Friday, October 11, 2013

The School of Life

If I've learned anything during the last 64 years, it's this: first, we never stop learning regardless of how old we get; second, more often than not the lessons come to us from unexpected places and unexpected teachers.

Case in point. I have a little bird sanctuary kind of thing going on outside the back bedroom to my apartment which I used as my den. It is a third floor walk-up and there is a small wooden porch out back ... too small to sit on but just the right size to erect a bird feeder and small bowls of seed and water for the ground feeders like morning doves and squirrels. The feeder hangs on a shepherds crook that is stuck in a patio planter filled with dirt and stones. Depending on what kind of seeds I put out for the animals, I have had many beautiful and unusual things growing in that pot from sunflowers to my current corn stalk! I think of it as the animals' way of saying thank you by planting me something I can enjoy every time I look out of the window.

Being a writer, I have a tendency towards the fanciful, so I name the "regulars" who come to the feeder. There are two pairs of morning doves: a couple that I refer to as Angelo and Angie, and two females I call Doris and Louise. Then there are the male and female cardinals I just call Mr and Mrs C, and a big, clumsy blue jay I have named Freddy who crashes into everything like a teenager who hasn't quite figured out how to control himself yet.

In addition to the birds, I have a couple of squirrels who come and go. My current visitor is my newest and most interesting teacher. Her name is Belle. She has been coming to the feeder for many months now. She came after she had her babies as was evident every time she stood up to scoop out the last handful of seeds. She is very smart and very resourceful. When the bowls of seeds get caught in a downpour and turn into seed soup, Belle carefully grabs a handful of seeds, lets the water seep out between her claws, and eats the seeds. Belle, however, became handicapped about a month ago and has taught me a great deal about courage and overcoming obstacles. Belle lost her tail. One day she showed up at the feeder with a tail that was hanging on by a thread after being severed almost in half, most likely by a predator, perhaps from a pair of sharp talons. I kept hoping it would somehow heal itself and wished I could just reach out through the window and take care of her, but I knew that she was a wild animal and had probably already been spooked enough for one lifetime. Every day I looked for her, checking on the wound when she got close enough to the window for me to see it clearly. After several days she returned and, alas, the tail was gone. What was left was a short stump that still wiggled back and forth, but couldn't do much else.

For those who may not know this, a squirrel's tail isn't just there for adornment. They use it for balance as they fly from tree to tree, as a means of communication with other animals, and to keep warm/cool/dry depending on the weather. For a while after the tail fell off, I witnessed the most amazing things from that little grey creature. She had to re-learn how to balance herself so she wouldn't fall off the wooden railing when she stood to collect her food. More than once she almost went over the side but she got right back up and tried again. This went on for several weeks until she moved about as good as new. One day another squirrel appeared when she was there and she stood her ground, flicking her little stump around to let him know in no uncertain terms that this was her territory and he had better scram. I was so proud of her that I almost cried like a proud parent when their child finally learns how to walk.

Belle taught me a lot this summer. She taught me that I may be developing some physical limitations as I get older, but that does not define who I am and is in no way an obstacle to achieving what I set out to do. She taught me that courage comes in all shapes, colors, and species, and that there is more than one way to accomplish my goals. Most of all, she taught me how fulfilling it can be to root for someone you don't even know and celebrate when they make it.

I wonder, now ... is that what it means when they say, "we are all one?"

And so it is.