Rain continues to flood California, the long standing drought easing but the water coming way too fast. Elsewhere crocus or even daffodils are pushing out of the earth, seeking the light. Where I am, where some years at this time we get snow, even the occasional blizzard, it’s the arrival of the robins that bring the promise of another spring. There’s a flock of about 20 on our street, drawn by the crab apple trees and our compost pile and the rich soft dirt out front waiting to be planted after the threat of frost passes. I’ve always loved them more than other birds – something about their smoky head, back, wings, and tail; the ring of gold around their dark eyes; the pumpkin color of their breast and belly; their song.
They’ve always been a sign of spring. I was sad that they weren’t coming to my feeder, stuck to the window over my writing desk, but they are more wild in that way, eat both what’s been left behind and what is waking up, making their own way regardless of if we are here or not, fill the feeder with seed or not. We’ve had two nests of bright blue eggs in the 20 years we’ve lived in this house. It seems to always start with four, no more and no less. The first nest was in our backyard, in the narrow leaf cottonwood that’s no longer there, inadvertently protected from predators by the simple presence of our dogs. All four eggs went from hatching to flying out of the nest in just two weeks. I hadn’t realized that it all happened so fast and still remember the sweet way that my dogs Dexter and Sam quietly watched the final hatchling as it hopped around the yard, working up the courage to fly away from everything it had known thus far in its tiny brief life.
The other nest was in the front yard, in our lilac bushes. A hail storm happened early on and we worried they’d be crushed, were so happy when the storm passed and they were all there, still intact and bright as ever. And yet, their nest was in a spot where the neighborhood cats could reach them, with no protection from the dogs. Only three of the eggs hatched, and as far as we could tell, no one was left to fly out of the nest at the end of those short two weeks. The nest remained there for a few years after, empty and waiting, until a wind storm blew it down and smashed it on the sidewalk below. This is how life is, isn’t it? The good news and the bad. The beautiful and the brutal, the tender and the terrible. We are here for it, for both, for all of it.
I don’t know what the outcome of my upcoming surgery will be. It’s technically “elective” and as my surgeon kept reminding me, “You don’t have to do this.” I can’t know for certain on this end of things if it’s the right thing to do, if it’s necessary, or if it will help, if anything will be different, better or worse because of it. That’s the worst part of big choices – they’ll have a big impact on your life but you never have all the information you need, can’t know all the various causes and conditions involved, so you make the choice partially blind. You step into something and it could be exactly where you wanted to land or it could be stepping into a wad of used chewing gum or a pile of dog shit. You have to pick without knowing exactly what it is you are agreeing to. It could turn out to be a disaster, a terrible mistake, but you can’t know until you make it. You hope it’s better than where you are, that it will be an improvement, but you won’t know until it’s over, and in this case, there’s no going back.
When I met with the surgeon, he was like a Zen monk – the smile, the calm, the equanimity, the wisdom and skill from decades of practice. I felt like a student who’d been giving a koan to solve (as in “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”), a riddle with no clear solution, and he was the teacher, there to witness but not give me the answer. I kept trying to trick him into telling me what to do, wishing he could promise me something, tell me it would all be okay, that I was doing the right thing. Instead he kept giving the decision back to me, placing the choice back in my lap, into my waiting open hands. I had to make the choice, even with all the “not knowing,” the doubt and unanswerable questions. I schedule and plan and prepare having no idea what the outcome will be.
In a scene from a movie I saw recently, a dad and daughter are talking, and the dad says, “Everything will be okay.” The daughter responds, “That’s bullshit, you can’t know that.” He goes on to explain that at some point the chaos settles, and it’s that state, that moment of being he’s referring to when he says things will be okay. I suppose you could also say “this too shall pass” or “everything is temporary” – so many things in life are like this, the good news and the bad news are really the same thing. The depth of the grief is equal in measure to how much you loved what you’ve lost; or when bad things happen, they pass and good things follow, or the other way around; or every relationship ends badly, even the best of them, because they will all end (because we all do, eventually), one way or another – the good news and the bad.
So many of the decisions we have to make are based on gut instinct, a feeling, a guess that we make without all the facts. We don’t know how things will work out. You can spend hours researching and reading all the reviews and recommendations but at some point you have to pull the trigger, take the leap, shit or get off the pot.
I feel like this dilemma, this contradiction, lucky and sad, tender and terrible, beautiful and brutal, is where I live, where we all live. In a liminal space while simultaneously at the center of things, the emptiness is luminous. It can be confusing or I can surrender to it and float. This experience of living doesn’t come with a map or a guide, or maybe it does. Maybe the answers are everywhere if you’d only look, open our eyes and listen. The birds singing at the feeder are giving you the answer. The river bubbling over the rocks is telling you everything you need to know. The way your dog sighs and stretches in the sun is the meaning of life. You try your hardest to make it more complicated but it’s enough, just like this, tart like a lime, sharp like teeth. Bite into it and you’ll see. You can have the fruit and what you don’t use goes into the compost pile. From there the squirrels and the mice will be fed, and the occasional snake might feed on the fat mice. What’s left will break down and in the spring, it will feed the garden and the garden will bear fruit that feeds you and the birds and the bees and all the rest, and the whole thing starts all over again.
It’s like this, this is how it goes. You don’t have to try so hard. You can pray and sing or weep. You can walk out the front door and keep on walking until you reach the river. Promise me you’ll listen to what the owls have to tell you. Follow their call in the dark of morning until you see them high up in the trees and when the dog nudges your hand to remind you he’s there, thank the owls and the trees, the ground and your feet, and keep walking, remembering that of all the paths we could have taken, we’re briefly here and walking together. That’s the good news and the bad.