In the park, a sharp screech cuts through the early morning silence. I glance overhead and spot a very large broad-winged bird. I stop walking and watch her swerve around a nearby oak tree, noticing the rich brown wings speckled with white, the rust-colored tail feathers. A red-tailed hawk. She sails through a space between two blossoming trees and then, with a single heavy wing beat, soars up into the open air above the hill. Her flight path is winding, sunlit. After circling several more times, she catches an updraft, ascending higher. I wonder if she’s looking for a landing spot. She spirals again and then flies around the corner of a building, out of sight.
Before I heard the hawk, I had been walking along and dwelling on something that happened a long time ago. I had held up this heavy thing to the light of my mind, turned it around, tried to buffer its jagged edges with repetitive thoughts. Then, a bird called me back to the world. With a single cry, she guided me away from the circular paths of my mind and invited me to join her in the moment.
For me, bird calls are a bit like mindfulness bells: they remind me to stop, offer my attention to the present, and breathe. Sometimes only the loudest honks of geese or the piercing trill of a blue jay can cut through the thicket of my thoughts. Other times, when I’m feeling more relaxed and attentive, the invitation is quieter; it’s the gentle coo of a lone pigeon or the tender threnody of a mourning dove that gives me pause.
Most mornings, I pass by a large rock wall draped with lush, shiny ivy. I stop to watch a choir of house sparrows chatter and flit among the leaves. Some ruffle their feathers and dive into the fluff on their breasts, grooming and picking with their sharp beaks. Others hop over the cracks in the rock, clenching a twig or thick piece of grass. Their movements seem erratic, spontaneous. I can never guess what they’re going to do; I can only watch. The red-tailed hawk is similar. What I imagine to be a calculated effort to search for a landing spot could simply be a morning joy ride. I can never know for sure. Instead, I try to observe and notice the questions and thoughts that arise. Maybe I’m the one who’s trying to land.
I usually walk with my dog, Abby. When she’s off leash, she meanders slowly through the long grass, sniffing dandelions and tree stumps. One morning, she walked ahead of me on the gravelly path and paused by a small lump in the grass. When I approached, she was standing over a dead pigeon. It seemed to have died only recently; it looked deceptively healthy and composed.
Abby moved her nose closer to the bird and sniffed its white feathers. I panicked and started to reach for her collar, then stopped. I realized there was nothing dangerous about the dead bird or Abby’s curiosity. I looked closer, too. I noticed the delicate folds of gray and white feathers, the tiny, fragile head, the body’s odd stillness. I wasn’t sure if I felt sad, afraid, or awestruck. I looked at Abby. “Do you think it suffered?” I asked. She lifted her head and met my gaze just long enough for me to answer my own question: of course it suffered, at least in some way.
One morning last November, Abby woke me up an hour earlier than usual. As I drowsily laced up my shoes and slipped on my coat, I thought I heard the faint cries of seagulls. I paused. Seagulls in Harlem? When we stepped outside, I gazed over the line of brownstones across the street. There they were: three seagulls carving circles in the cool morning air, their smooth, white bodies reflecting the just-rising sun. I gasped. Something special was happening. Abby was standing by the front gate, watching me and panting with excitement. I had adopted her only two months earlier, in the heat of early September. On that crisp late fall morning, in the moment of pure attention offered by the seagulls, I noticed Abby’s breath for the very first time, frozen and puffing out of her mouth in small clouds. The seagulls cried one more time, and then flew off to another place.