Containing the Sorrow of the World
March 13, 2006
Jacqueline Wish Gilbert
This morning I awakened and thought of the hummingbird nest. Yesterday we did not see the mama bird all day. She built a nest right outside our living room window four weeks ago. Through unseasonable weeks of rain and cold, she sat diligently, like a stone statue, carved, immoveable, on her eggs. We marveled at the single-minded nature of the natural world. I worried about her, as she’d race between slashing raindrops to feed herself and then quickly, back to the nest. For me to witness this miracle of nature, to be so close to it, so that I might actually reach out of the window and touch her, took my breath away. Each day the nest became my altar. I would sit on the couch quietly and each time, had to look again and again to find the camouflaged nest. I hesitated to share this view with friends and neighbors. It was a sacred place, to be respected, to remain untouched, undisturbed by prying eyes. Yet each person who did see it shared the awe, the amazement, in hushed tones. We stood on the steps of the altar, and could only clasp our hands together, in prayer.
The day before had been a beautiful warm, sunny day. The clouds had parted and the rain stopped. I noticed this time that the hummingbird sat on the edge of her lichen-covered nest, lined with downy feathers from her own body, feeding two tiny yellow beaks that stuck-up out of the nest, like dried curled leaves. The eggs had hatched. All day she flew back and forth feeding on Abutalon blossoms, sweet tree sap and bringing it to the babies. The babies were there, alive and poking up to the sky, clamoring for food. I bounded around the house dancing and singing. My pet cockatiel, Pimento rode on my shoulder, bobbing his head along with me.
Today I looked out. The mother bird was not there. The nest looked wet from the night’s cold rain. She did not reappear. It was clear that the babies could not survive uncovered at night. Something must have happened to her, my husband helpfully suggested. Did she abandon her nest? was my question. I noted how we each brought our own mothering trauma to the moment. It didn’t make sense that she would abandon her nest. She had been so ardent sitting on the eggs. Now that they were hatched, her diligence and vigilance would be more so. I went outside and looked on the ground for some sign that she had been hurt or died. I knew it would be difficult to see anything, as she would blend with the weeds, brown grass and earth. I didn’t find her.
When I returned to the house, I sat on the couch and wept. I couldn’t stopped the tears from pouring down my face. They kept coming and coming. I felt the shuddering of my chest, the releasing, the giving over to the sorrow. This sadness is so big I thought. My mind moved to other things. To my mother, age 83, declining slowly, cognoscent of each loss she has, each day. Then my aunt, 94, withering away in pain and immobility. I thought of the melting polar ice caps, of starving polar bears and walruses, washed out to sea, and unable to dive deeply for food. I thought of the people starving in Darfur, of the deaths in Iraq, of the survivors of Katrina. My soul began to collapse under the weight of so much suffering and so few answers.
I realized in that moment that the hummingbird nest had led me away from the hurried life. The life where there was no time to stop, to hold the sorrow of the world. Would I rather bury myself in the busyness of life, in the no time for this and that? No time to breathe, no time to smile at a stranger, no time to reach for a coin and put it in an outstretched hand, no time to chat with a neighbor as I get into my car and drive away. Rushing, moving, urging, forcing, trying, longing, pent up, wrapped tight, stifled. Reading the news, listening to the news, looking at photos of death around the world on the small computer in the bedroom. Then wrapping myself in soft blankets and thinking I am falling peacefully asleep. When does that coiled snake strike in my belly? When does she stretch her neck and bite into my heart?
The hummingbird nest stopped me. It measured time out in hours of sitting on eggs, through rain and cold, through the tiny hatching of new beings, through their deaths.
My heart cracked open like an egg shell. Out poured release, out poured the heart, finally spilling open, finally saying yes to the tears that could no longer be contained. Saying yes to the suffering, the small loss here outside the window, and for the greater losses, so large as to be impossible to hold in one heart.