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Dueling Mommies

“Sally”, as we shall call her, began making regular appearances at Omar’s shortly after I purchased Philip.  I would often arrive in the evening or weekends to find her by his stand, playing with or holding him.

At the time, I think that Philip was the only African Grey baby on the floor.  Omar’s has a unique set up that is designed to encourage interaction with the birds and help socialize them.   They are on stands that hang from the ceiling and people can walk through and play with or hold (at their own risk) any bird that is not specifically labeled otherwise.  It could get quite amusing at times, especially with the newbies who had no idea how to get the bird back out of their hair or from perching triumphantly on the top of their head.  And I must say that Philip IS pretty amazing, so I can understand why she would take an immediate liking to him.

The first couple of times I arrived to find Sally already playing with Philip, I smiled graciously and didn’t think much of it.  But then she was there more and more frequently, and on the weekends … always doting on Philip.

She was usually there with her Mom.  Sally was in high school and was – according to a very transparent Mother – struggling with anxiety and insecurity and some other challenges and so they would come to the bird store regularly for her to unwind.

Of course, my response to this situation was a bubbling flow of compassion, kindness and understanding towards a teenager trying to navigate an onslaught of hormones, emotions, a smothering mother, and who knows what else.  Right?

Umm, no.

Instead, I am writhing in a cesspool of all the wrong emotions.  Insecurity about a parrot?  Yes.   I had no idea that it meant so much to me that he love me, and how uncertain I was that he would – even after wild success with two other parrots.  Jealousy?  Yes.  Sadly. Mother bear syndrome?  YES.  “Keep your hands off my bird, chick, or you won’t live to regret it.”

Yes, I know.  All of this was triggered by and aimed at a teenager who spent most of her days hanging out a bird store playing with someone else’s bird.  Human nature has no sense of proportion.

Thankfully, I possessed a little more character than my emotions suggested and I didn’t do anything stupid.  But I was in a pickle.  I had no idea I was this insecure about who my bird would love.  And really, come on, Meg, why are you doing all of this anyway?  It was supposed to be about unpacking design, not proving that you are eminently loveable.

Well, by no other means than the grace of God, an unselfish thought or two managed to worm their way into my mind.  What if Sally was receiving something special from Philip?  What if it was important in this season of her life?  What if my job was to go with the flow and let God take care of the rest?

It was an internal wrestling match.  I clearly had some unresolved issues.   There was the bigger picture of how to be life giving or what God may be trying to accomplish in someone else’s life.

There was also a part of me that wanted to fight.

I grew up with mixed views of competition.  I am competitive by nature.  My parents taught me how to win and lose well, and for that I am incredibly grateful.  But there is still a lot that can go sideways when people are wounded or self-serving.  So, it seemed better to me that I take a step back, instead of a step forward.  Let God take care of it.  At the end of the day, Philip was coming home with me.

But then, in conversation with a friend, I saw it from another angle.  There is a time to fight for what God has given you.  Not out of spite, meanness, jealousy, or selfishness, but because it is your responsibility to steward.  Sometimes there need to be some boundaries.  Philip was at an important imprintable stage of his life.  I prayed and pondered and tried to shut the Mother Bear up long enough to be slightly objective, and decided to take a step forward.

So, the next time I went to Omar’s, I brought a brace of pistols and asked Sally to meet me outside the city at dawn.

Or, I may have pulled her aside and asked her kindly if she would only hold Philip when I was there.  She was welcome to visit and talk to him when I wasn’t there, but I would appreciate being around when she held him.  She seemed to understand and took it quite well.  And for those who are wondering, I DID still allow her to hold him.  Quite a lot, actually.

We seemed to do fine after that.  The three of us chatted and visited when we were all there.  And it wasn’t too long after and she had her own baby parrot to love.  She decided that she didn’t want to wait for another African Grey, so she got an adorable Griffin Cockatoo.

I think that something shifted in me.  I suspect that the whole exercise was elaborately planned by God to grow me up a bit more.  Having to sort through all of those emotions and find some sort of solid ground was an exercise in maturity.  And for all of my fussing and fuming, it was challenging to actually approach her about it.  That stretched me.  And this was only the first glint of the mirror on the surfaces of my inner soul.  Soon, I would be wrestling with a hugely unexpected philosophical crisis.

(I am leaving today on a much anticipated road trip, so there won’t be another blog for a few days.)

I got the call from Omar’s one afternoon at work.  They had just received a baby Grey and I was next on the list.  Was I interested?  Interested?!  I don’t think I bothered to tell Arthur I was leaving until I was halfway to the pet store.

Most breeders will separate the mother from her clutch after the babies have fledged.  That means they have grown their flight feathers and are technically capable of flying.  But they are not fully weaned, so they have to be fed formula for another few weeks until they can crack seeds on their own.  So, you choose your bird and then it stays at the store until it is ready to come home with you.

me holding PhilipOn the way there I asked the Lord to alert me if this bird wasn’t the right one.  He would have had to use a bullhorn, though.  Or maybe a two-by-four upside the head.  By the time I was holding this adorable, clumsy, scared out of his mind baby parrot, it would have taken something more than the still, small voice to tell me I should refuse him.  I wanted nothing more than to hold him forever.

He was mine.

I became a fixture at Omar’s.  Just about every night I would go there after work for about an hour.  I would usually catch them right at feeding time.  I learned that feeding them is an art form.  You have to get the formula mixture and the temperature just right so that the birds can and will eat it.  Not that it matters much, though.  Even when you shove the syringe halfway to their toes they still end up wearing most of it.  But one way or another, enough food would get into their crop that it would swell up and they would just sit there in a food coma.  This was the perfect bonding opportunity and the only time when he would ever nuzzle me so close.  I would hold him up by my neck and he would snuggle in and fall asleep.

The weekends were particularly fun because there would be a ton of people buzzing about the store, asking questions, talking about their birds, and admiring mine.  I even had one guy ask me out on a date.  I told him no.  In the bird world, it is about the birdage, not the person.  Who cares what he looks like, smells like, or acts like; or if he is rich and famous or poor as a church mouse.  The real question is; what kind of bird does he have?  And in my book, Macaws are fine for a little fun here and there, but not for long term.

One of the traditions at Omar’s was to have each new owner create a sign with their bird’s name on it.  Then the visitors at the store would know which birds were taken and could even call them by name if they wanted to.  Well, I had been laboring over a name for quite some time already, and still hadn’t come up with one.  Naming things is not my forte and this one mattered a lot to me.  My friends at the store were anxious to see what I would finally come up with.  It amused them to no end when I hung this sign above his stand.

Philip sign
Philip.  Not exactly a common parrot name, or common any pet name.  And not Phil, either.  Philip.  It was the name for a special kind of friend.  The name of someone who was also, by the way, according to certain reliable sources, translated.  If that’s not unlocking secrets of the universe, I don’t know what is!

I got used to people’s funny smiles when they saw what his name was.  It amused ME to watch them try to smother the laugh that was threatening to burst out their eyeballs.  Most of them choked out a “oh, Philip!  How cute.”

Philip and I were off to a great start.  Already coloring outside the lines.

But as is true in all relationships, events transpire that show you some things inside you that you didn’t know were there.  I was about to be tried.  Not by Philip.  By my competition.

Grey Mystique

My all-time favorite African Grey story may be more legend than truth, but it is a fun one all the same.  As the story goes, the owner leaves her Grey with a friend for a couple of months.  During his extended stay, the Grey listens in on numerous phone calls between the friend and some beleaguered boyfriend or inattentive child who is repeatedly remonstrated with “you never call”.  Eventually, the long separation ends and the owner returns to collect her bird.  And the Grey, as ONLY a Grey can do, gives her the silent treatment.  This punishment goes on for several days.  The Grey won’t talk to her, won’t interact, or do any of their normal relational stuff.  Finally, one day, out of nowhere, the Grey bursts out with “you never called!”

That is a story I heard second hand, back in the day when I would have believed a Grey could change the tire on your car.  So, I won’t vouch for its absolute accuracy, but even now, I could easily imagine a Grey doing exactly that.  However, my second favorite story is one that I read about Alex, the Grey who was made famous through studies done by Irene Pepperberg.  He had been sick and was recuperating at the vet clinic.  There was a technician staying with him and Alex started asking him questions like “wanna peanut?”  The technician would answer, “No, Alex, I don’t want a peanut.”  Then Alex would say, “wanna grape?”  And the technician would answer “No Alex, I don’t want a grape.”  This went on for a few rounds until finally, Alex said, “Well, what do you want?”

Not long after I was introduced to the world of parrots, I felt a fascination with Greys.  They are famous for their intelligence and for being the best talkers.  But there was something else for me.  Something more mystical.  When I looked at a Grey, I felt like he was looking back at me … or through me, as the case may be.  It wasn’t just a factor of intelligence that set them apart from the rest of the parrots; it was a matter of essence.  I wanted to know what was going on inside of them, like they knew some secret of the universe.  It wasn’t until many years later that I came across the verse in Job 12.  Funny what our spirits know when our souls don’t have a clue!

But along with the mystique of the African Grey came the intimidation factor.  A big one.  For every funny story about a Grey there was one of their acute environmental sensitivity, or stress plucking, or boredom driven destructive behaviors, or other such fearsome outcomes.  African Greys seemed to be the domain of the parrot professionals.  You know, the people who have more birds than people in their houses.

So, here I was, now a decade or so after Charlie, and I had a whole new frame for my relationship with birds.  I knew there was still something special with parrots, and the longing to have one again was growing stronger.  Could my life handle it?

There had been a massive amount of growth and change in that decade and things felt a lot more stable than they had when I moved.  After doing some hard thinking, I decided that my life could handle it, or, I would make it handle it.  A larger factor in the decision making process went back to design.  I wanted to know what was there.  What had God put in me that I was so blissfully ignorant of the first time around?  What could I learn about walking out my calling?

I decided that I would begin the process.  I wanted a baby this time, so that meant finding a breeder and getting on a waiting list.  There was a wonderful bird store near me called Omar’s that had an excellent reputation for breeding.  I put in a request for a Yellow Naped or Blue Fronted Amazon.

Yes, that’s right.  Not a Grey, even though that’s what I wanted the most.

I was still too nervous.  I thought I’d better practice up and get a Grey later on.  But then a friend got a hold of me and asked me why I was holding back.  Why was I investing this much in something that was less than what I knew I wanted?

Now, I understand there are many situations where practice and incremental investment is necessary.  But in this case, I knew in my gut that my friend was right.  I had a bounty of resources inside and outside of me.  All that was blocking me was fear.

So, I called the pet store and asked them if I could change my order.  Instead of an Amazon, would they please find me a Grey?

And then, all there was to do was to wait.

I had a severe test of my character the other day.  I was on a ministry call, and I often wander around the house when I am on the phone.  There is, apparently, a direct connection between the movement of my feet and the firing of synapses in my noggin.  Well, I happened to stop for a few seconds near the front window and I saw two Red Bellied Woodpeckers scurrying around the Maple tree.  Two!  I had never seen one, let alone two at once.  Better still, one of them was feeding the other.  Most. Endearing. Thing. Ever.  I mean, how much better does it get than peeling a bug off the bark for your sweetie?

My character held, barely.  I didn’t interrupt the person or shout and carry on or hang up abruptly.  It’s dangerous to look out front windows when one is on a ministry call.  I didn’t hang up on them, but don’t ask me to tell you what either of us was saying at that moment.

Thus far, my story has been about parrots, which are and always will be a special love.  But soon after my introduction to Sapphire, I discovered that parrots were the doorway into a whole new realm.  It was the method by which God gave me the sweet “first kiss” that would turn into a lifelong love affair with birds.  Many people wouldn’t have even noticed the two Woodpeckers, let alone nearly choke with excitement.

Sapphire has a way of teaching you how God made you to thrive.  It does this by first disassembling you into a million pieces, so that you have no idea which part goes where, and then somehow, God, your spirit, and a few choice principles mix with some hard work and you are put back together in a way that is barely recognizable, but so RIGHT.

And that’s when I discovered that I was made for a whole lot more than parrots.  It was birds of all kinds.  It was not just my soul that thought they were neat or pretty or cute.  Some of them impact my spirit so deeply that I get chills or my knees go wobbly.  Someday I will see an Albatross face to face and when I do, I doubt I will be able to stand.  One time I asked the Lord what He loves about me.  When, in the course of life, I need to remember the sweetness of our relationship, I think of this answer: “I love you because you love My birds.”

I also learned that this facet of my design meant something.  It had a purpose.  I never saw it as such with Muffin or Charlie.  Then, it was a hobby.  Aside from the indignation I felt about Charlie’s mistreatment, it was purely a matter of self-satisfaction.  What higher purpose would there be?  The thought never occurred to me.

And that is one of the tragedies of our culture.  Purpose is defined primarily in terms of money.  The rest of it is labeled as hobbies, fads, quirks, or idiosyncrasies.  Clearly inferior.  But that’s not how God sees it.  When we have found a piece of design, something intrinsic, something at our core, it is there for a reason, regardless of how superfluous the culture may view it.

So began a major reframing of my worldview – did I mention being taken apart and put back together again?  I began to look at the spiritual sensitivities of birds, the “how” and “why” of my interactions with them, and the role they played in the spiritual ecosystem.  And in the back of my mind, a wondering and a wishing about parrots grew … again … but this time a particular kind of parrot.

An African Grey.

 

Along Came Charlie

The very first parrot I owned was the result of a moment of righteous indignation.  Or at least, I thought it was righteous.  I will admit to a bit of parrot snobbery in my youth.  I thought I knew better and could do more.

Back in those days they used to sell parrots at places like Pet Smart and Pet Co.  I thought that was a bad idea then and I still think so now.  The staff is not trained to deal with parrots and the average shopper at those stores is better suited for a parakeet than a parrot.  Thankfully, they don’t sell them anymore.  But that is where I ran across a certain Yellow Naped Amazon.

There is a sort of bird to human chemistry that exists, and a bird may or may not take a liking to you, even if you are a bird whisperer.  This particular Amazon seemed to take an immediate liking to me.  And when I saw the staff members handle him roughly and take a treat away that they had just given him, well, all of my Mercy indignation rose to the surface.  I didn’t smack the lady like I wanted to, but that Amazon parrot DID come home with me that night – after I carefully considered (for about 2 minutes) whether I could actually afford to own a parrot.

I transported my new pet triumphantly out of the store to the car in a little dog carrier.  He hadn’t made much noise before then.  But as soon as I sat down and put him on my lap, I heard something coming out of the carrier.  I looked at my friend.  “Is he laughing??”  She grinned.  “It sure sounds like it!”

And so began my life with Charles.  Or Charlie for short, or Sweetie, or other things, depending on how well he was behaving.

Charlie suffered no lack of self-confidence or self-esteem, for that matter.  He pretty much knew what he wanted and pretty much thought he ought to have it.  Muffin was sweet-tempered.  Charlie was just tempered.  There was a certain look in his eyes that I learned very quickly meant “get near me at your own risk”.  That posed some interesting complications when he was already sitting on my shoulder and I needed to put him back on his cage.  But for all of his willfulness, he had a gentle side.  He loved to cuddle near me under a blanket when I was watching a movie, and at other times he would sit on my arm and snuggle up so I could scratch his head.  I have never seen a parrot enjoy that more than he did.

One of my favorite things to do with Charlie was to take him out for a walk or for a ride in the car.  I loved to watch people’s reactions.  I found a dog leash that was small enough that I could attach it to his leg band and it wasn’t too heavy.  And off we would go for a walk around the block.  It was especially fun in the car.  We built a perch that would fit over the front seat, so I would have a little feathered passenger.  I was at the ATM one time and someone drove by, and then stopped, circled, and came back.  They rolled down their window and kindly informed me that I had a parrot sitting in the seat next to me.  I told them I had been wondering what it was, and I felt much better now that I knew.

Charlie saw me through one of the roughest patches of my life.  I think it was a year or two after I got him that my best friend and I decided we were going to move out of the small town in Michigan where we grew up to the twin cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  It’s a long story as to why there, but that’s where we decided to go, and so we bundled up both parrots and all our worldly possessions  and off we went.

We were there only a few months when life began to unravel.  My best friend ended up rushing back to Michigan for emergency surgery and I followed a couple of weeks later with both parrots.  I was an emotional mess myself, and every mile I put between me and Minneapolis, the better I felt.

It took a while to put the pieces back together, but it was also in this season that I came across Sapphire, or Plumbline Ministries as it was back then.  Charlie and I were living at my parent’s house until I could get my feet back under me and get an apartment.  And Charlie remained his inimitable self throughout the whole thing, which was a tremendous gift of stability at a time when I really needed it.

I was drinking from the Plumbline stream like a woman in the desert.  I was such an emotional mess inside and all of this stuff about design, and the Mercy gift (good gracious, God would create this on PURPOSE? Still a few years before I reconciled to that), and spiritual cleansing, and inner healing, and you know the drill.

Eventually, it led to another huge change in my life, where I would rip up my roots all over again, only this time to go even FURTHER away.  Within about three years of my introduction to Plumbline, I was contemplating moving to California to work there.  My best friend already was.  And I could hardly stand the thought of her having all the fun.

But this also posed a challenging question.

Would I take Charlie?

A question I agonized over.  There were a lot of reasons for either decision.  I knew this was a monumental  transition in life.  I anticipated that it would require a lot of energy, emotional investment, travel, and more.  It was a growth opportunity of a lifetime. Could I subject him to a life where I was going to be gone so much?  Yet, I loved him. A lot.  He was one of the anchoring consistencies of my life.  And it is hard on parrots to change owners, even for an unflappable Amazon.

At the end of the day, I decided I had to find him a new home.  I remember sitting on the floor with him one evening and realizing that I couldn’t allow him to be the centering point of my universe.  Life had to revolve around God’s bigger plan, not around my parrot, regardless of how much I loved him.  That was a hard pill to swallow.

So, I found a parrot rescue that had a good reputation.  Leaving him there was the hardest thing I had ever done.  But, even though my emotions were hurting, I knew I had done the right thing.   The next season of life would be demanding and it was important that I could be flexible and free.

It would be well over a decade before I would consider owning a parrot again.

It all began with Muffin.

Muffin was (and possibly still is) a sweet tempered Blue Fronted Amazon parrot.  I have carefully sifted through all of my memories of her and can’t bring up a single one of her biting me.  Never fear, however.  I have been bitten enough times in subsequent years to make up for her denying me that privilege.

Muffin belonged to my high school best friend.  Well, she was technically a family bird, but her two favortist people in the entire world were my friend and her Dad.  My first memory of Muffin was at my friend’s parent’s house.  Muffin’s cage was downstairs.  I was sitting upstairs with a friend of the family.  Muffin was doing what parrots do.  Making a lot of noise.  I looked over at the friend and asked if the noise ever bothered her.  She asked me, “what noise”?  Yep.  Tuning out is a necessary skill if one is to own a parrot.

I thought that Muffin was a cool pet, but I don’t remember doing much in the way of making friends with her … until my friend went out of town and asked if I would take care of Muffin.  I agreed to do it.

These days they make parrot cages with bowls that you can access from the outside.  This is so that you don’t ever have to stick your hands into the cage of the Hyacinth Macaw (they are huge) you have been coerced into babysitting, who are quite territorial and could easily deprive you of a digit or two.  I can’t remember if Muffin’s cage had those kinds of bowls or not, but one way or the other, she got out.  Now, as I said before, she wasn’t a biter.  But I couldn’t leave her out of her cage either, so I still had a problem.  I called my friend.  She gave me some advice and lo and behold, Muffin stepped right onto my hand.  I don’t know if trumpets sounded in heaven or not, but an angel or two must’ve rejoiced.  I was still utterly ignorant of the vast sparkling treasures of my love for birds, but that was the moment when the first gleam shone through.

For the rest of the week Muffin and I worked on becoming friends.  I let her out of her cage on purpose, instead of by accident.  I talked to her while I was there.  I bribed her with food.  We all know that food is the way to any animal’s heart – so long as it doesn’t involve any of your own body parts.  Muffin was a junk food junkie.  She loved Doritos.  Parrots have about three taste buds, so they usually like strong flavored things.  She also had a soft spot for Cheez-its, as I did I, so we immediately connected around carbs and chemical preservatives, the bond of any true friendship.  Every vet and parrot fanatic would strangle us for some of the things we fed her back then.

By the time my friend returned, Muffin had another “favortist” person added to her list.

There is a special balance of emotions and attitude when working with parrots.  They are prey animals, and technically, humans are predators.  Parrots are NOT domesticated.  They are tame.  Now, a parrot that is born and bred in captivity (as is the only legal option!) will not know another world.  But they still have their instincts.  So, you need to have a gentle confidence.  Too much and it is aggressive, too little, and they can’t trust you.  Much of that can be learned, and should be, if someone wants to work with birds.  But I think there are some people who intuitively know how to communicate that they are that kind of person.  I was discovering that I was one of those kinds of people.

It just so happened that I also worked for my friend’s parents, and for several years, Muffin lived at the office.  It was a great arrangement for her because she got to be around people all day.  I held her a lot.  One of her favorite places was to sit under the table on your thigh, near the knee, while you were working at your desk.  So, I would sit for an hour or two at a time, working away, while she preened or slept contentedly on my leg.  Occasionally, I would look down and she would be peering up at me, and then immediately put her head down on my leg, with her neck all fluffy.  This meant:  SCRATCH ME.  And one must obey, of course.

I was learning the world of parrots.  My friend’s parents had raised a variety of birds over the years, and she knew a lot about them.  I was beginning to develop a respect and sense of awe over how smart they were, and how they could associate words with behavior.  The memory that stands out to me as the “knock me over with a feather” moment (ha!) was one day at work.  Muffin was rummaging around on my desk, probably chewing on something she wasn’t supposed to be.  I wasn’t feeling well.  I put my head down on my arms and just sat there.

Within a few seconds, I felt two parrot feet on my arm and a head poke through the space between my head and my elbow.  A little voice said in my ear, “whatcha do?”

That was Muffin’s version of “whatcha doing”, or “how are you doing”.  I put my head up and just looked at her.  It makes me teary just thinking of it now.  I will swear to my dying day that she knew I was behaving oddly, that something wasn’t ok, and she wanted to know what was wrong.

I was still nowhere near recognizing my growing love of parrots as a God-given piece of design that would expand far into the avian world.  The only other existing bird love I had was a long-time, unexplainable fascination with penguins.  My connection with Sapphire Leadership Group was still many years down the road.  But the journey had begun. I was dreaming of the day when I would have a parrot of my own.

 

 

 

 

 

Every end has a beginning on both sides.  It is those transition periods that can be the most challenging.  A whole lot of our endings overwhelm the beginning that happens – or COULD happen at the same time.  Sometimes we wrestle for weeks, months, or even years before we can let go of the end and fully embrace the new beginning … that isn’t so much of a beginning anymore.  It can be even more challenging to look back and see what resources we gained from the previous beginning (and middle) that just ended.

What is especially important is to recognize the things that haven’t actually ended, but came through from a previous beginning to this one.  Don’t throw every beginning out with the ending, as they say.  Well, actually, they don’t say that, but they should.

Why am I nattering on about beginnings and endings?

Mostly because I just experienced one.  An ending, I mean.  A big one for me.   One of them that made my heart feel like it had been trampled, and by my own feet, no less.  I am smack in the middle of that challenging, messy, prone to navel gazing transition into a new beginning.

I want to tell you the story.

I warn you that it is a bird story.  But I don’t think you have to be a bird person to benefit from it, or even enjoy it.  At the core, it is a human story.  It’s about how we wrestle with unpacking our design and all of the wonders, surprises and disappointments that go along with it.  It’s about weighing the realities of the present against the uncertainties of the future and making decisions with outcomes we can’t predict.  It’s about things that don’t turn out the way we dreamed. I hope that you will be encouraged and challenged.  I hope that it will make you think and ask questions you haven’t asked before.  I hope it will give you permission to risk.  And if I have done my job well, you will laugh (or at least grin and roll your eyes occasionally) and maybe even cry.

To tell you the story, I have to start at the beginning.  The other beginning.  Not the one I am at now.  The one on the other side of the end.  You know, where it all began.

To be continued (for quite a while, based on the number of sticky notes on my wall) …