The first time I saw them, it was broad daylight. Lying on my back on the limestone ledge of the prairie, I contemplated random black dots floating on a sky-blue backdrop, sprinkled like pepper on the puffy cumulus clouds. Some of the black dots circled in a pattern. Birds, I surmised, flying high. Red-tailed hawksthat would make sense. Yet it continued to gnaw at me: I'd seen red-tails enough to know intuitively when something wasn't a red-tail.
I pulled out my binoculars and continued to study the moving black dots. There were periodic white flashes as they circled in the sun. Gulls, I hypothesized again, but then these didn't look like gulls, either. When you've seen the ordinary enough, you're jarred by the extraordinary.
Soon the dots disappeared from binocular range. The sky remained blankly blue. I stayed on the limestone ledge for another hour, longing to receive a little resolution.
Lately I've spent my evenings waiting for the mysterious birds. They don't always turn up; I live on the edge of expectation. When the sun disappears below the horizon, I'm often left with only my disappointment at an empty sky. But it's worth risking disappointment for chance epiphanies.
Lessons in Patience
Waiting is an open-ended exercise that I've been cultivating without a lot of direction these days. On the surface, it's a passive concept. But the more time I devote to waiting, the more I feel immersed in prayer. Waitinginstead of busying myself telling God what I need and when I need it. Remaining still.
In the evenings, I head toward my waiting spot on the prairie, looking for this stillness. No phones ring, no one asks me to do anything. I walk, and sit, and look, and listen. Finding freedom in the waiting.
Some waiting I do is fraught with anxiety. I'm waiting for my 83-year-old grandfather's body to make up its mind if he will heal or die. He lies in the nursing home with a feeding tube, his body wasted, unable to sit up or even speak much. Waiting. And we wait with him.
In the daytime I manage to ward off these thoughts by keeping myself busy, but when I wait in that mysterious time between light and dark, buried emotions often surface. As the prairie grasses catch the final rays of sun and flare for a moment, my unconscious thoughts are illuminated for a short time. I'm learning I pray best for my grandfather by making this time to wait.
As I wait, I also receive. This doesn't suit me well; I always try to be the first to give, to stay one step ahead. If a friend buys me lunch, I make sure I buy the next time. I live in horror of the scales being tipped in the wrong direction. It's safer to keep others obligated to me.
Yet to accept God's grace is to live in eternal debt. It demands that I wait, that I acknowledge I'll never even things up. I practice solitude, which means staying open to receive. Making time to be alone. Putting things on hold.
A chipmunk skitters along the ledge, then slips beneath the stones. The wind shimmies lightly through the tender foliage under the trees, now blackened by frost. Waiting here has caused a quiet peace to spread over my life. I'm more centered these days, less frantic, less blown about by stressful events and difficult decisions. Naming my fears, naming my longings, releases them to God in some way I don't understand completely. I only know that waiting here alone, night after night, quenches a nagging, unnamed thirst.
This aloneness gives room for listening. My prayer life has been full of telling God what I want. Petitioning. Reacting to illness, to death, to difficulty. "Protect my kids." "Help me with the difficult assignment." "Give us peace." Now I'm waiting, for what I'm not sure. I'm looking for something intangible; I trust I'll know it when I find it.
A Fruitful Search
You don't always discover what you look for, I know: I searched the prairie floor in vain last spring for the killdeer's nest. I rummaged through the trees for the oriole's hammock without results. But the joy I feel when I find what I've looked long and hard for is worth days and nights of fruitless searching. And often, moments of great happiness and understanding take me unawares when I'm not looking. Perhaps the act of waiting is itself what I've been searching for.
This is new for me, and new insights are always a bit of a shock. But I want to be caught off guard, jolted from the ordinary. Surprise me. I'm willing to wait for the unexpected.
It came to pass that as I waited, evening after evening, I forgot about the circling black spots in the sky. Once I stopped looking for them, they found me. One evening as I gazed up into a bur oak, the first nighthawk crossed the prairie at treetop range. Then another. Six that night. They moved quickly, silently slicing through space, the white bars under their wings a tip-off. Later at home, I paged through my bird book and the puzzle pieces dropped satisfactorily into place. White bars. High flyers. Dark wings. Nighthawks.
Surprisingly, I've found my epiphany may be considered common to others. Some business associates and I were chatting over coffee about the landscapes of our youth. One told how she was reared in the Arizona desert and hated the heat and bleak landscape. When she was transplanted to Michigan, she fell in love with the snow and ice. "The best thing about the Midwest is the beautiful cardinals and blue jays," she said. "I was tired of sparrows and nighthawks."
I looked at her, aghast. Tired of nighthawks? What I found so rare, and worth waiting for? I'd had my fill of cardinals and blue jaysthey were as ordinary to me as white bread. But my nighthawks were as trite to her as a painting of Elvis on black velvet.
We don't consistently see beauty in the same places. What I wait for in expectation is something another may have in full, and what I take for granted, another may long for.
I wait, expecting. It's right before dusk. The sun drops behind a cloud; shadows vanish. Suddenly the first nighthawk cuts across the sky, then another, then another. Most nights it's been six or eight; tonight I count ten nighthawks. Twenty. Twenty-five. I count as fast as I can but lose track at thirty-eight. They speed in, a veritable fleet, whirling, wheeling sharply, nose-diving.
I drink my fill, and still they come. Dizzy, I realize I'm holding my breath. My cup runneth over with nighthawks. God's unexpected extravaganceswhy give me one nighthawk tonight when the dusk can overflow with them, spill over the top, and run down the sides? Why does this astonish me?
God, what is this mystery? That I wait, and you fill the waiting with something beautiful, yet previously unknown to me? That we are here to wait at all, and then we vanish without a trace, frost melting on glass?
As a species, the nighthawks are declining. I'm the only one I know who watches for them. If they were gone, would anyone else wait? Would it be enough if there were only one person waiting for them, one person who would count the sky emptier when they were gone?
Is the act of waiting enough?
If I'm not waiting, I miss the best moments. I skim my life's surface without ever taking the full plunge into the depths. I'm willing to take the risk. To be silent and to wait. To listen. To stay open to receive.
More often than not, I think, the nighthawks are around me, cruising at high altitudes out of my range of vision. The angle of light often makes them invisible, much as a spider web slung between branches and glistening with dew disappears when the sun passes behind a cloud. Sometimes I receive extravagantly, other times I'm left with an empty sky. And often I only get flashes of white, glimpses of what I wait for. Coming down to earthwhen? I don't know. But much of what I wait for is here, ready to be tapped into if I'm present for it.
Let the nighthawks come.
Excerpted from By Willoway Brook. ©2003 by Cindy Crosby. Used with permission from Paraclete Press.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.