Cardinals and Starlings and Remembering When

This morning our Princess was the one who took Miss Sophie out for her morning constitutional.  I heard the door open and close, and then immediately open again.

“Mama! Mama!  You have to come here!” she said urgently.

I really don’t like it when they do that.  It could be anything from a flower growing in a flowerpot (yay!) to a bleeding injury (boo!), and since I have no idea, Anxiety Girl always leaps in to jump to conclusions, and my stomach turns inside out.

“What is it?” I called out, making my way to the front door with a sense or purpose.

“There’s something dead in the front yard.”  She stopped.  “Yes ma’am, it’s something dead.”

We live at the edge of a wooded area.  That something dead could have been ANYTHING from raccoon to fox to cat to dog to mouse to mole to chipmunk to frog to snake to worm.  Considering the source, any one of those would have caused her to raise her voice as she did.

“What is it?” I asked, peering out into the yard.

“I don’t know.”

I walked outside, and there it lay on the grass.  Definitely dead.

Oh no.

A cardinal.

Cardinals are my favorite birds.  I can remember one flying across the bottom on my way to work many years ago, every single morning.  I felt like it was a good omen for my day, and I made up in my head that it was good luck to see a cardinal.  When Daddy was diagnosed with the Giant four years ago, I would see one at Blackberry Flats from time to time.  One day when things were particularly hard and discouraging, I went in and sat with Daddy, next to his hospital bed in the living room.  He was gazing out his window, the same one his recliner used to sit next to.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.  “Daddy!  It’s a cardinal.  That’s good luck.  It’s a good sign.”  He gave a half-smile.  And watched.

I gave Mama a cardinal Christmas ornament that year, and she kept it hanging from her lamp year round.

We love those beautiful birds.

And now. Today.  Poor thing.  My heart broke.

Of all weeks.  In the midst of emotions and memories and trying to wrap my brain around the idea that it has been almost two years since I last heard my Daddy’s voice and held his hand and looked in those eyes.  A precious, beautiful cardinal.  Dead.

Sadness.  Just this.  That sweet little bird, once so alive and flying high above it all–now, just gone.  No more.

It left me with a heavy heart.  I wanted to sit and cry and let this bird’s life not to have been for naught.

But as always happens, perhaps for the better, life intervened.  My zoo crew and my zoo all needed feeding and tending to.  I turned away, and wiped away the tears I was crying on the inside.  Time for that would come later.


Tonight as I thought about the cardinal and how he spoke to my grief, laying there lifeless and still beautiful, I found this quote from a poem.  Yes, another Mary Oliver poem.  She speaks to me lately, and I give thanks for her.  I too long for these things she describes.

I remember sitting on the couch in the living room of the little house on my Granny’s farm on a cold Sunday afternoon in winter, listening to my Daddy and Granny talk about the birds that had been around.  When I feel small and lonely and miss those that have gone before I go back in time to that couch, listening, feeling small and safe and warm as the little heater worked to warm the room and the whole house.  And as they talked I gazed out the big plate-glass window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the birds they were speaking of.  I wanted to be able to talk about them too.  To belong. And be with.  The same things I want now. 

“Look, Daddy!  A cardinal.  That’s good luck.  Things are going to get better.”

Starlings in Winter

by Mary Oliver

Chunky and noisy,

but with stars in their black feathers,

they spring from the telephone wire

and instantly

they are acrobats

in the freezing wind.

And now, in the theater of air,

they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;

they float like one stippled star

that opens,

becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;

and you watch

and you try

but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it

with no articulated instruction, no pause,

only the silent confirmation

that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts,

that can rise and spin over and over again,

full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

even in the leafless winter,

even in the ashy city.

I am thinking now

of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots

trying to leave the ground,

I feel my heart

pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.

I want to be light and frolicsome.

I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,

as though I had wings.


“Starlings in Winter” by Mary Oliver, from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays. Beacon Press, 2003.

The Greatness in the Small Things

Today a realization hit me, and I knew an apology was in order.

Days like this when my shortcomings walk up, introduce themselves, and demand my attention–they can be hard.  I don’t like looking in that mirror.  I might just consider taking seven years of bad luck if breaking it were possible.

A couple of days ago I was working on a project, and in the middle of it, it just felt so right.  I was mentally high-fiving myself at how well it was going, and when I walked away after I was finished I think I actually fist pumped.

Yeah.  It went that well.  I had not expected that at all.

Almost immediately after I left and was headed to my next stop, my mind started jumping ahead.  This.  This is what I was meant to do.  The way I felt in the middle of the project was a sign that this was my thing.  I began to envision doing this same type project only on a larger scale, more folks, more input, and so on.

Ummm, hold up.

Today it hit me.   Perhaps the reason it went so well and the reason it felt so right was that it was right.  Just like it was.  On that scale, in that moment.  Perhaps that is what I was called to do.  Not the same thing, just bigger and better.  But that thing just as I did it then.

Oh my.  That hurt.

Mama and Daddy encouraged us to dream.  They both told us numerous times over the years we could be and do anything we set our minds to.  They believed in each one of us.  I never doubted what I was able to do because they were there–that was it, they were there as I made choices and tried new things.  I could always come back to them and process what I had experienced.  And I could listen to their wisdom and make further plans from that.  Continue to dream, continue to figure out what my life’s vocation is, how my passions and talents and resources could help meet the world’s needs, as Frederick Buechner would say.

Only somewhere along the way I am afraid I fell into the Tim the Toolman Taylor mindset of “more power, more power” and “bigger is better.”  Remember the show “Home Improvement” starring Tim Allen?  If you could do it with a little saw, a bigger one was always better.  If you could build a small storage building, why not a huge one with all the amenities of home?  Yeah, that’s the guy.  It usually got him into trouble, that mindset did.  *duly noted*

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big.  I have heard my Mama say, “Don’t underestimate the great things you can do.”

But I forgot about the other message, the one that Mama and Daddy shouted quietly with their actions:


They lived that.  The things they did to help others, to encourage, to empower, to share, to help along–they did them quietly and faithfully and sometimes, without anyone else knowing.  So it was something they lived by, doing great things in everything they did; it didn’t have to be on a grand scale, and it definitely wasn’t to impress.  It was from their hearts.  That’s what made it great.  But like so many of the best things in life, it was so quiet and beautiful, you could miss it if you weren’t looking for it.

Greatness in the small things I do.  I don’t have to be doing the things that I’m doing in a grandiose way to make them worthwhile.  Perhaps that is what I was supposed to learn two days ago.

Not that this is what I should be doing one day. 

But instead that this is what I should be doing today. 

And let that be more than good enough.  Let that be great.

Daddy used to say, “When you compare, you lose.”  Oh how many times I have repeated that to myself or to my oldest!  It comes up whenever we start looking through the lens of comparing ourselves to another–how they live, what they do, what they have… and you lose, because that’s not what we are here for.  But you know what I found out today?  When you compare where you are right now to where you dream of being one day, you lose too.  By comparing what I have right now to where I want to be one day, I am robbing today of its joy and its value.

My Mama taught me that stealing is wrong.  I don’t want to rob anyone, not even myself.  None of us can get today and this moment and this, this greatness we are in the midst of sharing, even if it’s in a small way–no one can get this back again.  Why make it meaningless by thinking it’s not enough?

Oh, there’s that word again.

Okay, so that apology.  I called and shared how excited I was with my Aunt after I was done.  She listened as she always does, to my dreaming and planning and thinking out loud of where I was headed with this.  I think I will call her Aunt SoFullofGrace, because she never said a word that wasn’t encouraging.  She let me figure this out on my own.  But I do apologize to her, because I was wrong.  And I was raised better.  I  apologize to my parents too, because they all taught me better–

It’s not so much what you do as it is how you do it.

I owe one more apology.  To life and the universe.  I didn’t let the light and the good that came from those moments the other day shine.  I took away from that by not letting it be enough.  I gave it my best and it was high-fiving, fist pumping good, but I didn’t let that be.  I didn’t let the greatness that was be enough.  And for that I am sorry.

I came across this today.  Those of you who have visited lately might notice that I have been on a bit of a Mary Oliver kick lately.  When I find a writer I enjoy, I tend to read as much as I can by them; it’s what our people do.  And so today, I found this gem.  It is from Part 1 of her poem, River Clarion.

I don’t know who God is exactly.

But I’ll tell you this.

I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking….

And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.

Said the river I am part of holiness.

And I too, said the stone.

And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.

I’d been to the river before, a few times.

Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.

You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.

You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.

And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.

–Mary Oliver, River Clarion, Part 1

As the days grow shorter and the light grows dim, I want to be a part of what is sacred and light-bearing in the world.  I want to be a part of the holiness with the river and the stones and the moss beneath the water.  It’s been too long, my head filled with the busyness of being in the traffic, contributing to the traffic, and yes, filled with ambition.  It is time to sit and listen to the holiness around me and unstuff my ears.  And let this moment and all the greatness in the small things be enough.

Catching A Second Wind

The summer of 1968 when my Mama and Daddy were preparing for my arrival and their new roles as parents, a man from Tanzania, John Stephen Akhwari, represented his country in the summer Olympics marathon taking place in Mexico City.  He had never practiced at such altitudes, and during the race, he cramped.  Just before the halfway point, when the runners were moving around each other, he was hit.  John Stephen fell, injuring his knee and dislocating the joint.  He also hurt his shoulder when he hit the pavement.  Out of 75 runners who began the race, 57 finished. When the crowd had dwindled and the sun had set, a television crew was sent out when they heard that one more racer was about to finish.  John Stephen Akhwari was number 57, finishing an hour after the gold medalist.

I had never heard this story before yesterday.  The pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, my Mama’s church, shared the story during the All Saint’s Day service.  The story in itself is inspirational.  That this runner could finish in all of that pain–the drive, the intensity, pushing through the pain.  Yeah.  That’s something I could sit and meditate on for a while.  Without even hearing the rest of the story.

Oh, but the rest of the story!

The video played on the screens at the front of the church where the words to the hymns had just been shown.  When John Stephen stepped into the stadium and the cheers of the sparse crowd went up, I had goose bumps.  His pace seemed to pick up as he got closer to the finish line, and the crowd cheered him on.  I can only imagine the pain he was in or the thoughts he was having.  What was driving him?

After his inspirational finish, an interviewer asked him why he kept running, and he replied:


Wow.  To finish the race.  Just starting it is not enough.  Follow through.  Push past the pain, past the changes that make it hard to breathe, work through the exhaustion.  Because we aren’t here just to start, we are here to live until the finish.  Don’t give up.  No matter how hard I, or we, want to.

I can see my Mama nodding now.

For almost fifteen months after Daddy died, when I struggled with anger and depression and anxiety, Mama was breathing.  She was pressing on through the pain and exhaustion.  And the whole time she was running her own race, she was cheering the rest of us on.  Encouraging me, all of us, to let go of the hurt and bitterness and live.  And Love.

Which she did.

After the video screen went dark, John Stephen’s words seem to echo through the sanctuary.  It was then that Pastor Lyons spoke to the heart of the story.  Not only did John Stephen push through all that would try to hold him back, he knew that he wasn’t in it just for himself.  He knew why he was running and whom he was running for.  He knew it wasn’t just about him.

So did my Mama.  Sometimes I forget that, but she never did.

She ran her race. She might have been slowed down by what was on the path, but she never stopped and she never gave up.  And when the time came, borrowing from an image that Mama’s dear friend and Associate Pastor Hugh shared yesterday, she ran on ahead, finished the race, and headed on up to The House.  Yes.  That made me smile.

I’ve seen my Mama run a few times in my life.  When my sister ran because she didn’t want her allergy shots.  When I ran from her when I knew I was in trouble.  (I paid for that one–you can’t outrun trouble. Unh-uh.)  And when that snake jumped out of the tree right at her.

But when I think of the image of her running on up ahead on the road, free of everything that had once slowed her down, finishing the race–well, that makes this girl want to stand up and clap sure enough.  And give a good and loud hoot and holler.  Good job, Mama.  Way.  To.  Go.

And now I need to work on getting myself back in the race.  To remember why and for whom I am continuing on this path.  Mama hasn’t been the only one talking to me lately and cheering me on.  The poet Mary Oliver has as well.  No wonder, as she has been compared to Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet.

Just the other day I came across this and I was reminded of it tonight:


Well, yes ma’am I was.  But I’ll stop it.  Right now.  I’m working on getting that second wind and I’m starting to remember who was beside me as I started this race.  They might have run on up ahead to The House, but they wouldn’t be happy if I stopped now just because I can’t see them on the path anymore.  No ma’am, I’m going to get my act together and get back in there…..I will, I promise.  Just let me catch my breath, and I’ll be on my way.


Much of the information about John Stepehn Akhwari was found at

See his inspirational finish here: