January has come and gone, and it looks as if February will do the same, rushing by without a thought for the lists of things I planned to tackle in 2019. Time is heartless that way. I make a month’s lesson plans and bask in the glory for three heartbeats before another month comes along and asks for more. It’s the same in every part of my life. Am I losing my mind? Running out of steam? Or does each new year arrive with a longer list of demands and a fraction of the days in which to accomplish them?
I remember my mother telling me that time moves more quickly as you get older. I squinted at her, skeptical. In the summers, out in the orange groves, the hours between breakfast and lunch might as well have been infinite. Oh, the games I could play, the trees I could climb, between those two meals! Now my children comment on the rush of time, as though there is never enough time in a day, as though their lives are slipping away from them. They’re ten and seven. I have to wonder, then, if a twenty-four hour day is all it used to be. Do we spin through the warmth of the sun’s light into the cool quiet of space more quickly than our ancestors?
Of course, I feel foolish remarking on the nature of time. It’s all I’ve ever known, this linear life, but I’m continually perplexed and frustrated by it, like a fish in the sea endlessly exclaiming over the wetness of water. Why not accept it for what it is and move on? I see my tendency to cast myself as the victim and time as the tyrannical bully who waits for no man. Sometimes I blame technology. I fantasize about a remote woodland cottage with no electricity, where my days take on a bright extravagance. Where I scoop up handfuls of time and toss them in the air, wasting them on deep, slow breaths and meals in which I savor every bite.
At other times I blame culture, and there is an unspoken pressure to account for our use of time. Time is a rare and precious commodity, after all. No one seems to have any. People are always asking what I’ve been up to, expecting me to rattle off a list of worthy pursuits. At the least, they’re looking for a snappy anecdote. But I can never think of an intelligent or amusing response to this question. Time and again, I blink at the questioner while doing a frantic mental inventory. “Ummmmm.” Nothing comes to mind. It’s not that I’ve been resting or filling my days with leisure, but more that in the race against time (the enemy) my activities don’t seem worth noting.
Birdwatching, for instance. My children and I spent the month of January staring out of our dining room window, watching birds come to the feeder, flipping through a field guide, and sketching. We saw a white-throated sparrow, a pileated woodpecker, a house finch, a brown creeper. Soon, we’ll channel our amateur interest into The Great Backyard Bird Count, a yearly survey (conducted by Cornell’s Ornithology Lab) in which participants list the birds they’ve seen in a specific area during a span of fifteen minutes on four consecutive days. People from all over the globe will take part. We’ll join birders in Iceland and equatorial Africa and New Zealand as they step up to a window or walk outside and wait. We’ll watch the skies, the trees, the feeders, searching for nearly weightless bundles of feathers and hollow bones. Over the course of four days, hundreds of thousands of us will devote an hour to birds.
Friends and colleagues will ask what we’ve been doing, how our mornings have gone, and what will we say? How will we account for such squandering of time? With so much global energy focused in a single direction, wouldn’t we be better served by marching? Imagine the power of a political rally with half a million attendees. Or maybe we should be praying. What if birders around the globe fell to their knees and entreated God to speed the coming of his kingdom?
The Jews of Jesus’ day must have felt a great urgency, an overwhelming desire for change. I don’t know how it feels to live under the control of a conquering empire, but I do know that the strain of an ordinary life is quite enough without the added weight of subjugation. How hard did they work to pay the taxes that fed the army that oppressed them?
“Should we march?” some of them wondered. “Should we fight back?” The zealots chaffed under Rome’s rule. They believed they had waited long enough, that the time had come to meet violence with violence.
“Should we search the Torah?” others asked. “Should we find new ways to please God?” Four centuries had passed since the prophets had received a word from the Lord. How long would God wait to deliver his people?
They carried their loaves and fishes and stood in the heat of the desert sun to hear a man speak about the Kingdom of God, hoping, perhaps, that this kingdom would sweep into their villages like an army and free them from the tyranny of Rome. They were eager for answers. The years were too long, the days too short. Political power was at the forefront of their thoughts, but many of their deeper questions were questions about time.
In reply, Jesus asked them to consider the birds. While soldiers swarmed over the face of their homeland, he talked about birds. Ravens and sparrows. As though any of that mattered in a world gone mad. As though any of that mattered when time was running out.
I wonder if anyone took his words to heart, if they stopped to listen to a sparrow’s song. Are we listening now? Have you ever noticed, when the cardinal cocks his head, the jaunty angle of his red crest? Have you ever longed to touch the creamy smoothness of the dark-eyed junco’s feathers or giggled at the white-breasted nuthatch as it moves over every surface upside-down? “The beauty of the imagination is that it can discover such magnificence inside a tiny space,” says John O’Donohue. A dining room window will serve, or the lenses on a set of binoculars. Or a moment. How much magnificence can be crammed inside so small a space of time?
In considering the birds, we’re reminded that frantic activity neither meets our needs nor excludes us from care. We are fed and clothed by a God who refuses to out-pace our frenzied schedules or out-shout our noisy world. He stands fixed, unruffled by time, tossing it in his hand like a golden ball and laughing.
Yesterday in the early morning, as I answered emails in a quiet room, I noticed a distinctive song outside the window. I smiled, because I’d learned to identify that call among the other sounds in the backyard. Next time someone asks what I’ve been up to lately, maybe I will tell him this: “I heard a wren sing.”
Photo courtesy of Donna L. Murray.