Seeing What You Want to See

A few weeks ago I went up to Michigan with my friend Tracy to see the Sandhill Cranes during their annual migration. We spent two days in the Jackson area, roaming the rural roads around Haehnle Sanctuary. Many of the cranes roost in the sanctuary’s marsh each night, but during the day they can be found feeding in agricultural fields nearby.

Sandhill cranes in corn field - blogWe were armed with a map showing where the cranes had been spotted in recent days, and so it wasn’t hard to find them. The first group we found had about 125 birds in it, and we spent some time watching them interact with each other as smaller groups flew in and out. On the second morning we found a large flock of more than 500 cranes, and watched them dancing, feeding, and flying overhead, all with the background noise of their prehistoric, spine-tingling bugle calls. It was fantastic.

It was a cold, blustery weekend with a gray sky, and the scenery was classic farm country:

Red barns in crane country - Jackson Michigan w sig

Crane monkey collage v2
I refer to this as the flying monkey posture, because when they drop out of the sky in groups like this, they remind me of the simian army in the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not posting too many crane photos today because I’ve shared so many of them already in past posts, and I’ve got another story to tell here.

We were hoping to find the single Whooping Crane that had been reported in the area, but that didn’t happen. I was reminding myself that it would be all too easy to trick myself into seeing a Whooping Crane because that’s what I was looking for. In fact, that happens very often among birders; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people mistake one warbler for another one that they’re desperately hoping to see. Apparently your brain tries really hard to give you what you want.

And that’s an important preface to this next part of the story. As Tracy drove along one of the rural roads, I noticed two ducks as we approached a farm pond. I quickly pointed them out and as she pulled the car off onto the side of the road I could tell they were beautiful male Wood Ducks.  I rarely get a good view of this shy species, so I was very excited. The pond was on the driver’s side of the car, so I began shooting photos through the car from my position in the passenger seat. At first my view of the ducks was blocked by the angle of the bank, but I kept shooting photos while Tracy took shots from the driver’s seat.

Here are the first two shots I took:

Wood ducks - obstructed first view
It was raining and my view was obstructed…
Wood ducks - slightly better view 2
Starting to get a clearer view here…

Then she drove down the road a bit and turned around so I could be on the side closest to the pond. As I started shooting photos from my better vantage point, I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t right about this scene.

Wood duck decoy
Hmm, he looks much too perfect…

First of all, why were these two male ducks in full breeding plumage in October? And why were they sitting there calmly, out in the open, as we watched them from maybe fifty feet away? Usually when I come upon Wood Ducks, they hightail it in the opposite direction — either swimming or flying — before I can even lift the camera. But these two just floated lazily around…slowly spinning in a circle…wait, that’s weird…. Then I realized my mistake: these were decoys!

Wood duck decoy closer crop
How embarrassing — it’s fake!!

I almost died laughing as I understood that my brain had wanted to believe they were real, and that’s why it took me a while to figure out the truth. I mean, they might have been wooden ducks, but they were not Wood Ducks! I still smile when I think about that day. I feel foolish admitting that this happened, but I also remember how excited we both were when we thought we had the perfect view of these gorgeous ducks.  It wasn’t long, but it was fantastic while it lasted. I may not have gotten the shots I’d hoped for, but this story will entertain me for a long time to come.

And as I’m writing this, I’ve just remembered that this is the second time recently that this has happened to me. You may recall a post from June, when I mistook an Eastern Least Clubtail for a Riffle Snaketail in Hell Hollow (those are dragonflies).  In that post I linked to an article in Psychology Today about this phenomenon. I’ll quote a bit of it here, just to back up my assertion that I’m not a total fool:

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Humbled by that encounter, I was a bit hesitant a few minutes later when I saw what I thought were two Eastern Meadowlarks fly into a field as we watched another group of cranes. Could I be fooled again so soon? But no, there’s no mistaking that bright yellow breast, and luckily I was able to get some photos as the meadowlarks foraged in the grasses. I discovered as I added these birds to my eBird report that they could have been either Western or Eastern Meadowlarks at that location at that time of year, but either way, they were gorgeous.

Eastern meadowlark in late October - Jackson County Michigan (6)

This whole idea that ‘we see what we expect to see’ can be used in a more positive, intentional way in our lives. I’ve found that I have the power to change my life experience, both positively or negatively, by the way I allow my expectations to develop before a particular event.  If I let myself believe that I’m going to have a bad time — the weather will suck, the food won’t be good, people won’t talk to me, whatever — then there’s an increased likelihood that I will have a bad time. On the other hand, if I intentionally expect to have a good experience — my friends will be there, I’ll see cool bugs, the fresh air will be good for me –– then it’s much more likely to be so.

I encourage you to experiment with this idea too. It has made a huge difference in my life in recent years. And if you ever see a duck that just doesn’t look quite right…take a closer look. 🙂

Saying Goodbye

I said goodbye to a friend today and am feeling a deep sense of loss.

I spent the afternoon helping him load his moving truck, along with another close friend. For the most part, the three of us tried to focus on the task at hand so we wouldn’t dwell on the emotions we were all feeling. Of course there was optimism about his new life and hope that everything would work out, but there was also lots of sadness and uncertainty. As upset as I was though, I was determined to keep my chin up and not make this day any harder for him than it had to be.

Even though I wasn’t happy about why we were together, I was grateful that the three of us had this special time alone today. Our friendship is partly based on bonding over some experiences that we can’t really talk to anyone else about. If you’ve ever read about the psychology of bonding over shared pain you’ll understand how strong that bond can be. We have been each other’s support system through some very difficult times.

my-two-friends-on-the-lake-erie-beach-800x594
My friends on the beach at Lake Erie a couple weeks ago, as we began saying our goodbyes

As the afternoon wore on and we made a few re-checks of the house, gathering up the remaining last-minute items, I started to feel my emotions welling up.

In the late afternoon we finally finished loading the back of the truck, then the two guys began hooking the car up to the tow dolly. As I waited for them to do that, I walked out behind the house and stood beside the wildflower meadow, watching butterflies and bees flitting and buzzing from flower to flower. Turkey Vultures soared over the house and Blue Jays squawked loudly from the trees. I almost cried then, standing in the sunlight watching the vultures and listening to my friends discussing how to secure the car on the towing rig.

zentangle-chicken-for-lp
A gift I made for my departing friend

After they got that done, the cat was put into her carrier and loaded into the front of the truck. The snuffling little pug dog would go in at the last minute, after our final goodbyes.

When it came time to close the garage door for the last time, my friend stood in his garage and said softly, “Thanks house, you’ve been good to me.” And that’s when my tears started to flow.

I’m not sure why that particular thing touched me so much. I think maybe because I realized the importance of what he had just done: He stopped to acknowledge the happy times he’d had in this place before leaving it.

Because of what the three of us shared today, I’m thinking a lot tonight about gratitude and mindfulness. About how, even in the midst of sadness, we can choose to be thankful for the good in our lives. And about how important it is to stop and appreciate the best moments as they’re happening. And to look forward rather than backward. I’m thankful for the time I had with my friend and for all I learned from him. He opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world and dealing with challenging times. He made me laugh–hard. And he gave the world’s best hugs. I’m so glad that we took a group selfie today to serve as a memory of our last time together as a trio of friends.

When I was dealing with another painful loss recently, I was reminded of this line from a Tennyson poem: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  I suppose that’s the way to look at this too–being grateful that I had the experience of knowing this person who was so special that it hurts to say goodbye.

As I write this he’s driving south toward his new home and new job. I have high hopes that he’ll find what he’s searching for, and that his life will be overflowing with love and friendship.

 

A Fresh New Year: Why Is That So Important?

If you’re like many people, you place at least some significance on January 1st. Whether you make resolutions or set goals, you feel that something important is supposed to happen because the page on the calendar has turned.

Although I’m not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions, this day is still unlike any other day of the year for me. I have a couple superstitious rituals that I usually follow: I do some type of house cleaning as a way of starting fresh, and I eat sauerkraut to bring good luck in the coming year. But you know what? I eat sauerkraut all year long, on regular old Mondays or Tuesdays, on the 3rd of the month or the 21st of the month. When I feel like having it, I do. What happens to me in the days afterward has nothing to do with that meal. Eating a particular food doesn’t bring good luck, I know that. But the superstitions persist, for me and millions of other people. I think part of the reason is that it’s human nature to try to find cause-and-effect patterns in events so that we feel more in control of our lives. We think that if we just don’t walk under that ladder, we’ll prevent bad things from happening to us. Or if we carry a four-leaf clover, we’ll win the game. We’re funny animals, aren’t we?

This was the sky as I ended my walk today.
This was the sky as I ended my walk today.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this as I took a brisk walk around the city park today, with the cold wind chapping my cheeks and stiffening my fingers. I was there because it was January 1 and it felt important to get outside: I wanted to see my first birds of the year, and I wanted to start my year off right by exercising and getting fresh air.

Paint Creek in city park

But why do we make such a fuss about starting our year off right?  Why not start the next day off right? Or the next minute? Life is filled with opportunities to change our habits or make other positive changes. We can do it whenever we want to.

And for that matter, every moment of every day is a chance to improve our lives. Every moment is a fresh start. I remember hearing this advice when I was trying to change my eating habits a couple years ago. Let’s say you’re having a bad day at work and you indulge in a bag of cookies at lunch to soothe yourself. Then you berate yourself for the weakness and decide that you’ve already ruined the whole day, so you might as well have ice cream and cake for dinner too. Well, if you remember that each moment is a chance for a fresh start, all you have to do is decide that in the next moment, you aren’t going to eat junk food. In the next moment you’re going to drink a big glass of water. That’s all. You don’t have to throw away an entire calendar segment just because you ate some cookies. What matters is what you do now, not what you did in the past.

I’ve been through a great deal of difficulty in recent months, as my regular readers know well. I’m so thankful that, in the past few weeks, I have somehow found the strength to pull myself back out of despair. I’m using lots of different things as tools, and I may tell  you about more of them soon. But one of the most important has been the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, who shows us how to live in the present moment, the Now. Rather than worrying about the past or the future, learn to accept “what is” and ignore the endless stream of thoughts that run through your mind. I’ve been practicing being in the moment, and it really does bring me some peace. I’ve also been learning to meditate better, and that seems to give me positive energy so that I’m more inclined to focus on good things during my day rather than dwelling on fears or negativity. (Here’s a link to one of Mr. Tolle’s videos on YouTube for those of you who aren’t familiar with him yet.)

And here’s a video I shot today. Animals live in the moment; no worrying about past or future for them!

I’m learning a new way of experiencing gratitude and how to be mindful of the moments in life. Most importantly, I’m learning that our thoughts create our feelings, and if we can manage our thoughts we will vastly improve our outlook on life. It’s a skill worth practicing.

So, in the spirit of living in the moment, instead of wishing you all a Happy New Year, I’ll wish you a Happy Now. It’s a very good place to be.

Trees in fog for blog with quote by Eckhart Tolle

 

Desperately Seeking Stillness

I discovered a wonderful new blog recently and I think many of you will enjoy it too. It’s called Quietkeepers and the tagline is “Practicing Stillness in a Busy World.” Because the quest for peace and mindfulness is near and dear to me, I subscribed and began reading the first few posts by writer Judy Roberts.

Copyright R.J. Thomas - used with permission
Copyright R.J. Thomas – used with permission

As often happens when I come across a like-minded person in the blog world, we ended up communicating by email. Judy and I quickly realized that we didn’t live far apart, so when I was in northern Ohio for a birding festival in early May we were able to meet for lunch to get acquainted. I felt an instant kinship with her and I think many of my readers will enjoy what she’s doing with her fledgling blog. This is from her “About” page where she talks about trying to live more quietly:

…this is no easy thing for those of us who are creatures of a culture of doing. It requires resistance and discipline, sometimes minute-by-minute.  To contribute to this effort, I hope to talk about such things as the prudent use of technology, the importance of order, coping with distractions, socializing and conversation, finding quiet spaces, making the home a quiet place, and living in harmony with nature.

The whole idea really appeals to me. But oh how I struggle.  With resistance and self-discipline. And with distractions — oh, those evil distractions.

Black-eyed Susan by Rebecca Thomas for my blog
Copyright R.J. Thomas – used with permission

You might think that as a highly-sensitive person, I would already live a peaceful life. And I do aspire to that, but the loudness of the world intrudes quite often. And you might think I find it easy to resist technology too. But I find quite the opposite, that I turn to technology as a less-stressful way to interact with people. After all, it’s on my own time schedule (usually) and at my own pace, right? How harmful could that be? But the reality is that I often find myself losing track of time after checking in on social media each day because it’s so easy to get lured into clicking one link after another on the internet. You know what I’m talking about.

You may remember my recent article about becoming more extroverted and enjoying many new friendships in the birding world. Since those friendships mean so much to me, I might be a bit overeager in my newfound enthusiasm for keeping in touch via technology. But now I’ve got Judy’s gentle reminders in my head, prompting me to step away from the computer more often. And I’m also very glad I took that sketching workshop last month, because I find that drawing is a good way to sit quietly and let my mind wander. I encourage you to click over to Quietkeepers to see if it might be inspiring to you too.

Copyright R.J. Thomas - used with permission
Copyright R.J. Thomas – used with permission

Along the same lines, I read an article on the Utne Reader website the other day called “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” The author was bemoaning the fact that it’s now ‘normal’ in our culture to have your face glued to the screen of a computer, Kindle, or smartphone all the time. He said he tried to put his phone away and have a technology-free lunch, but he realized that without his smartphone he felt anxious and restless. He’d lost the ability to sit contentedly and just observe the world, something our brains need us to do:

Which brings me to my favorite argument for why we need to spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen: how else can we encourage the cutting-edge ideas, innovations, and solutions that only seem to pop into one’s mind when it’s disengaged from a specific task and allowed to wander? (Christian Willams, Utne Reader)

This seems to be what Eckhart Tolle meant when he wrote:

Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everyone is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from Being. (from The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment)

 

A good friend recommended the books of Eckhart Tolle to me some time ago but, ironically, every time I sat down to read him I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to absorb the message he was trying to give me. That tells me that I’m in dire need of help in this area. I’m going to make another attempt now that this issue has been brought back into the forefront of my busy busy busy mind. I wonder if you all struggle with this as much as I do.

Bryce Canyon cliff

(Thanks to my talented photographer friend R.J. Thomas for permission to use her lovely flower photos in this article. Click the photos to go to her Flickr photostream.)