The Passions of a Once and Future Hummingbird


I want to write about my obsessions.

There is a stigma here, and a vulnerability in revelation. First, I have a mild, mostly well-managed history of OCD (heavy on the O, light on the C), and so even using the word hints at a pathology that I usually don’t admit. And second, stable adults don’t allow or suffer from obsessions. We are well-rounded, well-grounded, and unhounded by fascinations so strong that the line between us pursuing them and them pursuing us becomes negligible.

But not me. Not now.

See, I’m a hummingbird in a sledgehammer world, and I’ve done this before. As is wonderfully explicated by my fantastic internet friend Megan Dietz in her essay “Fuck Fish, Or What It’s Like to Be a Hummingbird, Elizabeth Gilbert has divided the world’s people into two types according to their interests. There are hummingbirds, people who delight in forming temporary obsessions, then leaving them to flit on to other temporary obsessions. You can otherwise call them dilettantes. And there are sledgehammers, who find one passion and pursue it doggedly and single-mindedly until they master it. You can otherwise call them Malcolm Gladwell.

All through my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I was a hummingbird. I’d gleefully dive into subjects with all of my heartfelt, laser-focused attention, learn what I wanted to, and then abandon them as fully as I’d previously embraced them. I’d move fluidly between monogamous romances with ancient Egypt, the Civil War, Sylvia Plath, Ayn Rand*, Willa Cather, The Great Gatsby**, Les Miserables, Hitchcock blondes, yoga, Ani Difranco, Anne Frank, and knitting, just to name a few. I’d fall in love with an idea, wrap myself around it, absorb it, and then move on once it had been fully digested. No hard feelings. No resentments. Just a clean break and a swift leap into the next. This was just the way I’d always been.

Until I wasn’t.

Once I had children to nurture, I stopped nurturing my obsessive, hummingbird interests almost entirely. It wasn’t a conscious decision to stop feeling passionate about the world and its beauties, but it became a practice. When I read, I’d read things that were “good for me” and useful to my new life as a professional mother. I mostly stopped listening to music during the day, and when I did it tended to be kid-oriented, rather than something I’d choose for myself. And my rabbit-hole dives were limited to the amount of time I could devote to them in between my kids’ urgent demands on my time and attention. I helped them follow their own passions and interests, but in the process I forgot about my own.

Instead, I pathologized my infrequent bouts of joyful obsession, making them into jokes and dismissing them as such. I harbored fears that my aimless happiness bore tinges of mania and worked hard to tamp them down. At times, my pleasures become so guilty that I learned to talk myself out of them entirely. I prized grit and practicality instead, plucked my wings from my body, and attempted to weld hammer heads in their place.

And then, this summer I suddenly stopped extinguishing my impractical fancies and instead let them blaze.

Rejoining the world of the hummingbirds started, as so many things do, with Patti Smith. I impulsively bought a copy of Just Kids, her memoir of her relationship/friendship/reciprocal-museship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I savored it languorously, thinking even as I read it, “I don’t want to miss this.” I didn’t want it to end and was filled with that sweet, empty feeling of bereft disorientation that accompanies one’s exit from a rich literary world.

Next came M Train, her more recent, more contemporary memoir, particularly the chapter “Tempest Air Demons,” which I read before sleep every night for a week straight. And then I gave up all illusion of rational reading practice and just began diving into them both at will and at random.*** It was when my Smartner caught me in bed rereading Just Kids with M Train open, face down on my belly for easy access that I knew my wings were again beating and all pretensions of wielding weighty hammers were gone.

Horses, naturally became my soundtrack of the summer, and I blasted it gleefully with the Smartlings everywhere we went. Remarkably, but unsurprisingly, Patti Smith’s music speaks to my daughters, too, and they now share my love for her poetry and power. One of this summer’s highlights was watching my older daughter energetically choreograph a dance on the empty stage at the Mural Amphitheater to my younger daughter and I singing “Kimberly” from the grassy lawn before her. What I love, they now love. Watching me love, they learn to love.

"And I feel like just some misplaced, Joan of Arc / And the cause is you lookin' up at me..."

Patti Smith wasn’t all the summer’s hummingbird obsessiveness held for me. Now that I’m older I can apparently manage the blissful burden of twin fascinations at once. Like the rest of the country a year ago, I just discovered Hamilton.**** And, like the rest of the country now, I can’t stop listening to it. I look forward to going to the gym so I can run to the soundtrack. I make up excuses to drive alone so I can weep to its inevitably tragic conclusion without witnesses. I am gleefully planning my meta-Hamilton Halloween costume in which I will dress as Lin-Manuel Miranda dressed as Alexander Hamilton.***** As my elder Smartling proclaimed while watching me read Hamilton: The Revolution while listening to the show’s soundtrack, “Mommy has a passion for Hamilton.” And this passion makes me look crazy. I know that. But it feels like enthusiasm. It feels like me, the first-person me I used to be. It feels like home.

It’s good to be back.

Maybe this is what a mid-life crisis really is at its root. Not a cynical and desperate means of avoiding aging through fear-obliterating immaturity, but rather a rediscovery of who we essentially are and what we essentially love. Maybe it’s not running from death. Instead it's running toward ourselves and who we were before we learned not to be who we are. Maybe it’s a return to play, a return to pleasure, a return to joy. Maybe it’s growing wings where wings should always have grown.

I don’t know how long these infatuations will last, which makes them all the more precious. And I don’t know if they will be replaced by others or another dry spell, which makes them all the more worth protecting and cultivating. I have a passion for Hamilton, yes. And I have a passion for Patti Smith. But, more importantly, I also now have a passion for passion itself and an internal refrain marveling at how lucky I am to be alive – and in love with life – right now.

I am not even fucking with you: This is the bookmark that came with my copy of Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. The Gods, they approve! (Also, you should all be shopping at Phinney Books. It is excellent there.)

*Seriously. No joke. I had a cat named Francisco, for Christ’s sake.

**Which I loved so ardently that I wrote about it for 5 academic quarters’ worth of final essays straight – including (with professorial approval) for a course in 19th Century Gothic literature. I still don't know how I pulled that one off.

***A practice that Smith herself indulges in and endorses in M Train. How suitable that I'd find a proud hummingbird on which to hummingbird! (Yeah, it's a verb. Get into it.)

**** “I’m not falling behind or running late…” I may not be an early adopter, but I find the things I need when I need them.

*****God, I love wearing a fake mustache in public. True story.