I thought the birds were my unique guilty pleasure.
Then, about a month ago, we had new friends over for dinner at our place in Lotus. I know they participate in more overtly spiritual activities than I do — at church and elsewhere — but I was surprised, nevertheless, when Marsha said, “I just sit there. Out of doors, listening to the wind and watching the birds. It lifts my spirits. I do it a lot.”
I have trouble sitting still like that because I feel I should be accomplishing something.
If I read in the middle of the day, for example, I feel naughty. Enlightening my own mind, if the book is serious, and entertaining my own mind, if the book is light, do not feel like legitimate uses of my time. I should be maintaining our home, helping other people, or working on my column.
But, like Marsha, I have a thing for the birds. I’ve hung four feeders in front of our cabin window and there I sit, watching the hummingbirds spar at each other, the goldfinches devour their expensive Nyjer seed and the bark-climbing nuthatches forage for dropped kernels.
When I glance at the clock, I realize I’ve been sitting for 20 minutes, accomplishing nothing, not even expanding my mind.
“Meditation,” some might call it. “Living in the present moment,” Marsha would say.
My counselor years ago used the same words as Marsha when she talked about how to reduce suffering. You get through emotional pain, she said, by making it smaller, by thinking of one moment at a time, not thinking about the ones that preceded it nor the ones that might follow.
You live in a series of short, distinct intervals, like boxcars on a slow-moving freight train, not in a rush of sensation, like on a bullet train. In trying to follow her suggestion, I realized I had already found one way to do that.
I kayak for many reasons, mostly passion for the sport, but occasionally I hit the river because the land hurts too much.
On a challenging river, you have no choice but to pay attention to the present moment, if you intend to survive. You use that moment to look for the next rock and the one after that, or the next lateral wave that might toss you or the one after that. Soon you’ve lived a whole day without worrying about whatever it was you worried about before you got in your boat.
Maybe watching the birds is the same thing, with less risk, because I can look away from the birds, start doing a task, leave them entirely, and I’ll still be OK and they’ll still be OK. However, if I leave, I also leave my moment of peace.
I went back to Marsha and asked if she really can take long periods of time to contemplate nature and not feeling guilty about it. She told me it sounds selfish but isn’t. When she returns to her day peaceful and centered, everyone she interacts with shares the benefit.
“Try it,” she said. “Go up to your cabin. Sit and do nothing, alone.”
I was worried about the “nothing” part so I brought my guitar with me when I walked down to the river to be alone.
It was sunny and the rain was so recent that everything was celery green. I played standing up, as the river thundered by at 5,000 cubic feet per second, happily covering wrong notes.
I started with the few songs I have memorized, and when I ran out, I simply strummed chords that please me. I’d think about which one to play next and then I would play it and then I would think about the one after that.
A merganser duck, a brownish female, emerged from behind some upstream brush and paddled to a rock about 10 yards from me in an eddy. She climbed onto the rock and sat down.
Ten minutes passed. I wondered where her mate was because every duck has a mate right now. In fact, as I travel the river in my kayak, I see a pair of geese or ducks on every beach and I anticipate a population explosion a few weeks from now.
After a while, a male merganser appeared — bright, white and robust-looking, with a shock of green on his head — and behind him, a second brownish female paddling demurely into the eddy. As I continued to strum chords, the two of them dipped their heads into the water. Then they hopped onto the same rock as my music-loving merganser and sat on the other end.
If the second female ruffled my merganser’s feathers, it was subtle — a slight turn of the head, a slight rearranging of the feet — and it was over quickly.
She stayed on the rock, living in the moment.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears Sundays.