I spent the long weekend at my parents’ cabin on the Allegheny River. There's something about having less (e.g. nine people, one bathroom) that makes you more conscious of what you do have.
For most of my life, I figured I was decently knowledgeable about Pennsylvania birds and wildflowers, having lived in somewhat rural PA from ages seven to twenty-two. That is, until my parents bought the cabin in 2015 and I started visiting. My parents now know more about birds than I thought it was possible to know about birds. (Especially considering they're both engineers by training.)
When we’re sitting around the fire, my mom will say to me things like: “Do you think that was the call of a barn owl or a screech owl?” And, obviously, I haven't the faintest idea.
This Sunday, when my dad said: “See that Osprey in the dead tree across the river?” I realized I had not a clue how an Osprey looked.
Still, I am starting to learn. I know the vibrant orange Orioles are only there for a brief stint in springtime, eating the orange halves my dad leaves out on a small plastic table in the yard just for them. And I know when we walked the trail in May we saw hundreds of blooming trilliums but, by late August, they’re long gone. Now, we bike by fields of tall, shining goldenrods, and the trail is lined by Queen Anne’s lace (which always reminds me of Bob Dylan's song You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go).
And though the brilliant Indigo Buntings of springtime no longer frequent the bird feeder, the Goldfinch convene both in May and in August and all the months between, swarming the feeder each morning as my dad hangs it outside. (He puts it in the shed at night ever since a brown bear started opening it and eating the birdseed after dark.)
There’s something about learning more about the external world that makes me want to know myself more deeply—as if nature compels me to explore my inner landscape, the tides of my mind, the rhythms of my heart, the seasons of my life.
I am finally realizing that, for so long, I longed for others to wholly understand me, and, yet, I didn't even wholly understand myself; I hardly knew myself at all.
Just like, before the cabin, I could hardly distinguish a soaring hawk from circling vulture, for so long, I could hardly tell within myself what exactly I was feeling, much less why I was feeling what I was feeling. Equally mysterious was why I was thinking what I was thinking or doing what I was doing.
Yet, I maintained the underlying vague desire that others should meet my needs entirely. That they (and by 'they' I mean everyone) should treat me exactlyas I desired to be treated. (Though, if pressed, I couldn’t really articulate what that was.)
Simone Weil says:
"It is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves."
And Rumi says:
"Your heart is the size of an ocean. Go find yourself in its hidden depths."
The more I learn about birds and flowers, the more I realize there is to learn, and there’s something amazing about that—that my whole life I was surrounded by these blossoming and flying creations that I never bothered to truly see. That I needn't travel to the heart of the Amazon to be amazed by the natural world, maybe I could just look out my window attentively. I feel the same way about self-exploration; the more I learn about me, the more there is to know. The more doors I open, the more doors there are.
And this brings about not a feeling of overwhelm, but a sense of wonder at the depths that exist. Depths that have certainly always been there, but have been hidden in plain sight.
Some days, it feels as miraculous as the camouflaged Great Blue Heron magically appearing and soaring from the stones of the river bank elegantly across the water.
Because if there's one thing I've never wanted, it is a shallow life.
with Love and with Light,
p.s. I began reading poet Mary Oliver’s book of essays called Upstream over the weekend and I love it so far. If you've never read Mary Oliver, this poemis a nice starting place. (That last line gets me every time.)