The Art of Noticing

with Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl calls herself a backyard naturalist—but not because she has any particular expertise. From the birds in her yard to the bugs in her flower beds, she has learned the art of attention. Nature has taught her a speed at which to live, to hope, to stave off despair.




Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl is the author of The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year, which will be published on October 24, 2023. Her earlier books are Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss and Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South. She is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, where her essays appear weekly. The founding editor of Chapter 16, a daily literary publication of Humanities Tennessee, and a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Carolina, she lives in Nashville.

Show Notes

Read Margaret Renkl’s new book that follows creatures and plants in her own backyard—The Comfort of Crows.

Margaret talks about becoming a Tennessee certified Naturalist through the Tennessee Naturalist Program (TNP).

Do you know what song a Carolina Wren sings? All About Birds offers information and audio of their songs.

Margaret references an article about climate refugees from Alabama that she read in the New York Times, called Finding Climate Haves: As climate change unfolds, some places will far better than others. 

Billy Renkl, is brother to Margaret and famous artist who also did the art for her book, The Comfort of Crows.

The famous “Henry books” are children’s picture books that follow books written by Henry David Thoreau. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, is a book inspired by a passage from Walden.

Author Katherine May wrote a book on Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age. Kate got to talk with Katherine about her book and finding awe and wonder in the world in an upcoming podcast.

Kate talks with author and nurse Christie Watson about what it takes to be a nurse and their call to love and care for a stranger in Bless the Nurses. Kate mentions Christie’s book Quilt on Fire: The Messy Magic of Friends, Sex and Love. Kate also had the privilege to officiate Christie’s wedding! You can see photos from that here.

Author Ann Patchett and Kate were talking about their connectedness and this feeling of life everywhere and through that conversation she quoted about “rivers of life” and it was from a one Kenyon book Constance and her poem Having it Out with Melancholy.


Discussion Questions

  1. Margaret believes that “If I love something in front of somebody, maybe they’d be more apt to love it too.” What/who are you loving in front of others? Can that shape their feelings towards the object of your love?
  2. Caring for Creation is a part of God’s callings to humankind, the calling to work with nature not against nature. Kate and Margaret talk about this perceived human versus nature divide throughout history. When we read texts like Genesis 2:15, Leviticus 25:1-7 or Matthew 6:25-34, how is God calling us to interact and care for creation? What biblical passages about creation care invite us to embrace our own place in nature and deepen our relationship with the world around us?
  3. Reflecting upon climate change and the despair that can come from paying attention, Margaret says, “That’s our greatest shoring up against despair is to realize that we aren’t powerless.” Where do you feel empowered to connect with nature? How do you feel empowered to defend the natural environment around you? 


Kate Bowler: I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. There is a way of living that I really admire. But I really, really don’t possess. Usually I see it in people who love to garden, or are really into birding or some such. And it is a quality of noticing, a kind of attunement toward beauty and possibility in the small, seemingly ordinary things. Yeah, like, I don’t have it. I’m never going to garden. I mostly have fake plants that I also don’t remember to water. But I love this quality in other people. So I thought I should talk to somebody who is like this instead and see what we can learn about the curiosity and art of attention that we might have when we care about the world around us. And not only in the “Save the Earth” kind of way, which is also wonderful, but in the way in which we can name the trees and listen for the birds and find our place in this big, beautiful, heartbreaking world. So I went to Nashville, Tennessee, and I hung out with my new friend Margaret Renkl. Perhaps we can borrow some of Margaret’s innate curiosity and see how it might open us up to wonder and love and connectedness once again. You are going to absolutely love her.

Kate: I am having the best day because I am here with the absolutely lovely Margaret Renkl. She is the author of just beautiful things, like the book Late Migrations and her newest book, The Comfort of Crows. It is…well, I’ll let her explain. But we’re here in Nashville and she’s already my favorite. And I kind of wish we were doing this outside, since your great glory is in noticing the world as it is. Margaret, I’m so glad we’re doing this.

Margaret Renkl: I cannot believe you came all the way to Nashville so we could walk around looking at house sparrows. But thank you, I’m so delighted to be here!

Kate: Operation Friendship is a go. So you call yourself a backyard naturalist. I wondered if you could tell me what that means to you.

Margaret: The thing I love about the word naturalist, which is very different from the word scientist, because a scientist has a specialty. So you can be an entomologist or you can be you can be an ornithologist, or you could…you have a specialty, you know, down to the tiniest little fungus growing beneath the soil. But a naturalist, it requires no credentials, really. You just call yourself that. And it can mean you know, it really—there are credentialing organizations, you can be, in fact, in Tennessee, a certified Tennessee naturalist. I’m not one, but I think it just means that you notice and study and learn from the natural world. And the learning part is my favorite. I begin from a position of ignorance in almost every single thing I do. So it doesn’t take much for me to learn because I don’t know anything at all—”Oh, wow, what is this bug?” Or, “Wait, that’s what, that sound I’m hearing is a Carolina wren?” Like, I know Carolina wrens really well, but I didn’t know THAT song from the treetops came from a Carolina wren.

Kate: Yeah. When did you first start getting wonderfully, partially obsessively, curious? Because I find that curiosity requires, like, the like “And then what?” impulse.

Margaret: I think I was born that way. I think part of being my age … I’ll be 62 this fall and growing up where I grew up in lower Alabama. I think a lot of it is just kids aren’t allowed to be bored much anymore. And they also are highly supervised. And so but my mother was like, go play. You know, come back when you’re hungry. But by the time I was back in college, in a rural college, Auburn University, it was just a five-minute walk to be outside campus in a field or in a forest. And that was a great comfort to me whenever school was too stressful.

Kate: There was like a homecoming feeling, it sounds like.

Margaret: It, really, when you grow up like that, to be in the woods or the fields or beside a creek, I think we take comfort from what gave us comfort when we were younger. So going back does feel like coming home. And, and the older I get now that my children are grown, especially, I feel myself becoming more and more what I most essentially am, and less my role in other people’s lives. And that is who I most essentially am, I think.

Kate: Is a noticer?

Margaret: But I don’t notice certain things, like I didn’t know where to turn to get to the elevator.

Kate: Ha ha yeah, you really didn’t.

Margaret: It’s a pretty specific kind of noticing! But yeah.

Kate: So funny. “Left and right, not my forte.”

Margaret: Little problem with the orienteering.

Kate: I did actually not get that badge either when I was involved in Girl Scouts. So funny. I guess like, the… Because I moved from the middle of Canada to wherever I went to school. And I think it was at that point that I stopped noticing, really anything in the natural world because I didn’t recognize it. And if I didn’t recognize it, I just couldn’t, I don’t know. Like I still am constantly getting poison ivy because I have no idea what poison ivy in North Carolina looks like.

Margaret: That’s so funny. I think, all the time… I had this there was an article in the New York Times about climate refugees, and they didn’t mean people leaving Indonesia because their islands were going to be underwater. They meant people leaving lower Alabama because crops won’t grow, I mean, in the future. And they had some suggestions for places in this country where climate migrants could go, and one of them was Detroit, because it’s going to be cooler and a longer growing season, in time, and there’s plenty of housing. And I said to my husband, this is the perfect time. We could, you’re getting ready to retire. I can work from anywhere. Our daughter-in-law is a nurse. She could work from anywhere. Our son’s an engineer, his colleagues already live anywhere. I mean, we could just, we could just—this was a good time to go. And then I thought, well, first of all, he pooh-poohed the whole idea, like, we’re not moving to Detroit and taking everybody with us, that, they won’t do that. But then part of me was like, but I don’t know any of those birds. I do know some of them because they come and spend the winter here. But it would be very disorienting. Not to know the flowers, not to know the names of trees.

Kate: It’s like the smell… For me, it’s always the smell of camomile right after a rain. And the number of drowning worms that, like always, need my attention. That used to take, when I was little, I mean, that was like, that could be my full-time job. I just go around, saving unwilling worms. And I still feel like, I feel at peace in a different way when I’m in Winnipeg, Manitoba, than I am… Well, okay, two questions on that. One is, and I don’t mean it as facetiously as it sounds, how do we feel at home? How does becoming more aware of your surroundings reconnect you with an Earth that sometimes tries to murder you?  Like, I was bitten by a poisonous copperhead snake last year as part of my attempt to reconnect to nature.

Margaret: I’m very sorry. They can be very touchy.

Kate: I had to be envenomated for some time. But there’s the feeling like, the more at home we are, we’re not entirely…it’s not just like the…well, maybe it is the scene of Bambi. It’s hard to say.

Margaret: I think that’s the thing that I struggle with. Always. How do you love a world that is so violent? And it’s not just the venomous snakes. It’s also the way they’re all out there just killing and eating each other. There are very few true vegetarians in the natural world. And even the vegetarians are eating a plant that would prefer not to be eaten. So it’s this, just part of how it works. And that is a challenge. And it will always be a challenge. How do you, how do you love something that exists in a state of constant violence? Because even the bluebirds that are being hunted by a Cooper’s hawk, they’re out there hunting the grasshoppers. And we think, oh, the bluebirds are cute. So we’re rooting for the bluebird and not necessarily the hawk. And we’re giving no thought at all to the cricket in the grass. It’s hard, but I think that’s part of loving something, isn’t it? No matter who it is or what it is, it comes with a downside and you elect to love it anyway. It’s an act of attention and an act of concentration. And it’s a decision always.

Kate: You kind of made this decision to love your surroundings in this book in a really, really concrete way, which to me reads so devotionally. It’s structured by the weeks of the seasons, so people could pick it up and be like, “Ah, it is partway through spring. What am I noticing?” And you walk us through a year of noticing.

Margaret: I’m so happy that you said the word devotional because I used to describe it when I was working on it as a pagan devotional and my editor was going, “You have to stop saying that.”

Kate: I know what you mean, though. Like, pagan in the sense of like this is, this is, one of the deep stories of who we are is just the story of our spiritual attention to the earth.

Margaret: That’s right. It’s from which we came. Like, I really thought I might do it as an actual devotional, one day at a time. But but I wanted there to be Billy’s art in it. And then we would have been looking at, bare minimum, 750 pages. So that was not…

Kate: Tell me about the art, because obviously, podcasts are notoriously visual.

Margaret: My brother is an artist. He’s a year younger than I am. So we grew up in the exact—I have no memory of life without Billy. My very earliest memory, Billy’s in. He’s in a stroller. He’s just an infant. But that’s what I remember. My very first memory. And it just happened that he’s a very visual person, and I’m a very verbal person. And so we always had these projects, always these little cards for our grandparents, where I’d write a little poem and he would draw a picture. Right up through grad school, we were doing these things. So when I started working on the essays that became Late Migrations, my friends in my writer’s group kept saying, “This is going to be a book. You know that you’re writing a book.” And I hadn’t given any thought to that, having never written a book, you know, this was a new, new surprising development in my fifties.

Kate: I didn’t realize you were like 57 when you wrote your first?

Margaret: Well, when it came out, yeah. So, yeah.

Kate: That’s an amazing—I mean, for people who are never quite sure where life is going to take them, I find that so just beautiful.

Margaret: It’s very encouraging to people my age and not at all encouraging to young writers.

Kate: It could take forever.

Margaret: They don’t want to give any thought to the possibility that they might be in their fifties before this dream comes true of theirs. But, but when I started working on those essays that were, you know, that began as meditations for myself after my mom died, and then I did start thinking about how to put them together the very first thing before I even figured out a structure for the book was, well, there has to be room for Billy’s art because Billy’s feeling all these same feelings too, and remembering all these same things. So…

Kate: Yeah. Woven together. I want to bug you about the word devotional for a second. Because there is, I mean, when you’re describing the natural world, another way we would put it is like, you’re cherishing natural revelation. You’re looking at the specificity which gives us a feeling of the order of things, which makes us feel the sacredness of things in a really intense way. There’s that lovely quote by Alice Walker, who writes, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Which I always think of, in The Simpsons, there was the Reverend Lovejoy who was always mad that people weren’t getting married inside of churches and insisted that everyone getting married outside was getting married in the cheap showiness of nature.

Margaret: The cheap showiness!

Kate: Which, like, every time something stuns me, like when I’ll feel Alice Walker’s comment about the color purple, I’m just like “Ah, the cheap showiness of nature!”

Margaret: In one sense, it’s very true. Nature is quite a show-off. Some of that, things will just take your breath away. Right now, if you have time while you’re in town, see if you can go to Shelby Park, there’s an entire field with a path through it of coreopsis in bloom. These bright yellow flowers covered with bees and butterflies. And you just look at that and you just think, good God. How magnificent. The Grand Canyon is great, yeah, but look at this flower! Field of flowers and butterflies.

Kate: Does that give you a feeling of the holy sometimes?

Margaret: Oh, 100%. I think that’s where God has always been for me. I loved church, too. I loved the stained glass and the light coming through the stained glass. And I loved the incense. And I loved the candles and the, oh, and singing. Human voices raised in song make me cry every single time, especially a cappella singing. But that is all human. That’s what we made thinking it would please God. What God made is, is totally different.

Kate: Hmm. Big pile of flowers in my way.

Margaret: Mm hmm. Full of bugs and possibly a copperhead.

Margaret: We’ll be right back.

Kate: What do you say to someone like Gerry Bowler, my sweet, sweet father? Who would hate being called sweet, so I’m just going to bring it up more often. But he he believes that air conditioning was created—possibly by God—as a reason to stay inside and therefore away from the kinds of realizations that you’re having.

Margaret: Or the inconveniences, for sure. My father used to tell me God gave us Walmart. You know, I think rural people like stuff like that, you know, because, you know, it responds to a kind of deprivation or a kind of inconvenience or discomfort. We didn’t have air conditioning in our house in lower Alabama. And my grandparents. When we moved to Birmingham, we had air conditioning, but my grandparents never had it. When you live in a house without air conditioning, you keep the doors and the windows open. So you can hear the birds singing. You can taste the dust in the wind. You can smell the storm brewing. And I love that. But I would never want to live without air conditioning in this world. I mean, there’s an irony to that, too, because it’s partly because of air conditioning that we’re in such a mess with climate change, it’s all those other human conveniences that we’ve made for ourselves to go faster or go farther or stay inside. You wouldn’t, I mean, none of this would be in here. Nashville wouldn’t, as we know it today, would not exist without air conditioning. Nothing in the South would.

Kate: I once read a whole history of Florida through air conditioning. I don’t really mean for this to become a podcast about air conditioning, but now that you’re talking about it’s actually really interesting.

Margaret: It’s amazing how something like that, when you think about it…

Kate: It is! It’s the great… It just seems like one of the most obvious barriers to the kind of embeddedness that you’re describing is, well, what if we paid more attention and what would we need to pay more attention? Well, we’d probably need to open a door or a window. Well, what makes me not want to do that? My air temperature, or my desire to keep everything uniform so I can be more productive. And that’s the truth of it.

Margaret: I mean, I do think that we have this idea now. That nature is something we drive to visit. You know that we get in a car and we go to the woods. We get in a car and we go to the fields or the river. And, you know… I think my kids had these, this series of picture books and they were picture books, but the stories came from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so when he… One of the storybooks is called “Henry Hikes to Fitchburg.” And he, Henry and his friend, whose name…my children are all grown up so you can excuse me for not remembering these details of this picture book, but the the friend takes a train, I believe, and Henry walks, and it’s a whole description of the things Henry sees while he’s walking. And he actually gets to Fitchburg first because of all the delays in the more modern form of travel that his friend takes. We don’t do that. We don’t hike to Fitchburg anymore.

Kate: There’s this lovely book by Katherine May about enchantment I really enjoyed. And she, like you’re describing, didn’t go somewhere else to find her. She, I mean, it was the pandemic, right?She just noodled around, looked outside, went on walks where she wasn’t sure where she was going. And there was the feeling that the quality…that it was the quality of attention that she was learning to pay—because, you know, because we were all stuck—dramatically changed how beautiful she thought the world was, but also just how embedded in it, then, she felt. Like she felt more…connected to everything. More… I’m just wondering, like, what kind of… People who get into, say, and I hear it when people get weirdly into gardening, but what do you think it is about like how it changes us when we start to like, I mean, maybe it comes out of hobbies, but we start to get more into the world as it is in our house and yard.

Margaret: Well, I think it’s, artists talk about flow. You know, about being so immersed in a project, or an activity, that you lose first, your sense of the passage of time, but then, your sense of yourself as separate. That’s you know, it was so interesting to me about during the pandemic, because I don’t know if you knew this, but there was actually a shortage of birdseed during the pandemic because so many people took up birdwatching during. You know, they would hang a bird feeder and fill it with seeds and, and they would, be fascinated, and fall in love. And I think partly it was that we were spending so much—those of us who had the luxury of working from home—were spending so much time in front of screens to do our work that the idea of sitting down in front of a screen when the work was over was kind of revolting. So the idea of going for a walk, since we couldn’t go to the movies or couldn’t go to a restaurant. It woke people up in a way, not just Katherine May, but all of us. So much so that it was hard to find birdseed. And I thought that was wonderful. The other thing that happened during the pandemic, besides the fact that we were paying attention in a way that many of us had not ever had the chance, or took the time to do, was that the animals around us noticed our absence and took advantage of it. So there were all these pictures that were, you know, showing up on social media of, you know, a fox walking right down the middle of somebody’s street or, you know, I think there were several cases of cougars, you know, on major thoroughfares and cities in California. And they, it was a good reminder that they are always watching us. They are paying attention to our patterns. They are looking for opportunities to to coexist in a way that we have not been looking for them.

Kate: That reminds me, I got really obsessed with this, um… So I moved home to Manitoba during the pandemic. And like, the winters are legit in Winnipeg. They are full-on six, seven-month experiences of their own.

Margaret: Not going to be a climate migrant to Winnipeg, thank you for the warning.

Kate: It’s a confrontation with mortality that you decide to accept. But I got so obsessed with this one skunk that was just, was having the time of his life because nobody was, there just wasn’t that much traffic outside anymore. And the sight of that skunk outside under this beautiful streetlamp and the way that it looks… Like they’re so showy, they’re so beautiful, the way that they look like they just, like, put on their grandma’s coat and they just kind of fluff along in the night.

Margaret: And they talk! They have this. They’re constantly talking to themselves. Just little quarrelsome little [mimics skunk noises]. It’s so cute!

Kate: I do really like your obsessions, like if I poke you with a stick, you’ll be like, “You know what’s really cool? Possums.” I love possums. You love possums. You have their, like… I wonder if you, oh, gosh, you wrote this little joke. It was like an, it was like an ode? It sounds like a blessing? It was like, oh, for the, for the, for the pink fingers of the possum. For the…

Margaret: For the unloved animals.

Kate: Yes.

Margaret: Yeah, it was like a love letter to the unloved. I love the possums.

Kate: Which other ones do you love?

Margaret: Well, I try, Kate. It’s an, it’s an act of attention and an act of will that I try to love them all. I do. You know the red wasp? I’m trying. I’m trying. They’re eating my caterpillars. But of course, they’re not my caterpillars, the red wasp has babies to feed, too. And so there was mosquitoes in that one. And little snub-nosed bats. You can love a mosquito, Kate, if you know that the mosquitoes are out there feeding the swallows.

Kate: Things they rob from me, they give to others. Do you think this is a stage of life thing? And I really mean that in a good way. Like, different stages…

Margaret: This is a crazy old lady thing, that’s what you’re asking me, isn’t it? I know, I can see where this is going! My neighbors, I think, would concur with that assessment of my obsession.

Kate: Well, then that makes me feel like, how weird has it gotten?

Margaret: It’s gotten pretty weird over there, but.

Kate: When you’re, like, cherishing each bluebell, just pressing his velvety petals together.

Margaret: You know, you really, you can’t be walking around the yard in your housecoat. And I said (this is my husband looking out the window of his of his home office and watching me), but it’s like, well, what are these rules? Yeah, you can walk out in your housecoat to pick up the newspaper, but you can’t walk out in your housecoat to look at the bumblebees?

Kate: Two cherish these?

Margaret: Who made this rule?

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: There’s this awesome book by Christy Watson called Quilt on Fire. So Christy Watson was a podcast guest that I immediately was like, I love you. Can we be friends forever? And I performed her wedding to her husband this summer.

Margaret: Oh, wow!

Kate: Which is not like a normal trajectory I experience, but it was still like a great, great joy in my life. She wrote this amazing book, but it had some pretty sexy parts about menopause in the middle. And she was, she was like—

Margaret: Ok, I really can’t tell where this is going.

Kate: Me neither! Okay. But she was describing that part of, I don’t know, all stages of womanhood, (and she would never put it like that) was that you, you can return to a kind of playfulness. And so she kind of described post-menopausal life as being, her more interested in what to me sounded like nature, play, friendship with others. And she has this scene where they’re like, all of her women friends are sitting on a beach and they are like, you’d imagine that they were drunk because they were so all of a sudden immersed in the like, interest in the iridescence of the seashell, and the…. And I kind of thought, I really hope that there is a stage of life in which it forces me to pay more attention and, and that I’m in love with the world again.

Margaret: I think you’re in love with the world already. You’re just in love with the human beings in the world. And we, we count. A mistake we make, often, is we think: human beings, nature. Never the twain shall meet. Like our whole, and there’s a good reason for thinking that. Because, you know, for the entirety of human existence, we’ve been trying to beat that nature thing down and kill it and subdue it as much as we possibly can. But the truth is, we are creatures. We are made to be a part of this world as much as any possum or skunk wearing its grandmother’s fur coat. You know, we belong here, too. And we, we forget that maybe because of air conditioning, maybe because of other things, we’re busy. The way we make our living is not by catching crickets, but we are just as earnestly in pursuit of that. But I think that it will help always to reframe that relationship and not to think of either the natural world or ourselves as other, but to think of the two as belonging to one another. I really think we have to make that shift somehow. We have to stop thinking of it as something separate from us, both because it’s unfair and wrong, but also because it’s going to kill us in the end. We can’t live without bees. We can’t live without red wasps. We need them. They’re pollinating our food. We do belong and they do belong to us. And I mean, one thing I really hoped about The Comfort of Crows is that, if I love something in front of somebody. Maybe they’d be more apt to love it, too. You know?

Kate: Yeah. Well, you made me really want to love it. There’s this quote, that I, because you said—

Margaret: It’s a heavy lift to go straight to mosquitoes. You might have to start a little slower, something prettier.

Kate: Because you write, if I can awkwardly read you back to you for a moment? “Apocalyptic stories always get the apocalypse wrong. The tragedy is not the failed world’s barren ugliness. The tragedy is its clinging beauty, even as it fails, until the very last cricket falls silent, the beauty besotted, will always find a reason to love the world. And that made me write, in all caps, “HOW DO WE BECOME BESOTTED?” I just, I love it, I love it. And I think it sounds like what you’re saying, too, is if we imagine ourselves as being so integral to it. So part of it and recognize our own animal-ness. Then it will feel a lot less like we’ve just copy-pasted a life into a setting that we’re trying to manage with lawn care.

Margaret: Right. And that’s the thing about lawn care, and it’s about… Yeah, I think about how often the products that are marketed to us are designed to remove us from our animal selves. You know, something that will make us not stink, or not sweat or that will make our poops not, the smell of them not drift through the house. You know, we have all these masks for our true animal nature. And I don’t want people to learn to love something that is of no benefit to them. I think people would be happier. I’m happier. You know, the times I’m least happy are the times when I have to be shut up in a room for the longest.

Kate: Totally. I guess the one thing I did want to ask you about too, is about that feeling of like. “Oh, I love you, come back,” is… One of the aches that you write about is in watching seasons come and go and your adult children living with you for a bit because of, you know, a million pandemic reasons that kids live with their parents and you being like, “Hey, maybe we could just drag this out. Maybe we could just do this forever.” You hear in the crow, “Come back, come back.” And you’re like, great, maybe, maybe this mom feels the same way.

Margaret: I think that partly because my grandparents did do that. When my mother was four years old and her, my uncle was a newborn baby, their house burned down. And so my grandparents took the kids and moved in with my grandfather’s parents and they never left. And then, when my other great-grandfather died, my other great-grandmother moved in. And so my mother grew up in a house with three generations always, she had almost no memory of living somewhere that wasn’t like that. And I know, it was a, it was a small house, and I know it must have been, there must have been tensions. But I never felt them as a child. And so to me, there’s something a little bit lost that we consider that arrangement a kind of failure, a kind of failure to launch. My children certainly would have felt it to be a failure if they had stayed. And I was glad when they left because they wanted to leave. And really, that’s what you want for your children is to be okay without you, that’s the whole point, is to get them to a place where they can be in the world. Even if you aren’t there and they’ll be okay. But I did like it. They weren’t just—are we allowed to say assholes on your program?

Kate: Yes!

Margaret: You know, like, we, they had gotten past that teenage phase and they were really good company. Like, they had great senses of humor, and they knew stuff I didn’t know.

Kate: Yeah. With the failure to launch metaphor, which is probably aerospace, but also I think we picture nests is, naturally are we supposed to then, toss out our offspring? Like, is the natural world indicating that our multi-generational hopes and dreams are, are not, quote, “nature’s way?” Or, now we’re going to go with dolphins. The truth is there’s a million different versions of animal families.

Margaret: It all depends on the species, sure. Crows stay together for generations. But, and that’s one of the reasons I take comfort from crows. One time there was this cardinal, pair of cardinals that nested in a tree that brushed right up against our bedroom window. And they built, they must have built the nest very early one morning before we opened the curtains and there was this little nest in closer to me than you are. Right? It was just like, right there. And so I had this absolute perfect view of what was happening in this little red bird family. I kept the curtains closed, but I would stick my camera through the crack in the curtains and look at them. And the mother cardinal starts incubating the first egg as soon as she lays. But the second egg comes the next day or the next. So that baby bird is late, two days, one day or two days behind its sibling. And when it was when the first baby bird left the nest, the parent spent a lot of energy coaxing that second baby out of the nest. And that baby didn’t want to go. And it had a great disadvantage over its much stronger sibling. But bluebirds don’t start incubating their eggs until after the last egg is laid. So all the bluebird babies are at the same stage of development when it’s time to fly. And it’s interesting to see the difference. Maybe it’s not interesting to everybody? I’m wondering if your eyes are glazing over there, Kate. It’s hard to tell with all these lights. But I think that, you know, it just, to me, if there’s going to be a parable here, it’s that there’s no one right way to do this. I think, you know, I say to young moms all the time, there are many, many ways to be a good mother. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s way to be a good mother.

Kate: There’s something I was going to ask you. It’s been a very funny 24 hours because our mutual friend Ann Patchett, who is a joy and also a forcefield, we were going to have breakfast and then cut to 24 hours later, I’m living in her home.

Margaret: Without her!

Kate: Yes, exactly. Which made me laugh. We were talking about a deep belief that we both share about the feeling of like, life everywhere, and especially when you’re scared that, you know, scared of being sick. Scared of things falling apart. Scared of people we love dying. Thrilled about new ones being born, but that, the feeling of the connectedness and the despair in that. And she, and this was like, I mean, we talked about it years ago, but she quoted something about, like, rivers of light. But I asked her about it yesterday and she was like, Oh, that’s from a Jane Kenyon poem. And she then got me the book and was like, “Read it!” Which I loved. But I was reading the poem, which is called, “Having It Out with Melancholy.” The incredible Jane Kenyon. And, but something in the poem really reminded me of your book. And so, can I just fuss about it for a second?

Margaret: Sure, I love Jane Kenyon.

Kate: I am new to her.

Margaret: I’m not sure it’s a great one for you to be reading, though.

Kate: It’s a huge bummer, and I love it.

Margaret: I know.

Kate: The poem frames the experience of always knowing that despair is right there, through the fog of fear and illness, and then she describes a feeling she had, which is the thing that Anne was describing. She writes, “Once in my early thirties, I saw that I was a speck of light in the great river of light that undulates through time. I was floating with the whole human family. We were all colors—those who are living now, those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few moments, I floated, completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exit.” And like, the realization that she’s a part of something. But then, by the end of the poem, it sounds like you, my dear. At the very end it goes, so she’s like, waking up to life again. And when she describes it as being like someone pardoned for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s like, full of bitterness and wonder, which I thought was such a wonderful description.

Margaret: That is a great thing!

Kate: But then, like, the poem ends on not being quite ready to wake up. And then she looks out and she says, “Easeful air presses through the screen with the wild, complex song of the bird, and I am overcome by ordinary contentment. What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment? How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples; it’s bright, unequivocal eye.” I thought, just like the beauty besotted-ness that you’re describing. Like, do you think there is, in nature in the ability to observe and be, like a like a love that cures us? Because that ordinary love sounds like sometimes that saves our life.

Margaret: We forget, I think. How, how the rhythms of the natural world are also our rhythms. Because we’ve, we’ve masked our rhythms. We turn lights on so we can stay up after dark and we stay inside. I used to say when I was a young teacher, how can Wordsworth compete with Sesame Street? And see, I love Sesame Street. I love Big Bird. But, but when children come to school, having been entertained from their very first consciousness, how does a teacher going through at a human pace with words coming out at a human pace and breathing at a human pace, how does a child primed by television pace? Meet that, slow down? And now, of course, it’s so much harder because internet pace is so much faster than television pace. But when we are outside. We are moving. We are much more apt to become aware of our breath and our heartbeat and these natural rhythms that are much slower. And slowing, is the, I’m convinced, the first step toward happiness because it’s slowing down that lets us notice. There’s, and there’s, I’m sure, there’s all kind of science about this. I’m not just making this stuff up, it’s like, there are microbes in the soil that stimulate serotonin production. So digging in the dirt has a similar effect as an antidepressant on the human brain. So there are, this is what I keep saying, it’s not because you should do it. I don’t want to be a scold. I don’t want to say, “This is what we all should do.” I want to say, look how much happier we’ll all be if we do this, because this is what we, this is how we were created to be. This is who we are, who we most essentially are. And once you slow down, once you’re working at breath pace, heartbeat pace, striding pace, then you have that chance to notice. Because you can’t notice when you’re going by at 75 miles an hour.

Kate: Yeah, I was very struck by, like choices Anne makes to be in, at a, at a human pace with other people. And I have to admit, I’ve been thinking about your book and thinking about what it takes to be even more in love with life as it is when life feels a little bit more as it is.

Margaret: There’s a risk to it, though. It’s it’s not all it’s not all songbird. Or some of the things you’re going to notice are also very troublesome. Yeah, you know, and it is…

Kate: Fear, despair, concern.

Margaret: It’s hard not to see yourself as part of that too, as the mortality is everywhere, even completely apart from the bigger picture of what’s happening to the planet. There is a lot of sadness and a lot of pain that comes also from paying attention. But when you factor in also that, okay, if you started paying attention last year, then you might notice this year that there are fewer tiger swallowtail butterflies, fewer bluebirds. And that is its own pain. But I also think that when we allow ourselves to notice that, then we have taken the first step toward doing something about it. People, they don’t want to think about it because it’s overwhelming. It feels, we feel powerless. And to some extent, we are very powerless. But in another respect, we are not powerless at all. And that’s the thing about planting zinnias. You plant a little bit of zinnias or a little pot of milkweed and you see the birds come to harvest the seeds or the butterflies and the bees come to harvest the nectar and the pollen and, and it happens. So you see that this, then this, result because, and you think, and you just want to do more of that. Like, “Oh, that was great. I’m making that pollinator bed bigger this year. I’m figuring out what it is that the Tiger Swallowtail needs to lay its eggs on so the caterpillars have something to eat.” And it is, it’s an activating. You know, if you think about what’s going on, you can let yourself fall into a state of despair that’s very profound. Unless someone gives you a tool for taking action. That’s our greatest shoring up against despair is, is to realize that we aren’t powerless.

Kate: Fine. I’ll water my spider plant, Margaret. I’ve had it since college. It’s one of the only—

Margaret: I have a ficus tree I’ve had since college!

Kate: I had such a nice time talking with you. You are a complete delight.

Kate: So I don’t think Margaret will kill me for telling you this story. But when I walked her out after the interview, it was just such a nice day and we were going to walk around for a little bit and I asked if I could put my bag in her trunk. And she opened it up and I realized that her trunk is full of like, those long, tough industrial gloves that you have when you are going to, you know, touch pointy things or maybe things with sharp teeth. And then she had a bunch of cages, like nice cages, like friendly cages, like, “Hey, let’s just put you there for a second to make sure you’re okay” cages. And it turns out that that’s what Margaret does. She was like, “Well, what if I find a possum and it’s on the side of the road and it’s injured and I have to make sure there’s no babies on its tummy that need help.” And I was SO happy to just think about Margaret patrolling the highways with enormous gloves, making sure possum babies are fine. So, yeah, she’s a gem and she really does think a lot about how to love and notice the world. She has this gorgeous little piece about loving every unloved thing like mosquitoes or copperheads, which I think we both know I’m not there yet. But she has a beautiful little piece, a little kind of tribute, a blessing, if you will, for our failure to notice the world in all of its…you know. We don’t see its beauty.

Kate: So let’s close with a little blessing taken from Margaret’s book, The Comfort of Crows. Here we go. “World, world, forgive our ignorance and our foolish fears. Absolve us of our anger and our error. In your boundless gift for renewal, disregard our undeserving. For no reason but the hope that one day we will know the beauty of unloved things, accept our unuttered thanks.” All right. Bless you. Bless me. As we learn to be in love with the world again. See you soon.

Kate: If you also want to be the kind of person who pays attention during the Christmas season, our team has created a really beautiful advent guide that you can use. It’s totally free. It’s massive and gorgeous and it is available now. You can access it at if that’s your kind of thing. And hey, if you liked this conversation, could you do me a huge favor and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify? It just takes a couple of seconds, but weirdly, it makes a huge difference to how people see and find our podcast. And make sure you’re subscribed while you’re there. And this is the part of the episode where I could just say, holy crap. This only happens because other people make it possible. Like our generous partners, the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment, who support storytelling in faith in life, and I am so grateful to have them as my partners. Thank you also to my academic home, Duke Divinity School, and our new podcast network Lemonada, where their slogan is, “Make life suck less.” It makes me laugh. And a huge shout out to my absolutely spin —I’m always pausing here because I always want to come up with new adjectives. I was going to say amazing, and then I went for stupendous, and then I just struggled with it. But these are the people who make everything beautiful. Jessica Ritchie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt, and Katherine Smith. Thank you. And hey, we love hearing from you, so leave us a voicemail. We might even be able to use it on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. Okay, lovelies, I am going to talk to a wonderful person next week named Katherine Price about fun. What is it? How can I have more? What’s going on? Is there a fun deficiency? How can we have more fun in the lives we actually have? But in the meantime, come find me online at @katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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