If it hasn’t been said already by poets and nature writers, let me say it now. There is nothing like winter in California. This past week in the Bay Area has been mild with temperatures in the sixties during the day and sunlight that seems to rise from the ground, glowing from no discernible source. The light in the West is like that, filling not just the sky but everything around it with a diaphanous quality.
The East is different. It has its own beauty, but the light there is pointed and focused like the people. This is part of the reason that making the move from New York to California has been relatively easy for generations of Americans. The other way, however, is nearly impossible, and I have seen it wreck people and break families apart.
One day this week I sat beneath a lemon tree, taking in that California glow. I am at that point in my life when “vacation” has returned to its roots (vacātiō). I vacate the old me and put on a new, or holiday, me. Not only does that include as little work as possible, but it means unplugging from the relentless drain of social media and the blare of television. Actually, “television” is a quaint term. It has become Newton Minow‘s “vast wasteland,” special programming from the likes of HBO and Netflix notwithstanding.
Doing nothing in particular–wasting time–is very important. It settles the spirit and soothes the soul. If you do it long enough, you blend into your environment, forming a kind of spiritual blind.
So, I sat in my blind beneath the lemon tree, looking at the sky above and the Meyer lemons that needed gathering. Then, of course, I thought of martinis. What else do you do with lemons?
Suddenly, a green hummingbird buzzed my head and flitted among the branches. It found a blossom and drew nectar, motionless except for the whirring of its wings. It held its position for a while and then, to my surprise, landed softly on a branch, its tremulous wings finally at rest. Its work done.
The hummingbird sat longer than I expected, resting, before jerking its head and veering off helicopter-like into the world beyond. I stared in its direction and then back at the branch. I have seen hummingbirds land before, so I knew the belief about them never resting was wrong. Still, this came at a time when I was able to pay attention and see more than a bird and a tree.
What did I see, exactly? A rest, a pause, a true vacation when the hummingbird ceased being one thing–a whirligig of green gossamer–and became something else that was present not to what it was doing but to itself. That is a wonderful thing, because when you are present to self, you can be present to the world around you.
I don’t know for certain whether hummingbirds can be present in a human or conscious way. Maybe they can and we simply are unable to detect it. But they have the opportunity. They can vacate their old selves just as we can. And maybe they sense better than us that our final vacation–death–is the greatest opportunity of all to be present to oneself and God.
We have an opportunity, too. Ours is to practice landing on branches before we die so that we become present to ourselves and others. I don’t know any other way to achieve the peace and happiness we yearn for in our families and the world.
Of course, it takes a lot of practice.