Bird by bird.
This is the advice given by Anne Lamott, one of my absolute favorite writers, in her book of the same name. She tells the story of her brother, struggling to finish a school report on birds. He was surrounded by papers and chaos, tears brimming in his eyes, and her father’s advice was simple: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
I wonder if Anne Lamott’s father knew at the time that his sage advice would not just be heard by his son and daughter, but that it would become a mantra and a battle cry of sorts for thousands, perhaps millions, of people for ages to come.
Probably not. He was probably just trying to keep his son from losing his mind and, by extension, keep himself from losing his mind. Regardless, I often find myself chanting in my head: bird by bird, bird by bird.
When I’m staring at a blank page: bird by bird. When I’m brimming with ideas, unsure of which fluttering story to grab first: bird by bird. When my mind is running amok with bills to pay, work assignments to complete, chapters to write, friends to call, children to bathe, homework to check, groceries to buy, and laundry to fold: bird by bird.
One at a time, step by step, bird by bird.
But what about when the birds aren’t just sitting idly on the fence? What do we do when a whole flock of birds is circling, restless, threatening to fly off while we’re busy tending to this one solitary bird?
And what do we do when our goals and ambitions are boiling all hot and bubbly, about to tumble over the sides of the pot? Do we turn down the heat, let things simmer for a while, or do we let it boil over and hope that there is something there to catch it all?
What do we do when the work obligations and family activities and social events pile up until we’re panting and gasping for air?
What about when our life is so full, and so heavy, and the birds are all flapping their wings so fast that we can’t possibly catch up with them? How do we choose? And then how do we keep the other birds from flying away?
What do we do when we’re so exhausted and flustered, heart racing and shoulders heaving, that we can’t possibly imagine focusing on one bird, let alone another one after that and another one after that?
How do we resist the temptation to grab onto it all and hold tight? How do we not let our fear of missing out, our fear of escaping birds, not send us into a panic of immobilization?
The answer, I think, is still the same: Bird by bird.
Even then. Even when the Ideas and Opportunities and Things-That-We-Want-To-Do and Things-That-We-Need-To-Do are fluttering like hummingbirds, so fast that we can hardly see them. Even when they are circling oppressively, like vultures, so murky and menacing that we want to run and hide.
Even then, bird by bird.
Day by day. Bit by bit. Step by step. Word by word. Breath by breath.
Bird by fluttering bird.
They might fly fast, but the Right Ones usually don’t go too far.
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