The South American weaver bird constructs her nest from the inside, using her beak to push strips torn from leaves through knots she has created, looping one fiber under another, then delicately grasping the free end and pulling it tight, fashioning an intricately interlaced fabric. She weaves an enclosed womblike nest, with a narrow entrance at the top to restrict access to her protected sanctuary.
Hummingbirds strengthen their nests with spider’s silk, stronger than steel but also stretchy, so they can absorb potentially shattering impact. Blue tits purify their nests with lavender, yarrow, turmeric and mint to ward off bacteria, parasites, and fungi. In the frigid arctic tundra, the snowy owl insulates and cushions her nest; shedding the downy feathers from her own belly, she tucks all the eggs next to her naked skin, and shelters her brood with warmth. Artful nest makers braid scavenged elements of our world to make safe refuge.
Each morning a few neighbors climb the steep steps of our Victorian house and sit quietly with me, taking refuge in meditation. One day, on their way out, as they put on their shoes in the front hall, one meditator pointed through the high hall window. Unlikely sprigs of dry grass, spectral in the dim glow of dawn, sprouted from the old-fashioned light fixture high above the front door. As she descended the stairs, she called back up, “That’s got to be a nest.”
Eyes riveted on the alleged nest, I stood for a time by that little window, waiting, watching. For days I kept looking for signs. Whenever I walked towards our house, past other Victorians, past the Good Shepherd Church, a neighborhood harbor since 1878, I searched the camphor trees for the mother bird. As I climbed our stairs to the porch, I scanned the light fixture. When I was home, I kept returning to the hallway, even opening the door a crack, waiting for a rustle or chirrup. Please, give proof that this is a nest.
“Mom, what’s going on up there?” shouted my twenty-three-year-old daughter Caitlin, home for a few months before taking off for travels. And my husband Patrick added, “Whatever’s going on, it’s a fire hazard. Better not use that light.”
Against my better judgment, I carted a ladder up the stairs onto the porch. Climbing up to the top rung, I craned my neck. Give me one peek into that hidden lair, a hint of a feather, speckled eggs. Was it truly a nest? Balanced precariously, I held up a mirror, but even then I couldn’t see beyond the exterior of the fixture, only the blades of dry grass. No glimpse of the mystery I imagined inside.
Another nest tale. For many years I used to go on an annual vipassana retreat at a center in the California desert. I liked to sit in the meditation hall at night, enjoying my ease on my pillow, with the solace of my shawl. In the early hours, I’d hear the meditators shuffling to their special spots, settling onto their cushions, sinking comfortably into the silent hush of the hall as they drew close their warming wraps.
Once a visiting Zen priest joined us in the hall. I recognized him from my occasional visits to his Bay Area center, where black-robed Zen students sit in the bracing cold—strict rows on black zafus facing a blank wall. Later, following this priest out of the hall, I overheard him question one of our teachers. “What’s going on in that hall?” With ascending amazement, he described the array of benches and mats, special chairs and piles of pillows, students tucked in their comforters. At the crescendo, he jolted me with his charged whisper, “Don’t they know? THERE IS NO NEST!”
A crucial reminder from the Buddha’s time and beyond. How easy it is to forget this fundamental teaching. In the ordinary, day-to-day world—marked by change, by distress, by longing for all that cannot last—there is no safe place.
After several days of watching in the hallway, I flung open the front door and, in exasperation at not finding what I sought, I tromped onto the landing. With a sudden whoosh, a brown house finch swooped out of the light fixture, and disappeared into overhanging leaves. What I’d been waiting for—a confirmation! Soon the fledglings would appear.
Now, at the slightest click of the latch, my bird friend would burst out and flee into the purple bloom of the princess tree. No sooner would I sit down to read or write, begin to chop an onion, or put a pot on the stove, than I’d find myself heading back to the hallway, clicking the lock to awaken the mama bird and send her on her momentary flight. I’d click, she’d fly, and Patrick would call out, “Leave that poor bird alone!”
By mid spring I still hadn’t seen any sign of nestlings. Once, a rosy-chested male finch visited the nest, but never seemed to reappear. Another time a sharp-shinned hawk swooped past. Did it attack the nest? Or had my clicking and banging somehow jinxed gestation?
I was consumed, and I didn’t know why. As the weeks passed, I consulted bird-watching friends, watched videos, read bird books. I studied their strategies to defend and shelter. Some birds build nests near colonies of wasps who attack predators; others hide their nests on ledges behind mile-wide waterfalls. Birds craft protective nests in Australia, Africa, Costa Rica, Brazil—the more far-flung the habitat the more gripping the stories for me.
Caitlin. Of course! How could I have missed it? Our only child now off for a year of open-ended travel around the world—New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Turkey, Peru … Between occasional e-mails and calls, I don’t know where she is or what she is doing. As I imagine the birds in their exotic climes, I join generations of mothers—with feathers, even fur and scales—striving against all odds to assure safety for their young. The field opens, freeing me a little from my particular story and worries.
I began to tend a nest for Caitlin long before she was even conceived. I had married for the first time at forty, and then everything revolved around getting pregnant. For two years, I focused mind and body on strengthening and enriching that inside nest, the womb. Acupuncture, Chinese herbs, visualizations. During a long meditation retreat, I swept my womb with light. Soon after that, an ovum, inseminated by Patrick’s sperm, burrowed (oh miracle) into the lining of my ardently tended uterus—and grew to term in its refuge. After twenty-six hours of labor, the tip of Caitlin’s head with its mat of sticky hair finally poked out. I held her startling new face in my two hands. This tiny person, I would protect.
This September, Caitlin and a close friend took off for New Zealand. Mostly I rejoice with her on her adventures. But I sometimes slip into fear, knowing that I’m helpless against earthquake, melting glaciers, war—explosions in Balinese nightclubs, car bombs in Mumbai, rockets in Gaza and Tel Aviv . . . as well as day-to-day turns of life.
In calm moments, I sense Caitlin’s own wise judgment will guide. And, hopefully she will be as lucky as I was at her age. There were many close calls. Hitchhiking at eighteen, in Geneva’s Vielle Ville, I was abducted across the border to a French casino by a Moroccan gambler; he stopped in a dark stretch of the autoroute and threatened to rape me, then finally laughed, revved up the motor and sped back to Geneva. What leverage have I now against the possible madness that might come Caitlin’s way?
One Sunday in the late fall, the thousand-pound bell at the Good Shepherd Church tolled its ten morning chimes. For me it was a toll to take a dramatic step. It had been months since I’d seen any bird life above our door. I don’t know what happened. Even my expert birder friend called it a mystery.
Now, as the velvety blossoms fell from the princess, I dragged out the ladder again. I climbed up and reached towards the light we hadn’t used during those summer months. The sprigs of dry grass shivered in a breeze.
The rusty fixture was hard to unscrew. But when I wrenched apart the lamp, I felt it. At last. When gentle twisting didn’t work, I yanked, and finally extricated the now battered nest. It was made of intertwining signatures of our home, of our community—twigs, grasses, rootlets, lint from the drier, a blue plastic ribbon, hair.
Scattered in with the woven grasses were bits of what might be insects, and bird feces. No broken shells, no signs of new life. I was overtaken by sadness.
I know the intense urge to build a nest, not just for Caitlin, but for myself, for friends, for my community. And as a child of a ruptured marriage, I also know the yearning to find safety, despite all odds, in a nest that lasts. I’ve tried many times: in communal homes and neighborhood sitting groups; gathering friends and neighbors in our home to watch soccer or elections, to celebrate holidays. And over the years, I’ve fed groups of friends in our kitchen as we’ve taken on collaborative work. Projects have flourished and died; others are waning; even the Inquiring Mind feels at risk in a digital and changing world.
When I was in my twenties in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I co-founded a community high school and for eight years ran it collectively with friends. To us this was the nest to end all nests. But when my dad died of a painful cancer, no nest could hold me or absorb my grief. In a colossal tantrum with my young life, I lost my workmates, my boyfriend, my friends until there was no place that welcomed me, neither the school, nor the homes in my once-community. All the nests dissolved—first family, with my dad’s death, then work and friends. I drove my VW bug to Naropa Institute in Colorado to study meditation, and I contemplated the Buddha’s Remembrance: “I must be parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.” When physical life didn’t offer the safety I yearned for, I knew I had to find another kind of refuge. I couldn’t control inevitable catastrophes and losses, but I could train my mind to receive them with more grace.
The finch nest fit perfectly in a Florentine patterned box. When friends came by, I found myself taking it out, showing them the nest and telling its unsatisfying story. No sooner had I removed the lid from the box, than they rushed in with their own nest tales, stark stories of hope followed by loss: on a houseboat at the Berkeley Marina, a nest of delicate blue eggs demolished by dock rats; in a Zen courtyard in San Miguel, a clutch of starved baby hummingbirds, dead in their tiny nest.
How we resist the plain truth. Even the most painstakingly crafted nest won’t necessarily do what it is supposed to do—nurture, protect or even contain fervently anticipated eggs. No assurances. No nest.
Shocked out of sleep one Saturday night, I heard Patrick shout, “FIRE! FIRE!” I leapt from our bed. As I scrambled for the fire extinguisher, Patrick pointed out the window, to the roof of the church, flames flaring. So close. Just a few wooden Victorians between us and the blaze. Pulling on my tee shirt and pants, I dialed 911, made panicked calls next door, to Jake and his young daughter Ruby, to Amy and Bart, in their house right by the church.
In the heat of Indian summer, the fire continued to explode, now searing both the south and north ends of the church roof. Cinders sizzled into the dark sky. Surely this fire would consume our home. I screamed at Patrick to flee with me to the street but he’d headed upstairs to the terrace to water our roof. Out the window I could see Bart climbing a ladder in his back yard to water the roof of the community hall behind the church. Finally, we did leave, clutching our computers. I looked back into our home, savoring the contours of the living room, the kitchen where we’d so often gathered and fed family, friends and neighbors. Would all this be gone?
With the luck of no wind and the skill of the fire fighters, the fire was extinguished and late that night, we were able to return to our home. Twenty-one years ago on this very date, the Oakland Hills Firestorm destroyed almost 4,000 homes. Those residents had not been so blessed.
Sunday morning, a few of us neighbors stepped cautiously onto the street. We breathed in the odor of wet ash. Jake with little Ruby on his shoulders, a homeless woman who was fed by church programs, and I circumambulated this scorched refuge and paid it homage. The interior was burned out, as well as sections of the roof; the sacristy, where the blaze must have started, was a charred skeleton.
The next morning in the silence of my sitting group, I think of Caitlin, our neighbors, the burning church. I conjure up the parishioners, bring them into our circle. The teachings from the Buddha are manifest. Bhikkhus, all is burning! There is no nest. We know that, but we build them anyway to hold ourselves and one another.
It’s time to take refuge in the power of mind. I invoke avian allies. First call is to the hummingbird who weaves with spider’s silk, strong as steel and supple, absorbing life’s shocks and losses—to hone resilience and fortify the mind. Next call is to the blue tit with her antiseptic herbs—to purify fear, rage, blame, leaving the mind brave and clear. The final call is to the snowy owl in her arctic tundra, shedding her downy feathers and offering the warmth of her raw belly—to infuse the mind with love.
Resting in fundamental uncertainty, together we strengthen the mind.
Thanks to Edith, Karl, Kay, Lucy, Scoby and Sarah.