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CS Lewis has a famous quote from The Four Loves that begins with “To love at all is to be vulnerable …” He says that if you want to protect yourself, you can’t love anything at all, not even a pet, especially not a parrot.  (I may have added the last bit.)  It’s not just the feeling of love itself that makes you vulnerable.  Because of love, you become vulnerable to a truckload of other emotions that get tangled up with it – feelings of responsibility, insecurity, uncertainty, fear of loss, grief, etc.  You expose your heart to all kinds of things.  Sheesh.  It’s like walking into a hospital and licking doorknobs.

I realized fairly quickly that my emotions would be of little use in making a wise decision in this situation.  They were simultaneously unselfish in wanting to do the best for Philip and selfish in wanting to protect my heart.  And I just knew that when I got slammed with new emotions later on down the road, I needed a more solid anchor than the previous emotions … that wouldn’t be present in that moment anyway.  That is a problem with emotion based decisions.  The pesky things jump ship the moment there are storm clouds on the horizon.

I wrestled a lot with questions of design, both mine and his.  That’s where it all began.  It was about unpacking a piece of my design that I had felt for years, in a specific way that I had envisioned doing it.  On the one hand, it was like any other life experiment we undertake to find out what God put in us – like learning how to paint or play an instrument.  On the other hand, it wasn’t like that at all.

I began to see more clearly the proportions of design.  They are not even.  Some facets are large and require a huge investment of time and energy and may even consume much of our life.  Others are more moderate.  Some might take a small portion – maybe an hour or two here and there.  Others might be for a season. 

When I looked at my design from that perspective, I recognized that the time and emotional commitment needed for Philip was more than I could see investing in that facet of design.  It would require a sacrifice of too many other areas. And for his sake, we couldn’t continue as things were.

After I had thought and prayed through this a hundred times and from another hundred angles, God gently reminded me that He had not said I would have Philip forever.  I was the one who made that statement.  Quite avidly.  I made a dozen inner vows about not being one of those parrot owners who couldn’t cut it, and here I was.  Note to self.  It’s really not a good idea to make those kinds of vows.  Just keep your mouth shut.

I was going to find Philip a new home. 

The final decision was made from an intentionally calculated perspective, but I cried afterwards.  To love at all is to be vulnerable.  But I had an anchor and I would need it to help carry me through the daunting process of finding his new home. 

God was already a step ahead of me.    

Seasons

Early on in our relationship, I discovered that Philip liked riding in the car.  That was a real gift, since not all parrots do.  Some even get car sick.  Not Philip.  He would chatter and look out the window and play with his toys.  One time I felt little splashes of water coming from behind me.  I turned around and he was all fluffed up and flicking water everywhere like he was taking a bath … in my back seat. 

So, when it came time to move, I had a couple of options for getting Philip to South Carolina.  One was to ship my car and fly with Philip.  This method had a lot of complications, but it greatly reduced the transit time.  Another option was to make the cross country trek.  This was cheaper and more convenient, but could also prolong the stress factor for both of us.  Especially if Philip got on one of his noisy binges.  Nothing like being stuck in a tin can with jungle bird.

In the end, I opted for the cross country drive, and I think that was the right choice.  Philip did amazingly well.  I filled his travel cage with toys and arranged a blanket so that I could easily pull it over the top if needed.  I only had to do that a few times, which is pretty good for three straight days on the road.  It may also have been because I threatened to make him walk if he got too loud for too long.  He mostly played and munched on his treats.  He got a full two hours of play time out of a granola bar wrapper that he crinkled and crinkled with childlike delight.    

We arrived at my new home in South Carolina in one piece.  Pretty awesome for a parrot to endure that kind of transition without a significant change in eating or playing habits.  I was intentional about making sure there were familiar anchor points in the midst of the change and I am sure that helped. Anyway, he seemed to settle in pretty well, especially after I moved his big cage into the office.  He so loves that room. 

We got past the first few months of moving stress and turmoil, but I was struggling.  The change in Philip’s behavior that began in California was magnified by the fact that we lived in a bigger place now.  The rooms were further apart.  He did not like being left alone for more than a few minutes.  I did not realize that the level of noise would wear on me like it was, nor the constant need for me to be present and synchronize to him. 

This emotional soul searching caused me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

I began to see how much owning an African Grey was a lifestyle.  I think it is especially so when you are single and have no other pets.  Greys are incredibly social.  And the only other living creature that was regularly in Philip’s life was me.  There were no other humans or even animals to absorb some of his need for interaction.  I worked full time, plus I had my own business, and I traveled a lot.    

So, Philip was not getting anywhere near the level of interaction he was made to have.  And when I was at home with him, he wanted my full attention.  Other stress factors that were usually in the background began to push themselves to the front, and I was forced to question whether my life was sustainable in its current condition. 

I say “forced to question” because it was a monumental emotional battle.  Some people say that having a parrot is the closest thing to having children.  A lot of parrot lovers called their birds “fids” for “feathered kids”.  Parrots burrow deep into your heart, and I daresay I took it even deeper with Philip by working so hard to develop his trust.  He unlocked a nurturing, protective love in me that I had never experienced before.  Even thinking in this direction unleashed a torrent of “what ifs” that would put a lifelong worry wart to shame. 

Yet, the reality of everyday life clearly indicated that all was not well.  Philip was not getting the level of interaction he should have.  I was getting more and more stressed and impatient with him.  Something about the situation needed to change. 

What was I going to do?       

Toddler and Teenager

A couple of years ago I had a friend come and stay at my apartment.  As a bird owner, it is always a good idea to make sure that your guests are ok with a feathered house companion.  Some people are not.  But she was up for it, and proved it by bringing Philip a toy that he still loves to this day. 

In the course of her visit, she got to observe “normal” life with me and Philip.  She saw our daily routine and he was comfortable enough (a compliment to her!) to be his normal self.  She commented that owning a parrot was like having a toddler and a teenager all rolled into one.  My reply was, “Yes.  For. The. Rest. Of. My. Life.”  Parrots don’t grow up and go away to college. 

My life changed drastically when I brought Philip home.  The “toddler” part meant parrot proofing my house as much as possible, putting down rugs to protect the carpet from his food, scrubbing walls, dusting relentlessly, vacuuming at least twice a day, and investing in a life time supply of vinegar for cleaning up messes.  And that doesn’t even include food preparation, cage cleaning, and toy buying and making.  And nothing was safe from his beak.  I have some interesting holes in two sets of blinds that got a little too close to his cage.  It looks like someone took a can opener to them. 

The teenager part … well, Philip came complete with all the moods.  Teenagers have a tendency to shoot off their mouths when they are cranky.  Philip would take it out on my fingers.  So, I got very good at recognizing the difference between mood #14 and mood #201, and what it meant for the sanctity of my digits.  And, he was just as protective of his cage as a teenager is of their bedroom.  I haven’t had a teenager myself, but I wonder if a parent might react the same way I did:  “Hey, you ungrateful so and so, I GAVE all of this to you!”   

And like a parent probably wonders at least once in their parenthood, I wondered from time to time what on earth I had gotten myself into. 

I think it is a part of human nature to form some kind of expectation of what a new experience is going to be like.  As we grow in life experiences, we may learn to keep an emotionally neutral stance, but I think that is a protective mode not a natural one.  I certainly had expectations with Philip, and even more so, dreams.  I envisioned a lot of things.  Some of what happened went way beyond what I envisioned – such as being able to communicate with him so effectively in a non-verbal way.  My connection with him was even deeper than I had imagined it could be.  But regardless of whether we are positively or negatively surprised by the reality of the experience, it is almost guaranteed that we are going to be wrong about something.  The thing that caught me off guard the most was the amount of time, money, and emotional energy required to take care of him. 

And he was changing.  When an African Grey reaches age two to three, they start to transition into becoming an active part of the flock.  When they are a baby, the motto is “not seen and not heard”.  In other words, babies keep a low profile so they don’t get eaten.  Once they become an active part of the flock, the motto becomes “SEEN AND HEARD”.  Now it becomes crucial to have the rest of the flock around you, to vocalize and keep in constant contact.  A moment of separation and silence could be the last one you experience. 

Obviously, in my apartment, he was in no real danger of being eaten, but the instincts were still there.  And what that translated into was a motor mouth Velcro bird.  And he never quite understood that my apartment was a lot smaller than the jungle, so he didn’t need to yell so loud.   

In a new experience, there are often the occurrences for which there are no expectations because you had no idea they were coming.

But in the midst of all of the growing and adjusting and emotional recalibrating, Philip and I had other things to think about.  Moving, for example.  Not just across town.  Across the country.  This was going to be a huge undertaking.  One of the top priorities for me was to find a new vet.  Knowing that I had a good place to take Philip and potentially board him was a big deal.  So, on my first scouting trip to South Carolina, I had a list of vets to visit.  Not potential apartments or houses.  Vets.  I might live in a cardboard box, but Philip would be well taken care of. 

And I found one.  It turned out to be a master stroke by the God Who Plans Ahead. 

The Office

I was sitting at my computer working on emails when I heard the scuff, scuff, scuff of nails on the plastic mat under my chair.  I hear a “hellooooo” coming from the general vicinity of my feet.  I look down to see a little grey head staring up at me.  Once Philip mastered his ladder, he made good use of it to help himself to his favorite spot in the whole apartment.   The office.  There was no better place to be than perched on the back of my chair. 

But it wasn’t always that way. 

When I first brought him home, the office was his least favorite room.  He would tolerate sitting on a perch I had set up on the opposite end from my desk. But if I tried to bring him over to my chair, he would get antsy and fussy and make my life miserable until I took him back to his cage.  That was really a bummer because I spent a lot of time in my office.  For a while, I took my laptop out to the dining room and worked at my table.  But that wasn’t practical; especially given the fact that my dining room table was the size of a postage stamp. 

Then it dawned on me.  Duh.  The land. 

I had already done a fair amount of spiritual cleansing in the apartment but the office had been a sticky wicket.  My bedroom was in there originally, but I moved it because I couldn’t sleep.  There was a lot of emotional “static” that wafted into the room from the path that ran between the apartment buildings.  And, upon further investigation, I discovered there was a big ole ley line that ran into the room – right through my desk and chair.  Hmmmm.  My bird has better discernment that I do! 

And that is one of the things I find fascinating about nature.  We, as humans, have been given a unique spirit and the greatest capacity for engaging with the spiritual realm.  Yet, the animal kingdom is quite sensitive to their surroundings, often more so than we are because we have dulled our own discernment.  Even plants and trees respond to spiritual dynamics.  There is so much you can learn about the spiritual realm by observing nature. 

So, I set to work on my office.  I hacked and wacked and cleaned and cleansed and blessed and established more boundaries than surround Fort Knox.  One of the fun things about ley lines is that you can send your blessings downstream from your location, which I was delighted to do for the benefit of my neighbors.  The room was in much better condition than when I had started, but the real test was Philip’s response. 

Well … let me put it this way.  He liked the room so much that he wanted to sit on my chair, even if I wasn’t in it!  Many times I would get up to do some work around the house and offer to take him with me.  He would just look at me. I would leave for a half hour or so and come back and ask if he wanted to come.  Umm, no.  A third time … I could see it in his eyes.  “Woman, would you leave me alone already?!”  Sometimes he would spend a whole afternoon in there, perfectly content.  What a difference!

We spent a LOT of time together in the office.  That’s where he would get in a cuddly mood and want me to scratch his head.  Or he would get playful and want me to roughhouse with him … carefully. Nothing like playing with something that is sharp on three out of four ends.  Occasionally he would get bored and make such a nuisance of himself that I would deposit him back on the floor to go exploring.  There were a lot of good times in there. 

But the thing that I find more intriguing than the shift in his response to the room is the fact that it was portable.  The emotional imprint carried over from the apartment to my new house in South Carolina.   

A move is a draining experience for everyone and especially for birds.  Because they are prey animals, any new or changed environment poses a new set of dangers.  So, you can imagine what it is like for a bird to get completely transplanted like he was. 

Yet, there was this little microcosm of my desk and desk chair that was immediately safe and comfortable for him.  And it wasn’t that his discernment of land had disappeared.  In fact, in the new house, it was the dining room that he didn’t like.  Come to find out there is a huge sound portal inside and an earth gate outside.  Incidentally, that is also where the tree fell!   My new office seemed pretty clean from the get-go, but I think we brought some of our own environment with us. 

And to me, that is a reminder of what we were designed to be as stewards of God’s creation.  We have an impact on our environment, whether we know it or not, but we have the potential to increase that influence greatly through blessing of presence.  The microcosm that I created in my office carried over to an entirely new place.  It was strong enough to override any other emotional imprint that was already in that room.  What kind of environment do we create by our presence, even before we lift a finger to do anything? 

Philip and the office will always be a special reminder of the kind of influence we can have on God’s creation.  And if I ever have reason to doubt that Philip knows what he is saying, I know one thing for sure.  When he says “wanna go in the office?” he means it! 

A few months ago I taught Philip a new phrase.  It was a simple one: “wanna come?”  I would say it to him in the evening after supper when I was ready to take him with me to the office.  The office is his favorite room in the whole house, so he was always willing to come.

I had been saying that to him for a couple of weeks when he found an entirely new and endearingly cute use for the phrase.  We had just come back from his boarding place (at his vet, where they love him) and I had him in his travel palace, I mean, cage.  I needed to unlock the door and take a couple of things into the house, so I set him down by my car.  As I was walking through the front door, I heard this little voice behind me, “wanna come?”

In other words, “ummm, Mom, you aren’t going to leave me out here in the garage all by myself, are you?  I want to come with you!”

African Greys are famous for their talking, but it is not just talking.  The commonly used phrase “parroting it back to you” probably came from the avian ability to mimic our sounds.  And there are a lot of species who don’t do much more than that.  But there are a few that actually understand the action that goes with the word.  An African Grey’s power of association is about the same as a four year old child.  Not only can they use the right words to get what they want, they can apply the right words to a new context, like Philip did.

This is the reason a lot of people get African Greys, and it is certainly endearing, amusing, and awe inspiring.  But for me, there was a deeper reason.  I wanted to do more than just train Philip to use words.  I wanted to communicate with him non verbally, in a way that demonstrated that I had established a connection with him, not just a vocabulary.  For me, this was a significant part of unpacking design.  I believe there is a component of our stewardship of nature that involves language in a much broader and more spiritual sense.

My first go at it was by accident, or rather, because of an emergency trip back to Michigan for a funeral.  It was only a month or two after I brought Philip home and I was really worried about leaving him.  On the way to the vet where he was going to stay, I tried talking to him.  Not out loud, but in my mind and in my spirit towards him.  I think, sometimes, we put ourselves in a box of spoken words.  Words are powerful because of the concepts that are greater than the words themselves.  They clothe them, so to speak, and make them visible.  But there are other ways of communicating those same powerful concepts, and I believe we grow our spiritual capacity when we learn them.

I felt a little better by the time we got to the vet, but I wasn’t sure if anything had really landed.  Therefore, I was quite pleased when I got a text before I even got home – Philip was already munching on his snacks and playing with his toys!  For a bird in a brand new environment, that was amazing.

The second time I tried was under more relaxed circumstances and had immediate, measurable results.  Philip was playing around on his cage and on a corded rope perch I had attached for him to hang on.  A couple of times when he was hanging upside down, I put my hand under him and tried to get him to let go.  He hadn’t done it yet.  So, this time, I did the same thing, only I didn’t say anything, I tried to communicate to him again from my spirit.  He looked straight at me and let go.

I was so thrilled, I almost dropped him.   Not a good idea when you just tried to communicate boatloads of trustworthiness!  That was a special moment.

But the one that will forever stand out in my memory was his ladder.

Before I brought Philip home, I bought his big cage and outfitted it with a bunch of toys.  One of the accessories was a dowel ladder that I leaned up against the side of the cage so that he could easily climb up and down.  So, I gave him a while to get used to his new digs.  He showed a modicum of interest in the ladder.  He would climb down just far enough to get back into his cage. I tried a variety of tactics to show him it was safe.  I put some of his favorite treats on the rungs.  He would just stretch down and grab them without actually moving down the ladder.  Cheater.

So, one evening I was sitting on the floor by his cage and he was on his customary half-way point on the ladder.  I could tell that he wanted to come to where I was, but he still didn’t feel safe.  So, I talked to him again, non verbally.  He just sat still for a few seconds, and then, lo, and behold … he started coming down!  He stopped every couple of rungs to look at me, but he came all the way down to the ground and over to where I was sitting.  WOW.  What a moment of celebration that was!

And then it dawned on me.  Probably the same way it dawns on most parents after watching their toddler take his first steps.

Lord have mercy, WHAT will he get into now?!