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We are the Birds That Stay


There are twelve lines in an Emily Dickinson poem that mightily paint the story of living. Reflecting on her words, I am humbled by our human resilience and stubbornness to stay.

‘Tis not that Dying hurts us so – ‘Tis Living hurts us more.

The poem tells us that birds, following Southern custom, leave before the cold arrives, opting for better latitude. But we, humans, are the birds that stay. We stick around, trusting life will share more of its morsels with us. But eventually, the snows persuade our feathers home.

One need not look too far to witness the human struggle, the suffering, the aching. With just a simple glance through our viewfinder, we can see the strains: freeway underpasses, with our homeless brothers and sisters struggling for food and warmth; families fleeing war-torn regions, some of this prompted by religion; drug and alcohol abuse, with some who self-accuse. Our hearts can often feel like bare feet walking on broken glass. But, somehow, we find the strength to persevere. We choose to stay, to keep on living.

This got me thinking about others, who literally stay in the cold. Take Eskimos. Why do they stay in their environment, despite biting temperatures? Reasons and resources vary, I know. But the Eskimos make the most of it. They build igloos. They use cold snow to protect themselves from the cold. Note the practical and smart structure of the igloos. They are round, not square, with no corners to catch the wind or flying debris. Eskimos deliberately transform the thing that stings them into something that warms them.

What about our sweet friends the penguins, who in their tuxedos appear to survive the cold so elegantly? How do they stay warm? Being warm-blooded, penguins cannot let their own body temperatures drop. Their thick skin and fat (blubber) under their skin keeps them warm in cold weather. They also huddle together with their friends to latch on to the warmth.

The website,, tells us that when it gets cold, emperor penguins huddle together in groups that may comprise several thousand penguins. Instead of all having to face the biting wind and relentless cold, the penguins have each other to shield from the cold. They share the warm space. And there's a continual movement of penguins from the outside of the group to the center; so that they all take turns facing the wind and raw cold.

Like Eskimos, we are resourceful and transformative. Like penguins, we too can come together to shelter one another from the thing that stings us, until our feathers summon us home. So for now, let's help each other stay a while. Let's embrace the beauty, the struggle and the complexity of life together.

Emily Dickinson poem (no title)

‘Tis not that Dying hurts us so

‘Tis Living – hurts us more

But Dying – is a different way

A Kind behind the Door

The Southern Custom – of the Bird –

That ere the Frosts are due

Accepts a better Latitude

We – are the Birds – that stay.

The Shiverers round Farmers’ doors

For whose reluctant Crumb

We stipulate – till pitying Snows

Persuade our Feathers Home


The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, page 158, poem #335

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