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Seas and Islands

“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.  There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security.  It was all sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”  – CS Lewis

Though I hope that none of us have recently experienced the death of our mothers, I think we may still relate to the impact the event had on Lewis.  For many years I identified with the description of hopping from one tiny island of emotional stability to another, with a whole lot of turbulent floundering in-between.   This season of life, with the myriad implications of Coronavirus, has given us ample opportunity to discover just how emotionally grounded we may or may not be. 

Most – if not all – of us have never experienced a scenario that impacts so many facets of our lives.  It’s not just staying out of the malls and restaurants, the kids are home too.  It’s not just disinfectant and hand sanitizers, it’s concern over whether you will have a job.  It’s not just cancelled appointments and travel plans, it’s not knowing if a loved one will get sick and possibly die.  And on top of all of that, we have no idea when any of this will become normal again, or if it ever will. 

There is a line from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” that has stuck with me.  It is towards the end of the movie when they have gotten to the grail site.  Donovan shoots Jones’ dad as an incentive for Jones to get the grail and its healing properties.  He says to Jones, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”  No time for theories now.  His dad’s life was on the line.  He either believed in it or he didn’t. 

Times like these can reveal to us what we really believe.  What condition our emotions are really in.  Where our legitimacy really lies.  How much we can really trust and not be driven mad by not knowing.     

Some of the initial shock of the epidemic is wearing off, but we still have a lot of uncertainty ahead of us.  And prolonged uncertainty can eat away at us like a canker.   With that in mind, I decided I would revisit some tools and strategies God has given me over the years to help make my islands a lot bigger than they used to be.  As I go along, I would like to share some of those tools and processes with you, as sort of an ongoing dialog.  Perhaps they will land somewhere for you too, or you know someone who could benefit from them.  Be free to share with anyone you wish. 

By doing so, we can leverage some of the current challenges into value for God and the Kingdom.  The more grounded and stable we are, the more available our resources are to Him because they are not all used up trying to keep our heads above water. 

So, over the coming weeks I will post a blog every few days with something else to explore … until I run out of things to say or we have all reached sheer emotional perfection.   

Well, we can at least start.  ;D)    

Beginning Again

My Mom stayed for another week after we took Philip to live with Sam, and we put in a whole new front garden.  It was intentionally timed to be a productive distraction for me, and it did give me something new to build and to nurture.  But now it was two or three weeks down the road and I was adjusting to life without Philip.  Predictably, I had mixed feelings about it, but my vacuum cleaner threw a party. 

One afternoon I was doing dishes and looked out the kitchen window to see a male Cardinal that had landed on my bird feeder.  I have feeders in the front and back, and there is hardly a window in the house where you can’t see one or the other.  I stopped for a minute and just enjoyed watching him.  As I did, a familiar joy filled my heart and I heard these words “you know; you still are a bird lady”.

With those words came a flood of emotions, as I suddenly realized what I was doing to myself.  In the midst of the decision making process with Philip, I wrestled with a sense of failure.  And since he had been one of the big investments in the birdy part of my design, I felt like something left when he did.  I daresay he did take a piece of my heart with him, but not my design.  That was still intact. 

I was still a bird lady. 

For many years now, I have recognized the importance of identifying the good of our experiences and allowing that good to carry through into the present, instead of shutting the door on the memories and emotions.  I care about it so much that I wrote a book on it.  But this was a new angle on the topic.  It wasn’t a traumatic experience where I needed to find the value in the midst of the pain and accept its role in the whole of my life.

What I saw is how we create emotional attachments to facets of our identity, and those attachments are associated with someone or something.  Philip was associated with the birdy part of my design.  When the environment changes – when someone leaves or dies or the event ends – we set aside the identity because of the attachment we created.  I will probably never interact with birds now without having Philip in the back of my mind.  But that doesn’t mean that my design for birds has been damaged or lost.  It is a matter of how I chose to process it.  Will I forfeit that element of my design or calling in order to avoid the pain?  Or will I bury the emotions and pretend they don’t exist so that they can pop up at the most inopportune time?  Or, will I intentionally face the emotions, process the journey, and embrace the continuity of design? 

I have made an attempt at doing the third.  To face the emotions, to process the journey, and to embrace AND celebrate the continuity of design.  That is what these blogs have been about.  My process. Letting the emotions flow. I cried when I wrote most of them.  Celebrating and savoring the good of the journey, what I learned, what I gained, and how I changed in the midst of it.  I have been looking for ways in which God unpacked my design, and the fact that it is an existing treasure, ready to be used.     

God and I still meet often on the playing field of birds.  I was recently at a friend’s house who lives on a farm with acres of woods behind them.  We were walking on her property when I heard what I thought was a Pileated Woodpecker in the tree nearby.  Without even thinking, I (kinda rudely) stopped in the middle of our conversation and bounded off to see if it really was.  As he flew off, I waved and gave him my greeting, and my whole insides were grinning from the God hug. 

I am still a bird lady. 

My season with Philip has ended, but it is the end of one and the beginning of the next, because I am still the same person God designed from the foundation of the earth.  In the new season, I don’t have a parrot, but He will find new and different ways to continue the growth.  I know there is a calling to nature, and God knows exactly how to position me to develop it. Our lives are a continuum, with the threads of essence, calling, and the faithful parenting of God running through every season.  May you recognize and celebrate every treasure that has come from one end into the next beginning of your life. 

Thank you for walking this part of the path with me.

Along Came Sam

I walked up to the counter at the vet where I boarded Philip.  The place had a good vibe.  They had a Timnah Grey named Wilbur who lived in the waiting area, and of course, I had to practice my bird whisperer on him.  The staff always seemed happy about what they were doing, and most importantly, they loved the animals.  This was the place I found on my first scouting trip to South Carolina. Philip had already stayed there a couple of times and was quite the entertainer.  One of the technicians sent me a text of Philip and her having a barking contest.

I was there to pick him up from the first of two closely scheduled trips.  He would be home for a couple of days and then back again.  I chatted with the receptionist as we did the necessary paperwork and payment, and within a few minutes another technician brought Philip out in his travel cage.  She commented that he did well, ate most of his food, splattered the rest around the room, and they all loved him, especially a young man named Sam (for this blog). 

It didn’t really register until I got out to the car that someone who works at a vet clinic also really likes Philip.   

I had already begun the challenging process of figuring out how to find him a new home.  It’s not easy with a parrot.  At a foundational level, I believe that all pets deserve someone who will take good care of them; even a lizard who doesn’t care who on earth gives him crickets, as long as someone does.  But with many of our pets, the nature of the owner and whether they care about that particular animal also matters.  Those variables are multiplied ten times over with a parrot.  So far, the best option was an organization that takes your parrot and then puts prospective owners through a variety of tests to see if they are well suited for that bird.  The organization had a good reputation, but it was hard to imagine not knowing who would have Philip in the end.  I had toyed with the idea of putting out an ad to see if I could screen a prospective owner myself. 

In the meantime, I went on my second trip and Philip went back to the vet for another couple of days of boarding. 

This time, when I returned to pick up Philip, it was Sam who brought him out in his travel cage.  His face was all happy and he commented that he had gotten Philip to step on to his hand. Not only did I get to see who Sam was, I got to see the joy on his face. 

This time it sunk in before I got to the car. 

Someone who works at a vet, who obviously loves animals because you don’t get rich doing that, is clearly comfortable with birds and has access to all kinds of wisdom and resources, also loves Philip.  And Philip was responding.    

That weekend, I wrote an e-mail to the clinic.  I shared that I couldn’t keep Philip and I wondered if they knew anyone … and more specifically, would Sam be interested in adopting Philip? 

I was in the Target parking lot a couple of days later when my cell phone rang.  It was a local number that I didn’t recognize, but I answered it.  I had expected to get an e-mail from the vet, so I was taken off guard when the voice said it was Sam. 

He said they would be happy to adopt Philip. 

He said that between himself, his Mom, and his sister, who because of some physical challenges was at home most of the time, Philip would have lots of company.  They were quite flexible in terms of timing, and had the space to take everything that I could send with him.  I did ask a few other important questions, too.  But the overarching emotional reaction was how right it felt.  There was excitement in his voice and I could tell that he cared about Philip.    

I hung up the phone and sat in the car for a few minutes.  There are moments that are best described as bittersweet.  That was one of them. 

As I pondered it more and saw how exquisitely God had prepared for this transition, how He led me to that vet, and positioned Sam there before I ever knew I would need him, and had him working on the days when Philip was boarding, the overwhelming emotion was wonderment.  And I don’t mean the light and airy wonderment, I mean more like that heavy, sobbing, “how is it that You care this much about what happens to my bird?” kind of wonderment.  For reasons that He only knows because He made me, this is a point of vulnerability where His caring about something so seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things does a very tidy job of wrecking me. 

Well, things were moving forward and I had a lot of work to do.  Self-imposed, of course.  I was going to finish well.  Super well.  Ok, fine.  Obsessively well.  I admit it.  I bought stock in his favorite toys and foods and put together lists that were complete with links so Sam could easily find the stuff that Philip liked, and even one that showed how he liked his boingy swing hung up.  Yes, and all the things he said and what they meant.  I also had Philip go to board two more times before the final hand-off, so that he could get to know Sam even better.    

I had planned it out about a month and a half from the time that we talked.  Part of that was to give more boarding opportunities, and part of it was to coordinate with my Mom.  I decided that it would be wise to have someone to distract me for a few days and since she had already walked through the process with me, she was the perfect choice.

Finally, the day came. Mom and I spent the morning cleaning and packing up Philip’s things.  Over that month and a half I had many conversations with Philip about what was going on and how he could respond, and we had a final one that day.   

We arrived at Sam’s place to be greeted by him, his sister, his Mom and their two dogs.  I figured that Philip would have the dogs whipped into shape in no time.  His Mom immediately asked me to come over to the counter where she had a few fresh things already purchased and wanted to know if he would like it.  They were all so excited. 

I have developed a pretty decent poker face.  I can keep my mind in task mode and not think about what is going on inside.  I did pretty well until right at the end when my Mom asked if she could pray.  That was more than I could take.  Mom and I were both leaking at that point, so we got ourselves out the door and back into the truck as quickly as possible.

Over the next few days, I communicated with Sam a couple of times.  I asked how Philip was doing and the reports came back good.  I wanted to know that he was making the transition, but I also knew I needed to let him go.

But one day, several weeks later, I was struggling.  I really wanted to know that Philip was ok.  I missed him, but if he was ok, then I could at least know that.  Of course, there was always the chance that he wasn’t ok … but I decided I would write Sam one last time. 

His text came back immediately.  Philip was doing great.  He was out of his cage most of the time.  They were taking him on outings to the park and PetSmart, IN HIS HARNESS.  Ok, I bought that harness with good intentions and never even tried it.  I looked at it, then at Philip, and then my fingers, and decided to throw it back in the box.  Sam got it on him?!  And that wasn’t all.  Sam was also (relatively) successfully giving Philip baths, something else I had never achieved.  He would endure a misting, but that was about it. 

He was more than ok.  He was thriving.   

And in that moment, I felt the almost crushing sense of intimacy as God reminded me that He had taken care of Philip.  Undone again. 

Was that whole experience about a new depth of intimacy with God? 

The story wasn’t over yet.     

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?