I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.
— Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

I am a sucker for a big wingspan. Yesterday on my walk I was busy admiring some peonies in a nearby garden when I was aware of a big shadow passing over me and looked up. A blue heron—overhead. A huge wingspan and legs, relaxed, hanging back, headed toward the Charles River.

I remember an eagle flying over my tiny hatchback one summer when I was driving in Maine. I remember ducking my head instinctively, as if I were a rabbit and not a person in a car. I remember watching it fly ahead of me until it was out of sight. These large birds with their powerful wingspans are so compelling it almost hurts when the leave your view.

A wingspan is the measure of your reach—from tip to tip. Our widest reach. And if you are changing or growing or healing—you have felt this stretch, this reach. You have had the branch break under you and had to thrust your wings out—not sure if they would catch you.

Maybe the love affair with these huge birds started with my seventh grade project for Ecology about the Peregrine Falcon where I drew out the bird, copied from the Encyclopedia Britannica, in a mixture of markers and colored pencil on a big white sheet of poster board. Creating that poster was like becoming a pen pal with that bird. By the time I finished my poster all I wanted to do was to meet the bird in person. I waited nearly 35 years. On my way to the grocery store two years ago a teenage Peregrine sat on a brick wall in front of an apartment building. I pulled my car over and watched it for 20 minutes—until it flew away. I like to think that it looked a lot like my poster board. Or at least enough like it that I recognized it instantly.

Maybe we all are overcome by awe when in the presence of something that dwarfs us.  Or, we’re in awe of something that dwarfs us when it’s outside of us—like a mountain, or a waterfall or a storm or a bird of prey. And yet, when it is something internal that dwarfs us—I don’t know about you, but awe isn’t the word that comes to mind for me. It’s usually closer to dread.

When I run up against a big feeling that I wasn’t expecting, I don’t feel awe. When a shadow flies over my heart, I don’t want to look up. But Terry Tempest Williams reminds us that a shadow is never created in darkness. It is the light that allows it. As she states, “our shadow asks us to look at what we don’t want to see” 

The funny thing about the shadow of a wingspan is that it is something you sense—in that deep mammal place we all still have. You sense it and then you see it in your peripheral vision—just out of sight—before you see it on the ground. And with the big things we are trying to change and heal—I think the same thing is true. I think we sense it first. And then we can see it just out of our peripheral vision—and then the shadow falls on us.

And this is where the discipline is and the healing can be. When the shadow falls, and when what Mary Oliver describes as the soft animal of your body freezes and halts with fear and dread—can you look up? Can you find awe? Can you see the beauty? Can you even more simply just pull your car over and sit with the feeling for 20 minutes asking nothing of it—just the simple act of being with it? Of having reverence for this thing that is your light and shadow—that holds so much power—that is your fullest reach?

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD