This white-crowned sparrow graced the yard of a house I rented in Socorro, New Mexico the week after Christmas. She was just one of dozens of birds from a variety of species who delighted in the innkeeper’s bountiful offerings of seed and suet. What captured my attention was her distinctive peaceful posture. While the entire flock greedily fought over the holiday cornucopia, she seemed completely content, sitting quietly on a branch in the middle of the yard like a contented Buddha Bird, waiting watchfully.
A few months earlier, one of my adventurous design clients invited me to meet her and her partner–also a serious photographer–to shoot the enormous flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese who winter over at the Bosque del Apache. It was a trip I’d anticipated with great glee. I can’t count the number of times I caught myself daydreaming of photographing the first flight – a brief period when the flock of over 15,000 birds makes a mass ascension over the park’s ponds. The cries of the wild geese piercing the morning air is said to startle the human heart awake from its mindless slumber.
Photographers pilgrim from faraway lands to bear witness to this early morning spectacle, but when I heard the news of Trump’s ridiculous government shutdown, not to mention the blizzard that was headed in a straight line toward the national park, I was deeply concerned. Was our dream of a magical vacation going to get clobbered?
Being a pretty good scout in such circumstances, I called ahead to make sure the park would remain fully accessible to visitors during the shutdown. The updated voice recording said YES, but it was clear we needed to leave a day early to avoid the impending whiteout. Before I knew it, the car was packed and I was zooming down Highway 25 with my new Fuji X-T3 burning a hole in one of my camera bag pockets.
Ah! We all know the feeling of leaning deep into high expectations with the hope that everything will go accordingly. I could almost taste the pictures I was about to take of snow geese blending into a snowy landscape and cranes flying in front of the pink snow-capped mountains in the distance.
I wish I could say that our circumstances were cooperative, that my friends easily navigated their adorable retro camper named Woodstock to the RV park in pitch dark during a national cell phone outage–all while I fervently tried to determine where in the world they were!
I wish I could say the blizzard was just a small thing, really… just a blip on the radar that stymied our first day of shooting the flock’s famous pre-dawn take-off!
I wish I could say that the government shutdown had no impact at all, that the gate had remained open to the park, and I returned with storage cards oozing with magically sunset-illuminated bird portraits.
Unfortunately, none of the items listed above turned out to be small things at all–not by a wide margin. In fact, there were several moments where I wished I could submit a flight plan for the entire flock of geese to descend on the White House to shit on the president’s lawn. Better yet, on his orange-crested crown. It felt as though the Grinch Who Stole Christmas had STOLEN my sandhill cranes!
But they aren’t my cranes, are they?
And they aren’t Trump’s cranes to steal either, no?
So, what did President Grinchy Pants steal exactly?
When Trump blocked the gate to the loop around the Bosque del Apache, he stole our ability to discover and photograph a wonder-inducing landscape filled with magical creatures–there are no two ways around that. It was an Ass Hat move if there ever was one. A childish, selfish, and boorish ploy that needlessly impacted the bank accounts and dreams of countless travelers, business owners, and most important, our government employees.
Regardless of who you think the “Grinch” is in this story the deeper question we’re rarely inclined to ask ourselves is this: Why do we hand our power over to the grinches in our midst? What do we stand to gain by engaging in their off-balancing games? And, how often does disappointment seduce us into thinking joy is something that can be stolen from us?
These aren’t small questions.
The lesson I continue to learn as I waltz into middle age is that joy is something we create. Although they often seem to arise as if by accident, both Joy, and her wild companion, Wonder, need not be tied to external circumstance. Life is so short, and yet we’re so inclined to fritter it away with self-perpetuating sagas of complaint.
A mind that is clouded by victimhood cannot take effective action or innovate high-quality solutions. If we want to create beautiful outcomes we must practice paying attention to the internal narratives which contribute to our own suffering. In a world where flocks of calamity are in constant motion, fanned by the wings of anger with every piece of bad news, it’s on each one of us to take responsibility for our reactivity. To maintain our sanity and the integrity of our planet, we must learn how to respond to the growing number of grinches, whether they reside in the White House or stare us face to face in the bathroom mirror.
On Christmas morning, the Whos down in Whoville who liked Christmas a lot AWOKE and chose to celebrate LOVE. I like to think their faith in Love’s continued arrival was rooted in the knowledge that each new moment is yet to be decided. It’s up to each of us to take bold action – to create space at the table for the arrival of what we wish to be possible. Wonder, Joy, Love, and Belonging require space to be born into. If your life and mind are crowded with busyness and hatred or you lack trust in the life that supports you, Love will have no place to land. Instead, it will keep circling around the perimeter of your life in search of ways to bless you.
Despite my anger and disappointment, the trip provided an opportunity to be in a peaceful, secluded environment. After a second vain attempt to access the park, shivering in single digit wind chill while watching the snow geese circle waaaay in the distance, we returned crestfallen to the Airbnb. But… something happened when I stepped out on the second story deck to take in the 360º winter wonderland view around me. I remembered that I’m healthy, with a growing business, and have friends and family whom I love and who truly love me. I remembered to praise this life and fill it with gratitude.
The cranes would have to wait for another day, but in their absence, I sat with a white-crowned angel whose lessons of watchful ease continue to open my eyes and drift through my consciousness. And the space where the snow geese could not fly? It was left wide open, allowing me to become better acquainted with the ways my own complaints foster disconnection with the beauty around me. Looking back I’m so grateful for the additional time I spent getting to know the beings I really came to visit – my client and her partner, who made all the difference.
If you find yourself in a place that feels small, or the Grinch you’re encountering is in the mirror hanging on your bathroom wall, remember your life is a precious gift, providing numberless opportunities to create beauty in. Finding our way home with each other is no small thing.
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For my friends: My, oh, my! How my work has had its way of filling up the space required to post here every day. Although this has been frustrating for me at times, it is very good news, affording me the luxury of taking time to shoot the images that will eventually find their way into this creative haven I intend to continue to fill with beauty.
For the Camera Geeks: The X-T3, which was released in late November, sports a greatly improved autofocus system. Despite some jitters about making the purchase, I knew it would be the perfect tool for photographing the sudden and unpredictable flight of birds so I reached out and claimed one.
Photo Credits: Rinpoche Wearing a White Crown, by Susan J. Preston, Santa Fe, NM © 2018, all rights reserved
Technical: Fuji XT-3 | 400mm (XF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR)| exposure will be forthcoming