There’s a small bird that’s taken up residence beneath our apartment’s open window. I became aware of its existence slowly, the way one becomes aware of the sun setting. I was sitting at my desk and heard it chirping, not even a few feet away from me. The sound didn’t register at first though. But then something like annoyance started to creep into my head, as the noise distracted me from my thoughts. I finally looked up and went to close the window, almost angrily. But then I saw it’s tiny body, a red head flowing into brown wings. It looked back for a moment, but then turned and with a chirp was gone. So I kept the window open, waiting to hear it again.
I had been thinking about death, a random and grotesque admission but I’d cooked dinner that night so it warranted contemplation. Of all the worlds’ wonders, Annie Dillard writes, quoting the Mahabharata, the most wonderful is how no mane believes that he himself will die. But I try to believe it, to embrace the wonder of my own mortality. But then I am angry to be distracted by life, even as it greets me with cheer.
Sometimes it is hard for me, as I imagine it is with most people, to feel like anything more than a traveler in this world, a lone figure with a briefcase waiting for a train to arrive and carry me to the next life. Others will come and stand by me for periods of time, my friends, family, and wife. But one by one, at separate moments, they too will depart. And if the scene flashes forward 30, 40 maybe even 70 years it will show me, standing alone, patiently awaiting my departure. And that is when I ask myself: What do I now bring? What do I have to show for my efforts?
For some time in my youth, I wanted to be a soldier. I read of wars afar, tales of heroes conquering villains and believed that the pull of a trigger would bring finality to some sort of accomplishment I might call my own. Today I sit down by my window and I put my fingers to another task of self-deception; I will never change anything. Not, at least, anything that wouldn’t have been changed without me.
An artist steps back from his painting and declares, “I have created something beautiful.” But a tree was destroyed to make his canvas, and in the springtime the forest is denied the beauty of its blossoms.
Unless the Lord builds the house, the Jewish poet stated, the builders build in vain. My finger strikes the key and I cannot listen above the clicking of my own efforts.
The highlight of my recent days has been in the early hours. I awaken before my wife and go sit on the couch in our family room, the overstuffed one we found cheap online. I posture myself against the armrest, in a position of just enough discomfort so as not to fall back asleep. Then I read my Bible for a little while but mostly I just sit. I don’t even pray. I just sit.
This is the most productive part of my day, when I rest in the presence of eternal beauty.
“I want a revolution now,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote in her prayer journal. Then she qualified: “a mild revolution.”
I want a revolution, too, sincerely and desperately with every ounce of my being. I want something for my briefcase as I pace about the train station, something beyond a pass to the next stop. I want to hear the simplicity of a bird chirping on my windowsill and know that this too shall pass into something marvelous something worthy of seeing. I want to know that wonder.
“Wherever you turn your eyes,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “the world can shine like transfiguration.”
And so I try, I turn my head from the task at hand and I announce it to the world: can you not see that I’m trying? But the answer comes in the stillness of an early morning that the revolution has happened; it took place while I was asleep. It is finished. I need not try but accept; accept the wonder with stillness and a grateful heart.
For only when wonder has worked its way on the human heart is it capable of surviving the diseases of apathy and narcissism to which it is prone.
To good news, of course, is that the train is running on schedule. And when it arrives, at just the right time, I will pick up my briefcase and board. Once there I will sit with my briefcase on my lap quietly; I hope to find a window.
For then, of all times, I am certain: there will be much to see.