Friday, January 11, 2008


I consider myself a student and have recently acquired a new teacher. I most often seek my teaching from above, but some of the lessons come from ‘an above’ that is just high enough to have a different vantage point. I find over and over again my teachers are of the feathered variety.

Looking on earlier writing, I realize that I have written often about my feathered teachers, and it surprises me at how powerful the lessons can be. This lesson is compliments of Harold.

We have the good fortune of attracting birds (teachers) of all types in my back yard. They say when the student is ready; the teacher appears, so perhaps this speaks to my willingness or need to learn more. At this time of year, we entertain cardinals, doves, blue jays, swallows, black birds, hawks and owls. We have a large flock of wild turkeys that I have been watching for years. Isabel, a young female from the flock, was, for reasons unknown, ousted and has since begun her own community. A clutch of six developed a nice group of young followers and Isabel has since merged teams with another; a large male and another adult female with young. They have made my back yard a regular spot and once birds have taken up residence in both my yard and my heart, they become mine.

Harold has just moved into the big oak tree behind the barn and he is not part of my turkey flock. Harold is a turkey vulture. Most mornings, Harold and his family can be seen in the tree or on the barn, and at most recent count, I see twenty-one turkey vultures. Harold, the only adult male I see, often positions himself on the top of a nearby telephone pole watching his family. He has, on occasion, come house-top to take a closer look at my little dog, Keeper. After a few graceful circles, Harold moves close to survey the possibilities. He is not frightened by Cadence’s frantic waving or whistling for Keeper to seek shelter, but cocks his unattractive head in observation. Eventually, seeing no opportunity for a meal, he returns to the pole and stands tall with his wings spread, as if telling the family to stay put.

Fascinated by his massive size and seeming control of both the sky and his flock, I googled Harold to learn all I could about him. This is where his teaching begins.

The turkey vulture weighs over six pounds and has a wing span of six feet. He glides low to the ground, seldom flapping his wings and lives in large communities called Venues. The part of his brain that processes smell is very large compared to other birds, enabling him to smell food below far beneath the forest canopy. He has few natural predators and can live 30 years. I would categorize these as Harold’s strengths.

Unlike old world relatives, the new world turkey vulture has weak, chicken- like feet and smaller talons, more suitable for running, and cannot carry food. He has a smaller thinner beak than his raptor relatives and cannot usually break through the thick skin of his prey; relying on other birds to open the feast. He nests in ground caves or in low lying bushes. He lacks a synrix, the vocal cord of a bird, and can only hiss or grunt. He is quite ugly, having only a thin downy covering on his reddish head. I would consider these his weaknesses.

The turkey vulture has adapted a life style that compensates for these weaknesses and capitalizes on his strengths. He is a perfect balance and able to thrive in many areas and conditions. His graceful low gliding abilities, keen sense of smell and sharp eyesight allow him to detect prey easily. He cleverly awaits the first diner to prepare the way for him, and then uses his size to place himself at the head of the table. His baldish head allows him to “dig in” without wearing his dinner as a hat.

His highly sophisticated immune system allows him to dine on decay without becoming sick, and an efficient kidney allows his own waste to be high in uric acid, thus sanitizing his feet and killing off the bacteria that could remain after standing in his dinner. Being a ground feeder, he could be vulnerable to predators, but he has earned himself a reputation for being one not to mess with, as his self defense is to projectile vomit on his attacker. The result is either a tasty and easy meal for the predator, if the turkey vulture has recently dined, thus deterring attention from the turkey, or a horrific, semi-digested weapon that has earned him the ‘off limits’ title he sports.

So why on earth is Harold my teacher? Harold has achieved the perfect balance of weakness and strength with total acceptance of his own blueprint. He does not try to be an eagle or a dove, but is content using his own strengths for his survival and for the good of the venue. As human beings, we often struggle against the odds to be something we are not, instead of appreciating what we are and using it for our benefit and the good of others. Harold is not the prettiest of birds and has to work hard to survive, but watching him soar and glide with such grace and elegance is proof positive that in everything there is beauty and purpose.
Thank you Harold, my teacher.

Monday, January 07, 2008


“But God is everything.” Annie says with certainty. He is your hair and the wind and the trees and the air. How could anyone hate God?” She asks, shoveling a spoon full of macaroni and cheese into her mouth.

“Well, I don’t know if he hates God, but he doesn’t believe in God and at the end of his books, they kill God.” Cadence answers, stirring her macaroni and cheese in circles. I realize they are discussing an author who is an atheist and whose books are dark fantasy. I hear her voicing my concerns.

“No one can kill God,” Annie continues, “He is everything.” I listen as a profound discussion of philosophy and faith is opened.

“Do you know what heaven looks like?” Annie asks through the macaroni in her mouth. “My mom thinks it’s like fields and grass and sunshine and blue sky but I don’t. I think the ground is clouds and everything is fluffy and white and God is a huge head but he’s not a man or woman.”

“It is white and clouds and fluffy, but also gold and shiny and God sits in a throne and there’s a golden path that leads to the throne where we all sit and sing praises to Him.” Cadence adds, as if she has seen it.

“Yeah.” Answers Annie, and then there is quiet.

“Did you know that birds are the closest creatures to God?” Cadence asks. “Because I think people come back after they die and live again and again until their souls are right, and then they become birds, and last they become angels. Then they live in heaven.”

Annie ponders the idea for a moment. “Aren’t monkeys the closest to humans?”

Not wanting to intervene but sensing confusion, I enter the conversation. “It is actually the Buddhist faith that believes the soul comes back to live many lives until they achieve enlightenment.” I tell them.

“Then I’m a Buddhist,” Cadence nods, “cause that’s what I believe.” She looks over to Annie, “People call me an old soul; that means I have lived a lot of lives already.”

“Actually, you’re a Christian.” I tell her.

“And a Buddhist.” She adds. “I’m both.”

“I’m Christian and Jewish.” Annie tells us. “But mostly I’m Jewish.”

“Well they’re very similar.” I tell her. “Jesus was Jewish and the Christian faith comes from there.”

“Except that the Jewish part doesn’t believe he was the savior.” She answers.

“Do you go to Temple or Church?” I ask.

“Mostly Temple,” Annie explains, “Except like on Christmas Eve and then we go to Church.”

I wonder to myself if that is not confusing; to have one half celebrating the part that the other half does not believe in. I look at them pondering faith over bowls of macaroni and cheese.

“Actually, they’re all pretty similar when it comes to the most important things, don’t you think?” I ask, trying to provide clarity.

“Yeah. The important things are God and Love.” Cadence summarizes.

“Yep, God and Love.” Annie confirms.

“Let’s go polish our nails!” They giggle, scooting out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

Absolute clarity; they have it all figured out

Sunday, January 06, 2008


The morning breaks to the sound of multiple alarm clocks. Snooze buttons smacked and all is quiet. It is so tempting to give in to sleep, but no rest for the weary; even on Saturday. Cadence has an 8:00 basketball game and Tyler needs to be somewhere at 8:00 as well; unhappy terms for the night owl that lays beside me, but divide and conquer we must. I nudge his shoulder, knowing the alarm clock barely made a ripple in his sleep.

Coffee made, laundry started, dogs out, birds up and showers underway, I sit down to scribble my ‘to do’ list. After basketball, I promised to take Cadence for the first skate of the season. The town had placed a rink on the green three days prior and it is scheduled to open today. After skating, I would take the gang to return some Christmas clothing that was of course, all wrong. After that, I will dismantle the tree and pack up the remains of Christmas while I have men to help haul the prickly, drying beauty outside, creating a new round of cleaning with piles of pine needles everywhere. I grab a second piece of paper and begin a little list for Brad as well.

Fix the vacuum cleaner,

Take the tree outside,

Assist me in stuffing Christmas back into the eves of the house…

I place his list beside his coffee cup as these things are generally better seen and not heard this early in the morning.

The pace of the day is fast and in step. The basketball game is close but ends with a win. A quick stop home and we bounce right back out to the green, new skates and coffee in hand.

“Mom, please! I look like an Uumpa Luumpa and it’s not even cold out. Why can’t I skate in just jeans?” Cadence moans.

“Because you have not skated in two years and you will indeed have a few falls. You’ll end up with wet pants and be freezing and uncomfortable. Trust me; I know a few things.” I look in the rearview mirror at her disappointment. She’s only nine and already, it’s all about fashion. “After you get a little practice if you’re not falling much, you can peel off the warm up pants and skate in your jeans.” I tell her, easing the frown on her face a bit.

Rink side, we sit on the bench to put on her skates and she looks longingly at the young teenage girls skating in their jeans. Her eyes flash from them to me. “Fine.” I give in, as she whips off the outer layer.

She skates as if it is an everyday event, falling only once or twice. I call Brad on the phone to tell him he should join us. He agrees, but just for a bit as he has added to the ‘to do’ list that I left him and needs my van to run to the dump. Moments later, a crack in the far corner sends water over the ice and the rink is closed. The recreation department announces that Mill Pond is opened for skating and we join the crowd in migration to the pond.

Little by little, the pond fills with skaters; moms and dads teaching toddlers, the high school girl’s hockey team starts a game in the far corner, and teens and tweens move in clusters around the ice.

I make my way over to the benches that surround the bonfire to chat with friends. After about and hour, my ‘to do’ list begins to twitch in my pocket and I check the time on my phone. Brad arrives and I make a run for lunch and hot chocolate and contemplate leaving to run my list of errands alone. The warm cracking fire is pulling me closer and I decide to give her a little more time. An hour later, Brad has his fill of skating and heads home to get things done. Conversations around me are verses of the weather is expected to get warmer so this might be the last day and but they’re having such fun. The chorus of “It’s the perfect day” rises over the Norman Rockwell scene.

I think about the other list. THE LIST; my New Year’s Resolution list. I agreed to be fun; to appreciate the day to day. I agreed to do what was important, in spite of not getting things done. “They’ll remember this day forever,” one mother said as if hearing my silent debate. “Don’t you remember days like these when you were a kid?” Indeed I did. It’s just that it wasn’t planned and I had all of those other things to accomplish.

The list in my pocket twitched. Would it really matter if we didn’t take the tree down today? Was it really so important to return things to the store today? Does it really matter if the dust lingers one more day? I reach into my pocket and toss my ‘to do’ list into the fire and it is instantly gone; I am obligation free.

The sun hangs low in the sky as the day approaches 4:00. Soon it would be dark. Cadence has skated for five straight hours. "Fifteen more minutes," I tell her.

“Five straight hours!” She announces to those around her; a world record in her orbit.

“A good excuse to order pizza.” One mom tells another.

The perfect day, I think.

Back at home, the boys are playing a video game and Brad is napping on the couch. The vacuum cleaner stands in the corner, repaired and ready. The tree smiles, still shimmering, “Tomorrow,” I tell them, as I pick up the phone to order pizza.