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May the birds of your attention truly land

I'm sitting at the kitchen table again, checking my email, when a mourning dove lands on the railing of the balcony. Now, I know the names of very few birds, regrettably, so if I know the bird, it is a very common one. Yet I live in an apartment complex, which sits just south of a warehouse and just east of a construction site for another apartment complex, on a busy avenue in Austin, Texas. Needless to say, all birds are rare. Maybe two other times a bird has landed on my balcony. Living in a city is an invitation to pay attention to the small ordinary wonders. To be, as Mary Oliver found herself daily, killed by delight by the common, the ordinary, the very drab. For me it is a requirement, lest I'm driven to insanity.


So this is a big morning! The dove's searching head works to get a better look behind the glass as I do the same on my side of the window. Surely I've never seen one so close, a globed head mirrored by the bird's belly, the blunt beak. Soft grays mingle and flow into each other, sliding into tan on the underside. Black spots decorate the upper wings, which are softly painted, blurry compared to the precisely penciled and cleanly stacked winged tips. The sharpness of the stiff tail feathers balances the supple roundness of their body. Around the throat and neck, almost imperceptible opalescence shines blue green in the cloud covered morning. I look down at my cat Cougar, who is also watching intently, no doubt wishing the door were open. I can hear lips peeling from teeth as his mouth quivers in wanting. Dove adds their own voice, that low breathy whoooooo, which seems to pour from the mouth of a deep cave. I watch, eyes widening, as their throat fills with air, then empties in song.


Everyone and everything loves attention. It is a gift we can give freely as humans, but a skill we seem to be losing. In today's modern world we are constantly inundated with images, advertisements, news, traffic sounds, entertainment. We do a lot of looking without seeing, hearing without listening. So the images get more intense to make up for our diminishing attention spans. Will we ever, as poet William Stafford advises, come back and hear the little sound again? Whatever we pay attention to is what our world becomes.


I could have, and admittedly often do, just noticed the bird. "Oh, wow. There's a mourning dove," and quickly gone back to my computer, not directed my focused attention, not studied the bird's physique and hue. Like scrolling on social media. "Oh. So and so did such and what," thumb never stopping its slide up the screen. The bird would have still landed on the balcony, but not landed in me. Instead, at least this time, I let the bird find a home in my being. I let the dove happen to me, register in my system. It is a form of resourcing, a gift to the creature, and to myself.



I've been studying with Kimberly Ann Johnson for the past 6 months or so. She practices somatic experiencing, and is also a sexological bodyworker. Her focus has been on trauma healing, especially in the domains of birth trauma and sexual boundary violation. In her excellent book Call of the Wild, she offers a paradigm shift that I've been slowly reaching toward. We often believe we have to work really hard, dig deep, to overcome our trauma. What we actually need, she argues, is more resource, more pleasure, more nourishment in our nervous systems. We can approach that by letting the goodness in our lives LAND. Smell a flower and let the scent penetrate you, as if your body, your skin, your whole being is a nose. Give yourself to the world, as if it were your lover.


If you do, a strange thing might happen, because you'll begin to feel the world courting you back, inviting you deeper into your belonging here.


Back in Oakland, I lived right up against a small creek park. I spent every moment I could down there, sometimes in ceremony at the river, often napping under the oaks, occasionally picking up trash. One day I was wading upstream, the water low. Hummingbird flies right by me and into a tangle of blackberries on the opposite bank. Moving my head about slowly, much like the mourning dove trying to have a look at me, I scanned the vines, finally landing on a tiny nest, woven from redwood bark and decorated with lichen and crab apple petals, which the bird had just settled on. Everyday I'd go down to the water to get as close as I could to that nest and sing emergent love songs or speak poems of wonder. As much as I tried, I couldn't get close enough to see the eggs when the momma was off feeding, not without risking tearing down the vines. Eventually a big storm came through, and the nest was gone.


But I had developed my attention for hummingbirds and their nests, and discovered more. I watched them dip their long beaks into redwoods, gathering the bark fiber in their mouths, and then knit bowls not much bigger than a quarter. Usually the nests were too high up or on a steep slope, so I couldn't get close enough to peer inside.


Maybe a year after that first spotting I went down to the creek to track hawk, since the jays and crows were making a ruckus. But robin distracted me, just sitting out on a big broken oak limb, right at eye level, completely still. I was even more intrigued by the bird because just beneath that broken limb, hanging on ivy that grew around it, was a hummingbird nest I'd visited months before. This one was accessible, and I found the nest right after the babies emerged from their eggs. I can't tell you how exquisite and captivating it was to behold these tiny beings opening their obsidian eyes, sprouting feathers, pushing open the flexible nest as they grew, the swords of their beaks lengthening, and, finally, fledging.


I stopped to watch robin's strange behavior for a good while, until I saw a stellar jay and a crow dive bomb in the background, criss-crossing. Whoa! I found my way into the woods to get closer to them, hoping I'd find the hawk I was listening for. Instead, I found myself staring right down into a hummingbird nest, two yogurt covered raisin eggs shining like holy grails, the first and the only I've ever seen. What an immense gift to watch these exquisite tiny darters tending to their young at all stages! And an even deeper gift to feel that this place trusted me, even perhaps saw me as a guardian, inviting me in. I couldn't shake the feeling that the entire bird community collaborated to bring me to that nest, that they had heard my songs and poetry, felt my daily visits as pilgrimages, that my love landed in them.




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