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?!

**We interrupt this regular birdy broadcast for an important message.  Or at least a message that bears some thought.  Or one thought, at least, if you can’t spare a few.**

I recently went on a road trip with a friend and we had eleven hours in the car together.  Both ways!  The crazy thing is that we are still friends, even after my attempts to save a turtle detoured us to the worst gravel road in North America, and the abundances of tiny frogs on another road caused me to drive like a drunken maniac to avoid hitting them.

Somewhere in that 22 hours of road time, we got to talking about preparedness.  Not the “retreat to a converted shipping container in the mountains to avoid the zombies” kind of prepping, but more like the “how can we be ready, spirit, soul and body, to be nimble and responsive to the King in the midst of a crisis” kind of prepping.  And yes, for me that still involves a Go bag – complete with first aid supplies, a ham radio, and crowbars in the trunk of my car.  I like to be practical.

But God apparently decided I needed a reminder about the abstract.  Odd that He would have to remind a Mercy about that.

We are all familiar with Philippians 4:8.  In a nutshell:  think on good stuff because it is good for you.  I have always related to that verse in a general sense.  Don’t defile your mind with junk from books, TV, movies, etc.  Focus on God, not the devil, because whoever you concentrate on will become bigger to you.   Don’t have a fear-based worldview.  Things like that.  It was more of a broad application and it was about keeping your mind right in the present.

Well, I recently saw the verse and the concept in a whole new light – painfully specific and about keeping your mind right for the future.  A different kind of prepping.

I have one of those challenging dynamics in community where you have history with a particular personality and there is some truth in the opinions you have formed.  This is a soil in which all kinds of interesting plants can grow, some of them not very pretty at all.  Well, there were a couple of them that I let grow, and threw some fertilizer on from time to time.  There is a sickening kind of satisfaction that can come out of nursing those ugly little plants.

So, a situation came up, as situations often do.  I made a bad call and had to choke down the fruit of one of those aforementioned ugly little plants.  I wouldn’t recommend it.  I will be washing my mouth out for a week.

It was one of those rare and profound moments in life when you look at yourself from the outside and can, for an instant, clearly see the chain of events that got you there.  I had done everything possible to prepare myself for failure.  I grew that plant and then had to eat the fruit.

Our thoughts and attitudes are going to condition us for some kind of reaction in the future.  Many of our decisions are not the result of the moment, but of a thousand moments leading up to it.  They form our worldview and they color our every day interactions.

You know, it really isn’t worth it.  Who knows how your mind will be tested in the future.  What will be the force of the thousand thoughts and emotions that will direct it?

First Time Mom

I have never had children, but they say that having a parrot is the next closest thing.  Based on my experience, I am inclined to think that the survival of the Mom in the first year is a greater miracle than the survival of the child.  It brings to mind the cartoon of the happy, babbling baby exploring his new world and the Mom who looks like a train wreck.

I suspect that every new Mom has something that is THE fear.  There are lots of medium and smaller sized fears to keep it company, of course, but there is one that is always looming, ready to pounce on you.  For me, with a new African Grey, it was that he would start plucking his feathers.  This is a reality for a lot of birds, especially Greys, as they stress easily.  So, there it would be, like one of those awful Jack-in-the-Boxes, ready to pop up with its evil laugh “He’s going to pluck his feathers!”  If I had a nickel for every time I worried about him plucking his feathers, I could buy a titanium plated hammer and smash that Box to smithereens.

When I look back on the first night I had him home, it is rather comical how high strung I was.  It wasn’t so funny at the time, though.

I brought him from the pet store early in the day.  I introduced him to each room in my apartment, gave him some of his favorite treats, and let him take his time investigating his new cage.  He seemed to be doing ok.

But then it was time to put him to bed.  I had the idea of having him sleep in a smaller cage at night.  So, I got him all set up and then tried to steel my heart against the little eye peering desperately from under the blanket I put over the cage.  I closed the door so the room would be dark, but left it cracked so I could hear what was going on.  I lasted about 5 minutes before I had to check on him.  He was still peering at me from under the blanket.  This time I tried to leave him longer.  I kept hearing him clinking around on the food bowls.  He wasn’t settling down.  I waited.  Still noisy.  I needed to go to bed too.  So, I got ready and I could still hear him moving around.  He wasn’t comfortable and he was probably scared.   Cue the Box: “He’s going to pluck his feathers!”

So, I moved him into my bedroom.  He was in the small cage, on my floor.  But no, that’s no good.  He’s not going to be happy there.  Too low.  Birds like to be high.  So, I found something to put him on.  I covered him with the blanket again and turned out the lights.  We both eventually quieted down, but I wouldn’t vouch for the quality of sleep.  Believe it or not, he still had all his feathers in the morning, and from then on, I decided he would sleep in his big cage, and he did so very happily.  Take THAT, Mr. Jack-in-the-Box.

I was in my mid-thirties when I got Philip.  If we consider the fact that some girls are pretending to be a Mommy by age 3, I had 30 odd years of pent up mothering in me.  I treated Charlie like a pet.  Philip was my baby.  And oh, my goodness gracious, did the volcano erupt.  That first night home was only the beginning.

I explored all the fears that could possibly be related to owning a bird.  Checked them off one by one.  Yep, been there, felt that.  Then I moved on to other unexplored territories.  I never had a deep yearning to have a family like some women do, so I didn’t consider myself an overly nurturing person.  Yeah.  Well, apparently I was wrong.  And not just nurturing.  MOTHER BEAR ON STEROIDS PROTECTIVE.  I am already emotional by nature.  Did I really need MORE emotions?  Really?  I called my Mom one day and asked her if I was going nuts.  She calmly assured me it was perfectly normal, and yes, I was going nuts.  That’s what happens to women when they become mothers.  Thanks, Mom.

This was not a part of design I was expecting to unpack.  I was looking for the esoteric stuff about birds and nature and the spiritual realm.  But apparently God knew there were some facets of my nature that needed some rounding out.  This bird was wreaking havoc on me in some unexpected and very earthy ways.

There is a particular sound a parrot makes when they are scared or hurt.  Even if you’ve never heard it before, you know instantly that it is not good.  So, if Philip was in another room and started making that noise, I came like a shot to see what was going on.  Much of the time, he had gotten his foot caught in his twisty swing and got it back out without my help.  But one time, there was a real crisis.  He got startled and flew off his cage towards my living room.  On one wall was my furnace.  He drifted down by it, but didn’t land, and immediately began flapping and making that noise.  It took me about two seconds to realize he had caught his toe in the grill of the furnace.

I rushed over and tried to help him.  He was squawking and I was praying.  I realized we weren’t going to get anywhere until he calmed down, so I just supported his body and talked to him.  Eventually he stopped flapping and I could work his toe out of the grill.  Thankfully, it wasn’t broken.  We just sat there for a few minutes.  Wow.  If I can feel what I felt for a bird, I can’t even imagine what I would feel for my own child.  No wonder the new Mom looks like a train wreck.

I also discovered the strange phenomenon that occurs where everything you see everywhere is filtered through the grid of “could I buy that for my bird (child)?”  Really, it didn’t matter what kind of store I was in.  As long as whatever it was didn’t violate the lengthy “don’t do” list of parrot ownership, it was fair game.   For a long time, one of his favorite toys was actually designed for cats.  I tried all kinds of foods and toys out on him.  No store was safe when I was around.

But in the midst of all of the earthy, moody, wild emotional rollercoastering, there were some truly profound moments.  One of the first ones involved a ladder.




Philosophical Crisis

My friend and I always used to joke that Muffin didn’t know she was a bird.  At dinner time, my friend and I would sit at our spots at the table, and Muffin would sit at hers – well, ON the table, with her own plate of food.  She was so acclimated to our world that she had become a little feathered human.

When I bought Charlie, I thought of him in the same way.  He was too messy for meals at the table because had a tendency to roam around and sample everyone’s plate.  But he wasn’t really a bird, either.  For a long time he didn’t sleep in his cage at night, but on a perch that I put on the wall at the end of my bed.  Eventually I got sick of him asking to be picked up the moment I stirred.  I swear he knew I was awake before I did.

It didn’t seem to trouble me at the time that birds were meant to be in the wild.  They were made to fly, and to mate and to gather in colorful, raucous flocks.  Of course, I knew all of that was true, but Charlie was a pet.  I loved him and took care of him as best as I knew how.  I was never deeply impacted by how extremely unnatural a captive life is for any kind of bird.

Philip dinner2I approached my purchase of Philip with the same kind of attitude.  I knew that I would take good care of him.  I had a special connection with parrots and I would do my best to give him a happy life.  But this was the first time I had been exposed to a baby.  Muffin and Charlie were several years old when I was introduced to them.  I saw Philip when he was frightened out of his wits from being brought to a totally strange place.  I saw how he responded to different people and how he tried to learn how to perch, and play, and eat.  And those were all things he would learn anyway, and maybe it doesn’t much matter if he learned how to perch on a tree branch or a dowel.  But being involved in the learning process magnified the differences between his current environment and the one he would have had in the wild.

And then there was another piece I had not factored into the picture.

The last ten years.

I had no real concept of original design in my earlier days.  Sure, I knew that people were good at one thing or another, but that was about it.  Design doesn’t have to be noticed to exist, but our understanding sure affects how we treat it.  And since my emotional outlook on life was “do what people like and need”, I didn’t have much of a theology of honoring design.

All of that changed with my introduction to Sapphire teachings.  I learned the importance of recognizing God’s design everywhere.  I learned to look for it and celebrate it.  I also discovered that land and nature are a core part of my design – hence the love of birds – and the mounting emotional crisis.

What on earth was I doing?

It sunk in over a period of a few weeks, as I was making my daily Philip visits.  Here I was, doing all of these terribly unnatural things to this baby bird, who was never made by God to live in captivity.  I would eventually put him in a cage, surrounded by a vast array of things that could hurt or kill him, feed him all kinds of things that aren’t on the menu in the Congo, and deprive him of his wings and a mate.  I felt awful.

It was a challenging couple of weeks, as I wrestled with my perspective.   I had to embrace the reality that at the end of the day, he was a parrot born in captivity.  Thousands of birds are born into captivity every year and there wasn’t much I could do to stop it.  Philip was going to have a pretty good deal with me.  Some would even say I was prepared to starve myself so he could have a new toy every week.  So, I was giving him a good shot at a life he was destined to live anyway.  I couldn’t take him back to the Congo, so I determined that I would do my best to honor what I could about how God made him.

Two important things happened in me, however.  One is that I lost a lot of the human selfishness that causes us to think we can do whatever we want with nature.  If we want to have a pet mountain lion, we have a pet mountain lion.  That, I think is just plain stupid.  At least Philip won’t eat me in the night.  But we seem to think we should possess, just because we can.  I don’t think it has to be proud or malicious; it is just a part of our fallen human condition to turn our call to stewardship into something that satisfies our desire for companionship or entertainment.

The other is that a longing for the real deal was awakened in me.  I think that we were made to have a special relationship with animals.  There are many stories of people who have a wild animal that returns to them regularly.  One intrepid man had a way-to-close-for-comfort relationship with a crocodile.  Many of the mystics of the olden days were known for taming bears and wolves.  That, to me, seems like the way it should be.  They live where they were made to live, we live where we are made to live, and all is well.  No chewed blinds or blueberries splattered all over the wall.

But I had run out of time to philosophize.  Philip was nearly weaned and it was time to bring him home.

I was going to be a new Mom.

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.)