If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Today has been full of tiny annoyances.
I woke up angry at my 5:30 am alarm, because I went to bed later than I should have. I left the house five minutes later than I’d like. I forgot to print new rosters for my classes this morning (which have been in a constant state of flux, since it’s the start of the semester), so I had to rig an attendance system on the fly.
In office hours, I spent a full hour assembling a particle board shelf to sit on top of my desk, frustrated with the materials, the office, the mother of the amoeba who wrote the assembly instructions, and anything else in the vicinity.
They’re piling up for tomorrow, too. My car needs gas. I have to take the kids to get haircuts after school tomorrow. I have to take my daughter to get (what will probably be expensive) clothes for her first dance class on Friday. I have to buy cupcakes for my son to bring to school on Friday. I have to finish planning food for his birthday party on Saturday. I have to bake his birthday cake and somehow make it look like Cappy from Mario Odyssey. I have to do some laundry or we are all going to drown in smelly clothing.
Or I can stop.
Or I can take a breath, and realize that all of these annoyances are things that I either caused or asked for, and step back. I can remember, like Emily Dickinson tells us above, that I can do something good with a really small action. Maybe I don’t always get the laundry done on time, but I can talk to my daughter on the way to school. I can sing her songs and wish her a good day when I drop her off.
I can go a step further, and, like the speaker in the poem, I can look for hurts to mend. You have to be looking to see someone whose heart is breaking; probably they won’t tell you when things get bad, because we all wear these masks every day so that people think that we are Fine, our jobs are Fine, our lives are Fine, when we are anything but. You have to be looking for robins’ nests to find the birds who could use a helping hand.
Last summer, an incredibly annoying pair of birds built a nest on our front porch. They were barn swallows, and they built their nest out of mud. After the first day, I went out and knocked down their half-finished effort. The next day it stormed, and they came back, bewildered, and stood on the ledge where their nest had been. They didn’t stick around for the worst of the rain, and I decided that if they came back, I’d let them stay.
They came back. They built a nest. They had babies–I’d hear them screeching right outside the laundry room window. They had too many babies. There were five baby starlings in that small nest, and when they started hopping around in there, the nest couldn’t accommodate them. I looked outside one day and saw four babies perched on the ledge, and my heart sank. Nearly eight years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, we had similar birds nest outside a different front door, and when their babies fell out of the nest, they died. It wasn’t a good thing for a pregnant woman to see.
I raced outside and found the ridiculous barn swallow nestling perched on the porch, fine as could be. I scooped him up with a piece of paper, dodging the angry parents, and plopped him back in the nest. I must have done this daily for a week before looking outside one day and finding the nest empty.
It’s such a small thing to put a baby bird back in the nest. Maybe it’s not even a necessary thing. But it’s not in vain, either.