“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I remember the first time I walked out of the air-conditioned airport in Puerto Rico, and as the dense, humid air filled my lungs I began to panic that I couldn’t breathe.
That’s kind of how I felt the other day when other graduate students and faculty started to infiltrate the premises of my previously quiet and calm office space and chatter away about how crazy things were about to get with the students arriving in the next few weeks. The other night after I put my baby to bed I found that despite my body’s exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing. When I find my stomach in knots, I wonder if the stress will ever dissipate, whether I’ll ever be able to take joy in my work without a pang of guilt, or whether concentration will ever return.
I’ve been lucky enough to evade this kind of stress for most of my life, and I think that’s why I’ve come to think of it as somewhat of a weakness. I’ve come to think that it’s my fault when I succumb to that stress, when I feel it, and when I panic. I think a lot of us find ourselves thinking that the presence of stress indicates God’s absence or God’s displeasure with our sinful lives.
But as I took some deep breaths the other evening and the air patiently filled my lungs, I discovered that God desires to sit right beside us in the stress. I remember this moment when I was a little kid and my grandma, who was a little gruff and aloof and kind of scared us as kids, plopped right down beside us and played with our fisher price little people in the living room.
And I think that when we release ourselves from the fear, responsibility, and guilt that often comes along with stress, we find God sitting in it, right beside us. I think that ugly, insignificant, stress-filled lives are also beautiful and holy, because God is present even in the thick smog of stress enabling us to breathe.
Breath by breath, bird by bird, isn’t that how anything ever gets done anyway?
“Bird by bird, Erin,” God says. “I’m sitting beside you. I’m already there. I’m present and I’m able. So are you.”