What's Really Good and What's Bad?

Murmuration, defined by Dictionary.com, is a flock of starlings. It says nothing more than that, so a reader might imagine twenty birds in a tree or a group flying by. Nowhere, buried in that definition, is the suggestion that a murmuration could also be one of nature’s most magical moments: Thousands of birds moving in flight, neither leaders nor followers, swirling and diving, merging wave-like but without any interference patterns, without a sound of wing or cry, only the whooshing of the wind they create.

As a child, my mother was the one who introduced me to birds. She filled feeders that hung from our large roof overhang, close to the picture window, where I sat, cat-like, mesmerized watching. One day a flock of starlings landed in our yard, and I asked her, “What birds are those?”

“Pests,” she said almost spitting out the word. “Someone brought a few starlings over from England to have a bit of the motherland here on this continent, and they just took over. They’re just a nuisance.”

My mother never saw all that a murmuration could be, a phenomenon I can call nothing short of the life force made visible. Starlings were bad; cardinals, titmouse and hummingbirds were good. And that was that.

It took many years and many miles before I finally threw in the towel on believing I knew what was good and what was bad. Early on, it seemed so straightforward, so obvious when it was close-up; easy to know the pests from the pets. Only later did I realize how much overlap they shared. When I finally conceded, I began to cast about for another standard, one that nourished my writing rather than merely judging it. Had I done my best became a far more useful measure, for we always know when we’ve done our best.

I’m a writer, and like most writers I want to improve. Using the have I done my best measure has been working well for me. I feel very strongly in this age of hurry-up-and-get-done, that we writers resist that sentiment. We need to hold back until we’re certain what we’ve done is the very best we can do, so that like a  murmuration, our art holds within it that which can amaze us and express possibility we have not yet imagined.

Christina Carson is author of the magical novel, Dying to Know.

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