"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, January 3, 2016


We arrived at Christmas Eve service late. The seats we found were in the back of the large church under an overhang, and because the service was so full, the five of us shared four chairs. The man directly in front of me was huge, so I spent the hour shifting constantly to see around him.

I usually love this service. Singing carols from my childhood on Christmas Eve, sitting with family, I feel loved and connected to the divine energy that I've called God most of my life. It's how we've started our Christmas together for the last several years and I find myself looking forward to that time as much as the food and the gifts and the games we play.

I have become an Easter and Christmas church-goer. I go with my brothers to their churches. One church, the Easter church,  is friendly and warm and the music is uplifting and glorious. The pastor tells stories that make me laugh and cry, often at the same time. And while I don't agree with all that's said, I feel love in that congregation, from the front and all around.

The other church, the Christmas church, is more formal and I feel surrounded by strangers who are also surrounded by strangers. Usually I don't mind because it's about the singing and the candles and my family.

This year things did not feel the same, and it was only partly because of the physical discomfort. We didn't get to sing as much. I was working against claustrophobia. And the sermon was long and full of threats of hell and a pedantic teaching bent on proving the reality of Mary's virginity. Three times the pastor said, "and in closing" before actually ending. There was no sense of hope or revealing of light. There was no offering of love. There were no stories.

When the pastor ran out of words and we lit the traditional candles, I felt a divine presence for the first time that evening. My youngest brother, our host, received a flame from the usher. His wife lit her candle from his. My husband lit his from hers. I lit my candle from my husband's. My middle brother lit his candle from mine, and then passed the flame on. By that time the church was full of stars, each one representing the hopes, dreams, and divinity of each person in the room. We sang together, carols as familiar and comforting as the family surrounding me. At the end everyone lifted their candles up, the stars ascending to a heaven that was this congregation of people acting in one accord for those few moments. That time was far too short for me. I wanted to stand in the twinkling light of those candles, and the congregation of common focus, for so much longer.

On the way home, my sister-in-law asked if we'd heard of the Bothell crows. She talked about a phenomenon of crows gathering each evening at the University of Washington campus in Bothell where there is a mitigation wetlands. She told us thousands of crows come in from the surrounding countryside. It seemed a worthwhile thing to see.

The next afternoon on the early edge of dusk, while SIL put the finishing touches on our Christmas dinner, five of us headed for town. Youngest brother drove, middle brother in the front seat with him. I sat in the back, in the middle, between husband and niece's fiance. Right away we saw trees full of crows, hundreds of them maybe. When we got to downtown Bothell, there was an apartment building covered in crows, all cawing and calling to each other. We could see more arriving from the distance, and as we watched and listened, we talked about the movie, The Birds. We wondered how it might be to live in that place and to be in the midst of that invasion every evening.

I thought that was it. Youngest brother said there were usually more than we were seeing, but I thought we were going back. I'd forgotten how stubborn my little brother is, and we continued to drive around. And around. And around. For long stretches we saw no crows at all. Or we saw clumps of them in the sky far away.

Just as it was on the edge of full dark, we pulled into the cemetery. The scene was movie perfect: The air was full of black shadows shifting here and there, like giant leaves being blown by a giant wind. Giant leaves that settled back into the waiting skeletal arms of winter trees. The ground was covered with crows, as were the headstones. The sound of those multitudes of crows was both chilling and awe-inspiring at the same time.

As we pulled away from the cemetery we could see crows in the sky arriving from every direction. We continued to drive around while the sky around us thickened with crows. We were on campus, heading up a hill, crows swirling and wheeling and calling all around us. Youngest brother pulled into a lot at my request. We marveled at a roof covered in crows arranged so symmetrically that it looked like each crow was honoring the personal space of each of his neighbors.

I got out of the car. For a short time I was alone outside at late dusk on Christmas night with hundreds of thousands of crows for company. The few sitting in the bushes closest to where we parked shifted to more distant branches. Otherwise there was no change. My presence had no impact. I wasn't afraid, or even nervous. Apparently, neither were the crows. Alert for danger, but sensing none. Only feeling a huge sense of wonder at the privilege of standing in the midst of this amazing congregation of corvids.

Eventually the guys joined me, one at a time, and I was glad for the human company. Marvel and wonder are much magnified when you have someone to share them with.   I didn't want to leave, but dinner waited at home, and pie and dominoes.

A little research revealed that this phenomenon, while larger than many, is not unusual. Crows gather at roosting time in part for the protection of each others' company. They sit together in trees, in a hierarchical arrangement. Anything disturbing the branches alerts everyone in the tree. Crows are smart. They have a culture. They use tools. They take care of each other. They play. So their choosing the safety of congregation seems to be more than just instinct.

As we drove home from the holiday, I thought about the two congregations: the church and the crows. I am able to experience wonder in both, but I definitely felt more alive and connected and open in the midst of the crows. I wanted to go back and spend more time with them - want to go back and watch them depart at dawn.

Traditional church feels heavy, oppressive, full of rules impossible to follow and contradictions so hard to reconcile. I've spent a lifetime trying to find the right church, trying to find a congregation to fit in with, trying to find a sweet spot of spirituality that feels like home. But when I pay attention to when I feel most connected to the divine energy that is love and grace, it isn't in church.

Walt and I went to yoga on New Year's Day. This was a special class done to music: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. In a regular class there are anywhere from 8 to 20 students, depending on the day. There were nearly 60 people in the room on this day. We were set up with no more than an inch or two between mats. Many had never done yoga before, and many people were there with their kids. Several times during class giggles were heard from the back of the room. Because we were so crammed in, there was a lot of accidental bumping into each other which resulted in smiles and reassuring pats.

Several times during the class, when we were all in a posture together, regardless of how deep, it seemed we all breathed the same breath at the same time. As with my brothers' churches, I don't know many of the people who practiced in that class on New Year's Day. It didn't seem to matter. We breathed together, moved together, laughed together. While not religious or even officially spiritual, that gathering was a congregation that felt like home to me.

I keep thinking I need to find a church. That need is a leftover one from my childhood, my years in the cult, and pressure from my brothers. Maybe this is the year that I find church in whatever congregation of living things that evokes wonder and love. Maybe it is time to accept my own soul's longings as real and enough. Maybe it's time to listen to the rustle of wings and breathings of hearts that tell me without doubt I'm not alone.

Image from www.cascadia.edu


Linda Reeder said...

Wow. I don't really want to disturb the mood of your words. Yet I want the acknowledge the beauty of those words, and the thoughts expressed by them.
We stopped going to church long ago, but I would attend with my daughter and her husband on Easter and Christmas Eve. Like you, I liked the singing, and for a while the nostalgia. Now that son-in-law is gone, my daughter lives here and if she goes to church she goes without me.
A year of so before she died, my mother asked me why I no longer go to church. I know she prayed for me every day. I did not want to answer her, but it was time to declare "I am no longer a believer."
I'm not sure I ever was a believer, but I tried to be for a long time. Letting that go has been a blessing.

DJan said...

Very thought provoking, Deb. I have seen those congregations of crows and find them fascinating. I don't go into churches these days, but I have never found that community inside one. The last time I felt anything profound inside a church was a very moving memorial service in a Unitarian Church. I went in feeling alone and sad, and I left feeling uplifted and part of something larger than myself. :-)

Linda Myers said...

We have crows in our neighborhood that fly at dusk each evening to that same Bothell roost. I've tried to find it a couple of times by following the crows, with no success. Now that I know they gather in the cemetery, I'll look for them in the spring when we return home.

My spiritual community is in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Edmonds, where I live most of the year. Last year, on my first Sunday back from Arizona, I was near tears all the way through the service. I will take you there sometime.

kario said...

I think you know where your church is. You write so beautifully about the natural world and it is clear that you experience a great feeling of connection with it, whether you are walking Toby on your own or hiking with others. I am so pleased that you were able to sit with your experiences and notice them without judgment. Thank you for sharing.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

So amazing, your crow experience. They are intelligent and may have been thinking about you as much as you were about them.

Barb said...

When I was a child, I had a very bad experience as part of a congregation of a church. Since that time, I've moved away from organized religion. I don't receive any comfort or feel any connection to religious doctrine. However, I admire people who not only profess but live their faith. The last time I attended a church service was many years ago. The minister gave the very same sermon (including the same jokes) that I had listened to when I visited the same church years earlier. (I guess even ministers recycle their material!) In the sermon he warned about "them" and "us" and as examples he stressed that it wasn't OK to participate in interfaith gatherings, and that Yoga was a blasphemy. I honestly found it more amusing than disturbing, but I wondered how many of the people present (it was a very large congregation) embraced that kind of petty and separatist doctrine. I'm hoping I don't have to set foot in that particular church again! I'm often awed by Nature and by the intrinsic good I encounter daily in others. Sometimes, people tell me they'll pray for me, and I'm always receptive to that. Surely, I can use all the positive thoughts that anyone wants to send my way. My grandson and I were talking recently about a "murder of crows." I found the Bothell video a little unsettling. If I were alone outdoors when the crows came to roost, I wonder if I would feel awe or fear?

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I think people should never stop looking for what gives them peace and a place where they can belong and have joy. I spent most of my life being part of a major religion that dictated how I should believe, think and act. I questioned many of its rules but because it was a big part of my upbringing, I never considered leaving. Then in my 50's, I realized that I didn't believe their teachings any more and began to question everything about the church and its leaders and so I left. I am happy with my decision and I am at peace, but I do miss the music at Christmas and the community of people to share some of those lovely moments. On December 26th, though, I am over it.

yaya said...

I too was thinking of the movie "The Birds" during your description of this fabulous sighting! I'd love to see that! I am a church goer and find comfort weekly in that venue but it's not everyone's thing. I remember being a kid and my family was camping. It was October and the campground was pretty deserted. I took a walk with my Dad and he commented on feeling closer to God in nature than in Church...and we were Catholic and always went to Mass weekly. I had to agree with him that I felt very close to God that special Sunday with my Dad...I still feel that way when out in nature. You may not go to Church weekly, but I think you are a very spiritual person and your writings are so uplifting. I hope you have a wonderful 2016!

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Music is what can draw folks together and has done so for centuries.
The candle lighting is another powerful image of connecting.
The structure and rituals of organized religions all appear to teach guilt and fear and that is not spiritually uplifting.
Questioning the value system of a religion comes with freedom of choice. You have made yours. I left formal religion years ago.
Like you I seek to feel connected and I am happy that blogging can help with that.
May this 2016 be a great year. Thanks for dropping by my posts.

Terri Tiffany said...

My daughter lives near Bothel. I would love to see that sight the next time we visit and take my camera. It would be awesome! I read your post with interest and the comments. I find myself unsettled but understanding of them. We always went to church since my daughter came along. No matter where we moved, we found a home. It wasn't until coming here to this town, I have been unable to find that place. I wanted a pastor who preached the Word, not rules and people I could fellowship with. This is a strange town. We started watching church on TV, something I never wanted to do. I'm praying God moves us to a place where I can be part of a church because I need that fellowship and teaching in my life. It's easy to move away from it. I know because I have. Harder to go back. God has never let me down and the Bible shares how important it is to be with like believers to keep us strong in the faith. I feel bad that I haven't found the place but I also know God sees my heart. It's ok. :)

Sally Wessely said...

This was, as usual, a fascinating post. I'm just reading it exactly one month after Christmas. Yes, I've been very behind in my blog reading.

As you know, I too was once a part of a cult. Cults are so damaging. The effect of being controlled by one lasts for years. Thankfully, when I left the cult, I returned to the Christian beliefs that I had embraced when I was twelve years old. I find great hope in my faith. If I were a part of some legalistic system, a religion, I would not have that hope.

Seek and you will find. I know you as the seeker. I appreciate that in you.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I spent a lot of time thinking about this when you first posted it, and again in the last couple of days. I love what kario said, "I think you know where your church is." You are so in tune with nature, and so apt to listen to the lessons it has for you, that nature can be at least a significant part of what you seek. I spent a lot of years as a devout Catholic, involved in youth organizations and activities. The best thing, though, was playing the organ. I played daily Mass and occasional weddings and funerals, and I accompanied three different choirs at different times. I came to love the music, and that's what I missed once I dropped out of the church. Organized religion is dependent on the strengths--and vulnerable to the weaknesses--of those who lead. Eventually the rituals were too overblown, the sermons too narrow-minded, and the sense of community too absent. (And that was before I knew about what the priests were up to.) I know there are better communities out there, but I don't seem drawn to the search. Thanks for a great, engaging post.

Mark Lyons said...

That was an incredibly beautiful post about 2 different congregations. I'm glad that you shared it and that I was with you when you experienced them. I love all the things that I learn about you from reading your blog. I didn't you you loved birds, and dragonflies or loved to hike until I really got to know you. Thanks for sharing and I hope you find a church "home" like I have.

I love you


Cynthia said...

You have articulated many of my feelings in such a thoughtful and gentle way. My love and I try to spend a few hours Sunday mornings in place that feels spiritual, sort of our Sunday morning "church". Usually it is walking a wild beach.