Bird Room Meditations
Updated: Jan 19, 2021
This coming week, I should have some new information (hopefully exciting) on our adoption, and I'll provide that. From this point, in addition to adoption updates, I plan to share a series of essays that I'm feeling inspired to write. I want to explore some fundamental concepts of Christianity and add to the resources that help people find or return to the faith. If you enjoy this, please share it!
How a Bird Room can Help with Understanding God
It’s 6:30am in Seattle’s wintertime, and sunrise will not begin for half an hour. I awake remembering the shadows of recent dreams, shake them away and groggily make my way to the kitchen for a light breakfast of yogurt and blueberries followed by a giant cup of coffee. I love coffee. I am getting too old for caffeine, but I can still handle one caffeinated cup before switching to decaf. I stash my phone in my bathrobe pocket and head downstairs, coffee mug in hand.
As we happen to live in front of a gorge, our front door leads to the upstairs, and we go downstairs to reach our second floor.
I open the door to my bird room and begin chatting with them as I switch on the two standing lamps. The society finches immediately dart out of their communal nests and fly to a windowsill. One of the zebra finches chirps loudly and is followed by the others in a sudden burst of vocal identity. The canaries, all are older just now, simply watch with interest as I grab a bag full of old clothes, jute twain and cotton and place it next to where I sit. I also place my computer, my phone and coffee mug on the floor as I sit down. I find a song on my phone, play it, and start throwing little bits of cotton, string, twine, pieces of old socks or shirts—anything in the bag—to one side.
That is how every day begins for me.
What is a bird room?
There is the tangible room with a slew of pet-friendly logistics, and then there is the intangible room, the refuge that developed from certain desires within me and which teaches me, every single day, about perception. I believe that understanding perception is critical for some of us in understanding God. As we are all very different and infinitely complex within the unique experiences of our lives, I will not assert that we all need to know about perception. I simply believe that many of us can gain a deeper knowledge of God when we pay attention to our thoughts, particularly when we recognize the repetitive patterns from the walls of our immediate environments, both the physical and emotional, our neighborhoods, our families, the influencers who create movies and books, and our habits.
Though the room of each of our lives is much larger than that of my birds’ in square footage, it is still a limited space. Most of us will not visit every continent, much less every country; we can walk, run or hike every weekend and only cover limited ground. Every home in every neighborhood is a unique world in itself, and how many will we visit?
The Tangible Room
Well, let’s get back to the tangible room. I’d like you to envision it.
Three levels are required, the floor, a mid-level and the high perches. It is easiest to care for a bird room if you line the floor with old sheets, tablecloths or tapestries. I often shop for tablecloths after Thanksgiving or Christmas—they have lovely colors and natural patterns like silhouettes of leaves. Then, for the mid-level, I use two card tables covered in cloths—on one I put their bowls of water and on the other, I put some vegetables. Over the years, I have discovered that when birds feel sick or when they become elderly, these mid-level spots decrease stress for them. I also have a couple plant stands with bird ladders to help any that lose their flying ability. That is level 2. And at last, we need the highest level where the birds can perch and look down at the world. For this I put hooks in the ceiling and from these attach bungee cords (think indoor phone lines), various perches and hanging nests. While it would be nice to provide actual trees, I have discovered that potted plants sometimes bring mites, and plastic plants are too hard to clean.
My room also happened to be a former bedroom with a closet, and this closet has become the nesting area for the majority of the zebra finches. They build their homes inside pre-made wicker nests available at any pet store, and some of the serious builders choose their own spaces and build from scratch.
Even though the room is in the downstairs area of our house, it happens to get excellent sunlight through two large windows, one facing south and the other west.
As to the birds, I have about 25 in total and four species: zebra finches, society finches, canaries, and one very old diamond dove. All are easy to find at your local pet store.
I have learned much about zebra finches and society finches over the years, and I am saddened to imagine those who live in small cages. Zebra finches can be master builders capable of two-door, elaborate nests, and when they have babies, they prefer a second nest for the juvenile stage. None of this has a chance of happening in a small cage. My society finches are not brilliant builders, but they are great flyers. Every morning, the flock, about eight birds, flies from one end of the room to the other as a group, and they do this repeatedly, seeming to gain energy from each other and the challenge of group flight. In the pet stores, the lifespans of these birds are 3-4 years. In my room, they live 5-6 years with an occasional centenarian (in respective time).
The canaries are the philosophers in my space. With their natural privilege as the largest birds, aside from the dove, they tend to perch above the fray, some of them lightly singing. Did you know that female canaries can sing? At least half of my females have taken up singing during one phase of their lives. Out of the blue, they suddenly discover their vocal cords and amuse themselves practicing for days or weeks.
The Intangible Room
By now, some of you are asking yourselves how on earth I was inspired to create this space, and the answers will steer us back toward the intangible.
The simple answer is that I have always loved birds and have never felt comfortable leaving them in cages. As a college student, I had a canary in a cage, but I left the door of the cage open so that he could fly about the room. In my late twenties, I bought my first zebra finches and soon discovered how prolific they are as parents. They lay eggs all year round, and these hatch every fourteen days if they are not taken away. Through them, I stumbled into my early adventures as a bird room keeper. I was unmarried, moved frequently at that time of my life, and usually I did not have a separate room for them. Instead, I created dividing walls which mostly kept them on one side of one room. Admittedly, it was a silly living arrangement, but I loved them and was determined to find a way.
My life took a profound turn when I gained work as an English language teacher at a refugee resettlement office in Seattle. This office assisted refugees primarily from Somalia, Ethiopia and Vietnam in renting apartments, learning English, and finding employment. I had a Bachelor’s in English and a Master’s in Creative Writing, and I had not planned on becoming an English language teacher. However, I discovered that I loved meeting people from other countries, and I was intrigued by the challenge of teaching them English without being bilingual. That’s another story in itself. Here, I wish to share what this work did for me spiritually.
I was raised Christian but became agnostic due to my own youthful uncertainties on some of the big questions: why many religions, why suffering, how can anyone be condemned. I also fell under the influence of the artistic community, and I consciously and unconsciously absorbed some ideas that I would now say intentionally mislead people and suppress religion: that Christians are not open-minded and those who are not open-minded are not intelligent, that Christianity is a religion based in guilt, and that living a disciplined life is antithetical to being an artist. Like so many, I found solace in Buddhism and meditation.
And then came my refugee work. The office was located in the basement of an Episcopal Church, and the moment I walked in, I felt that the place was warm and inviting. In no time, I was teaching classes to elderly farmers, mostly Muslim, who would kindly ask me if I was Christian, and I would say yes. I had not even decided to return to Christianity yet, but I was so shocked by this question—a question that our society has been learning not to ask—and also because they felt like grandparents; I admit I wanted their approval. Ironic, isn’t it? I saw Muslim people praying devoutly every day at noon, and I did not want to tell them that I had only a vague and undefined belief in God, if even that.
My complete return to the Christian faith took more time, but meanwhile, I was learning much about the facets of life I had taken for granted and the concept of refuge. Few of us realize how fortunate we are to have a state to call our own. People who have no state have no right to property and exist with a constant level of vulnerability that we cannot imagine. Most refugees reach that point after a diaspora, a genocide event, and this means that all have lost multiple family members and high numbers of women have been raped. Day after day, I learned more about these people, and simultaneously, I was gifted with the realization that far more than English, they needed a refuge. As a result, I concentrated not on teaching, but on serving, and on providing fun moments every day with songs and games.
My classes at this office became very successful, growing from ten students a day to sixty a day, a program that was barely funded to the most well-funded program in our office. Such things happen when God intervenes.
My personal life at this time was far less fortunate. I was living with a boyfriend I loved who was an artist pushing me toward all the ideas I mentioned before. He had drastic mood swings, may have been bipolar, and was himself a victim of the idea that great artists are chaotic and do whatever they want—an idea that quite literally destroys true love. I was in constant conflict within myself, easily seeing how much more comfortable I felt with my students than with him, and yet unable to leave him for four years. Where were my birds? Well, they were there all along, on one side of a room, accepted as part of a quirky, artistic lifestyle. When at last I did leave him, I found myself alone in an apartment, emotionally exhausted; it was just my birds and me.
During the next six months, I concentrated on my refugee office work, on starting my own tutoring business and on healing my inner self. My birds, at last, had a room of their own, and I was learning more about them and how to facilitate their health and happiness. My ritual of sitting with them while drinking my morning coffee began. It was not an easy time in my life. I had never imagined that my first love would not become my husband, and the rigors of social service, the constant funding difficulties along with the burden of managing an ever-growing program took a daily toll. However, one growing thought stayed with me and guided me. I thought, if my life has to be hard, I can create a refuge for these birds. I can help them to have easier lives than mine.
That was another gift from God. Just as the refugee program became successful, my birds began to truly flourish, and my bird room became a refuge for me as well.
On the intangible level, this room began with a naïve love of animals, and it became a place of hope after I saw my hopes dashed and subsequently learned that hope is not just a quick desire for something one wants; it is an active and ongoing decision to create a better world for others. And as this transformation was occurring in me, I also began to see how my birds saw their lives.
Until you have really observed birds for a period of time, you will not know how much some are inspired by nest-building or, conversely, uninspired by building—the bird with the sloppy nest—how exacting some are in their hygiene, how endlessly driven are some canaries to sing, how flying in groups is a difficult skill to master, how most have a natural desire for friends or mates who will preen the backs of their heads, how some are drawn to sick birds and spend hours standing near them, how an old, blind bird can learn to live with the disability. The bottom line is this: they have complex, active lives, and they are thoroughly absorbed in them, just like us.
Fifteen years have passed since that hard and bleak time of rebuilding my life, starting with my bird room. I found my true love in a man from northeast India who was born into one of the few Christian communities in that country, and we have enjoyed twelve years together thus far. We moved into a home that had a spacious room with plenty of light for the birds. Every morning, I have sat here, and I often sit with them when I work on my laptop in the afternoon; they help me to divert my eyes from the screen.
In the coming essays, I will share thoughts about perception, my bird room, and the most important Christian principles. I am not a preacher, just an ordinary person, but I do have fifteen years of experience in contemplating perception and how we live within the rooms of our lives. At this time, when some are preaching progressive Christianity which in some cases is so divergent as to exclude the concept of sin, I believe it is important to affirm the fundamental values of this beautiful and life-changing faith. Unfortunately, I believe that those who wish to change it have come under the influence, unconsciously, of those same sources who drove me to give up the religion completely. I wish to show in these essays that the fundamental values of Christianity are not close-minded, based on the principle of guilt or unintellectual. They are simply necessary to God’s purpose which is to change people’s lives one day at a time. Welcome to the bird room.
If you happen to need English language training, please visit speakmethod.com.
Please do share this with any who will benefit. Thanks for reading!