the abandon of birds
What We Need Is Here
By Wendell Berry
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for a new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
* * *
My stainless steel teapot is getting a lot of use these days. It sits next to me like a convex mirror that surprises me sometimes with an appealing picture of myself and the room around me. I and the room appear unfamiliar in the warped reflection; we are somehow more grand, colorful, and illuminated, as if the girl with black hair having tea with bookshelves behind her is a more interesting girl living in a more appealing apartment, and living a more interesting life, a life I might want to step into, or watch as a favorite TV series. But truthfully, I know that the teapot is only showing me myself and the place where I live, and maybe if I could see it differently, as from the eyes of an unrelated third party, I would know it to be just as appealing, interesting, and lucky, a place I might want to step into, if I were not already here.
Last Friday I attended a lecture on campus. It was on Eudora Welty’s use of deaf characters in her short stories. It was very interesting and wove together several different disciplines, including one I had never heard of before– disability studies. The speaker made me give some thought to the idea of what it would be to be deaf and all but exempt from the burden of the responsibility of silence, the sticky interactions that fetter the world of the hearing and the speaking, the choices that must be made around speaking.
I walked home from the talk in the brisk March weather feeling as high as a kite and full of ideas. But it wasn’t long before my thoughts began to sabotage my good mood. “It was so nice to sit in on a lecture again, so nice to be with others who are thinking about literature and discussing it.” And I couldn’t just accept the one gift of having been to the one lecture. I wanted to imagine that I was somehow deprived because I never went on to be a graduate student in literature. And I imagined that I am now somehow deprived because I cannot click my heels and enter a graduate program this year, or next, or maybe even the next. My thoughts were spinning around this idea I revisit every so often: the Idea of Myself as Student. This famous idea puts me into a tailspin. I oscillate between resenting my life as it was and is and panicking over what it could become. Then I get into the grandiose, followed by the dejected. I get nowhere and unhappy.
This time I did not let it go very far. I threw no understated adult version of the child-tantrum, good only for making myself and those around me unhappy. I tried to get to that place of abandon that Wendell Berry describes– the ancient faith, accessible to the tiny apparatus of the bird brain, yet elusive to my much larger, human brain. I had just gone to a literary lecture and been inspired by it, and it was a gift of unknown and yet-to-be-known value, and I would let it hang there just like that, in silence, let it slide into the pocket of the unknown. Right now there is no avenue for me to be a student again, and therefore I can arrest the thoughts that go backward around this non-issue, as well as the ones that go forward around this non-issue. I asked myself if I was interested in forcing anything to become a reality in my life, and decided that, no, I am not the least bit interested in forcing anything to become a reality in my life. Force is for the birds, I would say, except it actually is not for the birds. Force, juking and jiving, are for the godless race, setting their clocks an hour forward or an hour backward twice a year, living by the allure of the almost-true but slightly skewed reflection. No, abandon and the faithful flapping of wings is of and for the birds, and works well for them: they arrive at the place where they need to be at the time when they need to be there.