What Does A Great Blue Heron Have To Do With These High Holy Days? Everything.

Its tranquility and patience inspire my best self.

Like two jumbo jets coming in low, the great blue herons pass in tandem before my windshield. The day has been tough, the pandemic and its associated deprivations weighing me down, and I am driving somewhere to escape my gloom. Then I see the lithe behemoths languidly descend, their massive wings riding the autumn breeze to a weightless touchdown, and suddenly, I am smiling.

In the midst of an ongoing global public health crisis, environmental devastation, political rancor, social upheaval, and racial injustice, these mammoth birds bring me inexplicable peace. I wish I could summon such peace on my own and, like the great blue heron, live in the moment, appreciating all that surrounds me. But lockdown, partial though it may be, has me selfishly out of sorts. And so, I look to these birds with the wonder that these Jewish High Holy Days — these Days of Awe — command, and their mandate for me to do t’shuvah — change my life and return to my best self.

Coveting its tranquility, I scout for the heron in towering pines and secluded marshes, peeling my eyes for its telltale blue-grey plumage, long sinuous neck, and dagger-like beak. Even at four or more feet high, it is easy to miss, its lanky frame merging in silhouette with the tall grasses where its stands, motionless.

It looks more like a statue than a living, breathing being, until it takes long, stealthy steps toward a fish that it spears in a flash and swallows in a gulp. Then, it is still again, waiting frozen in place to spot its next meal. Although existential angst makes me irritable and sour, beholding this creature softens me, its poise and patience gently reminding me of how I can change my life.

When not stalking fish or gophers, it sits in a tree or wades in shallow water, relishing sweet air and warm sun, precious gifts that I miss by living in the future instead of the present, fretting over the arrival of a vaccine, or how I’ll manage lockdown when the weather turns cold and I’m forced back inside; thrashing against circumstances that I can neither accept nor change.

If only I could tap into its calm instead of driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy, searching for answers that don’t yet exist. If only I could arouse the awe that a mere glimpse of the heron inspires; then, I could turn this time of frustration and fear into an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement.

This is what the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are about: looking inward to identify the parts of myself that caused me to behave badly or hurt others during the past year, apologizing in person to people I have wronged, forgiving those who have wronged me, and repenting through prayer and by performing good deeds, all in the hope that God will inscribe me for a sweet year ahead.

This year, however, without in-person services to stir my soul, and with Zoom leaving me cold, I need another source of inspiration. And so, I’ll close my eyes and visualize the great blue heron unfolding its magnificent wings; wings that stretch more than six feet from tip to tip and beat slowly, carrying it swiftly through the air, its spindly legs drawing a delicate line in the sky. In these images I will find the serenity I need to view this time not as a trial but as an occasion to become a more patient, present, and peaceful human being.

Public health writer/editor and author of the memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness, and Hope.”

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