I was too. Then, I saw three baby robins beat the odds of survival.
The chicks’ beaks stick straight up like three sharp pencils, then open hungrily to receive worms from their father’s mouth. The newborn robins seem so fragile and their survival improbable in the flimsy nest that hides in the branches of a leafy tree just a few feet above the prowling cats and raccoons that could devour them in a gulp.
Yet, every morning I spy them through my window, plumper than they were the day before, ruffling their mottled feathers, and learning to flap their untested wings. They are hardwired to persevere, something I know all about.
Decades after my grandparents escaped Jewish persecution in Hungary, their eldest child — my mother — became a young widow with two small boys. She remarried, had me, and soon became a battered wife who fled to raise her three children — my half-brothers and me — on her own.
My mother had every reason to give up. At times, I thought she had. She despaired. She drank. As I got older, she turned abusive. But she pushed on, managing to feed, clothe, and educate the three of us. Despite profound personal tragedies, she always believed that life would get better.
Mom infused me with this persevering spirit by promising that if I sprinkled salt on a robin’s tail it would stand still. This explains my fixation with robins. It also explains my tenacity: every time my mother pressed a saltshaker into my hand and told me to catch a robin, she was teaching me to not give up.
And I didn’t. Not when I was a floundering college student, or a new, aspiring writer; not when love broke my heart and a speeding car, my bones; not when I began to unearth the trauma of my childhood.
But these days, tapping into this spirit has me digging deeper than usual. As government fails to launch any meaningful response to the resurgent coronavirus, which is three times as likely to infect African-American and Latinx people in the United States as whites, and twice as likely to kill them; as it sidesteps the systemic racial inequities in employment, housing, and health care that increase risks for underlying disease and, in turn, COVID-19; and, as it meets growing demands for racial, social, and economic justice with military force, it’s all I can do to resist succumbing to dread.
On some days I cave in. I oversleep, overcaffeinate, overeat, and accomplish little else. But eventually, the perseverance that kept my mother going and that has always sustained me kicks in. It boots me out of bed and away from a third cup of coffee. It pushes me toward exercise and away from snacks. Most importantly, it opens my eyes to the countless ways in which I am privileged and can use my privilege to help others.
Perhaps this drive to persevere is in my Jewish genes. Perhaps it comes from my mother’s parenting, or my need to remain sturdy and present for my own family. Whatever its source, I cherish it, just as I cherish the robin chicks, their breasts nearly red, who are almost ready to fly.