I remember riding in the back seat of our Pontiac as we made the long drive to a bi-annual family reunion on one of my great-uncles’ farms in southeastern Indiana. I couldn’t have been more than maybe five or six years old. Beyond getting to run with all my cousins as we dodged in and out of the picnic tables and folding chairs, there were the animals!
Cows were big and cool to look at up-close. The cows, for their part, were totally unimpressed with us; “Four legs good, two legs bad.” The sheep and goats endured us repeatedly trying to ride them like horses. Baaahhhhk off. The real horses however, were a little more willing to work with us, if only as a new source for carrots and apples – all of which were creatively reallocated (aka ‘stolen’) from my Aunt Clara’s cooking porch. Chickens, ducks and hens squawked and scurried as we rushed the flocks of assorted fowl. We couldn’t stop laughing. What we didn’t realize was we had been led into a trap.
Thinking we were parting their flocks, the birds were actually just bringing us face-to-face with the god father of the barnyard. There, unimpressed, unamused and unmoving, stood Garfield. Garfield was a mountain of white goose that ruled all the other winged residents of the barnyard with an iron wing. My cousins, choosing this moment as a good one to melt away into the dirt, left me facing Garfield and his massive yellow beak. Instantly feeling transported back to the OK Corral, I knew I was on my own with them now watching from a safe distance. Even though I was maybe six, I knew I had to salvage my ‘street cred’ so I went large. I asked my gaggle of aunts and uncles, all gathered on the wide front porch, “Is he mean?”. ‘Naw.’ “Can I pet him?” ‘If you want to…just walk up to him slow and talk to him.’ I should have known better, but I took the grown-ups at their word and began my approach. Garfield could not have been happier with my decision.
Seconds later, I was running for my life with Garfield in hot pursuit. The massive thumpa-wump, thumpa-wump of his beating wings was only surpassed by his honking which effectively drowned out the sound of my screaming. My legs were moving as fast as they could, but I could feel Garfield the Uber Goose gaining on me like a jet fighter. His beak even sounded painful…snapping louder (and closer) as he raced forward, stretching to take a chunk of meat out of my behind. Garfield was on a mission. Screaming “Ow, ouch, HELP!”, the beast closed in for the hit, found his mark and gobbled on me at least six or seven times. It was the first time I can remember feeling what it must be like to be on the wrong side of the food chain.
And from the porch? Nothing but laughter, good natured perhaps, but laughter nonetheless. Not only was I humiliated, the shaped welts on my bottom stayed red and tenderized for days. Every time I tried to sit down, I’d repeat after me; “I hate birds”.
For years thereafter, I carefully converted my opinion into fact that the best bird, was a dead one…on my plate. And as I built my castle to defend against birds (and their taste for me), I didn’t even notice my carefully constructed walls were doing more to keep me in than they were keeping any birds from landing in my life.
Springtime came with Robins. That was a problem. Spending time on Green Bay in the summers came with seagulls. That was a problem. Magicians insisted on working with doves. So Birthday parties were a problem. And so on and so on.
And then there were those friends of ours that insisted on thinking they could cure my ornithophobia with their love for their birds. Within 15-minutes of entering their house, they would delight in bringing their pet parakeets, parrots and cockatoos out of their cages. I wanted to be polite, but I wasn’t asking anyone to help me love birds.
“Here, put out your hand…hold him.” ‘No, I’m good…really, no, really…‘ And invariably, instead of stepping onto my arm, the winged demons would begin to fly around the room. I, in turn, would begin to frantically duck, weave and bob to escape. My partner has this sadistic compulsion of telling the story (every time we’re having dinner with friends) about the one time Don’s pet bird landed on my head and promptly pooped. Laughter (what is with all this laughter?). While those listening to his tale of my infirmity invariably think it hysterically funny, I remember it being as close to having a heart attack as I ever want to come.
Fast Forward: There have been several times in my career where I worked in a downtown Chicago skyscraper. I loved it. Getting DT early on the commuter train, I’d walk across the loop to my building, finding new favorite spots where I could sit and gather my thoughts while drinking my coffee and watching the city go by. Whether along Upper Wacker, behind the Wrigley Building or down on the river walk, there were plenty of really nice little pocket parks with wonderful benches, trees, plants and water features. Sigh…nothing like it. City life was grand.
Then, as if on cue, there came the pigeons. We’re not talking just one or two of them. There were squadrons of them and dozens of squadrons on top of them. I had no doubt that each and every one of them was in direct radio contact with Alfred Hitchcock who I knew must be their dark overlord.
I tried ignoring them, but my heart was pounding too loudly through the wall of my chest.
I tried moving to different parklets, but they always found me. I felt like I was wearing an ankle bracelet with every bird in the zip code getting my GPS readings!
The phobia grew to the point when I actually started buying the morning Tribune for the sole purpose of clenching the rolled up newspaper like a makeshift ball bat. “Come on birds! Come on.” At one point that summer, I even carried water gun…’Get out of here…scram!” Suffice it to say, the birds didn’t care, but Chicago’s Finest certainly looked at me funny on more than one occasion. What was I thinking? So being a renaissance man, I changed over to a quart water bottle I could use for the same purpose.
And on those occasions when I chose to enjoy a breakfast sandwich? ‘Are you kidding me?’ The Bird Corps started diving in tight formation like some bad WWII movie. My love of being downtown early in the morning was now being directly challenged by birds who didn’t care that I hated them.
I grew increasingly angry by the week. I’d be clenching my jaw before I’d even gotten off the morning train. Damn birds. My hatred affair was now getting in the way of the things I really enjoyed. Something had to change. Ironically, it was during my train ride one bright morning in late July when I read what Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Ding! A light bulb went off in the bird feeder that was my brain.
From that point on, I began a conscious campaign to look at them differently. To notice the variations in their feathers…the magnificence of their elegant aeronautical engineering. It took awhile, but not only did I begin to appreciate them as God’s creatures, the birds seemed to be getting calmer. They weren’t rushing me anymore. And the quieter my heart beat grew, I began to hear their vocalizations…I could almost put a sound track to what they were saying to each other as they went about the business of being birds.
And now? Just the other day, I was out on our porch when twenty or thirty Canadian Geese flew not ten-feet over my head on their way to some favorite water spot. It was breath-taking to look up at them as they flew over…I could count the wrinkles on their webbed feet tucked up in flight position. Such power…such grace. The geese weren’t any different. But I was.
Keeping the plates spinning on the sticks of our lives these days seems to be getting tougher by the month. If you doubt me, keep a running score card the next time you watch the morning news…1) two children were murdered last night; 2) during a daring grocery store robbery, six customers and a security guard were tied up and shot at point blank and 3) thirty Occupy Chicago protesters were detained outside City Hall as they protested the latest budget proposal to cut the number of mental health clinics in the city in half. “And when we come back from the break, foreclosures, unemployment rising and kids going to school hungry.” Such an audio feed doesn’t exactly make you want to go out and hug somebody, does it? So fight back. Figure out a way to find some beauty in all the doom and gloom that passes for the ‘news’ in our lives.
Let’s come at this from a different direction.
I’ve read on numerous occasions John Keats (Ode on a Grecian Urn) that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. I believed it the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. It didn’t need me standing there to be beautiful. It simply was. Sunrise over the Bay of Fundy? Same thing. Beauty is truth and truth does set us free. In these tough times, we need to find some beauty somewhere…anywhere or we’ll succumb to the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us. I really wonder sometimes if beauty isn’t the counterweight to despair.
I had cut myself off from so many good things in my quest to prove my hatred of birds was justified. I had limited my options – by my own hand. And all in the name of perpetuating some irrational fear I had mistaken as a friend. But in finally taking the time to quiet my spirit, I found beauty in those stupid birds. I came to realize that it wasn’t the birds who had a problem seeing. As I began to get to know that which I didn’t like, my phobia slipped away. And something new replaced it…something I never thought would be mine. I gained a new appreciation for the beauty that is in a bird. This, my fine feathered friends, is a most excellent development.
What has been chasing you since you were five or six?
Whatever it is, ask yourself if the fear of it is keeping the bad stuff out or is it keeping you locked inside. It’s a fundamentally quiet question, but it can resonate like a thunderous key in the lock of your Soul.
Find some beauty this week. Take a walk. Admire that favorite family photo and reflect on the love of the person who took the picture. Watch for the structure in a tree now that the leaves are gone or catch the light in the eyes of someone who thinks you’re pretty cool. It’s out there, waiting to be rediscovered…like it always was. Such constancy is special. We need each other. We’ll get through these tough times and we’ll do it together. After all, birds of a feather…
Life, truth, beauty. These are all symbols for the same thing, an aspect of the God-force. When you lose this awareness, you lose the possibility of connecting to intention. You were brought into this world from that which perceived you as an expression of beauty. It couldn’t have done so if it thought you to be otherwise, for if it has the power to create; it also possesses the power not to do so. The choice to do so is predicated on the supposition that you’re an expression of loving beauty. This is true for everything and everyone that emanates from the power of intention. The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-Create Your World Your Way by Dr. Wayne Dyer.
PHOTO CREDITS: A Gaggle of White Geese (photo courtesy of King’s Hill Farm) via http://www.driftlessappetite.com/?p=2967 Birds Bug by Oystein Lystad http://www.flickr.com/photos/olystad/5291058161/ See Mr. Lystad’s gallery pages: http://18614.portfolio.artlimited.net/ Birds Eye View Chicago by Becca http://bubbleteaforyouandme.blogspot.com/ 3 Geese Flying by Gary http://vermilonriverwildlife.blogspot.com/2010/10/migrating-canada-geese-of-vermilon.html Macaw Wings https://marketplace.secondlife.com/p/Macaw-Rainbow-Avian-Bird-Wings/844155?id=844155&slug=Macaw-Rainbow-Avian-Bird-Wings Birds of a Feather I – Anne Laddon http://www.vaultgallery.com/art/Birds_of_a_Feather_I_4100_43x33Framed_S.jpg
– ## –