There are so many oddball things about getting older. Ever-deepening ridges in my previously-smooth fingernails. A widening midsection no amount of boat poses, planks, or crunches can whittle. The need to peer at nearly everything now: the days of an un-narrowed gaze seem to be behind me (not that I can see them). An increasing fondness, which some might call an obsession but what do THEY know I am only here trying to SPARK SOME DAMN JOY, for cats. And, not going to lie, certain cat-themed clothing items.

Time seems to be both speeding up and stretching like one of Dali’s melting clocks. When I anticipate things, like upcoming vacations, it’s with the bittersweet knowledge that in the blink of an eye it will be over and done, another memory added to what now seems to be a staggering collection. I was a child, a teenager, a young adult, and now I am square in the midst of my forties; I have already lived a long and good life, it seems almost incomprehensible that there may be — if I am lucky — many more years yet to come, and then there will be so many memories, and plenty of them, eventually all, will simply be lost. It feels impossible and miraculous and tragic, all at once.

You know that Mary Oliver poem, right? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I think about that a lot these days. I sometimes have this fear that I’m not doing enough, I’m not making my mark in any sort of culturally-celebrated way — I’m not earning a lot of money, I’m not climbing the corporate ladder, I’m not running a business or topping a bestseller list or even stirring up small online controversies over whether or not waffles are snacks.

(For the record: OF COURSE THEY ARE. What sort of food Grinch considers an Eggo a full meal, is what I’d like to know.)

That fear comes from somewhere other than my true heart of hearts, though. It’s the slippery thinking that comes from comparing myself to others and forever coming up short, that toxic sinkhole I can’t seem to avoid stepping into, over and over and over.

If I have not yet learned how to avoid it, I at least see it for what it is, here in my middle age. It’s less about the scrabbling, exhausting labor of trying to climb out and more about changing my perspective: Ah, it turns out I wasn’t in a REAL sinkhole at all! Maybe that is a bit of the wisdom I was told eventually arrives along with the lip wrinkles.

I think what largely defines this season of life for me, even more than the ongoing vanity crisis of visible decay, is an internal call for meaning. What is truly rewarding, what brings me joy, what makes me feel most myself? Oh, I have spent so much time worshipping false idols.

The very first hospice patient I saw was alert but somewhat unmoored in time, she repeated certain memories. Something that clearly stood out in her mind was seeing a flock of cardinals on a snow-covered tree, she told me about that during many visits. “How beautiful they were,” she would say, her eyes far away. “Those red birds, in all that white.”

She has never left me but I always remember those specific words when I’m engaged in one of my very favorite activities: lying in my backyard, with my face tilted to the sun (more wrinkles!) and all the small active noises of the world happening around me. Lawnmowers, birdsong, the rustle of wind in the birch leaves. A cat curled by my side, the tiny dot of a plane overhead.

It’ll never make for a thrilling obituary (“She could really put a lawn chair to good use!”) but those moments of rest and meditation have such meaning. I try, these days, to be aware of the good things life has to offer, and never mind whether they seem important to anyone but me.

In the end, maybe all we have are the birds in the trees. They are enough. They are, maybe, the entire point.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Comments

41 Responses to “The birds in the trees”

  1. Penne on April 30th, 2019 1:14 pm

    Sometimes your words take my breath away.

  2. Jess on April 30th, 2019 1:22 pm

    I can not adequately put into words how much your words constantly resonate with me. 😭❤️ Thank you for writing, it makes me feel “understood.”

  3. Ginger on April 30th, 2019 1:31 pm

    So reminiscent of William Carlos Williams
    The Red Wheelbarrow
    so much depends
    upon
    a red wheel
    barrow
    glazed with rain
    water
    beside the white
    chickens

  4. Dawn Cauldin on April 30th, 2019 1:41 pm

    You always hit the nail on the head so eloquently. I can’t tell you, that even after more than a decade, how much I enjoy your writing.

    It’s just.so.good.

  5. Carrie on April 30th, 2019 1:42 pm

    Chilling and great. I love your writing even when it makes me panic about time passing me by.

  6. Sacha on April 30th, 2019 2:01 pm

    Your old lady with her cardinals, and your reflection on the simpler things, reminded me of my grandmother. In her last week of conscious life, she told my father that she had dreamed of blueberries.

  7. Kristin on April 30th, 2019 2:06 pm

    Yes. Thank you.

  8. Dee on April 30th, 2019 2:29 pm

    First off…who thinks an Eggo is a freakin’ waffle?

    Your writing however? Hearty Breakfast or sublime snackt…always tasty and dead spot on!

    Reader forever and approaching the mid 50s with gusto!

  9. Cindy on April 30th, 2019 2:29 pm

    Thank you for these words- beautiful and meaningful and reflective of the space in which I stand right now.

  10. Jenny Jacobs on April 30th, 2019 2:50 pm

    This brilliance is copied from elsewhere, but Mary Oliver’s quote is often misinterpreted. I think you nailed it on the head at the end of your essay. The one who asked us what we would do with our one wild and precious life spent hers wandering through meadows and kneeling down in the grass. I don’t think she wanted us to conquer, she wanted us to notice the sun on our face!

  11. Kimberly on April 30th, 2019 2:51 pm

    Oh Linda! So gorgeous! Sooo beautifully written. Thank you so very much for this. More, please!

  12. Jo on April 30th, 2019 3:21 pm

    Your words, as always, are magic. Thank you. This sentence really struck a chord with me – “It feels impossible and miraculous and tragic, all at once.”
    Sums up how I feel looking at my toddler daughter and thinking about her (and her brother, currently in utero) growing up, the years flying by while some days can go so slowly…

  13. Jen on April 30th, 2019 3:28 pm

    You have me typing through tears. I understand so much of what you are saying. I feel it all so strongly. I miss the past, I sometimes fear the present, I hope with all hope that the future is full of peace and more happy memories than sad. Thank you.

  14. Sally on April 30th, 2019 3:48 pm

    Well. Now welling up just before bed.

    Beautifully written, as always. Thank you.

  15. Pam Ferguson on April 30th, 2019 4:19 pm

    Love. Love. Love.

  16. Mackenna on April 30th, 2019 5:36 pm

    There will always be others but only one you. And such a great you.

  17. Janette on April 30th, 2019 6:09 pm

    Thank you.

  18. Donna on April 30th, 2019 7:52 pm

    I feel this sense of urgency. That time is running out for me. I’ve lost several friends in the past year, and an ex husband all my age or younger and it all just feels sou urgent and I’m just panicking all the time.

  19. Kate on April 30th, 2019 10:28 pm

    Just turned 40 and starting to feel some of this. Thank you for putting it into just the right words.

  20. Karen Kelley McCulloch on May 1st, 2019 3:41 am

    Thank you. Beautifully expressed.

  21. Lee on May 1st, 2019 5:04 am

    YES. My kids wonder why I love to sit outside on my porch with coffee. Not reading, not doing anything, just listening and watching the wind. I could do that for hours. It’s bliss.

  22. Allison on May 1st, 2019 6:13 am

    This is lovely, and each word rings true to me and where I am in my life right now. You are a wonderful writer and thinker.

  23. mcconk on May 1st, 2019 6:20 am

    I will be 54 this year, my kids are almost out of college. AMEN to all of this. Beautifully written.

  24. Niki on May 1st, 2019 6:37 am

    Thank you for this.

  25. Mary Walsh on May 1st, 2019 6:50 am

    Middle age has me up at night worrying about my place in this life. Your words resonate with me today.

  26. Donna on May 1st, 2019 8:47 am

    I am smiling…but there are sure a lot of tears in my eyes…..

  27. Jenine on May 1st, 2019 9:46 am

    Well put. I’m so glad to think of you looking up from your lawn chair.

    I am a bit older than you. Not sure I have any wisdom to share but I guess I’ll say – Watch out, 50 can be a slap in the face. As I cruise along parenting teenagers and doing my crummily compensated day job I also have thoughts of the ultimate meaning of a life without huge success markers.

    Maybe the most profound meaning of any life is perception. We exist (as unlikely as that is) with the tools to perceive this universe. So far enjoying a slew of beautiful skies and clouds is my legacy.

  28. Jenny Hoffman on May 1st, 2019 10:01 am

    Fingernail ridges, check.
    Widening middle section, check.
    Fading eyesight, check.
    Time melting, check.
    Rest and meditation being meaningful, check.
    Thanks as always for putting into words all the mixed-up feels in a way that makes me stop and notice them. I’m 43 and I fell on the ice and broke my arm this winter. What?!? I had to have SURGERY. I wonder, Am I going to be one of those people who fall now? Can I fall without hurting myself now? I Don’t Know. Eek.

  29. Amber Lena on May 1st, 2019 10:52 am

    THIS. With 45 staring me in the face, I have these same thoughts DAILY. But, I’ve come to realize that life isn’t about earning a lot of money or climbing the corporate ladder unless you want it to be. That’s not what I want for my life. What I want for my life is to remember the cardinals in the snowy tree. Or the sun on my face. Or my daughters telling me they love me every night before bed. Those things give life meaning.

  30. William Sertl on May 1st, 2019 12:37 pm

    My 40s were a time of great personal comfort and the beginning of an enviable career. My 50s solidified all of the above. My 60s threw a curve ball, but I bounced back—really well. And yet, I spent those decades always certain I was missing something. Now, at 73, I realize I’m the very person I was jealous of and tried so hard to outdo. It’s a delicious joke. The sooner you get it, the happier you’ll be. To paraphrase Dolly Parton: It takes a lot of work to live with such ease.

  31. Casey on May 1st, 2019 12:48 pm

    i’ve been a lurker for-ev-er, sorry; delurking to say YES. THIS. thank you.

  32. Sara on May 1st, 2019 2:04 pm

    My spot is my hammock in my backyard. We’re so distracted we sometimes forget to just be where we are, and notice what goes on around us and the feel of the sun on our skin. It’s delicious.
    As always, your beautiful words made me notice, made me think. Made me feel. Hugs to you, Linda.

  33. Ryan on May 1st, 2019 5:46 pm

    god DAMN, you’re good at this. For 8+ years now, your writing has brought me joy; please keep at it.

  34. Smartie on May 2nd, 2019 5:45 am

    Thank you for this – loved your blog post -such wonderful storytelling. It really spoke to me.

  35. Lori on May 2nd, 2019 8:30 am

    This is why I still read your blog. This is why I ever read any blogs. The quest for greater meaning is consuming me more as my children (close in age to yours) become more independent and capable of their own quests. I am happy that I put their foundation so front and center, but I feel like I am living with a giant hovering question “Now what?” over my head. Same same.

  36. Marty on May 2nd, 2019 8:48 am

    My 40-something daughter sent this to me… I’m so glad she did! Much of what you’ve said….okay ALL of it …. resonates with this 70-something. So well said.

  37. Alison on May 2nd, 2019 9:58 am

    Well. I love this more than I can say. It is so exactly where I am. Thank you.

  38. Alissa on May 3rd, 2019 9:22 am

    Why am I crying in my class right now? I’m new to my forties and this is me, this is me.

  39. Suzanne on May 14th, 2019 4:44 pm

    This is such beautiful, evocative writing and I feel it so deeply.

  40. Anne on May 19th, 2019 8:07 am

    Please, please please write a book. Please? I love your writing, and that I can relate to it despite having a very different life than yours.
    You are an exceptional writer. Thank you for sharing.

  41. Jessi on July 8th, 2019 11:20 pm

    Going through some soul-searching lately and then… reading this? THANK YOU.

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