Bird by Bird

Marion Leary
5 min readMay 21, 2024

Over the past few years, I have taken to birdwatching or, more colloquially, birding. I love many things about birding; first and foremost, it allows me to be in nature, a healing balm for my mind and soul. It is also competitive enough to engage me (if you think it is easy to find, spot, and identify birds, you’d be wrong). More importantly, though, it is a hobby that requires stillness and quiet, as well as allowing one to practice being ok with disappointment and imperfection. Things I struggle with at times.

Recently, my family suggested that I take a few days off and get out of town. I had been working a lot, and it was beginning to show. So, I booked a weekend-long birding trip in Vermont. This was my first time in Vermont, my first birding trip, and only my second non-work trip solo. I am not embarrassed to admit I was feeling quite nervous. I am a twin, so growing in utero with someone for seven months forms a bit of a habit, for me at least, of always needing a buddy. Plus, there are a lot of things that can — and often try — to kill me, so I always like to have my people nearby in case of emergency.

But “feel the fear and do it anyway,” though as the miles added up, I began to feel increasingly untethered. “Leaving people I love, even happily separating,” as Julia Louis-Dreyfus lamented recently on her brilliantly funny podcast Wiser Than Me, “is heart rendering.” At that moment, driving north away from the people I love toward the Green Mountains of Vermont, I could relate.

On Wiser Than Me, Julia Louis-Dreyfus talks to women who are, as the name states, wiser than her. I am a big fan of the podcast and learn so much from her and all the brilliant women she talks with on her show. As I was heading out, I began listening to what was the current episode that week, which happened to be with the author and spiritual and philosophical “sage” Anne Lamott.

Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird, a book that literally saved my PhD life. I would not have been able to write my dissertation — or get through life at that time — had it not been for that book. Bird by Bird is not just about writing; it is about life. In the book, using her sageness, Lamott explains how to not only write practically — but how to live holistically.

On my birding trip, I met a lovely woman from England. She was an older woman who had problems with her feet, making some of the hiking we did this weekend challenging. As an aside, Julia Louise-Dreyfus and Anne Lamott began the episode talking about their feet problems; it was quite entertaining and relatable. As our birding group mapped out a safe route up and down one particularly tricky embankment, I marveled at this wiser-than-me woman’s willingness to embark on this adventure. She told me that she always says yes to trying because “you can’t experience new things if you say no.” Practically, I wanted to go on this trip to bird and to be in nature; holistically, I also wanted to grow. To experience new things. You can’t experience new things if you say no.

Throughout the podcast episode, Anne Lamott dropped knowledge bomb after knowledge bomb. She talked about how she was bullied in school and that her way of coping was through her perfectionism. I can’t tell you how deeply I felt this entire episode; it spoke directly to me at a time when I needed it most. I, too, am a bit of a perfectionist. I am confident that I, too, became a perfectionist because I was relentlessly bullied when I was young. This perfectionism — as my therapist reminds me — has two sides. It is my superpower for all the fantastic work I’ve done. But, as Sage Lamott discussed, it also has a downside in that it will “make you sicker and more mentally ill and crazier than any other quality.”

While talking with another woman I met on the trip, she asked me if I had a good vacation package from my place of employment. I found it an odd question, though I’ve been asked odder. I explained that yes, I do, but I don’t use it very often. To which she replied, “I got that sense about you.” All I could say in response was, “I’m working on it.” She gave me an approving smile.

This woman and I hadn’t spoken much at all when she asked me this question. Feeling deeply seen by yet another woman who was wiser than me was unnerving. In academia, we work a lot and talk a lot, but we don’t always see each other deeply. Anne Lamott is in recovery and works with the recovery community. She explained that in Alcoholics Anonymous, there is an acronym that people use — WAIT — “Why Am I Talking?”.

On this trip, I was with many people who understood the concept of WAIT in more ways than one. Birders, if you are unaware, are quiet people. We are able to be in each others’ company for hours and hours in patient, concentrated silence. These people understand the value of silence and being fully present in nature, disconnecting. Over the entirety of the trip, no one texted, talked on phones, or seemingly used social media while we were birding and in each other’s company. It was an incredibly rare experience to have in this day and age of uber-connectivity.

As Anne Lamott says, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you,” and I couldn’t agree more. This trip was my chance to unplug and be in the company of people wiser than me. Bird by bird, with every new experience and interaction, I will learn to be wiser for myself and for others, too.

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Marion Leary

Science geek. Passionate abt Philly, resuscitation, social media, scicomm, innovation, art, & helping others. http://marionleary.strikingly.com