Musings + Essays


By: Jen Shoop

My brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew have been staying with us for the past ten days. They now live in Trondheim, Norway and as in-person visits have grown thin on the ground, for the past ten days, I have been unplugged from everything but their company and the care of my children. I have felt during this time a pre-emptive nostalgia, as though anticipating the burst of a bubble before the sphere has even been fully enclosed. I tell myself to stop. To sit in the moment. To absorb my wide-eyed niece, shucking peas straight from Mr. Magpie’s garden into her mouth, the same girl who elicited an “Oh my gosh! She looks just like you, Jen!” from a neighbor. To let the afternoons pass in idle conversation with my sister-in-law, as we drink La Croix that sweats in the heat of this Washington summer, or gin and tonics as we sit beneath the shelter of our covered pack porch, watching a thunderstorm or lightning bugs or the comings and goings of birds in the twilight. She has taught me a lot about birds during this visit. I was startled at first by her excitement over the sighting of a cardinal in our back yard, as they are common here. We must have a dozen living in the trees that flank our back yard. “A cardinal!” she cried, gesticulating me over on day one of her stay. I admit to responding temperately. But over these ten precious days, I have found myself increasingly won over by her study. She shared with me the contours of a mindfulness practice in which one sits still and observes carefully the entrances and exits of birds in one’s line of sight. I realize now how oblivious I have been to the avian majesty right outside our door, how blind I have been to their near frenetic activity. The backyard has felt like a pleasant void for me after the mayhem of Manhattan, and yet — it is anything but. Tracking only the movements of crows, doves, cardinals, sparrows, robins (overlooking the chipmunks, squirrels, bunnies, butterflies, bees, and parade of other insects) unveils a wild circus of movement. It is as though I have just now traced the shape in an autostereogram: it suddenly juts out at me with an obviousness that astonishes. And yet even this discovery has felt like an echo. I see my own home in this new way thanks to her, and I feel a pinch of precipitous nostalgia.

I sometimes feel that I can’t get it quite right: I am too busy and distracted, or I am too slow and attentive, and either way, I feel as though I abandon the present.

One thing I have wondered during this time of pause is whether it was a good idea to arrest my writing practice for its duration. I have written nothing in ten days and I have felt nearly achey with undigested thought and experience. Perhaps I should have stolen away for twenty minutes here and there to put some thoughts down on paper — to write about the birds, the peas off the vine, the electricity of my brother’s easy laughter. I did not realize how intensely I let my emotions (even happy ones) pool into an uncomfortable surfeit without the egress of writing.

And yet, how could I? Ten days with my brother, whom I may not see for another two years.

I just finished reading Ann Patchett’s “These Precious Days,” and the synchrony between that text and the one I have been living in our home paws at me with purpose. Patchett writes in those essays about her near-physical need to forge a story out of the filament of everyday life. She writes this even as she faces the imminent death of a friend. I have felt on many occasions that writing defies death, both in the practical sense (I can preserve the memories of the dead, protecting them from erosion or oblivion) and in the philosophical (I might argue that writing is all possibility and conjecture — no endings, no conclusivenesses, and certainly no deaths — as all texts change as they meet new contexts, readers, etc). I think that by not writing a single word these past many days, I have felt a kind of dread, as though a beautiful stretch of life has washed over me, and I have lacked the agency to capture any of it. I fear its absence even as I sit inside of it. This sensation is neither new nor idiosyncratic. I am confident all mothers can relate to an analogous emotional fissure borne of wanting desperately to hang on to every last detail of her three-year-old and also wanting desperately to just make it to bedtime. I realize now that, for decades, writing has accommodated these heartbreaks, spinning a thin web beneath me, affording me the space and traction to make my way though emotional piquancies. And so sitting here absent a pen has left me prone to particular sentimentality.

But — so what? This is living with emotional openness. I realize now that for ten days, I have been conducting my own kind of emotional ornithology: sitting still, observing the entrances and exits of feelings as they flit into and out of my peripheral vision. There is nothing ominous about these movements. There is no head to them, no hardness either: they are all heart.


+The first job each morning.

+Imprints of a new (suburban) life.

+Another encounter with the natural world.

Shopping Break.

+URGENT: found Mason Pearson brushes on sale for 30% off with code SAVEMORE. I have the junior one and it is truly a gamechanger — it has something to do with distributing oil in the hair? Total must have for me. These are the kinds of tools you buy once in your life and have forever.

+If you can’t fathom dropping that much money on a brush, this detangling brush is also REALLY good — I use it on mini every day. Around $12!

+Two really good, reasonably priced day dresses for summer: this blue pinstripe and this white eyelet. (Both around $100).

+These monogrammed seersucker swim trunks for boys come in great colors/fonts!

+Love these woven swivel chairs for a breakfast nook.

+Everlane’s new crochet knit pieces are so chic and well-priced! This skirt is in my cart already – I love the idea of pairing with the matching tank. (Crochet is trending this summer!)

+Boden is killing it ATM. Love this gingham dress with the smocking detail at the neck, and this hot pink number.

+All Boden’s children collection is currently 25% off using code CW25. I am LOVING this little ric rac trim dress, which reminds me of something by Celia B!

+Bought micro these fun shark motif goggles.

+This punchy mini dress is 40% off!

+This top! With this light-wash jeans!

+Adore this Ulla dress.

+OMG these woven lamps are under $100 and so chic! (Check out this similar style for $119 too!)

+Chic woven nesting tables!

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4 thoughts on “Birding.

  1. This is a beautifully rendered piece, and I agree with Susie, I always love to see how you wrap up your posts with learnings. It is inspiring! I’ve always enjoyed slowing down to observe the natural world outside my windows (usually birds and sometimes butterflies, as we live on the third floor) — and in spaces that have more of a bucolic quality, like at my parents’, it’s so nice to sit and observe the various fauna!

    I hope you had the best visit with your brother and his family.


    1. Thank you so much. It was a memorable and beautiful visit – I am already aching for a reprise next summer!


  2. Love these thoughts, Jen, and always appreciate how you bring all the threads together into a thoughtful conclusion. We have a back room that’s an enclosed sun room — all windows — that always prompts this kind of still, observant wonder. We’re always watching the birds, the bunnies, the trees — so much movement. I think it’s particularly wonderful for children; our 2 year old has really learned to watch with awe, and she’s always so thoughtful about what she sees. I’m so grateful to have that open space!

    1. Thank you so much, Susie :). I love the phrase “still, observant wonder.” I think that’s my overarching goal in life — find ways to be still and observant, take it all in.


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