This I Believe

I delivered this talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Jamestown today.

This I Believe

I have long been a fan of the NPR series “This I Believe.”  I admire the people who can so eloquently and so succinctly put their beliefs into words.  And I have long wanted to write my own “This I Believe” essay.  The problem is, I have always struggled with knowing exactly what it is I believe!

Last spring, I rented a cabin at Allegany and went with my dog to hike, to take pictures, to write, to be alone with my thoughts.  One of my goals was to write my essay.  I figured the solitude would afford me the time and space to focus and get this essay written once and for all.

It was a nice idea.  I struggled and struggled and gave up, choosing instead to enjoy my hikes with the dog.

A couple of months later, Dick and Joyce Rose approached me about doing a talk for the UUC.  I said sure and told them I’d get back to them with a title and description. After a little thought, I picked “This I Believe” as my title, because there’s nothing like a deadline to get a project done!  Am I right?

And so I continued to struggle…  I struggled with semantics.  I looked up the definitions of belief, believe, faith, and so on.  I had philosophical discussions with family, friends, my dog and myself about the difference between belief and faith and my fascination with sentences that began with “I believe in…” and “I believe that…”

Belief:  acceptance of something as true.

Faith:  unquestioning belief.

I believe in God.  What does that mean?  What is god?  What does it mean to believe IN something?  Just accept it as true?  If I’m going to accept that God is “true” then I would need to know what God is and that seems pretty unknowable so…

How about beginning the sentence with “I believe that…”  I’d be forced to be clearer about what I believe:  I believe that the concept of God is a comforting idea to many people…  Oh dear… now isn’t that just too intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying?

When all the conversations and reflection led nowhere, and all the thinking and writing led nowhere, I’d hike.  And take pictures.  And I’d hear myself uttering a simple phrase over and over.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

I realized that of all possible combinations of words – that is the phrase I voice more than any other.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

Now, when I am trying to get to know someone, I listen to what they say and I watch what they do.  I pay attention to the choices they make.  Why not use this same strategy to get to know myself better.  In other words, might I discover my own beliefs by reflecting on each word in this phrase that I use so often?  Couldn’t hurt to try.

Let’s start with “Oh.”


I am awakened from a temporary slumber and reminded to pay attention.  Oh.  I am surprised and delighted by something I’m just now noticing.  Oh.  Stop thinking and just be present, why don’t you?  Oh.  Wow.

Oh my…


Not your.  Not his.  Not her.  Not their.  Not our.  My.  This is my experience and no other’s.  This is mine.  I can attempt to share it with you, my hiking partner, by pointing it out.  Or I can try to capture it in a picture and share it with you later.  But whatever you get from my telling or my showing is (a) second hand, and (b) your experience, not mine.  This is mine.  The thing that made me say “Oh” – it’s mine.  All mine.

Oh my god…


“God” is an unlikely word for a self-proclaimed atheist to utter.  For me, there is no god, at least not the kind that can be thought of as a person with whom one has prayerful conversations.  But when I am awe-struck, I invoke the name of god.  Perhaps it is because there is a sensation that is as difficult to describe as is god.  Sometimes it is a feeling of connectedness.  Sometimes it is an appreciation of creation and the wonder of it all.  It is a losing of my sense of self – which seems like a contradiction to what I just said about the word “my”.  Still, it is MY loss of self – my blending with the universe.

Oh my god, this…


This stuff that is all around me.  When I’m hiking, “this” is the scene that surrounds me – the canopy overhead, the trail beneath my feet, the air I am breathing, the colors and contours I am seeing, the sounds that come from around me and in me.  “This” might be a rolling landscape or a tiny patch of moss on a log, a gushing creek full of snow melt and run-off or a tiny spring flower.

Admittedly, I tend to whisper this phrase most often when I am hiking – surrounded by the natural world.  But I have used it in other situations as well, or at least I have had the same sensation in other situations that causes me to say the phrase.  I still remember a live performance of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that Bob and I saw in London in January of 1989 that had this effect on me.  When the show was over, we sat for several minutes, unable to move because the experience had been so intense.

I’ve been in touch with “this” at certain movies, standing before certain paintings or sculptures in art galleries, at parties given to honor someone, while listening to music, watching dancers, or reading a book.  Heck, I’ve even felt this way while watching TV – and sometimes it’s during the commercials!  “This” thing that makes me say “oh” can creep up on me at any time, in any moment.  And when it does – bam – I am fully present.

Which leads me to IS.  Oh my god, this is…


Not was.  Not will be.  Is.  Now.  This moment.  Thoughts of the past are gone.  There is no anticipation of the future.  In these awe-struck moments, I am fully present.  Right here.  Right now.  As I stand or sit and revel in the moment, past and future disappear, as does any feeling of separateness. I’m connected. If it’s a hiking moment, I’m not just viewing the scene, I’m not just in the scene; I am the scene, and the scene is me.  If it’s a theatrical moment, I feel fully a part of the experience – audience and actors creating a kind of unity – a oneness.

Oh my god, this is SO…


Beyond “very.”  More intense than “most.”  To the extreme.  I am overwhelmed by the degree.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.


It’s more than visual.  When I am hiking and I stop to appreciate beauty and say “Oh my god, this is so beautiful,” I am awash with sensation.  Sight.  Sound.  Smell.  Touch.  I can close my eyes and the scene is no less beautiful.  The way the wind slides through branches and leaves, the songs of birds and frogs and chipmunks and squirrels, the way my boots make rustling noises in the dried leaves or squishing noises in the mud, or the sound of my skis gliding through the snow.  Aromas like fresh air, or decaying leaves, the musty smell where foxes and coyotes have marked their territories.  The roughness or smoothness of the bark on the tree I lean on, the feel of the air – dry or moist, warm or cool – on my skin.  It’s a full sensory experience.

The word “beautiful” can be applied to an object that can be seen and touched – paintings, photographs, sculptures, animals, people, landscapes, flowers.  The word can be applied also to intangible things like speeches, movies or live performances, music, bird songs.  Acts of kindness or compassion can be beautiful, as can the conversation that accompanies a delicious meal.  Beauty can be found even in death and decomposition, rust and decay, aging and oxidation.

There is a whole philosophical area of study called aesthetics that concerns itself with matters of beauty.  I looked up the definition of aesthetic and found the 4th definition under adjective to be my favorite:

“pertaining to, involving, or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality”

Beauty, in this sense, is not in the eye of the beholder, but in her heart.  Recognition of the beautiful is full-sensory and emotional, not intellectual.

Oh my god, this is so beautiful.

This I believe…

OK, so now I have reflected on this phrase, this mantra of mine.  I’ve gone through it word by word considering each most carefully.  Where does it leave me?  Am I any closer to being ready to write my essay?  Maybe…  Let’s see.

Must be I believe in beauty?  No.  Too vague.  Sounds like I believe that beauty surrounds us, but we often neglect to notice because we are distracted by memories of the past and anticipation of the future.  Sounds like I believe that recognition of beauty is an emotional exercise, not an intellectual one.

I think I’m getting closer.

There are, of course, guidelines at the This I Believe website.  Here’s what you’re supposed to do:

  1. Tell a story: Be specific. Take your belief out of the ether and ground it in the events of your life. Consider moments when belief was formed or tested or changed. Think of your own experience, work, and family, and tell of the things you know that no one else does. Your story need not be heart-warming or gut-wrenching—it can even be funny—but it should be real. Make sure your story ties to the essence of your daily life philosophy and the shaping of your beliefs.
  2. Be brief: Your statement should be between 350 and 500 words. That’s about three minutes when read aloud at your natural pace.
  3. Name your belief: If you can’t name it in a sentence or two, your essay might not be about belief. Also, rather than writing a list, consider focusing on one core belief, because three minutes is a very short time.
  4. Be positive: Please avoid preaching or editorializing. Tell us what you do believe, not what you don’t believe. Avoid speaking in the editorial “we.” Make your essay about you; speak in the first person.
  5. Be personal: Write in words and phrases that are comfortable for you to speak. We recommend you read your essay aloud to yourself several times, and each time edit it and simplify it until you find the words, tone, and story that truly echo your belief and the way you speak.  (Click here for source.)

I’m getting there.  But, I think I still have some work to do.

Oh my god, this – even this – this trying to articulate what I believe – even this is so beautiful.

A Delightful Surprise

Tundra Swans

I photographed these Tundra Swans in 2008. The flock we saw today was MUCH bigger!

One of our favorite bird guys stopped by Audubon to pick up the calendars he had ordered.  It was late afternoon and the meetings were over and I was just finishing a project… So when he suggested we go see if the Snowy Owl was still working the field up the road, I said, “Yes!”

Before we could even hop into the truck, we heard, “Coo coo coo…”  Looking up there was a HUGE flock of Tundra Swans – Don estimated it at 180 birds – flying just overhead.  I’ve heard lots of Tundra Swans this fall – often they are flying above the clouds, though, and I don’t get a chance to see them.

We climbed into Don’s truck and drove off.

Rough-legged Hawk – photo by Gerrit Vin. Click the photo to see source, and an account about this bird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

First stop, the corner of Route 62 and Riverside Road where TWO Rough-legged Hawks were active – one light morph, the other dark.  We watched as one pounced on something in the field, then flew to a tree where the other sat – then took off heading toward the Audubon sanctuary.

Next we drove around the Kiantone-Stillwater area where the Snowy Owl has been seen.  We saw a Red-tailed Hawk in a tree in the swamp along the road that connects Route 60 to Peck-Settlement Road… But alas, no Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl – Photo by Michaela Sagatova. Click the photo to see an article about Snowy Owls at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

We both had time, so Don suggested we drive up to airport hill where owls have been reported.  Within minutes of arriving a Snowy Owl flew up from the edge of a fence and out to sit in the middle of the field.  I suspect it must have found food.  It sat there for a bit, then up onto the fence post where it posed so prettily it made me wish I had my camera!!

Then I spotted another large bird flying over the field.  Darker than the Snowy…  Have you guessed??

Short-eared Owl – Photo by Janet and Phil. Click the photo go to an article about Short-eared Owls on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.

It was a Short-eared Owl!

On the way back, we chatted about other winter birds I’ve never seen and Don gave me hints of where to find them.

It was such a wonderful day of winter birding.  Thanks, Don!