A few weeks ago, I wrote piece entitled “Autumns Brevity”. In it I described the beauty of the changing leaves and the magical colors displayed for only a short time as if to underscore our capacity to absorb beauty in small bites lest the extraordinary becomes ordinary. When such beauty becomes mundane, we abandon it. Now bored, we search elsewhere to satisfy our aesthetic appetites. For now, it seems we remain enthralled by autumn’s brief but spectacular encore to summer’s long performance. It still inspires awe before the earth seeks to hibernate throughout the coming freeze.
Because I cannot resist the impulse to reflect and write about the observations I make on my daily walks, I fear it becomes tiresome to some, but the lessons abound. Today, the mostly barren trees which only days ago were blazing colors, offered up a very different insight than autumn’s. I walked by a relatively small tree this morning and noted two carefully woven bird’s nests cradled in the gnarled branches above. I passed by simply observing their existence and nothing more. I walked maybe twenty more feet and spotted another bird’s nest as well as a much larger, leafy squirrel’s nest perched near the very top of a tall tree. Now, I went back to the first tree and took a photo of the two nests, amused how the naked trees offered an entirely different narrative than Autumn’s. Now, as I continued my walk, I saw among the bare tree branches bird’s nest after bird’s nest, as well as occupied and well reinforced squirrel’s nests that appeared to anticipate the coming winter. Intentionally or unintentionally, the presumably abandoned bird nests now revealed their previously secret hiding places between Spring and the end of autumn.
Spotting a bird’s nest previously hidden among the leaves by itself is not particularly remarkable unless you consider a closer look. That closer look, I suspect most have enjoyed. Remember how fascinated you were when you discovered a nest for the first time that had fallen onto the sidewalk; how you picked it up and marveled at the collection of materials the inventive creator of this nest had woven together? This nest sturdy enough to endure a fall onto concrete. Pine needles, bits of string, the dog’s hair. Ingenious! Woven together as skillfully as any basketmaker. And all accomplished without a set of opposable thumbs, or for that matter, a pair of hands! The urge to bring it home this discovered treasure (which indeed it was) met with resistance.
“Birds carry disease.”
“Go wash your hands.”
So, as if this well-built nest might be of some utility to another creature, or perhaps birds smart enough to engineer the building of this home could remount it somehow, we returned the nest to the place we discovered it.
There is something bordering on sacred when what is aggressively hidden or protected is gradually uncovered. I loved the pictures hidden in a picture in the Highlights Magazine that were ubiquitous in dental offices. Can you find the fish hidden among the branches of the tree? As we mature, the games become more challenging and bring the same child-like sense of accomplishment when we successfully complete them. Finding what is hidden and profound among the mundane or profane promises more than a sense of accomplishment. It possesses the potential to change your life. As we become more astute at uncovering that which is hidden, the temptation to sacrifice gains on salacious revelations that inspire more gossip than wonder can be irresistible and plays an outsized role among celebrity and politician trolls of late. While I won’t dwell on these sorts of revelations, I do believe they offer the potential for remarkable life changes. Ultimately, making manifest the secrets that must be protected provides the occasion for living a life less burdened, less distracted and more clear-eyed, and purpose-driven.
We live unconsciously among what is hidden in plain sight. We rub shoulders with the sacred during those priceless moments when we are completely unself-conscious of all that have worked so hard to keep hidden. These are the life-changing moments we describe as “having lost it”. And, indeed we did lose it, because something we mistakenly believe is precious and profound escapes our grasp and becomes outwardly visible and available to others. Far more important is the glimpse we offer of who we really are. So, go ahead and lose it.
The good news is such events are not at all rare but are mistakenly dismissed as less than they are. Laughing so uncontrollably hard , so completely unrestrained, you cannot keep from crying, shoos away all decorum and the facades we have constructed, disclosing something very elemental about you as a person; something that links you closely to them, even if just for a short while. In a different manner but with similar consequences, tragedy and grief strips away one’s persona and all that protects them from being exposed in some profoundly personal way. When we look carefully at the experience, what do we take away? We are no better nor worse, we are no more important or less important than anyone. Indeed, we learn that we are anyone. Finally the bookends that mark the chronological parameters of our learning- The beginning of life and the end of life discloses how vulnerable we have been all along between those two markers no matter how well we may have masked it.
Such moments may be experienced infrequently because we work hard to keep hidden what, we believe, needs to be hidden. But just as sure as the leaves are driven from the trees by the approach of winter, so too do the winds of inevitable life experiences shake the foundations of our hiding places and remove from us the protections we have constructed to conceal who we really are. And the feared consequences of these moments of extreme vulnerability paradoxically are capable of evoking the very best from those who witness it. We cannot help laughing out loud witnessing another who has unconsciously shed all pretense by unrestrained laughter. It is also true that intense grief is revelatory. Even as witnesses of those bereft by loss, there is some unseen well of grief that resides within us that brings us to tears and unites us to one another. I re-watched the movie Shadowlands on Thanksgiving Day. The movie traces the Chronicles of Narnia author and Oxford Don, C.S. Lewis’ experience of falling in love with Joy Davidman. Lewis, who saw himself as a man who had long ago reconciled himself to forever being a bachelor was profoundly in love. Tragically, shortly after their marriage, Joy is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. There is an extraordinary moment after Joy’s death where Lewis is with one of her sons, now his guardian. The boy tells Lewis that he misses his mother terribly. Lewis responds he misses her too which seems to trigger the release of waves of overwhelming grief and Lewis sobs and sobs, barely able to catch his breath between them. There are several versions of the film, but all contain this scene in one form or another. It is powerfully performed in all versions that seem to draw from that reservoir full of the grief we hide perhaps because it so poignantly reminds us of how terrifyingly fragile life is.
The world we are capable of experiencing is very much like the proverbial iceberg whose mass is largely unseen, dwelling beneath the water. The examples offered above are little more than “the tip of that iceberg”; reminders that we perceive so little of the hidden that dwells among our daily encounters. With this in mind, I cannot help but believe that our lives are shrouded in mystery and will remain so. This is true, in part, because we carry the burden of beliefs that dictate what we will and will not perceive; it is true because we are busy creating the protections that hide our humanity and cloud our vision; it is true because we are not curious enough to become the keen observers we must be to discover the secrets hidden in plain sight.
Even as it may indeed be true that all is cloaked in mystery, it is also true that hidden within all that is, exists a secret that longs to be discovered and shared.