In early May, I met friends for a day-long birding excursion in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Old Mine Road is said to be one of the oldest continuously used roads in the U.S., dating back to the 17th century. It’s scenic, to say the least: winding, wooded, and wild. The birding is great in the stretch that hugs the shore of the Delaware River; it’s known to attract crazy numbers of migrating warblers. It’s also wild enough to make it home to some rarely seen mammals (like coyotes, bobcats and bears) and other wildlife too. We saw 70 species of birds (including 15 species of warblers), five bears, a red squirrel and two red efts. BIG fun.
Early in the morning we stopped at a parking lot just north of the one-way section at the Gap. There’s always a cacophony of warbler song here so you have to really focus to hear individuals. We tallied up a nice list. I kept hearing parts of a song that seemed particularly intriguing. I imagined it to be chestnut-sided warbler or magnolia warbler, but it wasn’t quite right for either. I walked down the road in the direction of the singer, hoping for a glimpse. He sang sporadically, always just maddeningly out of view. Finally, I honed in on a bush and the culprit popped into full view singing his not-quite-right song. “Oh crap,” I said. “It’s just a redstart.”
The words had barely escaped my lips and I instantly regretted it. For a little perspective, the redstart is a glorious little bird. He’s a delight to see under any circumstance. I’m normally thrilled to see a redstart. Here’s what he looks like:
He’s kinda like a little cousin of a Baltimore Oriole, though they’re not even remotely related (females and juvies are affectionately called “yellow-starts” by non-scientific birders). I was remorseful and I whispered an apology, so as not to frighten him away. He had been “justa” redstart because in that moment, he was not whom I was hoping to see. I wanted a chestnut-sided warbler, or a magnolia warbler.
But I got a Redstart. We’d already seen a dozen redstarts, but no chestnut-sideds or magnolias yet (nor would we the entire day). Five minutes earlier we had remarked that the Redstart’s song is unreliable, but I remembered Rich Kane said that it has a lot of “s’s” in it. I felt pretty confident I could tell a redstart’s song from others. This guy had a lot of magnolia/chestnut-sided in his song. I often wonder if the birds secretly love to fool us, as if this little guy had just said to a friend, “Watch this…I’m gonna confuse the SH*T out of her!”
I assigned a value to that redstart. It’s a bad habit. My late husband Carl used to pretend he was offended on behalf of any bird I’d call “justa” a bird. We’d go for a hike and I’d see something moving in the tree ahead. We’d pause and I’d say, “Hold on a sec…I think it’s something good…wait…wait…ok, here he comes…Darn! It’s justa __________ (titmouse, chickadee, song sparrow – fill in the blank with whatever poor, lovely little common little bird it might have been).
I have to admit that I do this “justa” thing in other areas of life. When the doorbell rings, I’m disappointed when it’s “justa” utility worker. When the phone rings, the caller-ID determines whether I’ll answer it or not; “It’s justa sales pitch,” I think to myself.
Imbedded in that that qualifier “justa” is a note of disappointment. There’s a sense that something commonplace or expected is somehow less satisfying than the rare or unusual. Am I so bored with life that I have to constantly scan the horizon for something more interesting or more exciting than that which I already have? Justa statements suggest I’m not satisfied with my lot, that I somehow want more - expect more - from life.
The other day, I was in a seminar and a woman sitting across the table from me got a text message. She looked at her phone and said “It’s just my husband…he can wait.” I wish my husband could text me.
When “justa” statements start to pepper my language, it’s time to take up the discipline of a gratitude journal again. The goal is to write 1,000 things for which I’m grateful. Leslie Voskamp wrote a great little devotional book on the practice called One Thousand Gifts. I’ve started a gratitude journal several times before, though I never made it to a thousand. But when I’m in the mode of noticing and appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential details of the things around me, “justa” statements become inconceivable. The last time I kept a gratitude journal, I gave thanks for things like “the pattern of droplets on the window after it rains,” “the return of gold on the goldfinches,” “Jack Miller’s seafood chowder,” “a cold pillow in the middle of the night,” “a Higbee Beach morning,” “the amazing blue of a tree swallow,” and “the joyful energy of a singing warbler.”
That’s it. I need an attitude adjustment. It’s justa small thing, but a grateful heart makes all the difference.