On Looking, listening, and birdsong in the morning

I just finished reading Alexandria Horowitz’s On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation. She describes eleven walks around her block in (mostly) New York City, taken with a wide range of experts: artists, physicians, geologists and dogs.

Highly recommended. You will laugh. You will learn. You will focus. You will expand.

I learned the answer to a question I have had for a long time: why do birds sing in the morning?

It has to do with the air temperature, Horowitz explained. Sound travels more directly in cooler air, and is more diffused in warmer air. Since the air is relatively cool in the morning, we hear birdsong from farther away.

“But,” I said to my husband. “I’m not sure I like that answer.”

We were parked in our car, windows closed against the black flies, air-conditioner running because of our dog in the back seat. Potential buyers were looking at our house, so we had to clear out for an hour. My husband brought a decision from the Supreme Court along to read– it is relevant to a case he has– and I brought On Looking. 

He read to me the salient points of the court’s decision, which included Justice Alito contradicting himself in the same paragraph and notorious RBG (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg) slapping him down, as she does so well.

And then I explained what the book said about birds singing more in the morning: they don’t actually sing more in the morning. We just hear it more.

“I think I prefer to believe,” I said, “that they do sing more in the morning. That there is something about the morning that inspires birdsong.”

My husband said, with a laugh, “Typical morning person thinking.”

But physics aside, there is something about birds and morning. Maybe that is just the time when I listen.


Artists, everywhere.

My husband and I met an artist today.

We had just stepped out of the woods onto the dirt road and were headed back to our house when one of the guys who have been logging the woods across the road waved to us.

“I see you walking there every day,” he said. “Do you own it?”

We don’t. We just walk there every morning. We used to walk the trail on the other side of the road, but once the logging operation swung into gear, we had to go the other way.

In a small clearing beside the road—made last fall, so we knew what was coming—there were two giant blue tractors with monster tires in chains, a feller-buncher, a crane-type machine that lifts mouthfuls of logs onto a three-foot rotary saw and two pick-up trucks. The largest machine, a chipper, wasn’t there this morning.

My husband asked “Matt”—his name was sewn onto a nametag on his work shirt—imagine a forest ranger but in grey instead of green, with a baseball cap instead of the Smokey Bear hat—some sort of innocuous question about the work, how many acres they were cutting, I think, and that little bit of interest launched us into a twenty minute conversation about how Matt chose which trees to be cut.

The owner of those 170 acres has had them logged three times since 1940, Matt told us. Selectively, he emphasized. You have to leave some big ones, he said. Some people buy wooded property for short-term profit, he told us. “But that’s not stewardship,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.

I can attest that the woods that we have walked in every day for the five years we have lived here are a lively mixture of trees: species, size, etc.

“It takes years to learn what to cut and when,” Matt said. “Some people just have an eye for it. See that one there?” he asked, pointing to a tree that was close to a foot around at its base. “That’s probably forty-five years old. We’re going to let her be.”

He wasn’t just harvesting these woods. He was tending them.

“You have to be careful,” he said. “A tree like that one—you bump into it and the bark will fly. It’s growing season.”

“You’re an artist,” I said.

“Anyone can be an artist,” he replied, without hesitation. “A welder, a truck driver. I do the best job I can. I started when I was nineteen, and I’m thirty-four now. I take pride in my work.”

Presence, in all of its manifestations.

Today, my husband and I went on our usual morning walk without the dog. It was so much easier.

When I sat down on the floor to put on my shoes, I didn’t have to time my reaching to tie my laces with her running circles around me—and over me. Nor did I have to endure a face wash—she does drink from the toilet—or concussive barking just inches from my ears.

I didn’t have to check for cheeky squirrels, sly UPS men, suspiciously serene Seventh-Day Adventists or earnest Boy Scouts who must surely have a ball hidden somewhere on their person before leaving the house.

I didn’t have to tell her to drop the horse turd—that one, too—and I didn’t have to call her back as she drifted aimlessly—randomly, coincidentally, who me?—towards the neighbors’ yard, the one with the chickens.

I didn’t have to tell her don’t bite my hands when we got to the logging road where she likes to open up and charge—top speed—ahead, back and then ahead again, always three passes, always shooting by within a hair’s breadth of us, and always, on the last pass, jumping up to nip at the hand that feeds you! I say to her as she looks at me with that whites-of-the-eye, mad-dog grin and hurtles on by.

We didn’t have to endure long-suffering sighs when we rinsed her feet off in a bucket before letting her back inside—feet, I will add, that needed rinsing because she willingly—joyfully—waded into a fetid swamp filled with water that was just as wet—shocking, I know—as the water in the bucket.

And I didn’t have to dodge around her while I got breakfast as she, with unerring precision, managed to place herself in exactly in the next spot where I needed to go.

It’s so much easier doing these things without her. And, as I am sure you know, it is wholly pointless. I just want her home. The vet will call later today—good news, bad news—and then we’ll know. I say that breezily, but I know you are not fooled.

My dog—all dogs, it seems to me—embody presence. They just want us around, and we just want them—please—to be there, too.

And as I struggle today to focus on a writing project that I routinely describe as biting me on the butt, I will remember that I didn’t ask for easy. I asked for presence. It is enough. It is always enough.

Second Chance

Today I have an essay up on The Establishment. It was a hard one to write and a hard one to share.

The title I gave it was “Second Chance,” because while the essay addresses a deeply fraught relationship, I also think that it points to the fact that we are not trapped when we have choices about how we treat others.

It is important to me: this issue of judgment, of being quick to judge–and to condemn–before taking time to understand. I believe that the key to saving ourselves, each other and our world lies in empathy. Not in blame or even forgiveness. Empathy.

Blogs and Grace

Today, I want to share with you three of my favorite blogs. When I read them, I feel touched by truth, kindness, beauty and humor. Is that not grace?

Here they are:

Melodye Shore’s blog, A Joyful Noise.

The first thing you’ll notice is Melodye’s photographs. Often of birds, hummingbirds in particular. She writes with a tone of reverence and wonder. She is the epitome of a “witness.” She lets us see what she sees and invites us to make our own judgments. She is a powerful presence.

Julie Christine Johnson’s blog

Julie’s photos of sunrise, sunset and seascape, are as evocative as her writing. She shares her thoughts about her journey as a writer and so much more with humility and so much generosity. She is one of those people who can transport you, happily, to her world.

Samantha Irby’s blog, Bitches Gotta Eat

Samantha’s writing is fierce, funny, wise and TRUE. I can say no more. Just: yes, read it.

Love in the Bathroom

This article was in response to a submission request for stories about intimacy for a new online magazine, Together.guide, about relationships.

I was a little embarrassed when I submitted it, but then realized it’s nothing much different from our usual dinner conversation. (“Mo-om,” I hear my kids say.)

And it is the truth– literally it did happen, and my husband did say all those things, and also, this is just as much what love is– more so, maybe–than what you see and hear about.

The magazine is out there a bit for me, but it is quite sincere in its exploration. I now know that I have lived a sheltered life, but I am so glad that people are having these conversations.


What do you think?

First, a poem, “Gone From My Sight,” written by my father’s great-grandfather, Henry Van Dyke. The name was familiar to me, but I hadn’t read any of his work. It came to my attention now because of my father’s recent death.

Below it is a poem, “Penelope,” written by my daughter when she was fourteen. We were studying poetry, and she was at a loss for an idea to write about. We had just read Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” so I suggested that she write a poem in response to that, from Penelope’s point of view. Read what she wrote (it was partially excerpted in my essay, “Letting Go: In Her Words” published last month in Hippocampus Magazine.

Tell me if you don’t see the one in the other.


Gone From My Sight

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me — not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…



Perhaps you think I have waited, for you
In a cushioned chair, my feet propped
On an embroidered footstool.
Nay, I have had naught
But clever foes’ daggers at my back
Who design to sever my resolve: to stand fast
Beside the windblown crags, for you.
The salted sea has been changeless for me
Day after day, while you
Have drunken to battle-lust and glory
On the windy plains of a distant land.
Now you say you are but a name,
A blade lacking burnishing.
I have stood fast, for your name, Ulysses,
I, your aged wife, have stood beside
This grey shore, with only a name
For twenty years.

In your westward glancing heart I glimpse
That heart which hath moved heaven and earth:
Keen swords, flashing fire, falling stars
Beyond your drenched mast—
I knew you then, I know you now.
The yearning gust that blew you in
Will blow you out again.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail,
So go;
And if you seek beyond the arch
Of your desires, you will
Forever sail for me
Along the froth-edged waves
Of the sunset sea.

More Waiting

Does everything seem to you to be on hold?

I am still waiting. On so many things. It isn’t passive, the waiting. It isn’t that I am throwing up my hands and giving up. It’s just that so many next steps depend on the decisions of others, who can’t be hurried.

I am trying to use this time wisely. To not treat it as interim, but worthy in its own right. It is a challenge.

To fortify myself:

Waiting – Poem by John Burroughs
Serene, I fold my hands and wait,
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
I rave no more ‘gainst time or fate,
For lo! my own shall come to me.

I stay my haste, I make delays,
For what avails this eager pace?
I stand amid the eternal ways,
And what is mine shall know my face.

Asleep, awake, by night or day,
The friends I seek are seeking me;
No wind can drive my bark astray,
Nor change the tide of destiny.

What matter if I stand alone?
I wait with joy the coming years;
My heart shall reap where it hath sown,
And garner up its fruit of tears.

The waters know their own and draw
The brook that springs in yonder height;
So flows the good with equal law
Unto the soul of pure delight.

The stars come nightly to the sky;
The tidal wave unto the sea;
Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high,
Can keep my own away from me.

More Barry Schwartz: Why We Cling to Beliefs and Ideals

Nick Wetta, from Story Riot, has a great interview with Barry Schwartz about  Why We Cling to Beliefs and Ideals.  Nick put together a quick video as well.

I can never get enough of Barry. He just makes such good sense. His thoughts about making work meaningful are of particular value to parents, whose work raising children can often seem full of mundane, repetitive tasks.

Here is a link to my interview with Barry, this one about children and choice.