A meditation from early last month. Hoping everyone is staying healthy. Spring is on the way!
I’m standing at the edge of a floodplain in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro County, New Mexico, waiting for the afternoon fly-in of the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese that overwinter here. Each evening they relocate from the fields where they’ve been feeding all day to these managed wetlands, protected from nighttime predators by water. In the morning they will fly out, returning to the fields to forage for food.
Today is my first outing since I had Covid-19. I’d been vigilant about wearing a mask and staying away from public places, but ten days after my visit to a hospital for a necessary mammogram I went to bed sick, and there I’d stayed for most of the next three weeks. Those days were a time of desperate loneliness, profound uncertainty, and deep fear. When the test had come back positive, I’d revised a document I created years before with instructions of what to do in the event of my death. I listed online passwords, designated a friend to arrange getting my dog and cat to my adult children back in North Carolina, and added links for two funeral homes that had gotten positive online reviews. Then I settled in to see if my body could defend itself against the virus.
The Bosque del Apache Refuge is comprised of over 57,000 acres of fields, forest, farmlands, and floodplains. Established in the late 1930s as a stopover for migrating waterfowl, today it is maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Twelve miles of unpaved roads wind through the refuge. On any given day you might see mule deer, elk, coyotes, javelinas, bald eagles, hawks, ducks. Signs at trailheads warn hikers they could encounter a mountain lion and suggest keeping small children close.
Last year a friend and I had come here. We arrived just before sunrise at a small parking area crowded with trucks and cars. In the half-dark we joined the quiet crowd gathered on the banks of the shallow pond that was filled with chattering Sandhills growing more restive by the moment as the rising sun painted the sky with shades of lavender, then fuchsia, then apricot. It was before anyone had heard of Covid-19, before we knew how the novel virus would reconfigure our lives.
It was right after I’d moved from North Carolina to New Mexico, hoping to take advantage of the area’s strong writing community and finish work on my book, a memoir about a months-long cross-country pilgrimage I’d made with my two dogs in a small RV. I’d served fourteen years as a pastor, more and more with one foot in and one foot out of the church. After I left, I spent the next seven years working for a domestic violence and rape crisis center. There what was left of my faltering faith evaporated, replaced by oppressive darkness. I set out on a faith journey, hoping to shake off despair and realign my perspective.
Along the way I’d fallen in love with the Southwest and its stark beauty, otherworldly desert spirituality, and barely concealed wildness. I planned to explore and discover the wonders in The Land of Enchantment — White Sands National Park and the arts communities of Santa Fe and Taos as well as the Very Large Array, historical sites, and myriad natural wonders.
Then Covid-19 hit the country. Then it hit me. Weeks later, back on my feet and past the need to quarantine but still too fatigued to walk outside in cold winter air, I prowled my house and pressed my face to my wide front windows. If my mother had been alive, she would have said, “You certainly got your wings clipped.” Indeed, reminded so starkly of my mortality, I felt profoundly earth-bound, heavy with depression.
Dust rises like smoke in the late afternoon as cars roll along the gravel road lined with other birdwatchers. Sunset is still nearly an hour away, but already the light has shifted. The last of the Sandhills soar in on wings that span as wide as five feet, calling to each other in loud, stuttering bugles. They are magnificent-looking birds, with long stalks for legs and raincloud-gray feathers and marked with a distinctive blood-red cap.
Now, from behind I hear distant calls and turn to see hundreds of Snow Geese approaching in scattered V-formations, glittering points of light in the blue sky. Their bodies melt into a river of white above us, their cries become a loud, urgent symphony filling my head.
At that moment, overwhelming gratitude washes over me. Beneath the birds’ calling comes another sound, the thrum of wings like a rushing wind. I imagine feeling it in my solar plexus, the powerful freedom of it radiating throughout my body. In that moment, it occurs to me that perhaps this is how the Holy Spirit, if She exists at all, comes to us.
The Snow Geese circle lower and coast to abrupt landings in the water. The Sandhills greet them with chatters and purrs. Just then, from off to the right a flock of starlings explodes into flight, swirling up into a tornado, next taking the shape of a sleek whale that rises to swim in the air, then the murmuration becomes a black snakelike ribbon that sweeps off into the afternoon as the last of the white Snow Geese arrive.
Light, then dark, dark, then light. Isn’t this the flow of life? We soar, we stumble and fall. We rise, we sink. Still, the world welcomes us in bright moments such as these, hope arriving in unexpected ways to lift us once again.