The Bird No Longer Perches by Esther Nelson


esther-nelsonExcept for a couple of Dr. Phil shows, I have not watched TV since last November’s presidential election. I don’t want to be assaulted by the images of men (and a few women) occupying positions of power and leadership in the United States. I’m still outraged that so many inept, mean people are at the helm, being led, at least symbolically, by the “tweeter-in-chief.” I struggled for weeks after the election to achieve some balance. I cried. I raged. I signed petitions. I marched in protest. After the frenzy of all that physical and emotional activity, I have calmed down.

I’ve accepted the inevitable (and unnecessary) suffering—animals, humans, the Earth—that the new administration appears inured to and hell bent on continuing. I’m not hopeful things will improve.

The dictionary defines “hope” thusly: “to cherish a desire with anticipation:  to want something to happen or be true.” I don’t anticipate my desire for a more just society to happen in spite of my wanting that to be the case. Nevertheless, I refuse to live passively. I continue to rage, sign petitions, and march in protest.

When Emily Dickinson, American poet (1830-1886), died, she left behind hundreds of poems in her desk drawers. Wanting to help me cope with my sadness and angst over our current political situation in this country as well as the desperate state of affairs worldwide, a friend of mine encouraged me to read and “mull over” the poem below:

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I read the poem several times. Although cleverly written, I took no comfort from it. The narrator seems to be saying that hope is a “given”—always there—perched like a bird in our soul. We don’t even have to sustain “the thing with feathers” since it asks for nary a crumb. It’s possible, though, for a “sore storm” to destroy “the little bird” although that would take some doing. I feel as though that “sore storm” swept right through my world when we elected a blatantly racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, volatile, thin-skinned, and xenophobic president. That act, along with all its ramifications, destroyed the thing with feathers perched in my soul.

Earlier this week, Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, came to Virginia Commonwealth University to talk about his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice he founded in Montgomery, Alabama, to help people on death row obtain justice—one of the many services the organization provides.

Bryan suggested four steps “for those who want to change the world.” The first: “Get proximate to people and their problems.” This enables us to see the details and nuances of the particularities of people’s lives. “There is power in proximity.” Second: “Change narratives that sustain inequality and injustice.” By using a narrative that calls some (usually black or brown) children “super-predators,” we make it acceptable to throw some children away. The fourth step (I’ll get to the third): “Be willing to do uncomfortable things.” For example, Bryan had to tell (and attempt to comfort) a mentally-challenged client that his execution would go forward. Bryan’s third step, especially appropriate to this essay: “Stay hopeful.” “Hopelessness,” Bryan said, “is the enemy of justice.” “Hope,” he added, “is your power.”

Bryan admits his work can be discouraging. Innocent people are often denied justice. “Our system is broken.” So, why does he continue forward? “Because I’m broken too and within that brokenness, I find redemption.”

I admire and laud Bryan’s work. I don’t understand how that bird perched in his soul has not been crushed. How does he remain hopeful in spite of racist (and sometimes predatory) law enforcement officers carrying out blatant injustices within our broken system day in and day out? He didn’t say. Just told us to remain hopeful.

My good friend, Dale Smith, identifies as Christian. He worships and is active in one of the Episcopal churches in town. He’s discouraged with the flagrant display of injustice both in our country and throughout the world. He’s marched in protest. He also has his government representatives on “speed dial” so he can easily call them every day to make sure they hear his point of view. On Good Friday, the day before he traveled to Washington DC to take part in a protest march yet again, he sent me the following message:

The atonement language in the liturgy does nothing for me, but the idea of Jesus being willing to die for the Kingdom of God does. The world has changed so little since the first century, really—at least not in important ways. Power structures remain and continue to hold onto power and do their damage.

Dale understands the core of Jesus’ message to be a subversive one. “[M]any who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30) Unfortunately, the subversive message of prophets often gets co-opted by the dominant power structures and the subverted message, instead of liberating, becomes oppressive, upholding the status quo.

These days, I cope with the political landscape by accepting the inevitability of disaster. I don’t ruminate over it. What I do is focus on the here and now. What needs to be done right in front of me and right at this time within my particular space? So, I teach students. I read books. I collaborate with and spend time in lively conversation with my colleagues and friends. I care for members of my extended family. I tend to those mundane chores we call “activities of daily living” and travel when possible.

In spite of my rather dark worldview, I do experience a degree of personal peace—even joy. However, I am convinced the broken system which we all inhabit has become irreparable. As my friend, Dale, so aptly put it, “Power structures remain and continue to hold onto power and do their damage.”

So sore have been the recent storms, the little bird perched in my soul has been abashed.

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

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Categories: Activism, Grief, Loss, Resistance

17 replies

  1. I am at a loss for words. My eyes are full of tears because I feel exactly the same. Yet, if we continue, I would say we have not given in to despair, have we? So, does that mean that the little bird is still there, weak but still there? My immediate life has been blessed and I should be grateful, yet how can I when there is so much suffering in my extended life? It’s devastating. Thanks for sharing this. I fell less alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been able to get through these dark days by following the news coverage on The Rachel Maddow Show — http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show

    If you are a feminist, she’s knows her stuff — if you are a news junky — she’s right on top of every important headline every day. She has a fine sense of humor. But she treats her many guests with enormous respect.

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  3. “I tend to those mundane chores we call “activities of daily living” and travel when possible.”

    I am no loner able to call the activities of daily living “mundane.” They have become my spiritual practice as it has become more difficult for me to move easily. I am grateful for flexibility however it shows up.

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  4. I came to the conclusion that there is no reason to believe that things will get better in terms of the environment, over population, and the nuclear threat many decades ago. If hope is the belief that things will get better not worse, I do not have hope and have not had for a very long time. I concluded in She Who Changes that the reason for hope is not based in rational weighing of the facts as we know them. Rather, we keep on trying to make things better for some one or some thing for some time, because it is worth it to save one person or one animal or one river for now even if we cannot save the world in the long run. Also, we need to remember that no one knows the future, so my calculations and yours, though they seem rational, may be wrong.

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    • Thanks, Carol, for your comment–making things better because it’s worth saving one person, one animal, one river “for now” even if not in the long run. A verse from Qur’an comes to mind (Sura 5:32). “…whoever kills a soul…it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” Acting locally, thinking globally.

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  5. I feel the same way. My peaceful feelings come from gardening. Watching my flowers grow and seeing the birds and bees going about their lives, oblivious to the things that grieve me, gives me respite from this crazy world. Music also helps.

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  6. Thank you for this poignant post, Esther. It speaks to me and to many. I don’t have hope in any conventional sense, but I resonate with what Carol says about no one knowing the future. I continue to be awed, baffled and often distressed by our species capacity for adaptation and destruction (alas, not just self-destruction), cruelty and compassion, passion for and indifference to beauty, consciousness and sometimes seemingly deliberate obliteration of consciousness, curiosity about others, and other life forms and blind self-absorption. Such extremes. We are so seldom at peace with our place (maybe we don’t know our place?) in the whole of creation. Everyday I pray for our will, as humans, to see and love this planet as the garden wilderness paradise sanctuary it is, was, and can be. I pray to know my part. Maybe that’s my little bird singing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Elizabeth —

      Thanks for your final statement. I think I will add it, almost verbatim, to my daily meditations: “I pray for our will, as humans, to see and love this planet as the garden wilderness paradise sanctuary it is, was, and can be. I pray to know my part.”

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for writing this. I agree with you that the bird has flown away. On the PBS Newshour last night, I heard a talkshow host in Iowa–the land of the “real people,” as some guy from that area said a few weeks ago–say in a loud voice that Trump needs to stop playing and replaying his Washington reality show and start governing. I wish! We survived Nixon’s paranoia, Reagan’s early dementia, and Dubya’s VP. Maybe we’ll survive the reality show. Maybe the bird is hovering??

    “Tweeter-in-chief” is a good phrase, but I like “Troll-in-Chief.”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Sad, Esther, sad, sad, sad. I must be a cock-eyed optimist, but Trump’s latest insanity in firing Comey has made me optimistic that at least some Republicans have turned the corner on him. We have a newly elected Republican congressman from Green Bay, WI who is speaking out about the need to really get to the bottom of the Russian-Trump connection, and before he was elected he was involved in the intelligence community, so his voice may have the resonance needed to push Congress into appointing an independent counsel. (I know, I know, Pence is terrible, too, but at least he’s not, as you so succinctly write, “a blatantly racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, volatile, thin-skinned, and xenophobic president.” [He may be the first two and the last, but not the middle adjectives]).

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    • Thank you, Nancy, for your comment. I think Pence is every bit as dangerous as Trump. He happens to sport a polished veneer of sorts. I do understand that there is “push-back” happening in lots of circles and I’m grateful for that, however, I always have this sense that we don’t know the half and when we don’t know the half, it’s hard to know how to respond and act in the best way possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. We are not alone in our prayers for our country and the impeachment of idiot in chief

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  10. A beautiful, heartfelt piece that needed to be written and needs to be read. So many feel such loss and despair, and it needs to be expressed. My belief in the power of hope tends to be pragmatic – we can hope if that motivates us to act, because if we don’t act we know for sure things won’t change for the better, but if we do act, there is at least a chance they might change for the better. I think of the story of a woman from South Sudan that I heard earlier this week. She works for an organization that helps families from Sudan and was asked her own story, so she told of how she and her mother left their village when she was 4 and started walking over the mountains, barefoot. Her mother would tie a rope to her to make sure she wasn’t lost among the crowd of people also walking on the same road, and her mother would give her one handful of corn to eat every day. Eventually they made it to a refugee camp in Uganda where they lived for ten years before they were finally admitted to the US as refugees, coming with nothing, but somehow surviving. She eventually married one of the “Lost Boys” who had also made it here, has three children, and is now working to help other families. She is 27. I’m sure her mother had no hope when she first tied that rope around her daughter, but she did it anyway and started walking, and here they both are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful response, Carolyn. The question (for me) is how to act, what to do, what to do? I think we can expend a lot of energy at times on things that “don’t pay” (as my grandmother used to say). However, the story of the mother tying a rope around her daughter was poignant. Mom did what she had to do in the “here and now.” Since we cannot predict the future with any accuracy, we don’t know the outcome of our actions in the “here and now.” Carol alluded to this in her response. So, I supposed it’s up to all of us to do what fits with us right here, right now. It may or may not yield results that we want (or hope for) but we are at the moment being true to ourselves. Thank you.

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