Sienna Zeilinger: Blue heron

Thursday, May 21, 2015
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2015

One recent Saturday a friend and I hopped on our bicycles and rode the East Bay Bike Path down to Bristol. The state of Rhode Island is itself a state of wonder — pedal south for 20 minutes and you’ll hear a dozen different bird calls. On this ride, though, we were most struck by something silent. “Hey,” my friend said, slowing to a stop and pointing out at Echo Lake. “Check out that great blue.”

Annie Dillard writes of a moment she shared with a weasel one evening, when they startled each other and then, for one soul-shattering instant, stared into each other’s eyes. “A weasel is wild,” she says. “Who knows what he thinks?” It’s a good question: Who knows that weasel? Not Annie and certainly not us.

This would be a great place to introduce the concept of empathy, but I’m more interested in the moment just before. It seems to me that the word “empathy” gets tossed around less judiciously than it deserves. We speak of it as a bridge, a great connector, without giving much thought to the chasm it spans. The chance to do empathetic work arises from space, from a gap. It arises from not knowing.

Of course, empathy is important. But before I can do the work of building the bridge, I have to honor that gap. I have to honor that which I fear or revere or can’t understand. And that, that’s just awe.

I didn’t touch souls with that heron. He didn’t even notice me. I stood there in wonder, in awe, as I have so often these past four years. Brown didn’t teach me how to be awed. It taught me something far more important: It is not only empowering to be in awe, but also patently cool. To let myself be struck and to wonder aloud and to ask questions — these may be the very best things I can do, as someone striving to be a better teacher, writer and friend.

What is it like to be a weasel or a heron? What is it like to be you?

I can’t know this, of course, but it turns out that doesn’t matter. It turns out that it’s valuable just to wonder. And so there’s a certain fullness in the chest that happens when I read a freshman’s essay or listen to a friend play the violin or spot a hawk knifing across the sky over the Main Green, as if it’s nothing short of a miracle that I get to share planetary space with this creature. As indeed it is.

Sienna Zeilinger hopes to someday be that teacher who holds class outside. She and her bike will be sticking around Rhode Island next year.

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