Jan 4 • 18M

The Owl of Hope

Amy Writes Words, #27

Amy Isikoff Newell
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I’ve been thinking about hope a lot.

As the year turned over I found myself beset by difficulties.

Of course, there was the arrival of Omicron, making the entire holiday season seem less like a celebration and more like Yeats’ rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Or like waiting for the uninvited guest in The Masque of the Red Death. I’d really rather be Waiting for Godot. Yes, I crammed three literary references into this paragraph. I was almost an English major. Words are important to me.

Next, it was the first Christmas I’ve had in several years where we had no particular reason to celebrate; the person who dragged our reluctant Jewish family into Christmas isn’t in our lives anymore, and I feel that loss keenly. I tried to cram myself full of Christmas candy and fatten myself on Egg Nog just the same, but it wasn’t the same. It was sad.

There’s the ongoing stress of family medical problems to manage. Some days it seems like all I do is email therapists.

Christmas Day itself was a little bit festive, until it wasn’t. In the afternoon I received some unexpected and disheartening news which required me to pivot hard and fast, come up with alternate plans, be creative when I felt my back against the wall.

And finally, finally, the cherry on top of all this, our beloved family cat has a kidney that has reached the end of its life, perhaps in solidarity with classic Blackberry devices, also end-of-lifed this week. The other kidney, we’re told, is working as hard as it can.

This week we’ll go learn to give the cat subcutaneous fluids, assuming the animal hospital remains staffed. This week I make more phone calls and send more emails and fill out more forms and have more zooms, and try I to remember that all this work I’m doing, this caregiving, is real labor. I am not underemployed, I am busy doing labor that doesn’t count. I work, I am working, I work every day.

As far as the economy goes, however, I barely exist.1

So it’s been tough. Sometimes I just lie down on the floor wherever I am in the apartment and cry, and one of the kids will ask if I’m okay. “I’m tired,” I say.

I am just so, so tired.

New Year’s Eve was lackluster. For 2021 I had the energy to dress up, at least. I did photo shoots for Instagram all evening, for 2021.

For 2022, I did not change out of my cashmere sweatpants. We didn’t even open the champagne. I had a headache and went to bed before midnight.


On Sunday the 2nd of January, however, I went owling with my friend Rachel. We went up to Plum Island in hopes of seeing a Snowy Owl. Rachel is a birder and she had read that some Snowy Owls had been spotted on Plum Island, which was unusual.

I’m not a birder myself but it seems to me that birders know a thing or two about hope. They travel long distances and wait patiently in any weather on the mere whisper of a hope that they will have a powerful encounter with a bird.

We got up far too early for my taste and drove over an hour to meet up with Rachel on Plum Island. On our way in we paid $5 to a man in a tollhouse, and he asked us why we’d come out there on this cold and rainy January morning. “A friend said we might see a Snowy Owl,” I told the man. “Well, you might,” he said. “And you might not.”

As it turned out, the owl was already waiting for us. We pulled into the first parking lot and went to the bathroom, and as I came out of the bathroom a woman with a tripod and the longest camera lens I’d ever seen overheard me wondering if we would see an owl and said to me “yes, she’s just sitting on the boardwalk railing up there,” and indeed, she was.

We walked up to where the other bird people were watching the owl. She sat on the railing at the top of the sand dune. There was a cold, light rain. We could see the ocean, dark and choppy, and the wet beach, and the dunes, and the moss and the lichen glowing green against the sand and the golden grasses against the gray sky, but most of all we could see the owl. She sat there turning her head around and around in that always-uncanny way owls do, scanning the dunes. She didn’t seem worried about the humans and our extra-long eyepieces. Her own eyes were piercing and her gaze was calm. We were breathless, though, and trembling. You might even say we were overcome with awe. If I were Mary Oliver I would have written a poem about it, and who knows, maybe I still will.

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Later when we got home I remembered an Emily Dickinson poem, known as “Hope is the thing with feathers (314)”. Since her copyright has run out I can quote it to you in full:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Now, I know hope doesn’t always show up for an appointment the way that owl showed up for us. Sometimes we have to go seek it out. Sometimes we have to work for it.

Sometimes we have to wait, hoping for hope. Sometimes we need other people to lend us some of their hope.

But I do believe, as Dickinson writes, that hope never stops singing, and if we keep showing up for it, if we keep listening, we will find it always shows up for us.

Hope shows up as a sparrow or a starling, as a robin or an owl. It shows up when someone drops off 100 N95 masks for the teachers at their child’s public school, and when someone volunteers at the food bank and when a friend drops by with a spare pulse oximeter and when a veterinarian takes 45 minutes at 7pm on New Year’s Eve to call you up and talk to you about your cat’s kidneys.

You can find hope in books, in music, in your favorite webcomic and sometimes even on your least favorite social media site. Sometimes strangers shine with it. Sometimes it’s that one lone striker in the pouring rain holding down the picket line for their coworkers.

You might hear hope in prayer or meditation or in gospel music or in the psalms, you might find it when someone sends you a thank you note at exactly the moment you most need some thanks, or you might find it when you are hiding from your family in your closet on a zoom call with a friend, just breathing together.

I think that breathing together with other people is a wonderful way to nurture hope. Probably that’s part of why singing together feels so good.

The upshot of this line of thinking is that the future must include a lot of karaoke.

Look, like I said last week, we have here a world that is too hard to live in, even for the most privileged among us. We have to change. We have to change because the climate crisis is here, because the gospel of perpetual growth is suicidal, because this world we have is wearing us all down and grinding us up and it’s doing the same thing to our children.

I have two teenage children and it is absolutely clear to me that the most important thing I can do for them right now is teach them how to hope.

We have to teach our children how to hope, and we do it by listening hard for hope ourselves, by lighting it and tending it and sharing it with one another.


On the way home from the encounter with the owl my phone buzzed me to record my mood. I felt Good, I noticed. I hardly ever feel good. In all of 2021 I recorded 1003 individual mood scores, averaging 3 a day. Only 122 (12%) of those were Good.2 But I went on a cold wet morning with people I love and a sliver of hope that I would see something miraculous, and I walked on the earth and I was quiet and I did see something miraculous, and it made me feel good, it brought me joy, it filled me up, and I know that I need to do this again, and again, and again.

We all do.

In 2022, let’s listen together for the song of the hope that perches in our souls. And when we hear it, let’s sing it.

I don’t just mean sing. I mean live in the world like singing. Borrow the song if you have to, share it if you can. There’s a whole lot of hard right now and a whole lot of hard coming, and we need all that stuff some folks seem to think belongs only to the religious, or only to a certain religion, or only to people who live in the country or only to people who don’t do drugs or only to people who lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, only to a certain kind of person — but it doesn’t.

Hope belongs to every single one of us, including all of us who have been running ourselves ragged for years for our Families and our Careers and hardly know anymore if we have anything left that isn’t all of that. Anything left that isn’t just Operational, that isn’t Exhaustion, that isn’t Complicity or Security or our desperate late-night Consumption as Self-Care.

We do have something else. We have hope.

Hope is not Annual Recurring Revenue and it’s not Stock Options and it’s not a Series C and it’s not an IPO and it’s not RSUs and it’s not TC: 400k. It’s not Ritalin or Concerta, it’s not Lexapro or Abilify. You can’t mint it as an NFT or mine it like crypto. You can’t earn it. It’s not VP. It’s not CTO. It’s not a Competency Matrix or a Performance Review or a QBR or an OKR. It’s not Observability or ChatOps. It is not a new Team Collaboration Tool, now with Kanban View. It is not a new at-home blood test or a chatbot that teaches you CBT. It is not any kind of business thing at all.

Hope, like Soylent Green, is mostly made of People. And also, sometimes, Owls.

Let’s all sing more of it this year.


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1

Only the hours I can spare to coaching and consulting count as Labor. Even these words, which obviously required work to write, work to edit, work to record — they don’t count as Labor because they net me no money. If you think they should, why not pay for a subscription?

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2

In 2020 I averaged 11% of 753 entries and in 2019 it was a full 25% but a much smaller sample of only 333 entries, which means I didn’t even cover every day, and the days I didn’t cover were likely the worst ones, so that while you might conclude that the pandemic cut my already crappy numbers for feeling good in half, which would certainly make sense, I’m not totally sure that the data support that and I don’t want to bother my data friends with the useless question of just how much sadder the pandemic really made me.