I am fond of things with feathers. So fond of them that I feed them, listen to them, watch them. And happily, I am not alone in this endeavor.
Here's a poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Poem 254. (Her poems are numbered instead of titled. That’s why they are sometimes referred to by the first line.)
"Hope” is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tune without the words — And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard — And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land — And on the strangest Sea — Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb — of Me.
Not “a birder,” so I would not drive 300 miles to see a rare bird. However, I do enjoy the birds in my yard, and I give them complete permission to pull me out of any deep quagmire.
I notice the passage of seasons. Even as a child, I loved the changing of leaves in autumn, the flowers budding in the spring. I am highly aware of migrations of geese. What a breathtaking feat. They look like they are wandering, but they are not lost. Have you ever wondered why children turn in circles, run when there’s no reason to run? Natural wonders.
We have a pair of binoculars and a field guide in our living area. I enjoy learning names of feathered things. I love watching eagles and buzzards maneuver air currents. I am fascinated by robins checking out the dirt. And it thrills me to have an indigo bunting visit our feeder.
My conclusion: birds are probably good for my mental health.
As a casual bird watcher, I so like that Emily Dickinson compares hope to a bird. According to her, you can carry a wordless tune, a ray of hope, inside of you to keep you warm when life is hard. That’s hope. In fact, she tells us that the song or feeling inside us can sound its sweetest in the darkest times. I think some of my readers know a great deal about this.
We’ve been living in a pandemic time. Daily life has meant wearing masks, distancing, not seeing people we long to see, living in careful ways. And yet, birds have continued to awaken us with their songs, gather in flocks. I am grateful.
When feeling overwhelmed, it’d be quite helpful if I paid closer attention to the little tune in my heart. That little tune could be “Jesus loves me, this I know….,” a little song I learned long ago in a little church, or it could be a few words of uplifting Scripture I say to myself over and over like a mantra.
Sparrows, cardinals, woodpeckers help get me through difficult times. God, the Word, and birds.
I once knew someone who carried a photograph of a bird in whichever book she was reading. She used it as a bookmark. Said it made her feel good.
That’s the hope that Emily Dickinson writes about. That’s what I experience daily as I watch birds come and go from feeders. That’s what I’m knowing when I sing a little song or feel a warm thought. It’s hope.
Hope is intangible. You can’t touch it or see it, but it’s there for us. Emily Dickinson made it something you and I can see, hear, watch, touch. She showed us hope as a bird.
It is believed that Emily Dickinson, the mother of contemporary Free Verse Poetry, experienced despair in the early 1860s. Her poem, “'Hope' is the thing with feathers—', came from that period of her life.
I especially like the last two lines, which remind us: Hope does not ask for anything. It gives. Like the birds.
If I am drowning in sadness, maybe I can let a bird, a flower, sunshine, a piece of wonder into my heart. Then, it might buoy me up.
Watch for a feathered thing. It makes some days easier and more enjoyable.
P.S. LETTING GO When Holding On Is Not Helpful, a new book coming out shortly, is my new chapbook of poems. It’s about letting go physically, emotionally, mentally. There are times to let go, and there are times to hold on. The difficulty may come in learning how to take care of ourselves as we make those changes or resolve to keep things the same (if that’s possible). Forgiving ourselves may the hardest part. When we can forgive others and self, then I’m convinced we may be more highly able to enjoy such delights as feathered things.
A cardinal at a bird feeder that hangs in a dogwood tree. Photo taken by Pat Durmon, April 2021.
Poetry Books by Pat Durmon