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What Did I Not Do on My Summer Vacation

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

I did not see a pileated woodpecker during my vacation. This turned out to be the most significant aspect of the three weeks I spent in a cabin in the Poconos earlier this month. The bird log at our cabin noted several recent sightings of this magnificent creature; if you've ever seen one, you'll know why a glimpse of it became my goal. Now very rare, it is a large black and white bird with a wingspan of nearly 3 feet and a bright red crest. Its hammering on trees and its loud cry, a laughing shriek, broadcast its presence unmistakably. When it flies, you imagine yourself transported back to prehistoric times, with pterodactyls swooping through the steamy air.

The first few days of vacation, I set the alarm for an early hour and sat myself purposefully among the trees with binoculars and camera strapped across my chest. I kept myself awake with coffee and a Stieg Larsson novel, my ears eager for the loud hammering that would signal the longed-for visitation. But day after day, there was neither sight nor sound of the woodpecker.

Then, as the days passed, I found I lost interest in the novel. The fluttering and forays of the smaller birds in the trees distracted me from the plot; as I began to know them, the characters of the forest creatures interested me more than those within the pages of the book. There were titmice and finches, warblers and juncos, a pair of grosbeaks and a whole family of perky little chickadees. A glossy chestnut flying squirrel enjoyed gliding down from a branch just to scatter the birds in their feasting. Chipmunks scurried to and fro among the ferns, their cheeks bulging with seeds. One morning a fox paused on his journey home from hunting to look me in the eye, and we shared a brief moment of cross-species communion.

And the woodpecker? Not a trace. At this point I had forgotten about the pileated woodpecker. And that's the way I spent the remainder of my vacation: not looking for that flamboyant bird at all. The little ordinary birds and squirrels gave me such pleasure that I found I did not even need to set my clock. I awoke early on my own, eager for the morning's hour among the leafy branches and ferns, visiting with these small woodland companions.

What a metaphor for the spiritual life. So often we huff and blow impatiently, awaiting a visitation, a miracle, a dramatic and memorable message from God. And yet the Holy One courts us, continually, with smaller mementos and tokens, the divine presence revealed in the most ordinary passage of the day. How often these go unacknowledged as we look for drama and show. In the end, it is those small fluttering and chirpings that make life holy, the dear and familiar companions of our journey that point us back toward God.