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?!

**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.