A Tiny Bird
Yesterday, to celebrate his birthday, my husband and I walked the pedestrian trail on the Bay Bridge. From where we began in Oakland to Yerba Buena Island, where the trail ends, measures about three miles. For about two and a half of those miles, we walked along, happy that the day was warm and the wind more caressing than biting, which it can be. And we thoroughly enjoyed that we were walking on a bridge that we had traversed countless times in our various vehicles over the years, this time so much closer to the land and the water than ever before. We were also happy to be together, celebrating his birthday, after a year and a half of Covid fears, anxieties and restrictions. Here we were, walking side by side, maskless, together and well. That was certainly something to celebrate.
Aside from our inner pleasure, the walk itself was noteworthy mainly because it is now possible, and not for the exhilaration of unseen vistas. Though the optics were different and we were now part of the environment of the Bay Bridge, we weren’t really seeing anything we hadn’t seen before—though now we were closer and moving more slowly.
After about two and a half miles, when the tower announcing Yerba Buena Island seemed only an arm’s length away, Frank, our little rescue dog, began complaining. Not wanting to tax his short legs, I suggested that my husband continue to the end, while I wait with Frank to give him a respite. As my husband’s figure disappeared, Frank and I sat down on a bench facing the water.
A few moments into our wait, I spied what looked like the silhouette of a tiny black bird in the water about 50 feet from where I sat. Startled, I squinted, trying to discern the tiny bird more completely. But no matter how hard I squinted or what perspective I took, it still resembled the silhouette of a tiny bird, so thin I wondered how it could survive the kind of winds that often gust around the bridge.
My first thoughts were that the bird was in grave danger. It was so tiny, and the water, despite the mildness of the day, so turbulent, that the bird would drown. As my eyes swept the area and I took in all that surrounded the tiny avian–the vastness of the cold, gray water, the hundreds of waves travelling in all directions, the huge commercial ships further out, the bridge behind me where cars sped along in both directions, no land or trees in sight–I despaired for the tiny bird. This must be a mistake, I thought. That sweet bird will not survive!
Thinking this, I began to sense the gray of the water closing in on me, and I found myself identifying with the tiny bird, all alone, surrounded by emptiness. I used to feel this way quite often. It didn’t matter what my life looked like from the outside, my childhood had left me vulnerable, and no matter how hard I fought it, even a small slight could send me into a desert of loneliness.
Until several years ago, when I discovered practicing small, and since then, I have been calmer and happier than I ever thought possible. All this, thanks to a dried sycamore leaf curled gracefully on the sidewalk. I noticed it one afternoon when I was walking my dog, and for some reason stopped to admire it. I’m certain I’d seen other dried sycamore leaves before, probably in the same or quite similar positions, but I’d never stopped to gaze at them. This one looked balletic, balancing on its spine, its edges curled softly toward each other. Oh, how beautiful, I thought.
When I began my walk that afternoon, I had been worrying about a class I was to teach that evening. The last one hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, and it felt crucial to me that tonight’s be splendid. But while I gazed at the leaf, a shiver of lightness and joy replaced my anxiety. It remained with me once I continued on my way, and was still with me when I returned home 15 minutes later.
After that experience, I decided to practice seeing small for the next year to see what affect it had on me. I began looking for beautiful small moments to contemplate—an interesting smudge on the sidewalk, a tiny green shoot growing through a crack in the concrete, a spot of rust on a metal pipe, a small tear in an awning. I then expanded my observations to sweet interactions I noticed—a person petting her dog, two friends greeting each other, a stranger saying hello as we passed on the sidewalk, an older couple holding hands as they strolled in the neighborhood. And later, I learned to pay attention to moments of pleasure—the first crunchy bite into an apple, the taste and feel of a single blueberry, the gradual transformation of chopped onion as I sauteed it in a pan, from white to translucent to golden.
At the end of the year, I had discovered so much new beauty in the world. I felt more joyful and less anxious than ever before. And so much more connected, not only to the people I knew, but to all people.
So yesterday, as the gray clung to me and that familiar feeling of aloneness rose within me, I reminded myself to practice small. Instead of the entire vista surrounding the tiny bird, I could zoom in to concentrate on the bird’s immediate environment—the small waves, some with delicate whitecaps, the tiny bird bobbing up and down gently as he rode the waves, sunlight glistening off the water, the cloudless blue sky overhead.
With this new perspective, I felt the gray draining from me, and the warmth of the bright sun penetrating. Light and buoyant, I was supported by the earth and part of the bright universe that surrounded me. Right now, the tiny bird is safe, and that is what I will hold on to, I told myself. No need to enlarge my horizons.
That is the image of the bird I continue to hold—a tiny being, surrounded by delicate white caps and glinting light, bobbing on the water. And I will try to remember to call up that image offered to me by seeing small the next time I see too large.