Tag Archives: life lessons

The Nature of Looking Up


The other day, as I worked in the barn, I noticed a trapped barn swallow flying helplessly back and forth through the rafters, futilely looking for the way out.   With alarmed chirps, it kept returning to the quatrefoil window set high up in the gable.   I understood what was happening – that was the highest opening and light streamed through it.   It was in the swallow’s nature to seek it out for escape.   The window had been sealed off with wire years ago.   So the frightened bird would just perch on a section of the wire and look out into the world it was so desperate to rejoin.   

There were a few small openings in the barn that were large enough for a little bird to pop right through, but those were closer to the floor and the swallow was focused on the highest points – always looking upwards.   I realized just how many ways it could escape if only it would look lower, but the barn swallow couldn’t help it – looking up was in its nature.  Every so often, I would hear its chirps and catch a glimpse of it making another flight around the rafters, vainly seeking its freedom.

As I worked, I worried and fretted to myself about the fate of this little trapped bird.  I attempted to help it in what ways I could and opened the entrance for stretches of time to provide a way out.   The trapped swallow would make its rounds high above me, but it never made it to that open doorway.  I talked to it, tried to reason with it, explained the ways it could escape, but, of course, that was silly, foolish, ridiculous – a childlike attempt to help.

High up in the barn

I’d observe the swallow again and again as it perched at that quatrefoil window, so close to what it was seeking.   And I’d feel a twinge of sadness watching this little creature as it watched the outside world.   I wondered if it knew the hopelessness of its situation – did it sense what this meant?   Its instincts that had helped it survive were now failing it.   The swallow didn’t consider coming down to the ground when it was part of its very being to stay up high.  It couldn’t help it, it was in its nature.

Before I left for the day, I tried one more silly pep talk about how it could escape and promised to return in the morning.   As I closed and locked the door, sealing the barn swallow off from what seemed to be its best chance of escape, I felt a sinking feeling, reluctant to accept the harsher realities of life, as always.

The next morning, I opened the barn door with a mixture of hope and apprehension.  I called out to rouse the swallow, but no answering chirps followed.  I turned on the lights and sought out the bird.  I looked up to the quatrefoil window last, dreading that I would see the swallow so hopelessly perched there, not wanting to revisit that sadness of watching it as it watched the world.

Relief…a little joy…renewed hope for good things…the swallow wasn’t there!

It had escaped at some point. Maybe it was finally able to find whatever little hole it had entered through high up in the rafters.  Or maybe it actually was in its nature to look down when it really needed to, after all.  I walked out of the barn with a sense relief and peace and hope about the nature of things.

On the walk back to the museum, I noticed a little dark shape on the ground along the path.  It was a dead barn swallow.

My spirit revolted at the senselessness of the whole situation.  Was there some lesson to be learned here…something about cruel twists of fate or death not being cheated or a balance being kept? Or maybe it was less ominous – a lesson about learning to accept life’s realities and what’s beyond our control or understanding.

I don’t know…I really don’t…

What I do know is this:  I’m beginning to dread that barn.


Of Mice & Me


A revelation can begin with something as simple as this:
mice are hungry little creatures and, apparently, they like play-dough.

I’m not sure if this holds true for the name brand play-dough that you buy in the store – the stuff with that fantastic scent that brings you straight back to your childhood.  But I do know this holds true for a homemade concoction using oil and flour.   I know this because the organization I work for uses dried homemade play-dough as “meat” in their general store, part of a series of hands-on exhibits housed in an old barn on the property.   The barn is a really neat building with great atmosphere, complete with barn swallows nesting in the outside rafters and mice nesting wherever they see fit.

So, this leads us back to the fake “meat.”  It’s wrapped in butcher’s paper, tied with twine, and kept in a tray on the 20-foot counter.   The label of what’s inside is handwritten on the paper and the total effect is appropriately old-timey.   When I ventured into the barn the other day, I saw that some mice had gotten into the “meat.”  The paper wrapping was shredded & the carefully formed chicken leg shapes were merely shadows of their former selves.  So this had been, what, the third or fourth time this had happened?

Now, in my defense, I had a headache that day, one that had been hanging on for over a day and a half.  So I was worn out and grumpy and, well, prickly.  In my mind I threw my own little hissy fit – really, how many times was this going to happen before we started doing this differently?   It was a known issue, solutions as simple as keeping the stuff in a tin when not in use were discussed, and yet, here I was, dumping the packages & scrubbing out the tray.  New batches of dough would have to be made, formed, dried, and wrapped by a willing volunteer – yet again.

As I stood at the sink indulging in my own grumpiness, a disturbing thought occurred to me. How many times in my life have I done the same thing? I’m not talking about the play-dough – that would be zero times. I’m talking about doing something that doesn’t work over and over again. Even at this moment, what am I doing that experience tells me is not going to work? How many times do I stubbornly repeat the same actions and then complain, yes – even whine, when, true to the wisdom of the ages, history repeats itself? What magic am I expecting?

There’s a famous quote by Henry Ford that I’ve heard applied to everything from corporate initiatives to career paths to exercise and weight loss:

If you always do what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Ain’t it the truth…

Lessons Learned from Coffee Grounds


Because, really, where can you find
life’s answers if not in coffee?

Coffee in a Favorite CupI usually drink a cup of coffee every night.  I use one my favorite little Blue Willow cups – think classic diner meets the Orient.

Generally, it’s a pleasant experience, but the other night, as I stirred my fat-free half-and-half into my coffee, I noticed a dark fleck swirling around on the surface, a little fleck of coffee grounds.  I dipped the spoon in to catch it, but it slipped below the surface.  So, I waited for one second, then two, three…but the stubborn little thing didn’t come back up.  I stuck the spoon in and gave things a stir.  Aha!  The fleck reappeared.  But just as before, that determined fleck sunk down out of view when I almost had it with my spoon’s reach.  Yet again, I waited for the fleck to re-surface, but when the liquid stopped swirling there was still no sign of the fleck.  So I tried one more stir…The fleck reappeared and I waited for the right moment, like waiting for the right time to jump-in when playing Stir things up...jump rope as a kid.

Alright, fleck or coffee ground or single grind or whatever you call yourself, I have you now!

And, you know what?  I did – out came that little fleck in the bowl of my spoon.

At some point during this seemingly meaningless task, it struck me that it was a lot like life in general.  Sometimes, you lose sight of what you want – it slips below the surface and falls out of reach.  You can stand there and wait…and wait some more.  But waiting around for something to happen doesn’t bring back what you want.  Sometimes, you just have to stir things up and get things moving.

Things might get a bit choppy, coffee might be spilled, but it’s worth it – if only for one more chance…