WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Witnessing Impermanence

By Jessica Clay

“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart."
—Václav Havel, paraphrased

Every year the dark-eyed Junco returns to my bird feeder when the ground gets cold and the wind has made the trees bare. The dark-eyed junco visits Cape Cod in winter, and flies north to colder climates when summer returns. This year I patiently awaited the return of these birds. I needed to see them as soon as I pulled out my winter coats. I was desperate for a sighting, a bit of normalcy amidst the world turning upside-down.

At the edge of the woods, with bare trees, the back of someone's head as they hold binoculars up to their face.

I first saw the dark-eyed junco on a silent meditation retreat in Barre, MA. Ten days of meditation, where the only thing to do was get lost in your thoughts, make up stories about all of the other participants, and watch the bird feeder. I called it the bird channel. All of us would gather in the dining room for meals and down times, sipping our hot beverages, watching the birds outside the windows at the bird feeders.

As I sat there in that silent room—the only noises being the shuffling of feet, a chair pushed back, or a spoon in a cup—I took time to notice. I noticed their round little bodies, a perfect little bird ball, grey turning into black on their backs, resulting in a tiny black head with a bright orange beak, with white chests. Really, they are an ombre bird—in fact maybe they are what made ombre the fashion hit that it is.

a dark-eyed junco in the snow, with its black head, brown body, and white belly

When I returned from the retreat that year I noticed them at my feeders, and have awaited them every year since.

Each year, like clockwork, juncos remind me of impermanence. Though my heart can feel broken in 300,000 pieces, these birds will still return, beauty showing up each morning.

Maybe hope is like this: fleeting. It leaves and returns again; there’s beauty in its impermanence. Maybe hope breaks your heart and leaves you wanting more. Maybe hope just shows up in the ordinary, cyclical nature of things.

Audio of "Witnessing Impermanence"

Listen to Rev. Jessica Clay read her reflection.

Maybe these birds are just birds. Looking for food, looking for comfort, following the rhythms set into place long before I first saw them. Maybe I don’t need all the answers. Nature provides a comfort when all else seems lost. If that isn’t hope then I don’t know what is.


Holy one, help us to remain open to hope however it shows up in our lives. Help us to orient our hearts and our spirits towards being present to witness it. When all else seems lost, help us to remember and trust in impermanence. Amen.

About the Author

Jessica Clay

Rev. Jessica Clay (she/her/hers) serves our UU congregation in Brewster, MA. When she isn't birdwatching she enjoys baking delicious desserts, going on hikes with her dogs, singing in virtual choirs, and trying to go viral on TikTok.


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