Walking down the street to water our friends’ garden while they were on vacation, I heard the familiar call of a Northern flicker and looked up. Perched on a wire right above my head was a male, with his unmistakable tan belly, black spots and crescent-shaped chest patch. I’d never seen one quite so close. Usually they perch high on the telephone pole across the street, drumming and pecking for insects. Of course, I didn’t have my camera with me. I watched him as long as I could.
As I walked back up the hill after watering, I saw him again, near the ground, strong claws holding him vertically on a low concrete retaining wall. He pecked at a crack in the wall over and over again, completely focused, gradually and systematically moving up the crack to the top of the wall. I figured he’d found an ants’ nest, a perfect larder for a hungry bird. His mate hopped along the ground nearby, searching for bugs.
As I stood and watched, not wanting to disturb his meal, a clear message came to me: “Stay with what nourishes you.”
You can think whatever you want about where that message came from. I like to think it came from the flicker. It has precise relevance both to my life and to this time of year.
Lughnasadh, celebrated in Ireland around August 1, is the harvest festival, a time to take stock of what we have: abundance from field and garden, life blessings, skills, abilities, accomplishments. The Celtic god Lugh, after whom this sacred day is named, was known both as a warrior hero and the Many-Skilled One. As the story goes, Lugh once journeyed to the Hill of Tara to join the court of the High King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ireland’s legendary First People. The guard at the door asked what skill he had that would be of use to the King. Lugh rattled off his skills: smith, craftsman, swordsman, harpist, poet, historian, sorcerer, physician, and on and on. The guard informed him that they already had an expert for each and refused him entrance. Finally Lugh asked, “Do you have any one man who has all of those skills?” Stumped, the guard let him in.[i]
As we move from midsummer toward fall and winter, we need to know that we’ll have what we need to get through the dark, cold times. As Leo Lionni made clear in his beloved children’s book Frederick, we need more than food; we need sustenance for our souls. This is doubly true in our current devastating, unsettling experience of threatened authoritarianism. Sometimes it’s hard to get through the day or the news cycle. How will we make it through the chaotic winter to come?
“Stay with what nourishes you.” Personally, what nourishes each of us might be physical resources, relationships, satisfying work, community connections, creativity, political action, time in nature, spiritual practices. As a society, we face stark choices: will we continue on our current path of economic inequality, oppression of particular groups, and environmental destruction, or can we find ways of living together on Earth that provide justice and nourishment for all?
What does it mean to “stay with” what nourishes you? For the flicker, that required using his muscles and claws to hold him in an upright position on a concrete wall for 20 minutes or so and pick out ants from a small crack. That sounds simple, but it’s a significant investment of energy for a creature who needs to ingest a lot of food each day to support flight and other activities. He spent that time and energy because he knew doing so would strengthen him. It’s not always easy to “stay with” a relationship, a job, a creative project, an act of political resistance. Notice what nourishes you, and do what it takes to persevere, even at times when it seems frustrating. And if something in your life isn’t nourishing you, have the courage to change or leave it.
Just over a year ago, I retired from my “day job” in health behavior research. The skills and activities involved were mostly satisfying and socially relevant. However, I spent much less time on writing, spiritual practice, political activism, tending my garden and being in nature than I wanted to while I was employed. Now I have more freedom to choose. I’m grateful for that luxury, and sometimes I feel untethered and exposed as I shed past identities that are no longer useful or necessary.
When I feel that way, when I wonder what to do or how to make the best choice in the moment, I reflect on the flicker’s message.
[i] “Lugh, Master of Skills,” The Celtic Journey, https://thecelticjourney.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/lugh-master-of-skills/ (June 16, 2013)