The house that we think of as “our” house does not belong to us. Not because we are still paying the mortgage on it. Not because it, like so many others, is in foreclosure. No, though it is still “our” house, we are just renters.
This becomes evident one morning while sitting in a moment of calm before the day has begun, watching the bird feeder which my husband is lovingly filling. He has dumped out the seeds too big to fit through the wire mesh of the feeder. About 10 little birds, sparrows and juncos and sometimes a dashing male cardinal, are feeding on the seeds on the leaf-covered ground. They are not scared off by the lone squirrel who comes to eat the peanuts from the mix. Larger birds flock to the now-full feeder. The largest birds, too big to land on the feeder, sometime take over the small bird territory, eating seeds on the ground.
Rain is falling as we prepare to go to work, cleaning up the kitchen and locking up the house. The birds fly around in my mind. So vulnerable they seem yet so brave, so tiny yet enormous in their freedom to take to the air. I want to hold them in my hand and stroke their soft, downy feathers, give them love. But truth is, this is purely a selfish wish on my part for they don’t need my love. They don’t really even need the bird seed my husband religiously puts in the feeder. There are bushes out back with berries which they love. It is we who need them, to make us feel happy, to make us feel loving, to make us feel alive and connected to something larger than ourselves.
As we pull out of the driveway I take another lingering look at the birds in the brightening light. And then it hits me. They get to stay there all day as we drive off through the rain to our respective jobs in the cement jungle of a nearby city. We drive past horses, grazing in a neighboring meadow. They get to stay home, too. Often I make an effort to remember the birds and the squirrels and the horses to bring calm to a fraught work day. Yet I usually get so caught up in my frenetic, little life that I forget to think of them. Or if I manage to conjure them up, the image of them in my mind is thin, pale and lacking in substance.
I imagine the animals laughing at us as we have to drive off to go to work. Our house belongs to THEM. Sometimes they even invade our living quarters. When we first bought the house, it had 50 or so little brown bats in the attic who would occasionally fly around the bedroom at night. One year we had a pair of squirrels. We even had the company of a milk snake one afternoon. And every fall as the weather turns frigid, the field mice run in.
A little more thought on the subject reveals to me that in actuality we own nothing. Not our house, our spouse, our children, our pets, nor even the body we inhabit. All of these things are on loan to us, rented to us if you will, by the Maker of the sun and the moon and the stars. Such a wealth of beauteous bounty is there for us, ours to enjoy for the mere act of attention. The trees, the summer breeze, the blanket of snow in winter, the flowers of summer, the butterflies, the deer who eat our lilies, the possums and ground-hogs, the ever-changing species of birds, the occasional coyote and the thousands, if not millions, of insects underfoot in a terrestrial universe. And the universe above our heads with the planets, the sun, the moon and its trillions, gazillions of stars and whispers of other universes beyond what we can see. And yet we are so caught up in the dramas of our mundane lives that we fail to duly honor the ever-present gifts except in periodic snatches, when we turn our attention outside ourselves and our little lives. We may pay a sum to rent a piece of the earth but that piece contains a seemingly infinite multitude of gifts given just for the taking. Or rather, I should say, for the renting.