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HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS
December 9, 2003
 
Do you have hummingbirds? I ask Patti. She's in Florida.

She types back that there are some down there, although none are in her garden right now. I know that most of them keep going, all the way down to Mexico, where they bring their bright iridescence to spend the winter in the sun among all the other bright colors. But, inexplicably, some of them decide to stay in Florida.

Even more inexplicably, some of them even decide to stay here, once in a while. What makes a hummingbird decide just not to go south, I wonder. "Mexico is just so over," she says to her friends, and they all look at her in disbelief as a chill wind ruffles all their tiny feathers: there's a reason why instinctive behavior is instinctive. And, in a few days, they all take off, leaving her behind. She flits around the garden for a few days, pretending she doesn't mind being the only hummingbird for miles around. Then -- "Wait for me!" -- she takes off.

But sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes they really do stay up here. They do this by going into peoples' houses and living there all winter. I have a book about a lady who invited one in for the winter and ended up becoming a full-time hummingbird nurse and hostess, cordoning off a whole room in her house for the hummers.

I would do that. I'd give them any room they wanted -- they could choose. But there are no hummingbirds at the Geranium Farm. Not in the winter and not even in the summer.

Their red feeders are cleaned and packed away now. I have quite a collection of hummingbird feeders, feeders at which no hummingbird has ever fed. All summer, I boil water and sugar together and fill them carefully. I attract ants, but no hummingbirds.

It is odd that an enterprise that fails so consistently to bear fruit doesn't discourage me more. But it does not. My heart doesn't sink in discouragement when I hang yet another garish red plastic pie plate with yellow flowers on its metal hook. I never say "Oh, what's the use? They'll never come." Because I don't know that, do I. I don't know they'll never come. They might come at this very moment.

In this unencouraged hope, I resemble no one so much as a compulsive gambler. Just one more, he thinks. This could be the one. I can't walk away now. And, since nobody can prove that this is not going to be the one, he bets again.

What is hope? Is it good or bad? Depends. It's no good for the gambler -- takes all his money away, takes his home and his family and everything he has. But what about for me? When does it become wrong to hope any more?

I'm not sure what the gambler feels is really hope. I think it's something else -- the expectation of magic, maybe, the desire to bend probability and harness it to do his will. The desire to escape from what is instinctive in us: that we must work for a living. The desire to find a way around the rules of life. The gambler is a man in hiding.

Hope is different. It doesn't hide. It sticks its neck out and looks foolish in pursuit of life, not in retreat from it. Oddly, it is not embittered by not
succeeding. Somehow, it is enough for me to know that there are hummingbirds in the world, that they are living and drinking from flowers and other peoples' weird plastic feeders somewhere, even if they are not doing so in my garden. Even if I never do. Just thinking about them and preparing for them makes me happy.

I believe I love them with a godly love. I think that's what love must be: delight in the very existence of the other, whether or not you ever possess it. It is enough that they are in the world.

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Hope Is The Thing With Feathers
by Emily Dickinson.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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