6 Ways Feeding the Birds Feeds Our Soul

My husband taught me the joy of feeding the birds. Initially it was his interest, and I stood back wondering if it was worth the effort. It wasn’t long before I was convinced the time and money we spent caring for our feathered friends was returned many times over by birds who bring us year-round entertainment and a peaceful connection to nature.  

Whether you live in the city or the country, maintain an elaborate system of bird feeders or just sprinkle bread crumbs on your window sill, feeding the birds can feed your soul in some unexpected ways.

1. Kindness – When we do something nice, no matter how simple, it increases the goodness in the world. A single act of kindness can have a long-reaching ripple effect, sending good vibes throughout the planet. Watching the birds gleefully flock to their freshly filled feeders and bird bath, makes us want to keep spreading good cheer.

2. Connection – Over the years, I’ve watched the birds from kitchen windows and backyard porches with family and friends of all ages. Watching the birds creates a sweet and common bond over the wonder of our shared world.

3. Learning –  When we watch the birds, we naturally want to know more about them. Is that a bluebird or an Indigo bunting? Do orioles prefer oranges or meal worms? Did you know a woodpecker’s tongue is so long it wraps around the inside of its head? There is so much to learn! 

4. Beauty – In our flashy bigger-is-better world, we can miss the subtle, natural beauty of things. When we take time to notice a bird’s intricate coloring, delicate shape, and  sweet song, we begin to appreciate the genuine beauty in the world we sometimes take for granted.

5. Simplicity – A few seeds and a little fresh water is all a bird needs. It makes us stop and think about what we really need to live a healthy, happy life. Watching the birds mindfully eat, chirp, nest, and fly can encourage us to strip away the pretenses and live a simple, authentic life.

6. Charity – Remember the bird lady Mary Poppins sang about? “Come feed the little birds. Show them you care and you’ll be glad if you do. The young ones are hungry; their nests are so bare. All it takes is tuppence from you. Feed the birds. Tuppence a bag.” We all benefit when we share our blessings, not just count them. §

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A Squirrel’s Guide to Happiness

A squirrel crossed the road slowly due to the heavy load it was carrying. In its gaping mouth was a hickory nut the size of a billiard ball. He stood on his hind legs and bounced his head back to get a better grip on his work. He labored forward again in a precarious balancing act just as a garbage truck came flying around the corner. Making a quick decision, the squirrel dropped the nut and scurried to the other side of the road.

As the truck zoomed by, the nut blew down the street. Running towards it, the squirrel uttered a two-syllable squawk that sounded like a martial artist’s battle cry, “Kiai!” He pounced on the rolling nut, tucked it awkwardly into his little mouth, lumbered across the road and made his way through thick underbrush.

At last, he heaved the giant hickory nut inside a hollowed out tree. The squirrel let out a satisfying sigh, raised his furry paw in a rewarding fist pump and appreciated his cache of nuts. He spent the rest of the morning frolicking in the leaves, swinging from bird feeders, leaping from limb to limb and generally enjoying life.

Watching that tenacious squirrel got me thinking. What would happen if the same squirrel decided collecting nuts was too difficult, boring or unimportant? What if he waited around for someone else to gather nuts for him, tried to steal another squirrel’s hard-earned nuts or devised some greedy plan to gather all the nuts in the woods for himself? What if, in some esoteric philosophical meltdown, he realized he’d be much happier if he wasn’t a squirrel at all?

Okay, that’s a little nutty, but couldn’t we all learn something from that joyful critter as we search for a life of meaning and satisfaction?

The self-help section of our library holds dozens of books with similar titles ~ Happiness, True Happiness, Real Happiness, Stumbling On Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project, The Art of Happiness, How Happiness Happens and Happiness Now! (The exclamation mark is actually a demanding part of the title.)

Happiness is a hot topic. Yet, statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health are increasingly grim. Maybe we’re putting too much focus on this happiness thing. Maybe the more we humans intellectualize the intangible idea of happiness, the more elusive it becomes.

That squirrel reminds me of a few folks I’ve known who never seem to give much thought to the idea of happiness, yet always seem content. People who do what needs to be done at home, at work and in the community. People who find enjoyment in the simple things ~ hard work, hot soup, cold beer.

People who, at the end of the day, let out a satisfying sigh, raise their hand in a rewarding fist pump and smile at their own cache of nuts. §

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Inspiration When You Want to Quit

For weeks, my husband and I planned to spend the whole day surrounded by nature. Serendipitously, I found myself in exactly the right place when I most needed bucketsful of inspiration and encouragement to fill my empty well.

We started our day at a lovely botanical garden. We strolled through winding paths lined with flowers and butterflies, trellises and arbors, sculptures and reflecting pools. My romantic soul swelled with appreciation for nature’s beauty, and my mind overflowed with ideas for my writing.

Just beneath my joy was the familiar fluttering anxiety about the fate of a book I’d written with a friend from my teaching days. An editor at a well-known publishing company had reached out to us more than a year ago about our self-published book, Lessons in Loveliness.

Legal contracts were signed, several painful rounds of edits were made, and a sample version of our book went through two test markets. The editor told us she would have a definitive answer for us by the end of August. It was the second week in September and more than fifteen months since the process began.

Mike and I were enjoying lunch at a favorite outdoor restaurant when my phone dinged with an email from the editor. Her message was to the point; the answer was no. My co-author and I briefly consoled each other. It was a learning experience, and we certainly had no regrets. I assured Mike I wasn’t upset and was ready for a fun afternoon at the zoo.

Then the voices appeared. Why did you ever believe you would be a published author? The book wasn’t very good. You’re a terrible writer. Your blog is stupid. You should stop writing. Tears flowed, but only for a moment. I remembered a quote by Vincent Van Gogh, “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

The animals at the zoo further lifted my spirits. As we were leaving, we saw two white Trumpeter swans gliding on the far side of a lake. I was content to watch them from a distance, but my husband spied a path behind a building where he thought we could get a little better view.

Leaning against a fence, we noticed the swans were swimming closer to us. I snapped pictures on my phone, certain they would soon turn away, but they swam right up to the bank about a hundred feet away. Unbelievably, they walked out of the water and moved closer and closer to where we were standing. I held my breath, not wanting the magic to end.

Just inches away from us, they pranced and posed gracefully like ballerinas in a private showing of Swan Lake. I was mesmerized by their curved snow white bodies, long elegant necks, and jet black beaks. Their inky markings stretched across their eyes like glamorous masquerade masks. They occasionally made a soft sound like a single note on a trumpet. After nearly half an hour, I thanked them for filling my deflated heart with an enchanted combination of awe, happiness, creativity and faith.

I am sure the swans were a serendipitous sign from the heavens that I should keep writing. A skeptic may say the swans came to us because we were standing where they’re often fed. Thankfully, I am a romantic. Nature, my muse, came through at just the right time, with just the inspiration I needed.

And you, my friend, must find your muse. What inspires you? Is it music, art, children, athletics, academics or something else? Seek it out and let it sink deep into your pores so it becomes such a part of you that you have no choice but to let it out and share it. Keep doing the thing you were made to do, no matter what the voices tell you. §

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

My husband, Mike, is retiring from a satisfying 36-year career with State Farm Insurance this week. As he victoriously crosses the proverbial finish line, I am reminded of the age old tale The Tortoise and the Hare.

You may recall the moral of the story ~ slow and steady wins the race. The classic tale, written by a Greek fabulist and philosopher named Aesop, must hold some timeless universal truths since it has been retold for nearly 3,000 years. Aesop fables rely on the traits and characteristics of animals and natural objects to teach lessons about our very human nature.

That famous tortoise and Mike have a lot in common when it comes to being successful at work and in life. Here are ten lessons we can learn from them.

  1. Don’t Sweat the Competition ~ The hare in our story was naturally built for superior speed, but the tortoise paid no mind to that. Instead of comparing himself to others, Mike honors and hones his own strengths and encourages others to do the same.
  2. Stay the Course ~ Halfway through the race, the tortoise had good reason to give up. There are so many disappointments and distractions in life that it’s easy to veer off course. Sometimes change is for the best, but it speaks well of Mike to remain dedicated to the same company his entire career.
  3. Keep Moving Forward ~ Mike was never on a fast-track to the top, and he would never be described as driven, but he worked steadily and dependably for almost four decades. He doesn’t need more than one hand to count the times he called in sick. Like the tortoise, he dutifully kept moving forward.
  4. Enjoy the Scenery ~ One of my husband’s favorite movie characters said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller, the tortoise and Mike all know slowing down to enjoy life keeps us from missing it.
  5. Slow Your Roll ~ You probably know some characters, like the hare, who react quickly and carelessly. Mike is cautious and methodical in his approach to life. He rarely has to regret saying something, doing something, or pressing send. There’s wisdom in being prudent.
  6. Don’t Burn Out ~ The fabled hare pushed himself like crazy to get ahead but then fell asleep, causing him to lose the race. Mike never let a fast and furious sprint burn him out. He wisely paced himself for the long run.
  7. Appreciate Your Encouragers ~ The illustrations in a book of Aesop fables depicts a crew of forest animals cheering on the tortoise as he nears the finish line. All of us have cheerleaders. Mike never hesitates to gain encouragement from his squad, and he always shows appreciation for the support.
  8. Stay Humble ~ The hare’s biggest mistake is over-confidence. We live in a look-at-me world that often encourages us to toot our own horns. Mike doesn’t pat himself on the back or brag about his skills or accomplishments. Like the tortoise, that makes him a likable winner.
  9. To Thine Own Self Be True ~ Just like the animals in fables, we all have our own God-given traits and personalities. Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. Mike knows he wasn’t wired to be an energizer bunny and he never tries to be. Like the tortoise, he stays true to himself.
  10. Slow and Steady Wins the Race ~ As Mike celebrates his retirement with coworkers, friends and family who genuinely like and respect him, he can look back on a successful career that would surely win the approval of a wise old storyteller named Aesop. §

 

Chop Wood, Carry Water

Our friends and family know Mike and I enjoy working on outdoor projects together. Our latest DIY venture has been removing and replacing several rotted retaining walls.

I have to admit the job has had this old girl sprawled on the ground breathlessly complaining, whining, and crying. I know there’s no crying in baseball and other virile pursuits, but I have shed tears while moving a thousand 45-pound concrete blocks, digging trenches, and shoveling rock. After a good cleansing melt-down, I usually regain my composure, pick up a shovel and get back to work.

For years, I’ve encouraged myself to complete overwhelming, difficult, or mundane tasks to a rhythmic refrain of, “Chop wood. Carry water. Chop wood. Carry water.” My motivational mantra refers to a Zen parable I read when I was about twenty. It goes something like this ~

There was a young monk who dreamed of learning the secrets of enlightenment. At the monastery, he spent his days chopping wood for the fire and carrying water to the kitchen. Tired and frustrated, he complained to the Zen master who told him, “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”

I certainly don’t consider myself enlightened, but I find this story filled with simple wisdom ~

Just Do It. The successful Nike slogan reminds us to stop making excuses. Yes, it’s hard and you’re exhausted, but the work needs to be done. Chop wood. Carry water. Harvest field. Change diaper. Build bridge. Sweep porch. Cure cancer. Work is what gives our lives meaning and purpose.

Be Mindful. Whatever our work, we should try to be completely present and give it our best. There is a saying that how we do anything is how we do everything. What matters is the task at hand. Forget about multi-tasking. Just chop wood. Just carry water.

All Work is Meaningful. There is no unimportant work. I have a new appreciation for retaining walls and the people who build them. The young monk was learning that all work, no matter how educated or enlightened he became, is really nothing more than chopping wood and carrying water.

Attitude is Everything. The Zen master in the story made it clear that with wisdom, the monk’s tasks won’t change, but his perception of the tasks will. The late philosopher Wayne Dyer similarly said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Find the Fun. As my favorite Disney Zen master, Mary Poppins, sang, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!” Working alongside my husband makes every job a little more fun. I guess that makes him my spoonful of sugar.

When our retaining walls are complete, there will be plenty more things on our to-do list. Maybe we will plant some fall bulbs, paint the dock, or rebuild the creaky stairs. Thankfully, our work is never done, because when we stop chopping wood and carrying water, we stop living.

Turning Comparison into Inspiration

 

Theodore Roosevelt wisely said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Human nature may compel us to compare ourselves to others, but I believe it’s our response to the comparison that matters.

There were two large piles of logs by the stairs leading to our boat dock. The wood was likely cut from many trees over many years and haphazardly thrown on the unsightly heaps. From the day we moved in, I envisioned the logs neatly stacked near the fire pit two-hundred feet up the hill.

When I realized neither Mike nor magical forest sprites were going to do the job, I decided to tackle it myself. Depending on their size, I could put four to six logs in the wheelbarrow, push them up the hill, and unload them between two trees.

It took me two days to move roughly 500 pieces of wood. I battled bugs, frogs, and several irate chipmunks who squawked at me for ruining their playground. (A snake would have ended my mission.) When I ceremoniously placed the last log on the new woodpile, the clouds parted, and the angels sang. I was filthy, sweaty, and bone tired, but I was also pretty darn proud of myself.

That evening we took a boat ride around the lake. For the first time, I noticed other people’s woodpiles. Some were a mess and made me feel a little smug. But a few stood out as the best woodpiles on the lake. They were neater, sleeker, and more artfully arranged. They were so much better than my woodpile!

I quickly recognized my foolishness and had a good laugh at myself. As human beings, I think it’s perfectly natural to compare ourselves to others. We may compare our work, possessions, appearance, achievements, or character. When I find myself in comparison mode, I run it through a little test I’ve devised.

I ask myself this question: Do I admire this thing enough to do everything it would take to have it in my own life? If the answer is no, then my response is to simply admire it, appreciate it, and compliment it, if possible. The conscious decision not to have this thing part of my life, whatever it may be, releases any envy, jealousy, or fear that I don’t measure up.

If the answer is yes, then I ask myself a few more questions. Am I willing to invest the necessary time and resources? Would this honor my gifts, interests, and values? Does it fit my lifestyle? Is it the right time? If the answer is still yes, then it’s reasonable to let the comparison turn into inspiration.

So what was my response to the woodpile issue? The next time I saw my neighbor, I said, “Hey, Glenn, that’s one beautiful woodpile you’ve got there.” He told me he burns wood all winter to heat his cabin, explaining his need for a spectacular firewood system. I’m convinced our woodpile is perfectly adequate for occasional campfires and s’mores.

Want a simple example when comparison turned into inspiration? We were disappointed the bright orange birds that flocked our neighbor’s feeders didn’t visit ours. I stopped Bill one day and asked him his secret. He told me orioles like a certain type of feeder which has to be filled with grape jelly up to two times a day. Mike and I agreed the effort would be worth the thrill of seeing the beautiful birds outside our own window.

Bill generously gave us an extra oriole feeder. I regularly buy huge jars of grape jelly, and Mike fills the feeder daily. Now we don’t have to creepily stand on our deck with binoculars admiring the orioles at our neighbor’s house.

That seems like a win-win situation for everyone, including the well-fed birds who live in our neck of the woods.