I catch the last glimpse of the hummingbird in the winter sun on this, the last evening of the year. This is not my photo, to be clear, but it’s a beautiful image of what my iphone cannot capture. She’s stunning in real life. Her wings remind me of myself, somehow. Lately, I find myself awake at night, my mind humming, buzzing like this little bird, through anxious thoughts. Our son leaves for university to Australia in four days. We’ll see him every year, of course, but this is the beginning of the next part of our lives, both his and ours. It’s time – of course it’s time. I know this.
But there I am awake. And one by one, the four usual questions march towards me along the thin beam of moon light coming in between the opening in the curtains as I sleep: Will he be lonely? Will he be all right? Does he have enough to go on? Will his heart break?
I stare them down, these recalcitrant little beasts. Firmly. I’ve rehearsed the answer a hundred times. He. Will. Be. Fine. I know this is true. Still, they appear each night.
Then last night, each one stepped aside and, there they were as if they’d been there all along, four others – perhaps the real questions all along – appeared: Will I be lonely? Will I be all right? Do I have enough to go on? Will my heart break?
This afternoon I had a meaningful conversation with an old friend I hadn’t talked to in 35 years. He shared how, having come through some troubled waters, he’d learned about stillness; he had begun to understand the meaning of that Psalm 46 passage, Be still and know that I am God. “It was that deep stillness that allowed me to heal,” he said.
Yes, I thought, I ought to practice that in the deepest parts of the night; I ought to practice being still in that deep-in-the-presence-of-God-way as I sleep.
It’s amazing the kinds of things that can stir an anxious mind awake. In fact, sometimes I even worry about that hummingbird, here in Canada long after she should be. There’s very little for her to eat, and I feel responsible for her staying. You see, we planted a spindly little gum tree in our yard – mostly as a joke or a wish or just because it reminded my husband of Australia – ten years ago and now it has become a magnificent tree that shapes the horizon we see from our kitchen window. We have all fallen in love with that tree, not only because of its determination to survive in a place it should not, but because it blossoms in December and January. This miracle, in the midst of a cold and dark winter, reminds us of all that is possible. Trees, like people, survive such conditions.
But the hummingbird, who stays now through the winters, does so, I think, because of our tree. Hummingbirds need to eat three times their body weight in food each day! This is the equivalent of a human being eating a pickup truck’s load of food daily. How on earth can she survive? Is our gum tree enough? The cold and the wind whip past her as she perches on the clothesline and I want to run out to her with a scarf!
Today I read about this predicament. Our little bird survives because of something called torpor. Torpor is a deep state of rest that a hummingbird can enter daily, she shuts all her engines down and flips the thermostat to a level that is 95% below her ordinary body temperature, a temperature that is just above the level at which she would not survive, and rests. By doing this she reduces the energy she needs to survive. She does not even sleep during torpor, for the functions of the body that happen as we sleep do not happen during her torpor. All of her systems are shut down. In the morning, it will take her twenty minutes of tiny, shivery, twitching movements to wake herself, gradually warming the temperature of her blood by minute levels until she is warm enough to attempt movement. This is how she survives here. The secret is torpor. She can survive here in the north until the spring because she is still.
This is the thought I take with me into 2016: Find torpor. Be still in the presence of God and know that God provides. Even when it seems unlikely and impossible, even when it’s December and what you need are blossoms, God provides.