack bird from my childhood, or maybe we just talk about how much Rory loves cardinals. Whatever we talked about, it started with those turkeys, and the excited sighting turned into one of those moments that make up our life: Saturday morning, still in PJs, pancakes on the stove, turkeys in our yard in the middle of Milwaukee.
How will there ever be enough time to do it all? To parent, and to love, and to travel, and to exercise, and to eat right, and to balance the budget, and to work, and to make sure everyone has clean clothes? And dammit, when will there be time to walk the dog? The frantic rush, though, pauses with those turkeys, and I’m reminded of what I already know: Bird by bird. You do it all bird by bird.
When Fresh was teaching in Chicago, he used to take his students hiking and camping all the time. On one hike at Devil’s Lake, he found himself bringing up the rear with a student who simply wasn’t interested in racing up the hills with her friends. She knew they thought she was slow, and Fresh might have even asked out of concern if the hike was too hard for her. But what she answered sticks with me: I bet everyone rushing ahead missed this little caterpillar crawling right here on this rock. If you go too fast, you’ll miss the caterpillars and the butterflies and everything else that’s living along the way. I might be slow, but I get to see it all.
It’s what Jim knew all those years ago, a wizened grandfather to my impatient twenty-five-year-old self. It was worth lingering with sundowners, and it was worth focusing the binoculars. Of course the Big Five were cool, and odds were, without really trying, we’d see some of those magnificent mammals South Africa is known for. But for the birds, we had to wait. We had to slow down. Ordinary and eternal, those birds, with the magnificent superpower of flight. Bird by bird, this life is made. And today, my bird is the kingfisher.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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