For Shirley Stark
All winter you felt nothing. As your body
continued its necessary tasks, your brother,
the snow, remained keeper of your heart.
Now it’s the first warm day of spring.
You walk out to the pasture. There’s much mud,
and still snow on the north side by the pines.
You take this poem from your pocket.
Raising your voice, you read it aloud to the sky.
Soon birds begin to come; first the dark ones:
birds of anger, birds of despair. Then you see
the wren of friendship and the gray dove of hope;
then others of patience, joy and love’s own red bird.
As you read, they begin to fill the air above you,
twisting and diving in great circles around you;
covering the poem with the sound of their cries
until poem and song become the same sound
blending together under the warm March sun.
At last you emerge from the apathy of winter.
Your heart is a great tree beginning to bud.
In narrowing spirals, careful descent, the birds
You have summoned arrive to make their nests.
With winter drawing to a close, our hearts are great trees, beginning to bud. We have planted the seeds the burst forth in spring. We have born down all winter long. We have read our books and nourished ourselves with stews. Some of us suffered with anxiety or depression, our hearts locked away in the snow.
Spring is a time of transition when balancing action with rest feels tricky. How do we juggle wanting change with appreciation for what is? How do we balance control with letting go; acceptance with commitment to our values?
I love this poem because it is about the link between allowing difficult emotion and actively inviting in joy. The actor summons the birds and goodness, but he doesn’t ignore winter or the birds of despair. He surrenders to the flow of life, nature, the seasons, and the waves of our emotions (after all, he cannot control what birds appear). But the actor also creates change by walking outside, raising his voice, and reading this poem loudly to the sky. He utters the song that makes the birds come, and he announces his willingness to feel after a winter of apathy.
We see dichotomy so clearly in spring. Though Colorado teases us with warm, 70 degree days that draw us into the mountains and onto outdoor patios, we’re still getting hit with bitter days. Our country is in turmoil; there’s still mud on the ground.
But we also see the first flowers of spring. Some of my favorite artists, musicians and writers are making masterpieces. Neuroscientists are learning more than ever about the human brain. We have access to more information and ways to communicate than any other people in history.
How do we navigate the paradox of loving what is and inviting the birds in to our own lives, and into the larger world? There is a connection between accepting and letting darkness in and taking action. The snow is, after all, your brother. And the first birds that come are first anger and despair.
- We plant the seeds. We find the things that give us joy and meaning, and we move towards them. This might mean that we reach out to the people who interest us, or who seem to have the kinds of lives we admire. It might mean that we contribute time or money to causes that mean something to us. We do little things, but don’t get overwhelmed when our desires don’t all come to fruition at once. We let our seeds be nourished by the nutrients in the ground and water after we have planted them. We do what we can, and then we surrender.
- We don’t run from darkness. When we’re sad, anxious, angry, we comfort the part of ourselves that is hurting. Dobyns alludes to the constant changing of our emotions. Winter morphs into spring just as despair morphs into the red bird of love. What we feel now will change, just as everything in life changes. We become stronger as we face and deal with darkness—we become better acquainted with ourselves and with all of human suffering. To be able to experience grief means that we have loved, and it is a gift. Not feeling by cutting ourselves off from the range of experiences we have at our fingertips is the tragedy.
- We nurture ourselves with friendship and helpful thoughts. We find people who understand us and we create our own families. But we also allow our alone time to nurture us by making friends with ourselves. We find the things that we love—the things that make us feel like ourselves, that are just for us, and we make time to do them. Maybe we love to read or hike. Maybe we love to paint, watch old movies, write poetry, or paint. Maybe we clean or take baths. We rethink our relationship with being alone and we become our own best friends. When we actively show ourselves that we’re lovable, we challenge core beliefs that we’re flawed. And we also make room for other people to love us.
- We invite in joy and notice the joy and beauty that is here. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we had hoped. We have control over our actions and over what seeds we plant, but often the plants that burst forth are even more beautiful than the ones we had envisioned. We are all navigating a landscape filled pain and beauty; effort and ease; control and complete surrender. The only ‘formula’ for being in this wild, open world is to recognize our small but vital role, and to enjoy playing it with all of our hearts. The birds will nest all on their own.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.