Feeding on the Wing

It can be a great comfort to perceive of oneself as part of an ongoing collective tale. We often rail against humanity’s potential to inflict cruelty, pain and suffering and yet I cannot help but feel compassion and admiration. It is remarkable to me that humans continue to live and love, often with passion and commitment, knowing that all they cherish will one day be taken from them. Never knowing the reason for, or meaning of, our existence, we are compelled only to live and accept the mystery, bearing the suffering (when it comes) with grace.

We are in this together. Our bonds of love, joy, pain and loss, and the wisdom that each of these brings us, rings like a clear, pure, infinite note through time; resonating in our cellular and ancestral memories, a baton of sound passed down and on, each of our experiences, deepening and enriching its tone. Our voice is added to the many, becoming a part of the complex and mysterious song of the universe; this song is ever unfolding and reshaping itself that its expression might be truer, more authentic, more itself. Such a perspective can develop an inspiring and enduring sense that our losses are never in vain, any more than our joys.

We do not have to wait until crisis hits to connect and draw strength from our spiritual sources. We can learn to feed and nourish ourselves at all moments, aware that we are emotionally collecting and storing materials that will help us access our resilience more easily and in doing so make the journey through any dark times ahead a little more bearable. These will not necessarily remove the pain but can ease the passage, encouraging us to place our trust in the notion that – in a world that is fuelled by the cycles of movement and change – all things pass.

A primary source for inspiration is found when we go outside, when we engage with the natural world, allowing ourselves to be open to its deep wisdom and nourishment. All that we could want to know about ourselves can be found reflected in the countless daily expressions of life.  

On the steep chalk slope of Culver Down on the Isle of Wight, on the heights looking out over the broad sands of White Cliff Bay, I sat beneath and amongst a vast gathering of swallows feeding upon the wing. Their numbers were countless; looking up through the frenetic twists and turns of their flight, I could discern yet more and more, those at the greatest height merely dots of black, humming particles, the air vibrating with their constant movement.

I had always assumed that like most birds that migrate, swallows increase their feeding just prior to their journey, building up their body weight in order to cope with the arduous demands that face them. Apparently not – feasting entirely on flying insects, they will nourish themselves on the wing, covering 200 miles in a day of what will become a 6,000 mile journey.

I had always thought that the taking on of extra nourishment before such an incredibly tough challenge was a rather helpful metaphor for our own descent into winter/crisis, advising a psychological storing and gathering for tougher times. Learning that these wonderfully joyful creatures do not in fact ‘bulk up’, led to a shift in my thinking. What if, when we find ourselves facing times of trouble or difficulty, we also find that our inner stores are low or near empty? What if we haven’t prepared for the descent into darkness and cold? How would we survive what appears to be an impossible task?

This idea of feeding upon the wing – of taking in what we need throughout an ongoing challenge, seemed to me an equally poignant metaphor. So often when we are faced with loss, we simply don’t feel up to that challenge, our reserves seemingly depleted and inadequate. Like swallows, we have to place our trust in the hope that we will find what we need to make it through, constantly nourishing ourselves as best we can. The swallow’s migration remains arduous and dangerous, many starve and die, and yet many more eventually find themselves back in the warmth and abundance of their winter homes. Their migratory urge is a part of their life and being, deeply encoded within their DNA; the experience is not something that they can choose to avoid or embrace – it simply is. Loss’s presence in our lives is similarly inevitable. If we can stay present, moving through the ups and downs with compassion for ourselves, sensing when we need to feed ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, doing this as best we can given that we might feel utterly broken and incapable of going any further, we might eventually find that we too find ourselves once more ‘at home’ within ourselves and our lives.

Each swallow must beat it own wings to fly but their journeys are never performed alone. Thousands upon thousands fly together, bedding down in large roosts. All swallows will make their bi-annual pilgrimage of necessity, just as all humans will descend into loss and emerge into renewal; all swallows are designed to have great manoeuvrability and endurance; all humans are designed this way too. The swallows inspired me to want to write something about loss that recognised that our deeper engagement with nature was effectively a process of feeding upon the wing; that when we feel broken, nature speaks to us in ways that can aid our healing or support us through. They also made me want to write a spiritual exploration of loss that might say something about those bonds of experience that we share, acknowledging, honouring and giving thanks for them and our place in the greater story of living and dying, both human and in the wider world of nature. By recognising ourselves as vitally connected to the lives of those beings (both human and otherwise) that have gone, those that are, and those still to be, we gradually discover a deeper sense of compassion for our own trials and sorrows, and perhaps in the process, uncover something of the purpose and the meaning of loss and struggle in our lives. Following the thread backwards and forwards, we can perceive a little of the pattern, and this alone can help us to tap into our resilience and strength, aiding us to feel a little less alone when the tough times strike.

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