By MARY HOOD HART
For the past several mornings, after he is dressed and ready to run out the door when the car pool arrives, Jimmy stands at our window and watches birds. Last weekend we hung a flower basket over our deck, and Jimmy has observed birds building a nest under the blossoms in the basket. Since then, Jimmy’s been observing and reporting the nest’s progress.
Passing Jimmy, as I dash to the boys’ room to wake Charlie up for the third time, I slow down just long enough to hear Jimmy announce: “The mother’s taken a leaf from that bush over there, and she’s flying it over to the basket.” I’m listening, but not well. I’m thinking about what else I must accomplish before it’s time to leave the house. Regardless of how early I wake up, I never have enough time to avoid the morning rush.
Once Jimmy called me over to bird watch with him, and although I paused to look in the direction he was pointing, I couldn’t discern the birds and their activities quickly enough to suit me. Rather than admit I hadn’t seen what he pointed out, however, I quickly pretended to see the birds, so I could get back to my chores. Bird watching takes more time than I have at 7 a.m. On a weekday at that hour, the clock dictates my every move. I know exactly how many minutes I need to accomplish everything I must. That’s assuming everything goes smoothly. If Anna can’t find her socks, then I’m automatically behind. Bird watching in my morning rush is out of the question. Even Jimmy has only a few minutes to enjoy the birds. At the tap of the car horn, he hurries out to his ride, off to start his busy day.
Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I think there’s something healthy about not having too much time to devote to bird watching or doing whatever strikes my fancy at any hour of the day. While we shouldn’t be swallowed up by stress and busyness to the extent we are constantly frazzled, most of us also wouldn’t thrive in an atmosphere of extended leisure. Part of the pleasure of stopping to enjoy nature results from the break in our routine. If we regularly have too much time to appreciate everything around us, even that appreciation can become dull. Most of us strive for a balance, not just by taking vacations, but by interspersing some reflective time within our busy day.
In my experience, quiet time becomes much more meaningful when it’s earned after I’ve endured lots of hubbub and hard work. Too much leisure to feed the soul can lead to a gluttony which can be as numbing to the spirit as too much work. That’s why, in living out the Gospel, we are told to do more than reflect and contemplate, we are expected to serve. And, heaven knows, serving others is usually a lot of work. In whatever capacity of service we are called, we are bound by this Christian duty.
Tempting as it may be to isolate ourselves from our routines and our responsibilities in order to become spiritually renewed, duty to others doesn’t always allow the opportunity. But spiritual renewal is a function of grace, and while possible in the form of a retreat, it can also be discovered within the context of a busy day. For my son, spiritual renewal comes from bird watching in the minutes before he heads to his classes at middle school. For me, it happens later, when I’m driving my younger children to school and I pass a farmhouse with an old barn, rusty and rundown, yet surrounded by a field of lavender wildflowers. I have sometimes seen wildflowers before on the roadside, decorating the median of an interstate, but the wildflowers I see on the drive to school are made more beautiful by their striking contrast to the old barn. Indeed, it is within the rural scene that I sense the secret to the sweetness of life. Life’s sweetness is found in the contrast of work and play, of duty and delight — juxtaposed like an old barn in a field of purple flowers.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.