Margaret Renkl: The Art of Noticing

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Margaret Renkl calls herself a backyard naturalist—but not because she has any particular expertise. From the birds in her yard to the bugs in her flower beds, she has learned the art of attention. Nature has taught her a speed at which to live, to hope, to stave off despair.

In this conversation, Kate and Margaret discuss:

  •         What we miss when we imagine we have to drive somewhere else to experience nature, instead of noticing it around us
  •         What birds teach us about what means to be a good mother
  •         How to learn to love even the mosquitoes and wasps
  •         Where Margaret experiences moments of holiness
  •         How we might all start to be besotted by beauty

Perhaps, we can borrow some of Margaret’s innate curiosity together and see how it might open us up to wonder and love and connectedness once again.

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Watch clips from this conversation, read the full transcript, and access discussion questions by clicking here.

Follow Kate on InstagramFacebook, or X (formerly known as Twitter)—@katecbowler.



Margaret Renkl, Kate Bowler

Kate Bowler  00:09

I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. There is a way of living that I really admire. But I  really don’t possess. Usually I see it in people who love to garden, or are really into birding or some such. And it is a quality of noticing a kind of attunement toward beauty and possibility in the small, seemingly ordinary things. Yeah, like I don’t have it. I’m never gonna garden. I mostly have fake plants that I also don’t remember to water. But I love this quality and other people. So I thought I should talk to somebody who is like this instead, and see what we can learn about the curiosity and art of attention that we might have when we care about the world around us. And not only in the save the earth kind of way, which is also wonderful. But in the way in which we can name the trees and listen for the birds and find our place in this big, beautiful, heartbreaking world. So I went to Nashville, Tennessee, and I hung out with my new friend Margaret Renkl perhaps we can borrow some of Margaret’s innate curiosity and see how it might open us up to wonder and love and connectedness once again, you are going to absolutely love her. I am having the best day because I am here with the absolutely lovely Margaret Renkl. She is the author of just beautiful things like the book late migrations, and her newest book the comfort of crows. It is well, I’ll let her explain. But we’re here in Nashville and she’s already my favorite. And I kind of wish we were doing this outside. Since your great glory is in noticing the world as it is. Margaret, I’m so glad we’re doing this.


Margaret Renkl  03:56

I cannot believe you came all the way to Nashville so we can walk around looking at our sparrows. But thank you so delighted to be here.


Kate Bowler  04:03

I’ve […] friendship is a go. You call yourself a backyard naturalist. Wondered if you could tell me what that means to you.


Margaret Renkl  04:14

The thing I love about the word naturalist, which is very different from the word scientist, because a scientist has a specialty, though you can be an entomologist, or you can be you could be an ornithologist, or you could you have a specialty, you know down to the tiniest little fungus growing beneath the soil. But a naturalist your crash no credentials really. You just call yourself that. And it can mean you know it really there are credentialing organizations you can be in fact in Tennessee, a certified Tennessee Naturalist. I’m not one but I think it just means that you notice and study and learn from the natural world. And the learning part is my favorite guy began from a position of ignorance in almost every single thing I do. So it doesn’t take much for me to learn because I don’t know anything at all. Oh, wow, what is this bug? or wait? That’s what that sound I’m hearing is a Carolina ran like I know Carolina rooms really well, but I didn’t know that song from the treetops came from a Carolina ran.


Kate Bowler  05:36

Yeah, when did you first start getting wonderfully, partially obsessively curious because I think curiosity requires like the like, and then what impulse that.


Margaret Renkl  05:47

I think I was born that way, I think part of being my age, I’ll be 62 this fall. And growing up where I grew up, and in lower Alabama, I think a lot of it is just kids aren’t allowed to be bored much anymore. And they also are highly supervised. And so but my mother was like, go play, you know, come back when you’re hungry. But by the time I was back in college, in a rural college, Auburn University, it was just a five minute walk to be outside campus in a field, or in a forest. And that was a great comfort to me, whenever school was too stressful.


Kate Bowler  06:30

There was like a homecoming feeling.


Margaret Renkl  06:32

It sounds like it really when you grow up like that, to be in the woods or the fields or the Saddle Creek. The I think we take comfort from what gave us comfort when we were younger. So going back does feel like coming home. And the older I get now that my children are grown, especially, I feel myself becoming more and more what I most essentially I am and less my role in other people’s lives. And that is who I most essentially am.


Kate Bowler  07:14

Think is a noticer is a.


Margaret Renkl  07:17

But I don’t notice certain things like I didn’t know where to turn to get to the elevator, really, it’s pretty specific kind of noticing but yeah.


Kate Bowler  07:29

Left and right, no matter what with the orienteering.


Margaret Renkl  07:34

I did actually not get that badge either when I was in Girl Scouts.


Kate Bowler  07:40

I guess like the because I moved from the middle of Canada to wherever I went to school. And I think it was at that point that I stopped noticing really anything in the natural world because it didn’t recognize it. And if I didn’t recognize it, I just couldn’t. I don’t know, like I still am constantly getting poison ivy, because I have no idea what poison ivy in North Carolina was.


Margaret Renkl  08:00

That so funny. I think at the time, they had this, there was an article in The New York Times about climate, refugees. And they didn’t mean people leaving Indonesia because their islands were going to be underwater, they meant people leaving lower Alabama, because there was their crops won’t grow in the future. And they had some suggestions for places in this country where climate migrants could go and one of them was Detroit, because there’s, it’s going to be cooler, and a longer growing season in time. And there’s plenty of housing and I said to my husband, this is the perfect time. We could you’re getting ready to retire, I can work from anywhere. Our daughter in law’s nurse, she could work from anywhere. Our son’s engineer, his his colleagues already live anywhere. And we could just, we could just this was a good time to go. And then I thought, well, first of all, he poo pooed the whole idea. Like we’re not moving to Detroit and taking everybody with us that they won’t do that. But then part of me was like, but I don’t know any of those birds. I do know some of them because they come and spend the winter here. But it would be very disorienting. Not to know the flowers, not to know the names of trees.


Kate Bowler  08:40

It’s like the smell for me. It’s always the smell of cam while right after rain. And the number of drowning worms that like always need my attention that used to take out when I was little. I mean, that was like, that can be my full time job. I used to go around rescuing on wheeling worms. And I still feel like I feel at peace in a different way. When I’m in Winnipeg, Manitoba than I am well, okay, two questions on that. One is I don’t mean it as facetiously as it sounds. How do we feel at home? How to how does becoming more aware of your surroundings? We connect to you or with an Earth at sometimes trying to murder you, like I was bitten by a poisonous Copperhead snake a couple last year, as part of my attempt to reconnect to nature.


Margaret Renkl  10:10

And then I’m very sorry, that can be very touchy.


Kate Bowler  10:13

I had to be in an animated for some time. But there’s the feeling like it’s the more at home we are, we’re not entirely. It’s not just like the smile, maybe it is the scene of Bambi, it’s hard to say.


Margaret Renkl  10:29

I think that’s the thing that I struggle with. Always, how do you love a world that is so violent? And it’s not just the venomous snakes. It’s also the way they’re all out there just killing and eating each other. There are very few true vegetarians in the natural world. And even the vegetarians are eating a plant that would prefer not to be eaten. So it’s, it’s just part of how it works. And that is a challenge. And it will always be a challenge. How do you? How do you love something that exists in a state of constant violence, because even the blue birds that are being hunted by the Cooper’s Hawk, they’re out there hunting the grasshoppers. And we think, oh, the blue birds are cute. So we’re rooting for the blue bird, and not necessarily the hawk. And when you’re giving no thought at all, to the cricket in the grass. It’s hard but I think that’s part of loving something, isn’t it? No matter who it is, or what it is, it comes with a downside. And you elect to love it anyway. It’s an act of attention and an act of concentration. And it’s a decision always.


Kate Bowler  11:49

You kind of made this decision to love your surroundings in this book in a really, really concrete way, which to me reads, so devotionally, it’s structured by the weeks in the season, so people, some people could pick it up and be like, ah, it is partway through spring. What am I noticing and you, like walk us through a year of noticing.


Margaret Renkl  12:10

I’m so happy that you said the word devotional because I used to describe it when I was working on it as a pagan devotional. And my editor was going to have to stop saying that.


Kate Bowler  12:22

What you mean, though, like pegging in the sense of like, this is this is the one of the deep stories of who we are is just the story of our spiritual attention to the earth.


Margaret Renkl  12:31

That’s right. It’s from which we came out like I want, I really thought I might do it as an actual devotional, one day at a time, but it, but I wanted there to be Billy’s art in it. And then we would have been looking at bare minimum 750. So that was.


Kate Bowler  12:49

The art because obviously podcasts are notoriously visual.


Margaret Renkl  12:52

My brother is an artist, he’s a year younger than I am. So we grew up in the exact I have no memory of life without Billy, my very earliest memory. Billy’s in. He’s in a stroller, he’s just an infant that I that’s what I remember, my very first memory. And it just happened that he’s a very visual person. And I’m a very verbal person. And so we always had these projects, always these little cards for our grandparents were at write a little poem, and he would draw a picture. Right up through grad school, we were doing these things, so when I started working on the essays that became late migrations, and my friends in my writers group kept saying, this is going to be a book, you know that you’re writing a book, and I hadn’t given any thought to that having never written a book. You know, this was new news, surprising development in my 50s.


Kate Bowler  13:46

I didn’t realize you were like, 57 when you wrote your first.


Margaret Renkl  13:49

Well, when it came out?


Kate Bowler  13:50



Margaret Renkl  13:52

So yeah, and it’s.


Kate Bowler  13:53

An amazing I mean, for for people who are never quite sure where life is going to take them. I find that so just beautiful.


Margaret Renkl  14:02

It’s very encouraging to people my age, and not at all encouraging to young writers, like they take to the possibility that they might be in their 50s before this dream comes true, there’s but when I started working on those essays, that were, you know, that began in as meditations for myself after my mom died. And then I did start thinking about how to put them together. The very first thing before I even figured out a structure for the book was well, there has to be room for Billy’s art because Billy’s feeling all the same feelings too. And remembering all these same things. Woven together


Kate Bowler  14:49

Will bug you about the word devotional for a second because there is I mean when you’re describing the natural world, another way we would put it is like, you’re cherishing natural revelation, you’re looking at the specificity which gives us a feeling of the order of things, which makes us feel the sacredness of things in a really intense way. There’s that lovely quote by Alice Walker, who writes, I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere, and don’t notice it, which I always think of in The Simpsons, there was the the Reverend Lovejoy, who was always mad if people weren’t getting married inside of churches and insisted that everyone getting married outside was getting married in the cheap, showing us of nature, the cheap showing, which like, every time something stuns me, like when our house was gone, and what the color purple, because I’m just like, ah, the cheap showing us.


Margaret Renkl  15:47

Well, in one sense, it’s very true nature is quite a show off, it some of that things will just take your breath away. Right now, if you have time while you’re in town, see if you can go to Shelby Park, there’s an entire field with a path through it of coreopsis in bloom these bright yellow flowers covered with bees and butterflies. And you just look at that and you just think, good God, how magnificent. The Grand Canyon is great yeah but look at this flower field of flowers, and butterflies.


Kate Bowler  16:21

Does that give you a feeling of the holy sometimes?


Margaret Renkl  16:25

Oh, 100%, I think that’s where God has always been for me. I loved church too, I love the stained glass and the light coming through the stained glass and I loved the incense and I love the candles and the oh, and singing. Human voices raised in song make me cry every single time, especially acapella singing, but that is all human. That’s what we made, thinking it would please  what God made is, is totally different.


Kate Bowler  17:05

The pile of flowers in my way.


Margaret Renkl  17:09

Full of bugs, and possibly a copper.


Kate Bowler  17:30

We’ll be right back


Kate Bowler  17:40

What do you say to someone like Jerry Bowler, my sweet, sweet Father, don’t hate being called Sweet. So I’m just gonna bring it up more often. He believes that air conditioning was created, possibly by God as a reason to stay inside and therefore away from the kinds of realizations that you’re having.


Margaret Renkl  21:07

Or the inconveniences for sure. My father used to tell me, God gave us Walmart. You know, I think rural people like stuff like that, you know, because, you know, it responds to a kind of deprivation or kind of inconvenience or discomfort. We didn’t have air conditioning in our house and lower Alabama and my grandparents. When we moved to Birmingham, we had air conditioning, but my grandparents never had it. When you live in a house without air conditioning, you keep the doors and the windows open. Yeah. So you can hear the birds singing. You can taste the dust in the wind, you can smell the storm brewing. And I love that. But I would never want to live without air conditioning in this world. I mean, there’s an irony to that, too, because it’s partly because of air conditioning that we’re in such a mess with climate change is all those other human conveniences that we’ve made for ourselves to go faster or go farther or stay inside. You wouldn’t have none of this would be in here. Nashville wouldn’t, as we know it today would not exist without air conditioning, nothing in the South would.


Kate Bowler  22:27

I once read a whole history of Florida through air conditioning, I don’t really mean for this to become a podcast about air conditioning. Now you’re talking about it’s actually really interesting.


Margaret Renkl  22:36

It’s amazing how something like that, when you think about it is.


Kate Bowler  22:40

it’s the great base of Barrett’s, it just seems like one of the most obvious barriers to the kind of embeddedness that you’re describing is, well, what if we paid more attention? And what would we need to pay more attention? Well, we probably need to open a door or window. Well, what makes me not want to do that? My air temperature or my desire to keep everything uniform, so I can be more productive, and that’s the truth of it.


Margaret Renkl  23:07

I mean, I do think that we have this idea now. That nature is something we drive to visit, you know that we get in a car, and we go to the woods, we get in a car, and we go to the fields or the river. And you know, I think my kids had these this series of picture books, and they were picture books, but the stories came from Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And so when he it one of the story books is called Henry Hikes to Fitchburg. And he, Henry and his friend whose name my children are all grown up, so you can excuse me for not remembering these details of this picture books. But the friend takes a train I believe, and Henry walks and it’s a whole description of the things Henry sees while he’s walking. And he actually gets to Fitchburg first, because of all the delays in the more modern form of travel that his friend takes. We don’t do that. We don’t like to Fitchburg anymore.


Kate Bowler  24:15

There’s this lovely book by Catherine may about enchantment. I really enjoyed and she, like you’re describing didn’t sort of go somewhere else to find nature. She mean it was the pandemic, right, just noodled around, looked outside, went on walks where she wasn’t sure where she was going. And there was the feeling that the quality that it was the quality of attention that she was learning to pay, because, you know, because we were all stuck, dramatically changed how beautiful she thought the world was, but also just how embedded in it. Then she felt like she felt more connected to everything more I’m just wondering like what kind of people who get into say, and I hear it when people get weirdly into gardening. But what do you think it is about, like how it changes us when we start to like, I mean, maybe it comes out of hobbies, but we start to get more into the world as it is in our house and yard.


Margaret Renkl  25:17

I think it’s artists talk about flow, you know, like about being so immersed in a project, or an activity that you lose, first, your sense of the passage of time, but then your sense of yourself as separate. That’s, you know, it was so interesting to me about during the pandemic, because I don’t know if you knew this, but there was actually a shortage of bird seed during the pandemic, really, because so many people took up birdwatching, during you know, they would hang a bird feeder, and fill it with seeds, and they would be fascinated and follow up, and I think, partly it was that we were spending so much those of us who had the luxury of working from home, we’re spending so much time in front of screens to do our work that the idea of sitting down in front of a screen when the work was over, I was kind of revolting. So the idea of going for a walk, because we couldn’t go to the movies or couldn’t go to a restaurant. It woke people up and away not not just Katherine Mae, but all of us. So much so that it was hard to find birdseed, and I thought that was wonderful. The other thing that happened during the pandemic was, besides the fact that we were paying attention in a way that many of us had not ever had the chance, or took the time to do was that the animals around us noticed our absence and took advantage of it. So there are all these pictures that were, you know, showing up on social media of, you know, a fox walking right down the middle of somebody’s street or you know, I think there were several cases of cougars, you know, on on major thoroughfares and cities in California, and they it was a good reminder that they are always watching, they are paying attention to our patterns. They’re looking for opportunities to coexist in a way that we have not been looking for for them.


Kate Bowler  27:29

I got really obsessed with this. So I moved on to Manitoba during the pandemic and I so most of my then like the winters are legit, and Winnipeg, they are full six, seven month experiences of their own.


Margaret Renkl  27:45

Not going to be a climate migrant to one. Thank you for the warning.


Kate Bowler  27:50

It’s a confrontation with mortality that but I got so obsessed with this one skunk that was just was having the time of his life in the snows. Nobody was you know, there just wasn’t that much traffic outside anymore. And the sight of that skunk outside under this beautiful streetlamp and the way that it looks like they’re so showy, they’re so beautiful, the way that they look like they just, like put on their grandma’s coat. And they just kind of fluff along in the night.



And they talk, they have this. They’re constantly talking to themselves just little quarrelsome little cute.


Kate Bowler  28:31

I do really like your obsessions like I poke you with a stick. You’ll be like, you know, it’s really cool possums.


Margaret Renkl  28:39

I love possums.


Kate Bowler  28:40

You love possums. You have their like, I wonder if you oh, gosh, you wrote this little host. It was like it was like an ODE it sounds like a blessing. It was like Oh, for the for the for the for the pink fingers of the possum for the.


Margaret Renkl  28:55

For the unloved animals.


Kate Bowler  28:57



Margaret Renkl  28:57

Yeah, it’s like a love letter to the unloved.


Kate Bowler  29:01

I love the possums, which other words do you love?


Margaret Renkl  29:05

Well, I try Kate. It’s an it’s an act of attention and an act of will that I try to love them all. I do at the end of the red wasp. I’m trying, I’m trying they’re eight my caterpillars but of course they’re not my caterpillars. The red Wasp has babies to feed too and so there was mosquitoes in that one and little snub nosed bats you can love on the skin okay. If you know that the mosquitoes are out there feeding


Kate Bowler  29:37

The swallows things they robbed from me that give to others.


Margaret Renkl  29:45



Kate Bowler  29:46

Do you think this is a stage of life thing? And I really mean that in a good way like different.


Margaret Renkl  29:52

Stages like crazy old lady thing. I know I can see where this is go, well, or my neighbors I think would concur with that assessment of my obsessions.


Kate Bowler  30:11

That makes you feel like how weird has it gotten?


Margaret Renkl  30:13

It’s gotten pretty weird over there but.


Kate Bowler  30:16

What you’re like cherishing each Bluebell, just pressing his velvety petals.


Margaret Renkl  30:20

You really can’t be walking around the yard in your house code and looking out the window of his of his home office and watching me, but it’s like, well, what are these rules? You can walk in your house to pick up the newspaper, but you can’t walk out in your house coat to look at the chair, who made this rule?


Margaret Renkl  30:31

We’ll be right back.


Kate Bowler  33:12

There’s this awesome book by Christie Watson called Quilt On Fire. So Christy Watson was a podcast guest that I immediately was like, I love you, can we be friends forever? And I performed her wedding to her husband this summer.


Margaret Renkl  34:20

Oh wow.


Kate Bowler  34:21

It’s not like a normal trajectory I experienced but it was still like a great, great joy in my life. She wrote this amazing book, but it had some pretty sexy parts about menopause in the middle. And she was I think it was what she was okay.


Margaret Renkl  34:35

I really can’t tell where this is going either.


Kate Bowler  34:38

But she was describing that part of I don’t know, stages of womanhood and she would never put it like that was that you can return to a kind of playfulness. And so she kind of described post menopause life as being far more interested in what to me sounded like Nietzsche play friendship with others, as she has the scene where they’re like all of her woman friends are sitting on a beach. And they are like, you’d imagine that they were drunk because they were so all of a sudden, immersed in the like, interest in like the iridescence of the seashell and the and I kind of thought, I really hope that there is a stage of life in which it forces me to pay more attention and that and then I’m in love with the world again.


Margaret Renkl  35:32

I think you’re in love with the world already. You’re just in love with the human beings in the world. And we count, a mistake we make often as we think, human beings, nature. Yeah, never the twain shall meet, like our whole and there’s a good reason for thinking that because, you know, for the entirety of human existence, we’ve been trying to beat that nature thing down and kill it and subdue it as much as we possibly can. But the truth is, we are creatures, we are made to be a part of this world as much as any possum are Scott wearing its grandmother’s fur coat, you know, the we belong here to and we, we forget that maybe because of air conditioning, maybe because of other things, we’re busy. The way we make our living is not by catching crickets, but we are just as earnestly in pursuit of that. But I think that it will help always to reframe that relationship. And not to think of either the natural world or ourselves as other. But to think of the two as belonging to one another. I really think we have to make that shift, somehow, we have to stop thinking of it as something separate from us. Both because it’s unfair and wrong, but also because it’s gonna kill us in the end. We can’t live without bees. We can’t live without read loss. We need them. They’re pollinating our food. We do belong, and they do belong to us. And I mean, one thing I really hoped about the comfort of crows, is that if I love something in front of somebody, maybe they be more apt to love it, too, you know.


Kate Bowler  37:34

Well, you made me really want to love it. There’s this quote, as you said.


Margaret Renkl  37:38

It’s a heavy lift to go straight to mosquitoes. A little slower, something prettier.


Kate Bowler  37:48

Is you right? If I can awkwardly read you back to you for sure. Apocalyptic stories always get the apocalypse wrong. The tragedy is not the failed world barren ugliness. The tragedy is its clinging beauty even as it fails. until the very last cricket fall silent. The beauty besotted will always find a reason to love the world. And that made me write in all caps. How do we become besotted? It love it, and I think it sounds like what you’re saying too is if we imagine ourselves as being so integral to it, so part of it and aren’t recognize our own animal illness, then it will feel a lot less like we’ve just copy pasted the life into a setting that we’re trying to manage with lawn care.


Margaret Renkl  38:40

Right, and that’s the thing about lawn care and it’s about, you know, think about how often the products that are marketed to us are designed to remove us from our animal selves. You know, something that will make us not stink or not sweat or that will make our poops not drift the smell of them not drift through the house. You know, we’ve we’ve all these masks for our true animal nature. And I don’t want people to learn to love something that they’re that is of no benefit to them. I think people would be happier, I’m happier, you know, the times I’m least happy are the times when I have to be shut up in a room for the longest totally.


Kate Bowler  39:27

I guess the one thing I did want to ask you about too is about that feeling of like, Oh, I love you come back is one of the aches that you write about is in watching seasons come and go and your adult children living with you for a bit because of you know, a million pandemic reasons that kids live with their parents, and you’d be like, hey, maybe we could just drag this out. Maybe we could just do this forever. You hear in the crow? Come back come back and you’re like, great, maybe, maybe this mom feels the same way.


Margaret Renkl  40:04

I think that partly because my grandparents did do that. When my mother was four years old, and her, and my uncle was a newborn baby, their house burned down. And so my grandparents took the kids and moved in with my grandfather’s parents, and they never left. And then my, when my other great grandfather died, my other great grandmother moved in. And so my grandma, my mother grew up in a house with three generations, always, she had almost no memory of living somewhere that wasn’t like that. And I know, it was. It was a small hospital. And I know it must have been, there must have been tensions. But I never felt them as a child. And so to me, there’s something a little bit lost that we consider that arrangement, a kind of failure, a kind of failure to Launch. My children certainly would have felt it to be a failure, if they had stayed and, and I was glad when they left because they wanted to leave. And really, that’s what you want for your children is to be okay, without you, that’s the whole point is to get them to a place where they can be in the world, even if you aren’t there, and they’ll be okay. But I did like, they weren’t just really to say assholes on your program, it’s that, you know, like we, they had gotten past that teenage phase, and they were really good company. Like, they had great senses of humor, and they knew stuff I didn’t know.


Kate Bowler  41:51

With the failure to launch metaphor, which probably arrow base but also I think we picture nests, that is naturally are we supposed to then toss out our offspring? And, like is the natural world indicating that our multigenerational hopes and dreams are are not quote nature’s way or now we’re gonna go with dolphins the truth is there’s a million different versions.


Margaret Renkl  42:14

It all depends on the species sure. Crows stay together for generations, but and that’s one of the reasons I take comfort from Crows. But one time there was this Cardinal pear Cardinals that nested in a, in a tree that brushed right up against our bedroom window. And they built that they must have built the nest very early one morning before we open the curtains that open the curtains and there was this little nest and closer to me than you are right just, it was just like right there. And so I had this absolute perfect view of what was happening in this little red bird family. I kept the curtains closed, but I would stick my camera through the crack in the curtains and look at him. And the mother Arnel starts incubating the first egg as soon as she lays it. But this again, egg comes the next day or the next. So it’s that baby bird is late, two days, one day or two days behind it sibling. And when it was when the first baby bird left the nest, the parents spent a lot of energy, coaxing that second baby out of the nest and that baby didn’t want to go. And it had a great disadvantage. Over it’s much stronger sibling. But blue birds don’t start incubating their eggs until after the last egg is laid. So all the blue bird babies are at the same stage of development when it’s time to fly. And it’s interesting to see the difference. Maybe it’s not interesting to everybody. I’m wondering if your eyes are glazing over over there. It’s hard to tell these lights. But not everybody will but I think that you know it just to me, if there’s going to be a parable here, it’s that there’s no one right way to do this. So I think you know, I say to young moms all the time. There are many, many ways to be a good mother. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s way to be a good mother.


Margaret Renkl  42:15

I was going to ask you, it’s been a very funny 24 hours because our mutual friend and Padgett who is a joy and also forcefield we were gonna have breakfast and then cut to 24 hours later I’m living in our home.


Margaret Renkl  42:49

Without her.


Margaret Renkl  42:56

Exactly, which made me laugh, we were talking about a deep belief that we both share about the feeling of like life everywhere, and especially when you’re scared that you know scared of being sick scared of things falling apart scared of people we love dying, thrilled about new ones being born, but that the feeling of the connectedness and the despair in that. And she and this was like, we talked about it years ago, but she quoted something about like rivers of light. So I asked her about it yesterday. And she was like, oh, that’s from Jane Kenyon poem. And then she got me the book and was like, read it, which I loved. But I was reading the poem, which is called having it out with melancholy. The incredible Jane Kenyon and but something in the poem really reminded me of your book. And so can I just fuss about it for a second?


Margaret Renkl  45:41

Sure,. I love Jane Kenyon.


Kate Bowler  45:43

I am not sure it’s a great one for you to be reading, though. It’s a huge bummer and I love it, I the poem frames the experience of always knowing that despair is right there, through the fog of fear and illness. And then she describes a feeling she had, which is the thing that Anne was describing. She writes, once in my early 30s, I saw that I was a speck of light. In the great river of light that undulates through time, I was floating with the whole human family, we were all colors, those who are living now those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few moments, I floated completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exist. And like the realization that she’s a part of something, but then by the end of the poem, it sounds like you, my dear, at the very end, it goes. So she’s like, realize waking up to life again. And when she describes it as being like someone pardoned for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s like, full of bitterness and wonder, which I thought was such a wonderful description. But then like, the poem ends on not being quite ready to wake up. And then she looks out and she says, easeful air presses through the screen with the wild, complex song of the bird, and I am overcome by ordinary contentment. What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment, I love the small swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples, it’s bright, unequivocal. I just like the beauty besotted myths that you’re describing, like, do you think there is in nature in the ability to observe and be ill? Like a, like a love that cures us? Because that ordinary love sounds like sometimes that saves our life.


Margaret Renkl  47:42

We forget, I think how, how the rhythms of the natural world are also our rhythms. Because, we’ve masked our rhythms, we turn lights on, so we can stay up after dark. And we stay inside, I used to say, when I was a young teacher, how can Wordsworth compete with Sesame Street? And say, I love Sesame Street, I love Big Bird but when children come to school, having been entertained from their very first consciousness, how does a teacher going through at a human pace with words coming out at a human pace, and breathing at a human pace? How does a child primed by television pace, meet that slow down? And now of course, it’s so much harder, because internet pace is so much faster than television pace. But when we are outside, we are moving, we are much more apt to become aware of our breath, and our heartbeat and these natural rhythms that are much slower. And slowing. Is the I’m convinced the first step toward happiness, because it’s slowing down. That lets us notice. There’s there’s I’m sure there’s all kinds of science about this. I’m not just making this stuff up. It’s like there are there are microbes in the soil that stimulate serotonin production. So digging in the dirt has a similar effect as an anti depressant on the human brain. So there are this is this is what I keep saying it’s not because you should do it. I don’t want to be a scold. I don’t want to say this is what we all should do. I want to say, look how much happier we’ll all be if we do this, because this is what we this is how we were created to be this is who we are, who we most essentially are. And once you slow down once you’re working at breath pace, heartbeat pace, striding pace, then you have that chance to notice. Because you can’t notice when you’re going by 75 miles an hour.


Kate Bowler  50:13

Yeah, I was very struck by like choices and makes to be in at an at a human pace with other people. And I have to admit, I’ve been thinking about your book and thinking about what it takes to be even more in love with life as it is when life feels a little bit more as it is.


Margaret Renkl  50:34

There’s a risk to it, though. It’s not all, it’s not all songbird, although some of the things you’re gonna notice are also very troublesome, you know, and it is fear, despair, concern, it’s hard not to see yourself as part of that too, as the mortality is everywhere. Even completely apart from the bigger picture of what’s happening to the planet. There is a lot of sadness and a lot of pain that comes also from paying attention. But when you factor in also that okay, if you started paying attention last year, then you might notice this year, that there are fewer tiger swallowtail butterflies. Fewer bluebirds, and that is its own pain. But I also think that when we allow ourselves to notice that, then we have taken the first step toward doing something about people, they don’t want to think about it because it’s overwhelming it feel we feel powerless, and to some extent, we are very powerless. But in another respect, we are not powerless at all. And that’s the thing about planting zinnias. And you plant a little bit Azaleas are a little pot of milkweed. And you see the birds come to harvest the seeds are the butterflies and the bees come to harvest the nectar and the pollen. And in it happens, it’s like you see that? This then this result? Because and you think and you just want to do more of that. Like, oh, that was great I’m making that pollinator bed bigger this year. I’m figuring out what it is that the tiger swallowtail needs to lay its eggs on, so the caterpillars have something to eat. And it is it’s an activating. You know, if you think about what’s going on, you can let yourself fall into a state of despair. That’s very profound. Unless someone gives you a tool for taking action, that’s our greatest shoring up against despair is to realize that we aren’t powerless.


Kate Bowler  52:47

Fine, I’ll water my spider plant Margaret. I’ve had it since college. It’s one of the three I’ve had since college. I had such a nice time talking with you, you are a complete delight.


Kate Bowler  53:11

So I don’t think Margaret will kill me for telling you this story but when I walked her out after the interview, it was just such a nice day. And we were gonna walk around for a little bit. And I asked if I could put my bag in her trunk. And she opened it up and I realized that her trunk is full of like those long, tough industrial gloves that you have, when you’re going to you know, touch pointy things, or maybe things with sharp teeth. And then she had a bunch of cages, like nice cages like friendly cages like hey, let’s just put you there for a second to make sure you’re okay cages. And it turns out that that’s what Margaret does. She was like, well, what if I find a possum and it’s on the side of the road and it’s injured, and I have to make sure it’s there’s no babies and it’s Tommy that need help. So happy to just think about Margaret patrolling the highways with enormous gloves making sure possum babies are fine. So, yeah, she’s a gem. And she really does think a lot about how to love and notice the world. She has this gorgeous little piece about loving every unloved thing, like mosquitoes or copperheads, which I think we both know I’m not there yet. But she has a beautiful little piece, a little kind of tribute, a blessing, if you will, for our failure to notice the world in all of its, you know, we don’t see its beauty. So let’s close with a little blessing taken from Margaret’s book, The Comfort of Crows. Here we go, world world forgive our ignorance and our foolish fears absolve us of our anger and our error and your boundless gift for renewal. Disregard are undeserving for no reason but the hope that one day we will know the beauty of unloved things, except our on other things. All right, bless you, bless me, as we learn to be in love with the world again. See you soon.


Kate Bowler  55:36

If you also want to be the kind of person who pays attention during the Christmas season, our team has created a really beautiful Advent guide that you can use. It’s totally free. It’s massive and gorgeous. And it is available now. You can access it at If that is your kind of thing. And hey, if you liked this conversation, could you do me a huge favor and leave us a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. It just takes a couple seconds. But weirdly, it makes a huge difference to help people see and find our podcast and make sure you’re subscribed while you’re there. This is the part of the episode where I get to say Holy crap. This only happens because other people make it possible. Like our generous partners, the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment support, storytelling and faith in life. And I am so grateful to have them as my partners. Thank you also to my academic home Duke Divinity School and our new podcast network Lemonada  where their slogan is Make life suck less. And a huge shout out to my absolutely spin. I’m always pausing here because I always want to come up with new adjectives. I was gonna say amazing. And then I went for stupendous. And then I just struggled with it. But these are the people who make everything beautiful. Jessica Ricci, Harriet Patman, Keith Weston, Glen Higginbotham, Brenda Thompson, hope Anderson, Kristen Bowser, Jeb Burt and Catherine Smith. Thank you. And hey, we love hearing from you. So leave us a voicemail. We might even be able to use it on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731 Okay, lovelies, I am going to talk to a wonderful person next week named Katherine price about fun. What is it? How can I have more? What’s going on? Is there a fun deficiency? How can we have more fun in the lives we actually have but in the meantime come find me online at Cape Cod bowler This is everything happens with me Kate bowler?

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