I emerged from the library the other night to tumultuous rain and lightning flashing in the sky. I’d spent the previous hours flipping through flash cards and reading systematic theology. My fiancé has always enjoyed taking drives in thunderstorms, and on this particular evening I was greatly in need of a break, so we set off. As we were driving down a backcountry road the rain bounded into the windshield with a steady tap-top-tap-top but we were otherwise reflectively silent.
I like to tell myself that my academic efforts are in pursuit of acquiring valuable knowledge; others encourage me that its all for the building of the kingdom. But some days I have trouble seeing past the implications that all this work is for a fancy piece of paper and a few letters after my name to help inflate my ego. Sometimes its difficult to believe that years aren’t passing me by while I’m studying the driver’s manual, that all my efforts are just the pulling of a string with life’s most grand practical joke waiting at the end.
The snowy owl is a bird whose name alludes to its description. Like most owls, it is carries a solemn expression and has an elusive nature. The owl is covered in white feathers, even on its feet, to protect it from the cold. They are a prized glimpse for any birdwatcher because snowy owls rarely exist in any environment but arctic tundra. When winters are particularly harsh, however, the owls are known to sweep down from Canada into northern states.
I know all this because later that night, after dropping of my fiancé at her apartment and returning to my own, I deviated from the stack of commentaries and to-dos and researched known owl species in my state. While my research showed that snowy owls have been spotted in my state, nowhere could I find an account of them appearing outside the dead of winter. Furthermore, the barn owl, though also a rare sighting, is much more likely in my area. As time goes on, my conviction of having seen a snowy owl fades into the shadow of logic which says my memory must deceive me: what I saw was actually just a barn owl.
But earlier that night, as the car rounded a bend, a luminescent object on the side of the road startled me. I swerved the car to the left and slammed on the brakes. A few feet in front of the bumper was a bright-eyed creature, shining in the headlights and staring right towards us. After a moment of consideration, it turned its gaze from us, spread its wings and drifted into the woods. As it did so I caught a glimpse of its body: almost completely white except for sporadic black markings across its back and wings, by definition: a snowy owl.
With nearly a quarter of a century under my belt I find myself passing hours upon hours acquiring wonderful knowledge that I’m sure serves some purpose, though often times I lose the forest for the trees. I begin to fear that the only thing I’m seeing the world drifting away in front of my rain splattered window.
But then I see a statistically improbable scene disappearing into the woods and I’m moved to the core of all that I know. Barbara Kingsolver refers to this feeling as being shaken down to the bone by the possibility of lives that are not our own. Every now and then my life needs to be interrupted by the bright-eyed possibility of something meticulous and strange happening around me. From time to time, my thoughts need to swerve to the side of the road, come to a halting stop and be forced to admire the reality of the cosmos in which I operate.
I need to count my life, not in years, but in the moments when my musings and the world’s small wonders intersect in a brilliant dance before me. I need to count my life by the light of two bright eyes staring into me from the side of the road, by the sight of something wonderfully out of place disappearing into the darkness and logic of factual conclusions. If I’ve learned anything thus far, it’s that the only way to count my life is by moments like these: moments when I turn the car back to the right side of the road and continue driving. Moments when she takes my hand as if to say that the mysterious and wonderful aren’t all that elusive after all. When I count it that way, I no longer fear that life is flying by me. In fact, I begin to enjoy the elusive wonder of its nature, lifting and disappearing into the darkness of the trees.