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Winter Is Coming

Updated: Jun 2

This late in the spring, you are probably accustomed to the increase in bird song that warmer weather brings.  But don’t let familiarity fool you—the birds that sing around us today will be migrating a few months from now, and winter silence will descend again.


Why mention that right now, you might ask?  It seems a sad reminder, an unnecessary prod into the future, which betrays the beauty of springtime in its splendor.  Well, there is another less obvious, though perhaps more thought-provoking, reason that we don’t hear much from birds come December.


Many birds actually do overwinter here, residing in our trees and shrubs even during the icy nastiness of the most frozen, grey weather that the mid-Atlantic can offer.  When they do, science tells us, their little bird brains actually don’t know how to sing.  Due to changing sunlight and circadian rhythms, their brains’ access to their “singing centers” is limited.  Only when our planet’s slow spin brings them back again into alignment with the sun do birds re-connect with their abilities. In this happy re-acquaintance, it’s no wonder they insist on waking us up at first light with the “shrill delight” that Percy Bysshe Shelley described, back in 1820 (though, to be clear, his birds sang in the evening; read more about “To a Skylark” HERE!).


A corollary of our birds’ wild rapture, I imagine, is that in spring and summer their brains don’t actually let them consider the winter blues at all.  Memories of hardship and worries about looming pain literally do not exist.  This is not the flow-state of a gymnast whose feats require focus and practice to the point of bodily embedment.  This is the sheer transmission of beauty: our revolving cosmos, distilled into sound. 

People have such moments, too.  Crooning in the car, reading a good book, breathing in yoga class, chopping ingredients for a favorite recipe: all these moments touch into the magic of pure being, rather than the often messy process of planning-executing-reviewing that occupies most of the human experience. 


Surely, birds show us a great model of joy.  But we can’t live by it.  Unlike birds, we do remember the past and we do extrapolate into the future.  For some of us, it feels difficult or wrong to drop into bird-brained abandonment when there is so much pain in the world.  For others, we fear what happens when the party’s over, and anxiety wraps us tight as any straightjacket.  All such barriers are normal.  Unique in our self-consciousness, humans have been given a subtle challenge when it comes to joy: though we may not trust it, can we allow it anyway?


The eighth limb of yoga, ishvara pranidanha in Sanskrit, calls us to realize that we can.  It means “to surrender with joy.”  Surrender to what, you ask?  “God” is an easy insert but often carries complications.  Even surrendering to a “higher power” or the “universe” can trigger mental red-flag waving.  Perhaps the solution here is to radically re-calibrate the lens...

We might begin with surrendering to our own bodies.  Take an honest-to-goodness break next time you notice yourself feeling tired or sore, even during a busy day.  Or, conversely, come to yoga class and surrender to a challenging yoga pose.  For the more adventurous, try sitting quietly for just one (one!) minute, surrendering to whatever “is” in each given moment.  Even simple things like returning overdue library books, tipping less-than-stellar waitstaff anyway, or making a long-need apology can serve the practice of surrender.  Joy sneaks in when we let go of human ego and control, residing instead with our more creaturely selves. 

Maybe this topic isn't relevant to you. However, there is a strong tradition for seeking support in this area. Today's easy accessibility to meditation, yoga, gratitude practices and the like reflect this history, as do daily prayers like the one Jesus taught. They are meant to help us toe the line between actively living and peacefully letting go.

Find your own way to commit to any simple, repeatable, wholesome act and feel what Mary Oliver calls “your place in the family of things” (click HERE to hear her read the whole, gorgeous poem called "Wild Geese").

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1 Comment

2 days ago

Thanks for this post, Chris. Finding the balance between actively living and peacefully letting go is a lifelong endeavor. Thanks for reminding us. Krista

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