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Joanna Tebbs Young


Thinking about writing this week’s column, I find myself conflicted. I wonder how I can write something about the good things going on in our community or a happy observation about life in Vermont when I am heartsick? It seems wrong even. To focus on the contentment I personally experience here or to highlight another positive aspect of our bucolic landscape and the people lucky enough to live in it, seems like a slap in the face to those living in sheer terror.

I don’t have enough words to describe how I feel about children being torn from their parents’ arms, even infants from their mother’s breast. Appalled doesn’t cut it. Disgusted, outraged, sickened; none of them strong or descriptive enough to adequately name this feeling of chest-tightening fury, helpless hurt and stunned shame on behalf of every petrified child crying for its mother, and parent who doesn’t know where his children are at this moment, if they are safe, warm, well, or if he will ever see them again. A parent whose only sin was to want to live in safety.

Then there are the people of Yemen caught in the crossfire of warring nations, starving and sick, the displaced from Syria, the Rohingyas fleeing unspeakable horrors of genocide. And there are more stories from around the world, including mass shootings, ignored hurricane victims, and poisoned water in our own country, that make me cry, shout, or go numb with pain.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my deck looking at my happy geraniums bobbing their pink heads in the sun to the tunes of birdsong. I was writing in my journal about this gorgeous day, my beautiful surroundings, the relaxed morning, when my words suddenly turned south. I slammed into guilt. I questioned why I was so fortunate. Why should I get to sit here in the sun knowing my children were close by and not in any danger of being ripped away from me? What did I do to deserve this life, this safety, this peace?

I stopped writing before my pen could take me further down the road into despair. As I sat there, my heart heavy and eyes prickling with tears, I was aware of movement around the flower pots. A flash of green, a blur of wings, a humming. Focusing in on the minuscule miracle of nature, I watched its graceful dance, flitting from geranium to geranium.

I don’t know how long the hummingbird, just feet from me, hovered seemingly magically, but it was longer than I have experienced one lingering in place before. It was long enough to pull me out of myself and the anguish I was feeling for just a few moments, back into a fascinating world where gem-colored wisps appear to defy physics, pumping their wings and darting their hungry tongues faster than the human eye can see. Then it was gone, as swiftly and silently as it had arrived.

In my family, I claim to be the rational one, the realist, and in most areas of life I am. But I also strongly believe in serendipity and synchronicity. I have experienced enough “coincidences” in my life to convince me some things can’t be explained. Mystery and magic is often afoot, you just have to be open to it. So, I decided to take the tiny bird’s appearance at the exact moment that my state of mind had turned from gratitude to guilt as a sign. I looked up what hummingbirds symbolize. The result (from

• Lightness of being, enjoyment of life

• Being more present

• Independence

• Bringing playfulness and joy in your life

• Lifting up negativity

• Swiftness, ability to respond quickly

• Resiliency, being able to travel great distances tirelessly

While most of these meanings seemed appropriate to the moment, it was enjoying life, bringing joy, and lifting up negativity that particularly stood out for me.

A poet friend with whom I shared the hummingbird experience, echoed the tiny messenger. After 9/11, when she was in grad school, she was having difficulty writing. She asked her advisor how she would ever write again. “All my silly lyric poems seemed useless,” she said. Shouldn’t she engage the horror and try to make a difference? Her advisor responded that she needed to keep writing poems about trees and poems and heartache — that was the difference she was here to make.

It is often difficult in turbulent, sorrowful, maddening and scary times to stay positive, to allow feelings of helplessness to cloud our own blue sky. Covering the sun stops everything from growing. Ceasing to be present enough to notice or feel grateful for the beauty surrounding us and blessings we do have, makes a mockery of them.

We can feel others’ pain, we can pray for them, send positive energy, beg the universe that abusers and bullies will see the light, write and call our congressmen and women, march, volunteer, donate, vote, run for office — but we must also continue to find joy in our own lives. Whether that be daily gratitude, enjoying the flowers, the mountains, our families, or making art and creating moments of joy, this is how those of us not in peril or despair can lift up the negativity and find the strength to keep on keeping on. To continue sending out our love, our concerns, and our demands for compassion and for change. Because we cannot stay silent. We must, like the hummingbird, respond quickly, keep moving, and lift up the light.

Joanna Tebbs Young, MA-TLA

Joanna Tebbs Young is a freelance writer, author, and expressive writing coach living in Rutland. Email her at

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