Taught by a Heron’s Heart

In 1950’s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior.  But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.

Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city.  Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s,  recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation.  As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences.  On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people.

We enjoyed celebrations as much as anyone, but if we wanted necklaces, we threw baseballs into a clown’s mouth at the county fair.  Kids who wanted to party went on hayrides, took sleds to the park or pulled taffy.  Adults in the mood for dinner and dancing – even a drink or two – went to the Elks Club or Masonic Lodge on Friday nights and on Sunday whole families went to the Grange Hall for chicken and noodles.  Parades were reserved for Homecoming, Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  Besides, when Mardi Gras rolled around there still was six feet of snow piled along the streets – who wanted to watch a parade in those conditions?

We did understand that Mardi Gras marked the end of preparation for Lent; it was everyone’s last chance to cut loose until Easter.  On Shrove Tuesday, as we called it, even the lapsed faithful ate pancakes and sausage at the Methodist Church.  Afterwards, the men went outside to smoke and the women did dishes while kids clustered together in small, serious groups to consider what they should “give up for Lent”.

In truth, we didn’t understand Lent any better than we understood Mardi Gras. We knew the heavy velvet curtains behind the cross in the sanctuary would change to purple and we knew Wednesday evening television would give way to a few weeks of soup suppers and Lenten services, but above all we knew we had to decide in a hurry what we’d be “giving up” for the long, forty-day season ahead of us.

Like many children, we were practical, cunning, naïvely legalistic and skilled in the art of  meeting parental expectations, so we had little difficulty selecting fitting disciplines. From our perspective, giving up watermelon for Lent wasn’t a joke, it was a way of meeting religious requirements with minimum pain. Once we learned a certain reticence in discussing spiritual matters could win us praise from adults, we were home free.  Having given up that watermelon, we simply looked our parents squarely in the eye and said, “It was a deeply personal decision. I’d rather not talk about it.”

Over the years, assorted friends gave up cursing the dog (he had a turtle), passing notes in school (she never did, anyway), artichokes (what?) and eggnog (gone since Christmas).  One particularly creative boy tried to convince his parents God had called him to give up attending Church services during Lent.  Pitting themselves against the will of the Almighty, his parents decreed he would be attending worship anyway, and suggested he make another choice.

If you think our approach to Lenten discipline lacked seriousness, you’d be wrong.  When it came to making commitments that wouldn’t affect our lives one way or the other, we were utterly serious.  Our assumption was that, if adults were going to attempt to impose discipline on us, they deserved what they got.  

Such deeply-ingrained habits are hard to break, and the thought patterns of a child sometimes reappear decades later in amazingly pristine form.  When I hear aging Boomers talk about what they’re giving up for Lent, it can feel as though I’m back in the church basement with Valerie and Bobbi.  Giving up Pawn Stars could be a good thing, but it’s more likely the adult equivalent of giving up watermelon.

Certainly, we’ve grown and matured. We understand a good bit more about Lent and we understand discipline should have a purpose. Some make significant sacrifice, giving up smoking, chocolate, Bailey’s or Bombay Sapphire.   From time to time, discipline takes a positive tone and we decide to lose ten pounds, get the closets cleaned, start walking again or pay off the credit cards.

Each of these disciplines is virtuous and productive, even if they do sound suspiciously like recycled New Year’s resolutions that began to fade into oblivion about January 18th.  We may take them more seriously than we took our childhood commitments, but there’s still something a bit “off” about the whole endeavor.  Many who grew up with Lenten discipline want to maintain the tradition and often feel guilty if they don’t, but it can be extraordinarily difficult to become truly engaged in the process.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Lent’s season often seems detached from life.

Hesitance towards Lenten discipline sometimes is rooted in ambivalence toward discipline in general.  When we were children, discipline often meant punishment. As adults, we equate discipline with denial.  In fact, the point of spiritual discipline in many traditions – not just Christian and not only Western – is quite different.  The point is not to punish or deny, but to help us claim our true nature.  In the simplest terms, we need discipline because we are not yet the people we are meant to be.  Discipline functions like a splint for the soul, keeping us straight and true until we are able to stand freely on our own.

The dandelion growing in the corner of my lawn or the osprey diving with signal grace have no need of special disciplines precisely because they are so perfectly themselves. From seed to lovely puff, a dandelion is a dandelion. From egg to final dive, an osprey lives its nature.  We are not so graced. All our potential, all the beauty and strength and love of the human spirit is not fully formed at birth. It takes a lifetime to become human.

The points of connection between natural realities and human aspiration are innumerable, and where they become visible, they delight. We learn gratitude from the trust of rescued creatures, attentiveness from the devotion of animal parents to their young, joy from the cascading thrill of a mockingbird’s song.

This year, feeling the need to learn greater patience and perseverance, I’ve taken the lovely heron as my guide.  Few creatures in nature show more patience. Poised at the edge of a slough, perched unmoving on docks, following fishermen with their heads cocked and beaks expectantly cracked as they wait for the flip of a fish, they are the embodiment of steadfast, graceful determination.

Motionless for hours, completely at peace and yet utterly alert, they await the crab, fish or frog that is at once their need, their satisfaction and delight.  In the stillness of the morning I see them come, and with evening’s departure I see their presence fade like the shadows rippling across the water. Their easy endurance gives me peace, just as the elegant precision of their art inspires my own.

Standing at the edge of this season, knowing my need for perseverance, I watch the heron. He makes no resolutions. He gives up nothing. He is simply and beautifully himself, and he will become a lesson for my heart.

Comments always are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

95 thoughts on “Taught by a Heron’s Heart

  1. Dear Linda, Thank you for your thoughts. Your writing is elegant. I love the story, “It was a deeply personal decision…”

    I so agree that becoming human is a lifelong journey. Also love the herons and spent a lot of time watching them by a pond when we lived in Illinois.

    Blessings, Ellen

    1. Ellen,

      That little vignette still makes me smile. The letter of the law is dear to the heart of a child.

      Herons are delightful for any number of reasons, but surely one is that they range so far, and are so beloved by so many people. There are few who haven’t seen one, or been impressed by their beauty and presence.

      More than most, I suspect, you understand life as a journey. Blessings to you as we journey into this new season.


  2. Another piece to savor. Not to in any way diminish all that this lesson touches upon, I had a similar lesson taught me by a Louisiana Heron a couple weeks ago while fishing.

    We were both catching fish, it wading in about knee deep, my boat anchored in what I thought the best spot. Turns out we were both right. I continued to catch on all sides of the boat while the heron stood perfectly still, moving only at the moment something swam within reach of the swift stab of its beak. We fished in unison, the heron jutting forward while I jerked back setting the line on my catch.

    So, now, I look for the heron standing patiently knee-deep for I know it’s a productive spot; the heron chuckling to himself about the gulls flitting impatiently here and there looking for a morsel; me chuckling to myself at the boats buzzing here and there looking for a fish. Hey, that sounds like a blog post! Thanks for the inspiration!!!

    1. Wendy,

      When you get right down to it, the purpose of Lent is just that simple: to get us to stop with the buzzing around, already!

      I actually see more Louisiana herons during the day than I do great blues, along with snowy egrets. Occasionally a great egret comes along, and always, morning and evening, there are the black and yellow crowned herons. It’s interesting to see how they sort themselves out over the fishing grounds – some prefer the marinas, some the rocks along the channel, and so on. As you say, they’re a nice role model for certain characteristics, but they’re not bad fishing guides, either!

      I love your story. I think you certainly do have a blog post lurking in there. I’ll look forward to reading it!


  3. Hello Linda:

    I’m a lucky man. As the vehemency of Martes de Carnaval progresses at La Cinta Costera, I’m blessed with your words that fall like a cascade: fresh, crisp, white, and ethereal over my soul.

    Often wonder where you go to find these words aimed directly at one’s soul. Gifted are those that weave words like a magician.

    Thank you for such beauty engrained in printed words. You honor the English language and make it shimmer like the varnish of your boats.

    Warm Regards,


    1. Omar,

      Words do have power. When I read your phrase “fresh, crisp, white”, I was taken back to the days of laundry hanging on the line in the sunshine and fresh air. There was nothing better than collecting the sheets and towels after they had dried and then bringing them into the house to release that sunshine and fresh air for our pleasure.

      It makes me happy to know that you experience some of my words in that way – that they give you pleasure. Thanks for saying so, and thanks for reading!


  4. This is splendidly written prose. I loved reading this. There are several sentences that stand out for me, but I love this one:”It takes a lifetime to become human.” It is what I am discovering more and more every day particularly as I converse with nature, and more important, listen to her. I have had the heron fly through my mind a few times lately. It’s a wonderful inspiration to take you through this season, or any season.

    1. Teresa Evangeline,

      The thought that it takes a lifetime to become human is immensely cheering to me. It’s the kind of statement that’s built on what I like to call “realistic hope”, implying as it does that there’s always room for another decision, another path, a new way of being.

      Sometimes, when I stand as still as a heron and consider, it amazes me to see how I’ve made my way through this pond we call life. Even more, it intrigues me to ponder where I might be twenty years hence. Somewhere the fishing’s good, I hope!

      And you’re quite right. It’s the listening that makes a conversation memorable – although a few squawks, screeches and chattering complaints are allowed, too. Just ask our beloved birds!


  5. Your post beautifully describes the difference between forcing things (the way of humans who do not see themselves as part of nature) and being open to opportunity (nature’s way).

    Growing up Catholic, Lent served as a way to slim down before swimsuit season. By high school, the nuns were beginning to suggest doing positive things for Lent rather than giving things up. I think that was a healthier idea, but it didn’t do much for me in a bikini.

    1. Claudia,

      Obviously, some religious practices cross denominational lines pretty easily – including that business of “Lent is a great time to diet because swimsuit season is coming”. Once Methodist kids got past the “Let’s give up watermelon and Sunday school” phase, “Let’s give up sweets so we’ll look great” wasn’t far behind.

      Your first paragraph makes me smile. I ply an 18th century trade in a 21st century world. Most of my customers are gadgetized to the nth degree, and always are looking for “faster” – faster computing, faster commuting, faster communicating. When I remind them that varnish is going to dry at its own pace and can’t be forced, they look at me as though I just announced I had evidence the sun moves around the earth. It can be remarkably funny.

      Here’s to a season of unforced openness!


  6. “Motionless for hours, completely at peace and yet utterly alert” – perfectly said. That second to the last paragraph is so elegant. The comparison: heron standing at the edge of the water – and you, standing at the edge of the season, is packed with imagery, emotion, and meaning. What a good choice of inspiration. (Herons are so lovely to watch each morning and evening)

    I told Ed it was pancake day – he didn’t believe me. He said who would want to eat heavy pancakes after partying late with Mardi Gras? Obviously, neither of us grew up Catholic, but so close to Galveston and New Orleans, we all knew Mardi Gras ( I do know Ash Wed is at the end of Mardi Gras and there will be smudges on foreheads that don’t need to be wiped off.)

    This is such a good post. You are the calmest person I know – helped by the environment. But I also suspect you probably are always seeking to be closer to perfection as a person. Just want to assure you, you are much closer than many of us can ever hope to be – whether you believe that or not. Peace and calmness of heart and soul to you

    1. phil,

      Herons are compelling, both by day, when the Great Blues and Louisiana are out and about, and by night, when the black-crowned and yellow-crowned fill the darkness with complaints at being startled away from their fishing grounds.

      The connection between Mardi Gras and pancakes is, of course, that “mardi gras” means “fat Tuesday”. It’s the traditional day for households to use up fat, eggs and dairy before the abstinence of Lent. The fact that my Methodist grandmother was such a stickler for this is more understandable to me now that I know something of the family’s denominational journey (more about that to come), but it’s also true that there was a lot of cross-cultural borrowing going on among the Slovaks, Czechs, Poles and Swedes.

      If you want to befuddle Ed even more, show him this video of the famous Olney Pancake Race!

      As for that search for perfection – the truth is that whatever peace I experience comes mostly as a by-product of giving up the search. Besides, perfection itself is a human construct and no matter how you define it, it’s rarely (if ever) found in nature. It seems more reasonable to me to rejoice in what is than to strive for what never can be.

      Now, as for calmness – how I laughed at that! Obviously, you’ve never been around when I take on the qualities of the kingfisher, flapping and chattering madly to no apparent effect!


      1. HA. I told Methodist Ed Fat Tues and pancakes had a connection more than to soak up excess alcohol.

        Someone once said “if you want to find something, sit still and it will appear and you’r see it out of the corner of your eye – never head-on.” That seems pretty true although it takes a long time to learn it.

        As for the calm – it’s an undertone – everyone has one as everyone creates energy: all those jolts jumping from neurons to neuron, heart beating and that physical stuff. Some see auras – but almost everyone can have a “good or bad feeling” about an individual. You seem to have your course steadfastly charted – just sometimes the route gets a little rough and you tread water/consider/adjust. All that outward movement is just noise – your environment keep you balanced? (And precise repetitive motion is like meditation?) Anyway – you are going with the flow with just a little bobbing here and there. Not too shabby. (And I am so sad the egrets haven on the little “island” is gone – construction is really going to destroy my little peaceful walk destination)

        1. I learned about looking-by-not-looking when I took up star-gazing. Faint comets, far-off constellations and such can be easier to find if you look a little sideways. Navigation lights and ships at night, too.

          I was thinking about the “calm” last night, and wondered if part of it isn’t a slow response to decisions I’ve made: dump the tv, leave Facebook, never text, and so on. Not only do I have much more time to think (ponder, imagine, muse over), external silence can lead to internal silence. There’s much less chatter in my head these days.

  7. Linda, this is a lovely post. I especially like your observation that “The points of connection between natural realities and human aspiration are innumerable, and where they become visible, they delight.” The older I get, the more this strikes me as true. The other day, driving home, I saw a cloud in the sky that brought a lump to my throat. There is a tree in my front yard that preaches sermons truer than any I ever managed. Lent should be a time to attend to these points of connection to the end that we grow ever more alert to creation. Alas this doesn’t seem to be the case.

    When I was a parish pastor I was often frustrated by my experience of Lent: it was the most chaotic time of the year, eclipsing even Christmas. I once heard of a parish that decided to give up meetings for Lent (aside from dealing with emergencies). That struck me as sensible and spiritual both. I don’t usually “give up” for Lent. Some years I “take on.” We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

    1. Allen,

      Sometimes I wonder if our insensitivity to nature – to creation, if you will – isn’t due to our loss of understanding that we, too, are created. We’re as much a part of nature as we are its overseers. Loss of that perspective limits us terribly. We no longer experience our connection to the cloud, the tree. They become little more than a backdrop to our world – or worse, something to be exploited – rather than being recognized and honored as complements to our own existence.

      A “chaotic Lent” seems like the worst kind of oxymoron. My impulse is to think Christmas = filling up, while Lent = emptying out, but I suppose that’s not necessarily true. Giving up meetings seems perfectly reasonable. It reminds me of the Pope’s suggestion in 2009 that the faithful give up texting, Tweeting and Facebook during Lent. Oh, the hubbub that ensued. Poor Benedict’s advice was, like, too strange, yo!


  8. Linda, I’m not sure that I can do justice to this beautifully written post. Others before me have written such elegant tributes to your seemingly effortless ability to weave a story out of something that is simple yet complex.

    I have written before, I think, that you absolutely have a way with words and the ability to use something whether animate or inaminate as the perfect tool to get the crux of your story embeded into the readers mind. I feel that I take a life lesson from each story or post or article that you publish on your site. For that, I thank you for being human and accessible through your words.

    Best regards,

    1. Yvonne,

      Being human and accessible is what I hope for, so your words not only delight me, they’re an affirmation that I’m “on the right track”.

      A good bit of this blogging adventure is like the experience of making way through an unfamiliar house at night – it’s best to go slowly while trying to remember where the light switch is. If someone else happens along and flips the switch, so much the better. It lets me know where I am, and whether I should keep going forward or turn around and go back. Your comment “flipped a switch” for me, and for that I thank you.

      And it makes me happy to know you find something to take away from these posts. I can’t think of anything better.


  9. How well I know that good ol’ (insert protestant denomination of choice) look askance at that “Nawlins” crowd, and all the carrying on they do — humph! I say it with a wry smile — It was only in 2011, that the “wets” were finally able to get a city ordinance passed to allow beer and wine package sales inside the city limits of my home city of 233,740+. You still have to go outside the city limits to buy the hard stuff. Your mention of Sweet Emma provoked a smile. I have one of her records some place — not CD, mind, a for-real stereo phonograph record! I love New Orleans Jazz.

    I believe you picked a wise mentor. The human species has never been noted for its patience. We have great blue herons here — so thrilling to drive by one of the local playa (catchment) lakes and see one staking out the shoreline. Our city has kindly stocked these lakes with I forget what kind of fish, so people can fish in them. Most people don’t, which is just as fine as frog hairs with the herons. Of course, this time of year, a heron would be hard put to find any peace and quiet to fish, what with every park in town about knee deep in Canada geese. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2tx_SJA6Ss

    Seeing as how I just started a new job, I believe I’ll give up penury for Lent.

    1. WOL,

      I’d forgotten how convoluted the liquor laws are in this state. Out of curiosity I checked for wet and dry counties and discovered most counties have a variety of laws. I was surprised to find that Galveston County and Harris County (Houston) aren’t listed in the wet counties. There must be some small towns that have laws like yours keeping them in the “mixed” category.

      I was lucky enough to hear Sweet Emma at Preservation Hall – it was the mid-60s. I still was in high school, and was there with my folks. Dad was a great jazz fan – they always went to the Quad Cities for the Bix Biederbeck festival and often went to St. Louis, but his dream was Preservation Hall. I think that day was one of the greatest ones of his life.

      I’ve not heard geese like that in five years. They used to fill the Katy prairie, and in the fall they would fly over Clear Lake west to east, probably on their way to East Texas or Louisiana rice fields. It’s the best sound – Frankie Laine captured it perfectly. I know you remember that.

      Giving up penury for Lent? That sounds like a plan. If anyone gives you trouble about it, you can just (Mobius) shrug it off. ;)


  10. I love the idea of Lent – of self-sacrifice and discipline. Unlike the silly New Year’s resolution activity, Lent requires spending time thinking about what’s important and what’s not.

    1. Jean,

      I love the New Year, but it’s a fact that every year my resolutions tend to be similar. I’ve not always taken on a Lenten discipline, but when I have, my choices have varied significantly, perhaps because I do give more thought to them.

      I’ve always liked Alexander Pope’s epigram – “Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined”. Perhaps Lent’s twig-bending time, a season to pattern future growth.


  11. “It takes a lifetime to become human.” Hinduism, Buddhism, and some other religions have held that it takes more than one lifetime to become a realized human being. Followers of those faiths hope for gradual progress in each of many lives until perfection is ultimately reached. That seems strange to many in the West, but a thousand lifetimes are as small a fraction of infinity as one lifetime is.

    1. Steve,

      One great pleasure of living in Berkeley in the ’70s was a wealth of expressive bumper stickers. My absolute favorite was, “Don’t Let Your Karma Run Over My Dogma”.

      I spent some time today pondering whether I might be in my first lifetime, my hundredth, or my thousandth. I suppose the answer is that it doesn’t make any difference, but it’s one of those questions that can entertain for hours, like arguments for a First Cause.

      What I do find compelling is the experienced infinity between one and none. For example, an essay on Schopenhauer describes him as “an out and out solitary. There was not one really congenial friend to comfort him – and between one and none there gapes, as always between something and nothing, an infinity. No one who has true friends can know what true solitude means, even if the whole world surrounding him should consist of adversaries.”

      Infinity makes me dizzy.


  12. The ending of your piece reminds me of an oft-quoted passage from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

    I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d;
    I stand and look at them long and long.

    They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
    They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
    They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
    Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
    Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
    Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

    So they show their relations to me, and I accept them;
    They bring me tokens of myself—they evince them plainly in their possession.

    1. I do wish I could introduce Mr. Whitman to my kitty. She can be utterly and completely dissatisfied with her lot in life, and lets everyone know about it when she is.

      That said, it’s a lovely passage and a wonderful addition here. My favorite phrase has to be, “They bring me tokens of myself…”

      I wonder if Whitman’s still taught in schools?

      1. I see that the Whitman recording is disputed, but at the same website there’s a connection to an undisputed recording with a few lines by Tchaikovsky. That comes as a welcome coincidence, because just 15 minutes ago we finished listening to half of a Teaching Company series on the life and music of Tchaikovsky.

  13. This is one of the places I come to get grounded when it’s not practical (or comfortable) to go outside. Writing can indeed resonate with the natural rhythms of the earth. Even though I don’t leave comments too often, I do stop by to listen.

    1. Gardengrrl,

      If you can’t dig in the ground, you might as well dig around here for a while. ;-)

      I’ve been thinking a lot about your work, and mine – and the old guard at the art museum. For a few years now I’ve thought it was his exposure to the art that led him to paint. Now, I think it probably was the combination of silence and art. He had time to think, to ponder, to listen to what those paintings had to say. We all need to listen a little more.


    1. J,

      It is the thought that counts – and sometimes, the action counts a good bit, too.

      Glad you liked the post. I almost got around to posting about Courir de Mardi Gras, but I never got over to Church Point. I’ve still got that great Folklife film in my files – next year I’m not going to let the season sneak up on me like it did this year.

      Thanks for stopping by – me and the Mardi Gras heron are happy to see you!


    1. Kim,

      All things considered, a calm and peaceful feeling is something to be treasured in this world of ours. I’m glad you found that here, and I’m glad I could share some of my herons with you. They’re wonderful birds, and great teachers.


  14. I am not kidding – this is the first year I’ve noticed the whole pancake portion of Lent. How it escaped me for 35 years, I honestly have no idea – but it certainly did. That said, I read someplace that your Lenten sacrifice should be something that helps you make room for God in your life…closer study of scripture, etc. I really like this idea. This year I am spending the 40 days trying to become a more active member of my church community – something I’ve longed to do but struggle with time wise. It’s a start.

    1. everythinginbetween,

      Isn’t life wonderful? It never would have occurred to me someone didn’t know about Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers. On the other hand, I didn’t know about the British pancake races until a friend from the UK put me onto them. The world’s full of interesting traditions and customs.

      Making room, and making time. It’s never easy, no matter what – or Who – we’re trying to add to our life. Things did get easier for me once I came to terms with the need to eliminate a few things before I added more. I suspect it’s time to do that again.

      I like the way you phrase it – “trying to become a more active member”. That kind of approach has some built-in flexibility. There may be opportunities for involvement you’re not even aware of now, but that will be entirely satisfying. Now that you’ve discovered pancakes, who knows what else is lurking out there?


  15. As I write this, I sit with ashes on my forehead and my tummy grumbling from too much fast! I’m a cradle Catholic, but many of my non-Catholic friends “did Lent,” too. We often opted to give up something we disliked — Lima beans, broccoli, etc. Some years ago, however, we Catholics were encouraged to think of Lent as a time to do something positive — give to the poor, spend time with shut-ins, pray more fervently. I rather like the idea of doing something that’s good for the soul instead of jumping on the bandwagon and trying to eliminate something like chocolate!

    1. Debbie,

      By now, your ashes are gone and your tummy’s full (at least I hope so!), but Lent goes on, and like you, I think the emphasis on positive gestures is a good one. What’s good for the body can be good for the soul, of course, and vice-versa. Still, there’s something about Lent as a diet technique that just doesn’t make it.

      One of the most intriguing disciplines I’ve taken part it was during my college years. A group of us got together during the week and decided what we would do on the weekend to help others. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I know we did yard work for a lady one weekend, and once we took tiny bouquets to a nearby nursing home. After we’d done whatever was planned for the week, we went out for pizza and beer. It was a completely satisfying Lent, especially because some of us did things we never would have done on our own.


  16. I agree with the previous commenter, Debbie, that it is far better to do something positive ‘for lent’ than simply rehash New Year’s Resolutions.

    Your essay is imbued with faith, from the human observer of the season’s dictats to the heron. The heron’s instinct (faith) tells him that waiting will produce the food he needs. It’s only to us, who observe him in turn, that he appears as the epitome of human virtues.

    I was once a Catholic (I can’t remember if I was ever a believer); I still enjoy paying lip service to some of the rituals but sadly, to me lent is indeed no more than a splendid opportunity to give up chocolate, for the sake of my waistline rather than any spiritual benefits.

    Have I said how much I enjoy your well-thought out and beautifully written essays? I must have done.

    1. friko,

      There’s no question that a willingness to wait – for resolution to problems, for health to return, for relationships to mend – is hard for us humans. Perhaps that’s why we’re so drawn to the patience and perseverance we see in nature, and why we’re so delighted and amazed to discover at this time of year that, indeed, the flowers and buds WILL reappear.

      One of my readers wasn’t able to get WordPress to accept her comment – or perhaps the “wall” she’s behind wouldn’t let it out! – but I thought it told a wonderful story. In response to my assertion that, “The point is not to punish or deny, but to help us claim our true nature”, she says:

      “This is my favorite line from your post. I once went to a Catholic service for Ash Wednesday, although I am not Catholic and my husband was most frustrated that I went. The priest suggested we give up depression. Unforgiveness, Hopelessness and despair. I’ll never, ever forget it. Because while I want to sacrifice to remind myself that He sacrificed for us, I also want to live with the nature He intended me to have.”

      That’s better than chocolate any day!

      As for me, your enjoyment is something I treasure, beyond words.


  17. I think often of that stock-still heron, having spent hours stalking it, waiting for to capture a photograph of it on the wing or with a fish in its beak. The heron has taught me a sort of patience, or at least a attempt at it, for, after all, when it finally decides to forsake one fishing ground for another, what a great reward to catch it in flight.

    1. Susan,

      And watching that decision-making process can be such fun! The herons clearly are as interested in us as we are in them. They’re constantly evaluating us: threat? source of food? bumbling fool? If they decide “threat”, I sometimes see them tense up and get ready to fly. If they think “food” – well, they can become downright friendly.

      The second photo, of the heron facing the waves, was taken at the far west end of Galveston Island. What you don’t see is the fisherman that bird followed around the whole time I was there, begging for another fish to be flipped to him. That was one heron who wasn’t about to fly!


  18. How did that extra “for” get in there? I blame it on this two-fingered typing foisted on me by the iPad. Convenient, though. I’m sitting by the fireplace, cat ensconced at my feet, as I write.

    1. I had to look and look to find the “extra” for, and I couldn’t. Thanks to Steve’s comment, now I know why. It is common in older songs, including one of my favorites called The Keeper Did A-Hunting Go . Here’s the first verse:

      The keeper did a hunting go
      And under his cloak he carried a bow
      All for to shoot a merry little doe
      Among the leaves so green-o.

  19. All I can say is I read and ” cried and laughed about it all again”
    that and I second the other comments.
    You have a very special ability with words and images.
    I thank you and blame you for encouraging me to write some stories here and there.
    If only the heron and I could be on watch with you the world would be a better place.
    Done thang! Heron and I take the night watch. See you in the morning.

    1. Ken,

      I thought for a while about leaving you and Heron on night watch last night – I wasn’t sure the snack locker would be safe. The good news is you have different taste in snacks, so at least I didn’t have to listen to you squabble. ;)

      You know I enjoy the stories you’ve been producing – especially the ones filled with little peculiarities of life in your corner of the world. (The moss-covered roof comes to mind.) Once upon a time, people thought stories filled with hammers and ladders and tin snips worth telling, not to mention the ones concerned with successful and (especially) unsucessful navigation. If we did more of that, we’d all live more happily, everafter.


      1. I don’t know about the Heron but I do seem to recall that you don’t like sushi so I’ll just bring enough for me and the bird.
        This blogging thing is making me wonder where I’m going:
        I wake up in the middle of the night with someone’s blog entry or comment somewhere on my mind.
        Then I cook up a dazzling response and fall back to sleep.
        In the morning when I try to type the dazzling stuff it looks pretty drab but I’ll keep “Tryin'”
        I still remember the feeling of wonder when I first wandered in here and this particular entry brought that home again.

        1. You recall correctly re: the Sushi. Some I like, but I really prefer Dim Sum – especially the pork buns (char siu bao).

          If you’re waking up in the middle of the night thinking about posts and comments, you’re not alone. It happens. I’ve heard there even are people who’ll roll out at 3 a.m. to add a paragraph or write down a title that’s come to mind. The worst part, of course, is getting up in the morning, looking at the page and thinking, “Now, what was supposed to be so special about that?”

          The good news is that now and then we do get a glimpse of the wonder of it all – the wonder of communication, of self-expression, of words that somehow capture a bit of reality. When it happens, it’s – dare I say it? – wonderful.

  20. Really beautiful…. I can’t count the times I’ve learned the most basic and intrinsic life and soul lessons from the Nature — from the flora and fauna alike.

    1. FeyGirl,

      And how right you are to include the flora! Sometimes their lessons are almost too subtle for our human perception – things tend to happen more quickly in the world of birds and animals. But if we look carefully enough, the lessons are there.

      It’s not from the swamp, but here’s a little valentine for you. She’s on the west coast, so you’ll have to wait until their daylight to see what’s going on. There are two eggs, and this is her second brood for the season. ;)


  21. ” I remind them that varnish is going to dry at its own pace and can’t be forced”……..rather like the unfolding of human potential over a lifetime, don’t you think? And thank you for those beautiful heron photos. You may remember how I love herons too?

    1. Anne,

      I do remember your fondness for herons. It delights me that the egrets, cranes and herons are so widely distributed. Nearly everyone can have a chance to know and admire them.

      That is a nice analogy between natural processes (e.g., varnish drying) and human development. Of course, part of the varnishing process is knowing how to help things along – a little accelerator here, a little brushing liquid there. You can’t use the stuff straight out of the can, or only rarely. You have to consider the weather, the condition of the wood and so on. There’s wizardry involved!

      Likewise with people, I think. They can’t be forced, but sometimes they can be encouraged in one direction or another without stunting the natural process.


  22. You hit the nail on the head about discipline. It’s a dirty word in my head & this year I’m trying to reclaim its positive aspects. My “Lenten resolve” is to try to impose some discipline on my life so that mind and body are in better places by the time Easter arrives than the places they’re in right now. No more endless hours of Facebook trolling & game playing. I will read and move my body in some manner every evening. My goal is to do these things in such a way that I start looking forward to them. I’ll let you know how it goes :).

    1. The Bug,

      Self-discipline can be really tough.When I left the world of “structured” employment, where expectations about when I would show up, what I would do and when I would be paid were very clear, learning that self-discipline was tough. Suddenly, I was the one in charge of everything, and I mean to tell you – it was quite an experience.

      Even now, there are occasions when I much rather would do this or that than go to work. Once I get to work it’s fine, but taking myself in hand and getting there can be difficult.

      I’ve gone through the same thing with other activities, like walking. In the beginning, it was quite the struggle to get myself moving – like trying to get out of the La Brea tar pits. About one minute into my walk, it was fine, and I was enjoying myself.

      I suppose that’s part of the answer – finding enjoyment in things we have to do or should do – sometimes, even things we want to do. Of course, the first step is getting out there and getting with the program. You’ve done that, and I suspect as the days go on, you’ll find your enjoyment increasing.


  23. Herons are widely distributed as mentioned above and there seems to be a universal fascination with them. The perserverance and diligence of these large majestic birds seems to ask us to find symbolic meaning in them. From American Indian myth, to Maori, to Egyptian and so many cultures, herons are the subject of stories and parables meant to teach us values via their attributes. For me lately observing their nesting behavior it is the tenderness and loyalty towards their mate, equal sharing of duties, and steadfastness to the task of protecting the nest and their young which I find so admirable. So I can truly see why you’d be taught by a heron’s heart as they seem to have much to show us just being what they are.

    Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!!

    1. Judy,

      It just occurred to me. One reason I enjoy your photos of the herons is that you’re able to capture them at “home”. I only see them when they’ve come to “work”. When I see them, they’re usually solitary, stock-still, and quite focused on finding a crab or fish. The world you’ve shown me this spring is one I’ve never seen, and it certainly adds to my appreciation of these wonderful birds.

      There’s something else – that integrity you speak of. They teach simply by being what they are – there’s no “do as I say, and not as I do” with the herons. Of course all of us experience a gap between “preaching and practice”, even in our own lives, but when that gap is cultivated for gain (politicians? celebrities?), it makes the consolations of nature even more delightful.


      1. Even though I did a post about heron ‘housekeeping’ I did not think of that at home vs at work perspective..at least consciously. I really love that idea. As a photographer wanting to capture the interactions between the birds, I have found myself at certain times of day waiting. One mate will be at the nest with young and I know its about the right time of day for the missing partner to return ‘from work’ with fish for all!!

        1. Where I do see that communication and interaction between birds is with the osprey. There’s one pair that takes over the same sailboat mast every year (or so I presume – at least there are ospreys there.) One goes out fishing over the lake while one waits. They call to one another – it’s just remarkable. Then, if one brings back a fish, they trade spots and the other goes off to fish.

          Later, they don’t hang around the marina. They catch their fish and then head off to the trees across the water. You know what that’s about! Family time!

  24. Not growing up with Lent, I hadn’t considered how it might be an opportunity to claim our true nature. You’ve illustrated it beautifully with various creations that never veer from what they are. We, on the other hand, are so easily distracted, aren’t we?

    1. nikkipolani,

      Being able to distinguish useless distractions from valuable curiosities is one of my on-going struggles. And of course, once we’ve set out on this path or that, every sort of distraction can interrupt the journey.

      When I lived in Oakland decades ago, the Staples Singers were terrifically popular. I’ve always loved their version of one of the best anti-distraction songs in the world – Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. It’s associated with the Civil Rights struggle, of course, but has much broader application.


  25. I agree that there seems to be “…something a bit “off” about the whole endeavor”. As children in my family we didn’t grow up with this tradition, yet I was aware of it as friends seriously mentioned their sacrifices. Even my husband, MIL and FIL never fussed over a Lenten decision.

    I love your analysis looking at this upside and down from a child’s and even adult perspective. You have captured some of my thoughts and then some in your beautiful wording. It seemed to me that giving up “coke” somehow took away from the mystery of the Lenten season. Naming a sacrifice just made it more terrestrial rather than celestial.

    I started to reply to this post on Wednesday, but then it was time to attend Lenten services. (smile, yes) My husband had prepared with his choir and I moved my bi-weekly web mtg with students a half hour later twice, once for the State of the Union and also, for Lenten services. “Discipline functions like a splint for the soul, keeping us straight and true until we are able to stand freely on our own.” It seems that giving attention to both rituals, one embedded in citizenship and the other rooted in our church family, aligned with the rhythm of our lives.
    But in your wisdom and beautiful prose your lesson from the heron in working on perseverance that brings peace and delight is a wonderful lesson. Once again we learn from you. You share a very special place beyond the discipline that has become the rhythm of our lives.

    1. Georgette,

      Somehow it seems so right to me that you would have taken time for the State of the Union speech and for Lenten services. I had to smile – it’s very much a matter of rendering to Ceasar and to God, albeit with time rather than money, in this instance.

      It also makes me think about some of the distinctions we make that may be less valid than we’ve assumed. Today, the notion of a body/mind distinction is disappearing. We’ve learned so much from other traditions about the power of the mind in healing, and the ways the body can drag down spirits that such a clear distinction doesn’t seem valid. There are other examples, of course.

      I do think naming a discipline is important, at least for me. If I’m too vague, I can convince myself I’ve done something admirable, when in fact I’ve done nothing at all. But of course, the nature of our specificity matters. Giving up Coke might be quite a commitment to one person, and nothing at all to another. I suppose, in the end, that’s why each of us has to make our own decision. We’re the only ones who sense our own need.


  26. You and I might have been pals–takes me back to my days–also a Methodist. My mother asked me what I was going to give up for Lent. I was in the ninth grade at the time and answered, “Algebra!” She didn’t find any humor in my remark.

    1. Judy,

      See? Kids are natural-born Pharisees! We’re more pals than you realize. Back in the day, my relationship with math was truly terrible. I’m just now getting over the trauma. I would have thought anyone with the genius to think of giving up algebra would deserve the class presidency or something. ;)


  27. Hello Linda

    Not too tight not too loose – these were the words a meditation instructor told me once. That seems a good approach to discipline and just trying to be with what arises – a bit like your heron. There is something about the water in there too, the stillness and the mist and the endless ebb and flow.

    I have also known them as cheeky and opportunistic birds, garden ponds being favourite fishing spots! Oh no, the koi carp… ;) Actually I read that in a newspaper but they were always going off with my customers goldfish – easy pickings! I’m afraid I couldn’t get that excited about it…what’s the point of having a pond with a steel grill and nets all over it? Just have a wildlife pond instead, frogs are equally lovely… oh seem to be going off track here…

    I gave up sugar in my tea for lent when I was 8 or 9 and have never had it since! I wasn’t so successful with sticking with the chocolate ban the following year ;) Then these observances fizzled out into a general secularism as catholicism faded away from our lives. Now I try to live in the present and really feel things. I’m a sporadic meditator but it is really grounding if I get into a rhythm – you’re definitely right we do need help in this direction!

    Lovely words, lovely post. I feel like doing something for lent now!

    1. Sarah,

      I love your description of the heron as cheeky and opportunistic. There’s no question that’s true, and really – isn’t that just one more way in which herons and humans can resemble one another? I certainly have known some cheeky and opportunistic people! And folks who’ve suffered their onslaughts sometimes look, at least metaphorically, as though they’re all caged up. I suppose we do what we can to protect ourselves.

      Most of my friends who’ve tried Koi haven’t suffered from herons, though. It’s the raccoons that’ll do you in around here. One poor woman in the hill country fixed up a pond and then stocked it just before a significant flood. The fish got washed out of the pond and then downstream. Not a fish was found.

      Your mention of “not too tight, not too loose”, suggests we might call the Three Bears back into service, to help us get things “just right”. And I’m more and more aware of how greatly my work has helped me. The rhythms of it all – whether stripping the wood, sanding or varnishing – allow for getting into the flow of the process, with or without thought.

      Your story about the sugared tea does suggest the truth of what they say about habits – that if you continue a behavior over time, it will establish. I just checked out the common perception that 21 days will do it, and find more researchers saying it takes longer. Maybe the 40 days of Lent are a significant number for more than religious reasons!


  28. Great post Linda. Once again I’ve been to an Adult Ed class. I’m not a Catholic and didn’t know the meaning behind Lent, fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, mardi gras…
    I enjoyed the discussions of what kind of things folks gave up for Lent: I also would’ve chosen algebra.

    Your pictures of the herons are brilliant! (co-incidence that I also had one in my post this week?).

    re your conversation with Omar:
    “fresh, crisp, white”, I was taken back to the days of laundry hanging on the line in the sunshine and fresh air.”
    I long to sleep on sheets that smell of sunshine and fresh air… Even though I live in a city with year round sunshine I don’t have a backyard to hang my washing on the line :-(

    1. rosie,

      Like you, I have no back yard, and nowhere to hang clothes. Even worse, many of my friends who have large backyards can’t hang clothes because their homeowners’ associations have ruled against them. Aesthetics, don’t you know?

      The terrible irony is that the “greenest” people in the world – who push solar and wind energy all the time – are forbidding people from using the sun and wind to dry clothes. Instead, they’re supposed to use electric clothes dryers. Good grief.

      It’s interesting – many of the denominations hold to the Lenten traditions. Episcopalians and Lutherans, certainly, and the various Orthodox churches. As a Methodist growing up, we had Lenten services, but no imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

      Easter, on the other hand, was huge. Easter was the basket, and the bunny, and a new dress for church, and hats! And gloves! Yes, ma’am. White gloves, and either white or patent leather shoes. I still remember those wonderful pastel colors. My first “grown-up” Easter dress was peach, and I want to say it was some kind of silk. Maybe Dupioni – it looked like this. Mom made it, so it’s possible I got the good fabric. ;)

      I’m glad you like the herons. The black-crowned night heron’s my buddy. He came down and visited every day while I was working on a boat alongside the channel. Great office mates!


  29. Lovely post, Linda.

    I wish I could come up with a fresh phrase each time I remark on new entries but I can never think of one.

    Oddly enough, I don’t remember any great to-do over Lent during my childhood. It was just the period of time leading up to Easter and Easter was what my childish eyes focused on. It was the next best thing to Christmas.

    I do like watching herons and egrets. Beautiful birds. They seem so calm, so regal, until that moment they move with lightning speed to snatch up dinner.

    1. Gué,

      No worries there – it’s enough for me to see your smiling face. Creativity in comments not required!

      It’s a fact that Lent didn’t become important to me – or even really noticeable – until junior high. Before that, it was all Easter Bunny and fun programs at church and new clothes. Well, and spring flowers. By the time Easter rolled around, even the tulips were up, although one memorial year it snowed at Easter, and it came right up to the bottom of the blossoms. They looked for all the world like little cups set out on the snow.

      I’ll have to dig out my photo of me with my totally cool Big Rabbit. I found him in the oven one year – he was about three feet tall.There always was a little something special along with the egg hunt. But best of all was the egg dying – with the little paraffin crayons to make designs on the eggs.

      As I recall, my mom was as quick as a heron when it came to grabbing the marshmallow eggs out of the basket. They always told me I got first choice, but I had to keep my eye on her!


    1. Lisa,

      But isn’t that just the point? And it takes time to know a person or a place no less than to know a heron. You write so easily and intimately of your community because you’ve taken the time to observe. Your art is recognizable because you’ve become comfortable with your vision of the world, and measure yourself by those standards.

      To say it another way – knowing facts about herons is one thing. Knowing a heron is something else. I can memorize some facts in an evening. Developing that deeper knowledge takes more time.


  30. Of course now I am remembering all the things that I gave up for Lent. Or didn’t. It wasn’t a must in our house, I just thought I should. Now I try to do something with purpose rather than give up, because most of those seem rather selfish “shoulds” anyway. I should give up chocolate. I should give up the elevator. I should give up fast food. So, now I try to do something good every day. Some days are better than others

    Perseverance is a word we don’t always think of these days, being as lost in the easiness of instant gratification as we are. I so admire your muse (as you knew I would). And I love all the things that this post means.

    1. jeanie,

      One thing no one’s mentioned yet is this: sometimes we have the luxury of choosing our disciplines, and sometimes life imposes them on us. Coping with illness requires immense discipline, no? Who needs to add something on top of that?

      There are other circumstances that require the same discipline, courage and perseverance. Old age. Job loss. Family strife. Divorce. It goes on and on. There are two women who live in the assisted living place across the road from me. Every day that’s at all decent, they’re up, dressed, in their electric wheelchairs and on their way to our property, where they spend the day reading under the trees and chatting with the folks that pass. Sometimes, they wheel all the way down to Walgreens or Starbucks. They have enough to cope with, without thinking about giving up chocolate. Or so I imagine.

      In any event, it pleases me very much to see them watching the birds, too. Maybe the sparrows and cardinals are what help keep them flitting around. ;)


  31. Reading your Lenten Meditation, this morning, was a good way to begin this rainy Lenten day. I, too, did not ‘give up’ anything in particular. I don’t know why. But I do know that the behaviors I wish to give up most are not so easily shed.

    The rain, yesterday and today, is a blessing. Much like that heron you watch outside your window, it is a miracle to behold. Blessings to you in your watching and waiting. Who can say how much we miss by not?


    1. Janell,

      Your comment reminds me again of the great irony I see in our increasingly gadget-ridden world. Even as more and more people promote the virtues of “connectedness”, they become increasingly isolated in an ever-smaller world. I see them all the time – staring into their devices, while around them the world carries on. It’s really quite remarkable.

      I hope you had a good dose of rain, as it looks like clear and cool/cold is going to be your near future. I saw yesterday that the Mississippi is up from its record lows, but there’s still great need for moisture – snowpack in the west, rain in the river basins. As is necessary with so much of life, we watch, and we wait.


    1. Andrew,

      Annie Dillard has a wonderful section on “sitting and stalking” in her “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”. All of us are better off when we learn the kind of relaxed attentiveness she writes about and the heron exhibits. There are many names for the state, but I think we all recognize it when it comes.

      Beyond that – I might be able to live without chocolate, although the jury’s still out on that. But coffee? I could go without it if necessity demanded such, but I’d never freely make the choice!


  32. This post reminded me — yet again — how much our needs are drowned out by our wants. We must be the only creatures to suffer this confusion. As children, we played the “giving up for Lent” game, too. And now I wish someone had taken the time to explain its real value. Or maybe they did, and I was distracted by that new comic book.

    1. Charles,

      On the other hand, even the esteemed St. Paul noted that when he was a child, he spoke and acted like a child. If “playing house”, “playing cops and robbers” and “playing school” are fine (and I believe they are, despite some foolishness abroad in the land today), then “playing Lent” is fine, too.

      I used to think the educational process was a point A to point B proposition. As we moved along, we accumulated more knowledge and understanding. Today, I think a better (though not perfect) metaphor is a spiral – like a Slinkie held up and allowed to uncurl. We keep going over and over the same territory, but each pass is a little deeper. Even as an adult, things that made no sense to me ten years ago – or yesterday, for all that – can suddenly bring about that “Eureka!” experience.

      The great thing about any kind of simplification or self-emptying is that there’s all that leftover space. Then, the question becomes, “What are we going to put in there?” Answering that question can be pretty exciting.


  33. Ahhh Lent. No facial hair this year was plan. Then a virus best left unnamed reared its ugly head and combined with a serious shaving miscue it has been awhile.

    I like poking around in your thoughts, probably ought to do it more.
    Checking that box is task at hand right now.

    Contemplating firing up blog soon. Might be reaching out for advice.

    1. blu,

      Some of the most interesting stories in the world often involve life and “disciplines”. I hope you’re all recovered by now and doing fine.

      My mom used to say, “Linda, if we put all your thoughts together in a line, they’d never reach a conclusion.” Maybe she was right, but I keep stringing them, anyway. Always fun to have you following along.

      I’m great with advice. I’m always handing it out to would-be varnishers – happy to hand it out to would-be bloggers, too. Truly – feel free. My great virtue as an advice-giver is that, if I don’t know an answer, I’ll tell you flat out. ;)

      Good to see you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.