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Learning From the Robins
A couple of days ago, yet another foot of snow fell here. At one point during the storm, I looked out the glass door to the back deck to see if I should make my way out to clean off the bird feeder. There, fluffed up against the cold and sitting right up by the door, was a robin. As I watched, it moved down into the sheltered corner of garden between the house and the deck, where a bit of snow had melted. It spent a few minutes madly scattering the oak leaves that accumulate there, then hopped on along the foundation. I was relieved that it was able to fly away when it reached the corner of the house.
Then, yesterday, my husband found a robin lying dead on the driveway right up against the garage door at the front of the house. Since they gather in flocks this time of year in search of food and a pack of them had gobbled up all the berries in our bushes a few weeks back – including those on the front door wreath – I'm puzzled about this one. Or were there two? Was it sick? Injured and deposited there by a cat? Hungry? Lost? Cold?
I seem to be seeing metaphors, analogies, symbolism, and signs in everything these days, in spite of my normal skepticism and pragmatism. And I, like many of us lately, have been feeling demoralized and on the road to depression. So I began to research the legends and stories surrounding robins and found them to be present in the folklore and mythology of many cultures and religions. They're widely considered to be messengers from spiritual realms, as are many other birds.
Here in North America, robins are migratory birds, ranging far and wide in search of food. So, for us, robins are common signs of the arrival of Spring. But rebirth suggests death as well, and robins have a relatively short lifespan at the best of times.
As I began to uncover some alarming symbolism around robins and death, a friend reassured me that I could be selective in applying what I was learning and that interpretations can mean different things to different people. Through that lens, I began to use what I was reading about robins to regain some emotional stability and to ease myself back towards hope and optimism.
Robins live together as families and communities. They migrate, breed, and roost in flocks. And that's a topic I've been thinking a lot about. Covid-19 public health restrictions have meant social isolation from both our extended families and our communities, to the detriment of our mental health and collective behaviour. But the stories I've read about robins suggest that my visitor may have been a sign of reassurance that we can slowly come back together, reweave the threads of lost relationships, and restore lost empathy. Right now, we're seeing the power of compassionate communities to alleviate the misery wrought by the current wars in Ukraine and other parts of the world, as well as all of the environmental disasters that are occurring. Maybe a future step will be to come together without disputes and borders!
But what about that robin that didn't make it? Although dead birds can be perceived as a sign of grief or impending disaster, especially in Christianity, some groups like the ancient Greeks and North America's First Nations see them more as a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. After all, death is merely one part of the cycle of life and, when one life form ends, another begins. So robins can be seen to symbolize change and transformation, which reinforces what I've been saying for the past few years: This current period of seemingly unending chaos may be an opportunity to envision and actualize a better world.
Patience has never been one of my strengths, and I'm in a hurry to see those changes happen. On the other hand, I know that change happens bit by bit, day by day, through the power of multiple individual actions. So, I'm taking that bird and its fate as a reminder that the present moment is all there is and that trying to live in the past or future is a source of suffering. I have noticed lately that many people are struggling in these dark days with mastering the art of living in the present. Let's remember to savour each precious moment of our lives instead of waiting to “get back to normal” when a disease goes away, a war ends, the climate changes, and the economy improves.
Another thread running through the mythology and legend about robins is passion for life. I've read that their exuberance demonstrates that we can make changes with joy and solve problems with love and kindness. I am taking this as a reminder to let go of drama and discontent, and to be grateful for and celebrate the abundance in my very privileged life.
That may seem like a lot to read into a couple of visits from one little brown and red bird in a snowstorm. But I'll take encouragement and optimism wherever I find it these days!