Is a B+ Good Enough?

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A writer once said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If this is true, which five people would you like to spend your time with? This was the WordPress writing prompt one day this week. I have been thinking about the question in the light of my Remarkable People philosophy; remarkable people use their strengths to strengthen themselves and others. Who do I spend time with? Is the 100 hours a week with my beloved a significant impact in how I think, how I feel and how I behave? No doubt that her kindness rubs off on me and her commitment to family makes me a better father, a better grandfather and maybe a better brother.
Does seeing my youngest grandson for a day a week make me appreciate small things and big things and all things like books, toys, smiles,? He helps me notice trucks and machinery and squirrels and birdhouses. I am more attentive to my surroundings after a few hours in his presence.

Am I better when I am on vacation with friends who show consideration and courtesy to everyone they encounter? Does their willingness to be of service in tragedies, be of good cheer in adversities and be generous in the face of inequities make be more willing?

What does it mean to be average? Are you smarter than 2 people but less smart than 2? Do you have less compassion than some but more than others? Money? Health? Relationships? Can the average be raised? Lowered?

If you use your strengths to strengthen others and others do the same, can the bar be raised? I believe it can. If true, then it does matter which five people you spend time with? It matters more how they share their gifts, skills and strengths with those around them. It matters how we choose to influence and be influenced. I know that when I spend time with angry, cynical people, I am insensitive and self-righteous. If I listen to rhetoric and join in vitriol, we all become intolerant and joyless.

I was reading a review of “A Paradise Built in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit that reinforced my belief that we are all remarkable when we build on the gifts we bring to the table and community. The reviewer asks “If we think about our own personal experiences, no doubt we have each gone through something “disastrous” in a communal setting. In those situations, there is always something that compels us to rise to the occasion and to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. We begin to feel our common humanity a little bit more.” Have you risen to the occasion in 2017? Have I risen to a challenge? Will I rise tomorrow and then again and again?
Have we used our strengths to strengthen ourself and others? How have you been remarkable? Fourty-five days into this year, I realize that I haven’t been remarkable on very many of them. That is sad enough for me but if my actions, my words, and my attitudes are having a significant imapct on the folks I hang out with, then shame on me.

Miss Vivienne, an 8 year old girl is rising to the occasion in San Francisco with Making A Stand to eliminate slavery. She is selling lemonade on her street and encouraging others to join her around the world to raise awareness and resources to stomp out bondage and abuse.
Closer to home Emma is using her heart and art to strengthen homeless families in Calgary. She creates one of a kond mini masterpieces and auctions them on a Facebook page.
WestJet staff and volunteers lift the spirits of weary travelers by reducing their anxiety. THey respond with kindness to meaningful and meaningless questions and requests without missing a beat.
A friend is preparing meals and providing support to her extended family, from outside the city, as they go through medical treatments.

The possibilities to be remarkable are abundant and maybe ever present when we open our eyes and ears to the world that surrounds us.

Think about 5 people (or 10, 20, 30) that you would like to surround yourself with and rise to the occasion together by celebrating, supporting and sharing each other’s lives. Are those the folks you spend time with? Are you the kind of person that they should be investing their relationship energy to be with? Are you raising the bar this week or are you pulling the average down? We all have bad days, bad weeks, and trying times but if we know that as they fester, they infect others would we have fewer of them?

My challenge and now yours is to be someone who chooses to set the average very high and then set about to be someone who raises the curve.

B

Together

Once there was a land where the great rivers flowed from the mountains onto rolling hills and across fertile plains. Blue skies, red sunsets, amazing vistas and abundant wildlife abounded. Freedom loving, hardworking people came and for a hundred years and they worked together and built upon the land. The tilled and seeded, raised livestock and built cities and more freedom loving hardworking people came to join them. They mined, felled, drilled and dug the bountiful natural resources and built a strong caring community. A community where cowboys cared for children and city dwellers supported farmers. A community where each person accepted responsibility for themselves, their family and their neighbours grew. If a barn was razed, it was rebuilt. If a road was impassable, it was cleared. If someone was troubled, they were lifted up. If a barrier was identified, it was overcome – together.

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There was a bounty shared by all who cared to join the inhabitants of the land. The blessings of opportunity, promise and hope teemed in a measure equal to the material blessings that were created. Hope was born out of industriousness and inclusion. As hope flourished, unimagined opportunities manifested themselves and unexpected forms of providence appeared.

Neighbours didn’t always agree but they lived together with honour and respect. They debated passionately but held space for the opinions of others.

A man came into the land and saw all that was good and he was jealous. Envy and despair grew in him and he set out to undermine and destroy what the people had built.

Saying to one here “you deserve more” another there “ why work so hard” and another “ that isn’t your job” At first his prodding was ignored and the people kept living together in community but the man’s voice was joined by many others with the power of print, radio, and TV. Their message began to take root. “Why worry about your neighbour. Was he there for you?” “Leave that for the next guy to do. You have done your share already”. “Let’s hire someone to do our work and we can relax in the sun”.

After a few dozen years or so, the passion and purpose that built the land was forgotten and the language of self-reliance and responsibility was erased and replaced by delegates and servants hired to look after every need. The sky darkened and neighbours built fences of fear. Trust evaporated and was replaced by rules of entitlement. People still came seeking liberty but they didn’t find freedom and opportunity and the sweat of their brow or the power of their skills wasn’t appreciated. A community turned into a group of individuals who happened to live in the same place. The man and his ilk said ” Our economy is strong”, ” we have too many freeloaders”, ” we need to protect ourselves”, ” we can’t let more people come here”.

Soon neighbour threatened neighbour. Disagreements were handled by the court. Prisons were built and filled and more prisons were needed. Debate became vitriolic rhetoric full of untruths and logical fallacies. Distrust turned to disgust and then to hatred. Hope evaporated and opportunities disappeared. People stopped coming and started to leave. The man and his bloc were satisfied that their jelousy had poisoned the community and they packed their carpetbags and moved on to infect another place with their economic arguments, their prejudice, and their fear.

This story is written by someone who observed the shift – a child born in the midst of abundance and caring who now nearly 30 years old, sees scarcity and greed. Her great wish is for a return to ‘the good-old-days’ but realizes that fear has its foothold and is gaining strength. It would take leadership, commitment and comp[assion to restart the journey towards hope. She can’t do it alone but she can do her part with a challenge; “I leave you this story, how it continues is up to you ..”

Being Present

The greatest defense against passivity, mediocrity, and ambivalence might be presencing. The guru on being present, Peter Senge, in Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Society, and Organizations, states “Too often, we remain stuck in old patterns of seeing and acting. By encouraging deeper levels of learning, we create an awareness of the larger whole, leading to actions that can help to shape its evolution and our future.”

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But it takes muscle and determination to break our evolutionary responses of fight or flight – neither of which live, well, in the moment. As we simply react rather than rest in and reflect on the circumstances, we reinforce habitual behavior (hear certainty) that stifles or worse strangles curiosity and learning.

While most of the time we aren’t in the kind of danger that requires the amygdala response I, frankly, suck at being present. My tendency is to live through time rather than in it. I am looking towards the next moment, the next appointment, the next thing. My attention drifts because I practice distraction instead of attention. Most people I encounter, from 7-year-old grandchildren to 30 something postmoderns are seeking the next stimulus and then the next. We bypass opportunities in favor of a new fix. Technology and social media have been built to serve this pathology through a nasty co-dependent relationship. I, like so many, spend far too much time seeking the next thing; a like, a friend, a thumbs up, an emoji. According to a post on Networlding says ” We’re obsessed with our phones, a new study has found. The heaviest smartphone users click, tap or swipe on their phone 5,427 times a day, according to researcher Dscout. That’s the top 10 percent of phone users, so one would expect it to be excessive. However, the rest of us still touch the addictive things 2,617 times a day on average. No small number.”
Fight or flight becomes swipe or click with the same consequence; we are missing the moments and the world is spinning past us. Can I intentionally become be more present?
I have written before about the importance of breathing and awareness of breath as an important factor in preparing to live in the now. Recognizing that you involuntarily sustain life through the inhalation and expiration of air should be a dotted line to understanding the miracle of your life. When you ‘marine breathe’ – inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and remain empty for four seconds, your awareness of each tick as it passes is heightened and is a primer to focus.
I use a couple of exercises to help me stay in the moment. I narrow my view. From the cacophony that is our world, I find stillness and silence. There is a place just behind our attitude, feelings, and prejudices where peace precedes the noise and business of the world. It is in your head and in your heart and regardless of your surroundings, it can be discovered. In the moments leading into a new engagement, a personal discussion, or when I am aware that I need to be prepared, I close my eyes and become aware of the sensation of my own physical presence, my body’s weight,(where am I tense in my sit muscles? am I grounded and sitting erect?). I return to my breath and feel it on the inside of my nostrils. Where does it go when I breathe in? Is there a particular part of my body that is uncomfortable or fidgety? I imagine my breath flowing out to the distractions and calming the sea. If I can envelop myself in an internal silence and stillness for as little as two minutes before a difficult meeting, I can use the energy to stay focused for almost an hour.

After a scheduled discussion or difficult coaching session, I leave a five-minute window to recuperate. I turn my intention back on me. I try to pay attention to what m mind is contemplating. Am I blathering? feeling joy? am I exhausted? I try not to get involved in creating a solution, just observe my own mind in action. If I can give myself permission to take these few minutes for my personal well-being, I am a better coach, consultant, husband, father, and grandfather. If I deny myself the break, I will present a much less interested, compassionate and attentive person because I will be in the room but living someplace else.

Make Today Remarkable, by pracicing presencing,
B

Again this is an easy to say and harder to do practice but I guarantee that if you honestly try it for a week, you will make it a constsnt habit.

Memories

Blink and it is gone. The fleeting moment of 7 seconds ago is chased by the hurtling moment 7 seconds ahead. We hold ABCDEFG at once and then A is gone to the past and H is rolling forward. The pace of time ticks on and without holding onto the now and filing some rendition of it away, we find our minutes, hours, days and years spent without value or purpose. Memories are the economy of experience without which life has no currency.

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Our memories can represent numerous meanings of the word currency.
According to Miriam Webster;
Currency
a : circulation as a medium of exchange
b : general use, acceptance, or prevalence <a story gaining currency>
c : the quality or state of being current : currentness <needed to check the accuracy and currency of the information>
d : something (as coins, treasury notes, and banknotes) that is in circulation as a medium of exchange
e : paper money in circulation
f : a common article for bartering <Furs were once used as currency.>
g : a medium of verbal or intellectual expression < … neither side possessed any currency but clichés … — Jan Struther>

My memories act as a repository and a filter for the life I have led and a shimmering lens to the highest and best tomorrow. They contain and create truth, marketing both to my ego and anyone else who will listen. They become the chapters and volumes of the Book of Bob and in modern parlance ‘they fabricate my brand’.

As the story develops and is retold, by me and those who have heard them they begin to seem plausible and possible. When I remember a meeting with a colleague and relate the experience to them on the next encounter, it infiltrates their story just as their recounting finds room in mine. We both remodel and adapt and accept the altered version as today’s truth.

The moment I recognize as now slips past so quickly that I would miss it if I didn’t shape it as part of a bigger picture. William James gave currentness years of thought as he raced ahead of his world. His brother Henry once said, after his passing; ” William is always around the next corner.” He mused ” Time itself, comes in drops”. or in fuller exposition; “All our sensible experiences, as we get them immediately, do . . . change by discrete pulses of perception, each of which keeps us saying ‘more, more, more,’ or ‘less, less, less,’ as the definite increments or diminutions make themselves felt. . . . [All our sensible experiences] come to us in drops. Time itself comes in drops. (PU 104)” His thesis seems to suggest that only the current memory can quench the thirst for understanding, but only for a discreet pulse ( a drop).

‘I don’t know if this really happened but I know it is true’ a paraphrase from Marcus Borg’s post-modern apologetics suggests that memories (stories) can be profoundly true without being factually true. It is in that ether that we construct our reality – a recipe of factual, literal, and imagined to concoct save our sanity and a delicious cake that we can offer to those who are proximate and intimate.

What we use as a token of exchange, either memories or money are merely and intrinsically a social agreement. I accept your story and assimilate it into a trust matrix that I use to decide whether to share some of my life and time with you. Or, I receive your script or a digital version as remittance for goods or services and complete the transaction because we have agreed that the $, €, £, ៛, ₽, that we trade has some value that is factual, literal and concocted. In either case, if the agreement fails, the transaction ends without satisfaction.

Sitting around a campfire, standing at a water cooler, or in a pulpit, applying for a job, courting a lover is an exercise in bidding, accepting, and rejecting. We barter for relationship, status, position, power, and love with the memories we share and the clarity we imagine and bring to our storytelling. If my memory tales align with yours, we begin a dance. You offer a version of an event and I add or adapt to it and offer some of it back. When I say ” I love you” and hear ” I love you, too”, my understanding is framed by how I have experienced love in the past and how I desire to feel it in the future. Your words are interpreted through my arbitrary moment in time position that is informed by my recall, recognition and reflection and my unspoken desire to be loved.
Back and forth the stories go and for some, an agreeable, intimate, long-lasting relationship develops.

My ego and delusions of grandeur are both a great asset and a devastating liability. I assume my memories and their articulation exist to be a medium of verbal or intellectual expression, cherished by all who hear them. I realize that the 1000ish words of this post offer my intellectual expression, somewhat convoluted by the act of writing and the fact of reading and the faculty of recalling. My fallibility can seem either charming or troublesome because your memories, your ego, and your delusions play into the understanding; factual and interpretive, of the exchange. I trust and expect that some of this will resonate and some will provocate and I am okay with both. I would be distressed if it fell flat.

Make Today Memorable,

B

You Suck, I Suck, We All Suck

I appreciate that political correctness and liberal politics continue to abhor unfair, abusive, illegal, and immoral treatment of others. When politicians and government make grand statements of attrition and reconciliation, they need to continue to have an eye to the reality of the present. In Canada, when all levels of government apologize for the treatment of first nations people for the way we treated them at first contact, it is empty words because of the abhorrent conditions we continue to press them into. When a city council changes the name of a bridge because the person the bridged honoured for 50 years was a proponent of the residential school system while urban aboriginals are dying from their poverty, it seems disingenuous.

An eye to the past is important so that we don’t repeat our mistakes and help us continue to learn from them. An eye to the past can act as a shield to taking meaningful, difficult steps to remedy a current situation. If I/we don’t know how to, don’t have the commitment to, or are afraid of the ramifications of a difficult issue, like first nation poverty in Canadian cities we take an easier path. Creating an Aboriginal Poverty Reduction Strategy that sits on a shelf without resources or teeth is self-serving and possibly mean-spirited but somehow offers satisfaction to the writers and their sponsors. It may not help those struggling with poor housing, poor nutrition, poor health, and poor self-esteem but it gets headlines in the mainstream press and impresses potential voters and supporters.

I use the tactic too and am frustrated by the obvious dodge it can become. When I don’t know how to remedy a wicked question, I often answer a different one. ” How do we eliminate child hunger in Canada?” and I responded with a school lunch program in Calgary for children identified by an authority as being food insecure. I accepted congratulations for the work (3000 kids a day got fed) and celebrated the immediate, relevant and concrete solution to a very narrow problem. But the solution of providing a nutritious lunch to some hungry kids at school, on school days doesn’t begin to answer the wicked question. I don’t recall anyone challenging what we were doing because after all we were feeding hungry kids and it feels good to be doing something. Successive parliaments and numerous legislatures have passed unanimous motions to eliminate child hunger to great applause and little impact.

All of us need to get past the rhetoric and easy actions and begin having very difficult discussions and trying unbelievably risky experiments if we hope to solve the issues that are destroying lives and killing people. If we continue to manage social issues, social issues manage to continue. Most of what we do and say feels and sounds good but without challenging what we are doing, it seems that we are perpetuating the problems with a faint hope that they will somehow disappear.

Think and Act on Solutions,
B

 

CLEAR the Way

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The past is a different beast from the future if you choose to make changes. Today, you get to imagine a preferred future. It can be something personal; a different job, better health, a stronger relationship or learning something new. Make the preferred goal as CLEAR(r) as possible. Is it Consistent with your values? Can you Learn to be proficient? Are you Eager to attempt the task? Is it Achievable in a reasonable timeframe? Are you Ready to Risk? Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those times when taking small steps will suffice. To get from a current state to your best future means CLEAR and it also means “I am all in”.

Most of our frustration with yesterday and anxiousness about today rests in the decisions we are making that either consciously or unconsciously create dissonance with stated or espoused beliefs about the world. To live in congruence, we need to intentionally reflect on our choices and where necessary act to change the chosen path.

Stagnation; the sense that our life has us trapped in a rut or worse seems utterly meaningless is a result of our curiousity dying. For goals to have any impact they can’t just be same-old-same-old. We need to be open to learning new experiences, try new approaches and meet new people.

Have you reached the bottom or are close enough to realize that it is just around the corner. Has the current state brought you to a realization that something, everything needs to change? Is now the time? If you are eager to see your life change, you can use that energy to create stretch goals.

Now that you are an avid changemaker, I need to draw you back to what is doable, for you, in a reasonable time, with the resources available. This caveat isn’t meant to restrict the very best you can be but rather should garner a response from you ” if I can get this done, I can do a lot more.”

The double R’s; Ready and Risk are where most people fail. They can either say they are ready and don’t risk anything or take on dangerous risks without being ready. When your goals are consistent, learning focused, enticing, and achievable then you are ready to get ready. My serious action bias often makes me jump without considering the outfitting it will take to survive the jump. Being ready can be as simple as creating a checklist – 5-20 items that need to be on-hand before you execute. Without over-preparing and ending up in analysis paralysis, take the minimally viable approach to planning. Now had Risk by taking one more step in the chain without the gear you might need and see where you land.

A coach can help with the in between steps and the stumbles in CLEAR9r) goal setting but don’t be surprised by what you are capable of achieving on your own.

CLEARly Make Today Remarkable for you,

B

Socrates Suggests

An unexamined conviction is not worth having. Following up on the very high bar that Socrates has set with the ‘unexamined life is not worth living.’ Why wouldn’t he just claim that an examined life is better than the not? Why the sharp rebuke? If in fact, Socrates said this it is the kind of device he would have used to challenge an audience. In a world where absolutes reign, it is easy to understand the resistance we have to examining and re-examining those deeply held convictions that we have built our value set and worldview upon. But, if we are sentient beings; fully able to feel and perceive, wouldn’t examination be a first nature response?

I have lived about 2/3 of my life convinced that I understood and believed stuff that I had never given proper consideration to fully examining. I firmly and stubbornly held a worldview that had more to do with my father and little to do with logic. I accepted a pile of rubble because I agreed with one nugget of gold that was buried in the mess. Some of my certainties were/are embedded in ancient wisdom that is only ancient now. As we examine our world, we may see that things have changed. It has only been about 200 years since we came to understand that the world was likely older than 4004 years. Almost everyone held that belief until they didn’t because their awareness and understanding changed. As humans, we are subject to bias and prejudice whether we are willing to acknowledge them.

During my childhood and teen years, I lived in Saskatchewan and the rhetoric and myths of successive governments formed a big piece of my family’s value set. During the early 1960’s, the government of the day introduced the first form of Medicare, in Canada. The principals of universality, equality, privacy and single payer were layered into the fabric of the practice and philosophy of healthcare. For decades, I held to those principles with the zealousness of an evangelist. I defended the cumbersome system with all it’s failures because I unconditionally accepted the founding principles. There wasn’t any room, intellectually, emotionally or practically to question the system because of the sacred propositions.

When I found the courage to examine these convictions, I discovered that I could support the institution of care for all who needed it without holding universality, equality, and privacy sacrosanct. Under an early examination, I concluded that universality and equality were or had been reduced to lowest common denominator thinking. If we had 10,000 patients needing hip surgery (and the system could afford the cost) and 100 surgeons able to do the surgery at a rate of 1 per day, then universality and equality stated that some would need to wait 100 days or more. The system and the principles were weighted heavily on a first come first serve mentality. But if rather than equality, we used equity as the standard, we don’t reduce the wait time for some but those in most dire need would be moved to the front of the line. As I worked through my own analysis (unscientific but with rigor) on two more occasions, a few years apart, I still concluded that equity is a more efficient and humane practice. The upshot is that I let go of equality as a criteria for policy and program creation (in healthcare, education, housing …) and embraced equity.

When I suggested this to colleagues and friends, most were offended. That isn’t a good enough reason to stop the examination or toss the conclusion. In fact, it may be further reason to look at the embedded fundamental truths, that they had learned at the feet of their own history.

I will stop here with the disclaimer that I am not trying to convince you or unconvince you of any of your convictions. I confess that I am trying to convince you to examine all your convictions on a regular basis. I still regularly revisit the philosophy and practice of equity, usually when I have become intransigent and cocksure about my position.

What fundamental conviction do you hold that hasn’t been revisited for years or never? Do you have the willingness and courage to disrupt your own cart of comfort?  Fair warning – as you examine your convictions, you open the door to your life and how you lead it. Even if there is no change in how you hold the firm declaration, just by observing it under a different light, you can help but changing the observer.

Take up a conviction challenge today,

B

Alternative Aesop’s Fable

Once upon a time, A man and his wife owned a very special goose. Every morning the goose would lay a golden egg, which helped the couple care for their five children. Throughout the day, the goose had the run of the farm and could go wherever she wanted and did whatever she would do. She ate from the garden, drank from the pond and honked at everyone within earshot. But the farmer appreciated the goose because of the golden eggs and gave her free rein.

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Unknown to the farmer and his wife, the goose served her own needs when no one was looking. As the family slept, the goose crept into the house and climbed on the cooling stove. She then pooped into the porridge pot, that mother had made and put on the stove waiting to feed the family in the morning. As everyone knows geese that lay golden eggs poop a vile poisonous runny stool. The farmer didn’t notice the mess because there was always a golden egg waiting by the door.

In the morning, father lit the stove and began warming the pot. As his children came to the table, he served them a big bowl. At first, no one noticed the foul taste or at least no one mentioned it. Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. The goose fouled the porridge and left an egg. The father warmed the porridge, and the children ate. But one day the youngest child fell ill. She complained of stomach pains and had trouble breathing. The father blamed it on the weather or other natural causes and said: ” she will be fine, just wait and see.” But she wasn’t. Within a fortnight the sweet little girl was gone, and everyone mourned her passing, but life went on.

Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. Soon two more children were ill, complaining of the same symptoms. Father and mother thought: “maybe it isn’t the seasons or the gods bringing this trouble on our house.” But no one suspected the goose, after all, she gave them a golden egg every morning.

Soon two more children died, and the last two were very sick. Mom and dad did everything they could. They sought out experts who told them it must be the oats, the water, the air or bad genes that were taking the family. Many ‘knew’ it was the goose but didn’t say anything because they had their own goose and couldn’t acknowledge that the generous goose was intentionally poisoning them too.

The farmer and his wife were alone. All five children had been taken. Everything that they had cared about seemed pointless. Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. The goose fouled the porridge and left an egg. With certain blindness, the farmer and his wife continued to eat the porridge. The eggs piled up because there were now only the two of them and the farmer’s wife became very sick. The farmer nursed her; he cared for her, he cried for her. But she too soon was gone. The farmer shouted: ” Damn you, goose, you have given me gold, just as you were taking everything that was important.”

He stopped eating the porridge and stopped gathering the eggs. Day after day, week after week, the same ritual happened. The goose fouled the porridge and left an egg. Soon the pot overflowed with poop. The air became putrid, and the gold became tarnished, and soon the farmer wasted away and was gone. And then there was just the goose, and the goose had the run of the farm and could go wherever she wanted and did whatever she would do.

With thanks and respect to Aesop’s Fables, number 87 and thanks to you for considering this alternative version.

We Belong Here

A really long post that is a draft compilation of one personal project I am working on.

See if you can guess what event was the impetus. Please excuse any errors, grammatical or spelling and any inconsistencies of character development. Let me know what you think, there are another 16 chapters to be written.

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We Belong Here

She had always been a leader. Even before she fledged, she was always the strongest and first to recognize her mother returning with a substantial serving of some carrion or a scavenged scrap. Keen eyes and an alert mind allowed her to be fed first and fed frequently. After only a few weeks, she was 30% larger than her siblings and ready to take on the world herself.

” Black and white is the best, better than all the rest” was a chant she heard from her parents and mimicked with other magpies. ” Take care of yourself and your kind”, ” Protect our territory” and ” Don’t let those alien crows crowd you out” – lessons learned in the nest are lessons learned for a lifetime.

When the weather was good and food plentiful, Margaret didn’t worry too much about crows, ravens, kestrels or flickers. From March to November there was more than enough to go around, and she let her guard down. Soon there were dozens and then hundreds of nonindigenous species (code for immigrants) crowding the trees and causing a ruckus. When a murder of crows pushed their way onto an aspen while she was surveying her kingdom, she knew it was time for those birds to go. And while she was at it, she would put the run on the robins, the waxwings, blue jays and maybe the chickadees. They didn’t seem to recognize how important she was or their place in the pecking order. They somehow didn’t even seem to know they were different from her and her kind.

Motivated by the slight, Maggie was determined to rid the woods of these unwanted, uncivilized, intruders. If she was feeling disrespected, there would be other Pica who would be feeling the same.

At this time of day, there would be charm near the pond on the south end of the reserve. With a strong voice and message, she would rouse the Parliament and create a strategy to make the woods great again. Flying in from the south, with the sun behind her she effortlessly landed near the top of a well-populated aspen. Her presence was acknowledged by a few poetic squawks, but everyone knew she was perched in the place of honor.

As she considered her words, a cacophony erupted below her. A pompous jay had flitted and flaunted its way onto a branch beside three regal females who were quietly watching their clutches. The indifference and superiority expressed in the intruder’s crest were salts in the wounds and a perfect segue to Ms. Maggie’s first foray.

” Show some respect, you simpleton. You think because you can ape our calls that you are one of us. You are not” The jay blankly stared in her direction but became distracted by something shiny on the ground and darted away. The exit didn’t disquiet the anxiety of the trio or offer any satisfaction to Margaret. ” Well, I never. What are these woods coming to? I remember a day when those birds knew their place” ” What are we to do?” and the murmur started – “what are we to do? What are we to do?..”

We are known as Pica Pica and are known as a charm when we gather for good reason. We play out the day, lolling amongst the branches, wary of the squatters and the disrespectful behavior that intruders bring to our woodlot. Every action seemed magnified. Every discrepancy is more contemptuous than the previous. The jays, the crows, the starlings, wrens, sparrows, kestrels, hawks all went out of their way to intentionally make life difficult for the natural inhabitants. The murmur continued, and discontent rumbled.

M thought ” tomorrow, I will begin to show you what we are to do.” but not today. The seed needed to take root on the certainty that there had been a better time and that time could come again. All in good time but the time can’t come soon enough. Before the snow flies and the game gets scarce, we need to reclaim each thicket, each tree, each branch and run all the outsiders over the fence and beyond our borders. They can roost, poop, screech and scavenge south of the pond where they belong. Once we push them out, we can defend our territory and not let this contamination happen again. No more Mister Nice Guy. We can’t give them an inch or they will take over one tree at a time. The time is near – we will soon have control again. Once we have control, we will be great again.

~2~

Margaret stirred in the night many times as a plan developed and turned into a strategy. “If we are going to make the Woods great again, we need to make them unbearable for all the other avian species.” I need 5 or 6 cabinet members to join my cabinet. The range of players needs to appeal to or at least not offend the gentler pica pica who saw themselves as completely self-aware and progressive enough to be concerned about the other. And yet there needed to be a couple of conservative loons who wouldn’t shrink away from calling out the treachery of others.

Clarence came to mind immediately – he had an accident a couple of years ago that damaged one of his wings and ever since he could only fly in large clockwise circles. He blamed the nuthatches who had burst out of a tree and caused him to perform an evasive maneuver that didn’t quite succeed. The right wing was fully extended and in mid flap when it contacted an overhanging branch. He felt the break along the ulnare. The wing collapsed, and Clarence crashed into the bushes. He spent a couple of weeks grounded and grumbling before attempting a takeoff. The deformity along the edge wasn’t completely debilitating, but he had lost his agility and ability to adapt. Once at the top of the totem, he had been reduced to scavenging carrion and roadkill. Needless to say, he was peeved and ready to be motivated to do something about the injustice. He might not be capable of leading a military assault, but his story would serve as the rallying call for all the afflicted and injured (imagined or real). He would be the perfect Secretary of State. Maggie penciled in a memory to be near the blacktop junction on the west edge of the Woods before the sun was at it’s highest. She knew that Clarence would be waiting for something to be bowled over by the shiny roaring boxes that flew past on the hard pathway.

A Secretary of Offense needed to be in much better physical shape that Clarence but also needed to be bent out of shape by the illegal intrusion into their territory. The candidate needed to be willing and able to act with ruthless disregard for all outsiders. If they were to be disposed of or evicted, there couldn’t be any sentimental wavering. We need a veteran of other skirmishes, and Jerome ” Angry Bird” would fill the bill. Even though “Angry Bird” was a nickname and a term of respect no one ever called Jerome that to his face. There were stories of him nipping off a toe when another magpie made an innocent slight. It is said that he shrieked ” remember who you are talking to or next time it will be your head.” M was sure that Jerome would take up the nomination and gather his troops to begin wearing down the enemy. She was also confident that he wouldn’t just set up a defensive perimeter that made the Woods and island but that he would lead sorties over the pond and blacktop to instill fear into any that were considering trying to sneak in and take advantage of the Magpies’ efforts. There were too many layabouts sucking up resources that they didn’t deserve. After they were gone, by whatever means necessary we can’t offer any inclination or false encouragement for their return. She knew she could catch Secretary Jerome along the western perimeter scowling at the open flight path into their Utopia. A brief conversation ensued in mid-flight, and he dipped his wings in understanding and assent in principle. They would lay out their first phase plan of attack when others joined in.

The job of ensuring that there was enough food and equipment in the treasury would require an organized and conniving scrounger. She had heard of a younger bird that they called “Munchkin” who had a reputation of turning lemons into lemonade (whatever that meant). She apparently knew all the best places to raid and as importantly, all the secret stashes that no one else had discovered. There was a rumor that she had enough scraps of meat hidden to feed her first clutch through a long winter. Maggie knew that they would be facing a long winter of discontent when the battle started and a reliable source of daily rations would quell any squabbling storms. ” I need to connect with this Munchkin and figure out if she is the real deal.” A scrounger like her would need some incentive – a token, a gift, a reward and a share of the bounty. She likely couldn’t be recruited with patriotism and mission. ” I have a supply of colored wool that I was going to knit into my nest next spring. That would be a great beginning.

The most important position, the Secretary of Re-Education, needed an articulate, persuasive voice that was trusted by the masses. If we were going to be united in our efforts against the enemy, we needed to have a universal message; a message that was compelling and straightforward. It needed to be easy to understand and easy to act on. The Secretary needed to raise awareness of the problem with so many aliens in the Woods, demonstrate the impact these invaders had on the Crows, and an immediate, relevant and concrete action that every bird could take to change the situation. If the messages were too strong, too fast, too abrupt, the flock would panic and begin to doubt their place in the Woods. Too slow, too weak, too generic they wouldn’t be inspired to take the risks which were ahead. The language was the bread and butter of Pica Pica and the lifeblood of revolution. Timing was the currency that turned the words into magical motivation. The candidate needed to be old enough to have credibility and young enough to be seen as a plausible voice of the better future. He must be able to spin a tale and have no qualms about spinning it tightly. As troubling as it seemed, the only one that fit the bill was Cassandra. ” If M hadn’t recently told her she was ” a preening, primping pile of putrid puss,” this would be so much easier. ” Can I bring myself to apologize? Even if the statement was still true? ” The cause came before personal embarrassment, and there was sure to be more moments of anxiousness, unease, and distaste if we are to succeed. ” I can say what needs to be said to get her onside.” Pica politics has always had some dishonesty so when the stakes are so high, why should this be different?
The recruitment of Cassandra needed to be the first order of business. Ms. Cassandra Corvide believed she had royal blood and would need to think that the whole plan of attack was her idea and her doing. Ideally, the approach would take months, but with the urgency of the situation it must be concocted and completed today. It would be so much easier “if she didn’t think her shit didn’t stink.” Maggie knew she had to swallow her pride and become servile to elicit a positive result. She gagged a little and then committed to doing whatever she needed to do. Cassandra’s presence would force her into the background, but that is where she could be most effective and in the end, ridding the Woods of the lazy, troublemaking species would make it all worthwhile.
~3~
Approaching Cassandra with deference and apparent subservience Maggie started with ” It is tragic, truly tragic.”
” What are you going on about you birdbrain?” was Ms. Cordive’s terse reply.

” Oh, my apologies. I was thinking about something and was talking to myself I guess. Sorry to bother you with my small problems.”

” Hrmph” (if that is how you spell the sound that followed. ” What tiny little problem has your feathers in a knot? Did you hide your dinner and can’t remember where it is?”

” Maggie smiled behind her beak and said, ” oh no, nothing like that, although I am somewhat forgetful, some of the time.”

There was a pause (“stay silent” M told herself). Fifteen seconds had passed before Casandra forced the issue. ” Alright, tell me what terrible thing has befallen your meaningless little life?”

“Be cautious, don’t overplay the moment” M thought while saying ” I was down by the pond, hoping to find some scraps from last night’s hunting party when the coyotes chased down that hare.”

“Get on with it.”

“Sorry. I was at the top of the aspen when a gray jay haughtily landed between Mildred, Marjorie, and Mabel startling them and then causing their young to start calling for food. Those jays are forever disturbing what little peace we can find.”

” They never dare to disturb me.”

” Of course not but you know 3Ms, they are in a tizzy and their babies are suffering. They are afraid to leave them alone and those layabouts that they call husbands are nowhere to be seen.”

“Of course their not. Those girls couldn’t keep a male if their feathers were purple and their eyes bright yellow.”

Maggie could feel the opportunity slipping away. She needed to act quickly but not frantically. ” I suppose. There probably isn’t anything that anyone can do about the jays, the crows, the ravens, the flickers and all the rest. Not even Donald, if he was still alive could rally a defense against them all.” Maggie knew that raising the name of Cassandra’s first mate, who died unexpectedly just over two years ago, was risky and now she needed to hold her tongue and wait.

Silence filled the space between these wily old birds. They both knew what was afoot. They both knew what was at stake. Tick, tock, tick, tock shaped the decision. And then Cassandra lifted her head, shifted her weight on the branch, coughed and spoke.

” There is one who could lead an assault on these affronts. There is a voice that would be heard across the treetops. There is a voice that would ring across the pond, along the bullrushes and caragana bushes. This voice would ring true for the afflicted, the young, the defeated and the angry. Nestlings, mothers, wastrel fathers, and the willing and ready would come together and unite around this voice.

Her presence will at once enrapture and captivate those who see her. Her regal bearing and poise will instill such confidence as to encourage unseen boldness. Her clear and shining eyes will assure all Pica Pica that there is a better future ahead. She will bring the Magpie Nation together and Make the Woods great again.”

” I will do it” and as an afterthought ” if you will serve me.”

It may have been the moment. It could have been the situation. The speech may have stirred her, but Maggie responded with “yes, your majesty if it is your will.”

Maggie had hoped to manipulate Cassandra into being the face of the revolution. She was sure that she could con her into believing that it was her idea. She was sure that with the right words and the right posture she could control her as a puppet. Now she felt that she had been manipulated and was okay with it. She saw in Queen Cassandra the exact image that she described in her inaugural address. Before her was the leader that they really needed. She was captured by her sincerity and simplicity. ” I am sure glad that this was my first stop. All the others under consideration for leadership need to meet with Her and be vetted by Her not me” was the thought that passed through her brain as she bowed her head and awaited further instructions.

~4~
” Herald a Parliament” Queen Cassandra insisted.
” Your Majesty, shouldn’t we consider creating a small close group of confidants and having them act as emissaries to the masses” Maggie responded for the third time.
” A Parliament” the Queen insisted. ” I want to address all my subjects. Reach out to the winds and send a message to those within the Woods and those who have fled. Bring the entire Pica Pica tribe together so that We may inspire them and gain their allegiance. They must see the Queen and hear her voice first. The squeaky, unsure prattling of seconds will be fine once they are convinced that the battles can be won and the enemy vanquished.” ” Herald a Parliament for the next full moon, 13 days from today. I will be ready” ” Be gone, begin the preparations. I will have further instructions for you tomorrow. Stand at the ready.”

There hadn’t been a parliament called for generations. Most of the current generation thought of the gathering as a fairy tale or myth. In truth, most had never given the possibility of a mass gathering a passing thought. How could the call go out, so it was understood but not terrifying? What would be the minimum that needs to be divulged to express the urgency and responsibility? In a world where duty is a foreign concept. Who would attend? The latest estimate suggested that there are 1800 to 2300 magpies within 25 miles of the Woods. How many would travel back home? Both Cassandra and Maggie were mulling the same questions and arriving at a similar conclusion – if more than 1000 accepted the Herald, we would have a force to be reckoned with.

~5~

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The best-laid plans of mice and men and magpies are oft to go awry. And dozens of other cliches seemed to apply as Maggie thought through the path to making the Woods great again. But she was still getting used to the idea that Cassandra was the right leader and that she had some wicked skills, which she was biased by her early impressions, from seeing.

Sunrise was early tomorrow, and there were regular housecleaning details that needed to be accomplished before the meeting. ” I want to be prepared for anything the Queen requests” was a surprising thought Maggie had just before sunset,

Preparation isn’t always enough or misguided preparation at any rate. The first thing that Cassandra said was ” forget the bit players. The jays, the crows, the ravens, the starlings sneakily scavenge food that is rightly ours, but they aren’t the real enemy. We can always scare them off.”
M was taken aback and unfortunately it showed. She sputtered ” What, what do you mean they aren’t the real enemy?”

“Think bigger, think bolder. Don’t be a pea brain; you are better than that. All magpies are better than that.”
” All that those intruders are is an irritant.”
” We need to face the fact that we have some internal disadvantages and some troubling characteristics to fix. More than half the males are absent fathers. They are there for the breeding but disappear when the going gets tough. We can’t address issues of unity while defacto divorces are so common.”

“What does a deadbeat dad have to do with purging the Woods of vermin and making it great again?”

” The absent father leaves a single mother who needs to fulfill the duties of both parents which mean that nestlings and fledglings are left alone and exposed.”
“In the best situation, the duties are shared, and the real enemies are kept at a distance.”
“Today, almost half the brood is lost before we have a chance to bring them into the charm and teach them the right way to be a Pica Pica.”

Maggie was angry and confused. “How could Cassandra be blaming male magpies and some natural predator for the disrespect that all of us are feeling?” was the silent rumble stewed.

” Maggie, we need to take back the Woods, and that means sharing fathers into being responsible for their young and their mate. It also means taking on the owls, the hawks, the eagles in a battle to the death.”
” We can’t take back the Woods unless we can overtake the competition so we must cut our losses, so our population swells.”
” This war isn’t about one battle and frightening some smaller nuisances. It is about re-establishing us as the dominant presence in the Woods. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick.’

” Cassandra, we don’t have the resources. We don’t have the bird power. How can we recruit that many magpies? Who would train them?”

” Finally” the Queen smiled ” You are asking the right questions.” ” We need to seek out the best mothers and assign apprentices to learn about breeding and nesting and caring for young. They should spend two seasons learning how to choose a nest site, built it securely and protect the brood.”

” What about the deadbeat dads?” Maggie sputtered.
” They will accept their responsibilities or we will disavow them. They will be chased from the Woods. They are either with us, or they are against us.” Cassandra paused to let that sink in. If they can’t or won’t accept the natural order of things their seed is worthless to us. We are better allowing the strong father figures to pass their genetic material on and act as models for the yearling males.”

” That seems harsh. Who gets to decide which males are doing their duties? Who chooses the mentors? Who makes the decision to allow a breeding pair to have a nest and start a family?”

Queen Cassandra calmly and confidently stood tall in her roost at the top of the poplar tree. She breathed in deeply and surveyed the woods, knowing that it wasn’t great today and wouldn’t be great again for a couple of generations. Standing over here kingdom, she spoke quietly and slowly ” My dear Margaret; there is only one member of our tribe that I would trust with such a horrible and onerous responsibility. I choose you.”

~6~
Maggie had never swooned in her six years of life, but she swooned at the sound of the queen’s voice and trembled at Her praise. She was mesmerized by the power that Cassandra demonstrated and the control she held over her. At this stage, Maggie would have flown into a hurricane (even if she didn’t know what a hurricane was, having lived her entire life in the Woods, in North Dakota). ” If this translates into sway over all magpies, she could get anything she needed to be done and the grand vision for the Woods could be realized. ” buzzed through her mind even as she tried to refrain from full allegiance and restrain her flaunting admiration and respect.

There was no relaxing in the presence of Cassandra’s leadership. She was always thinking, always planning, always pronouncing. ” we now have 11 days before the Parliament. Has the herald gone out to all Pica Pica that were fledged from the Woods?”

” Yes, Your Majesty” Maggie tested the title ” We have couriers and courtiers delivering the message from all the treetops within a forty mile radius. We expect that nearly 800 will attend.”

” Expand the Herald to one hundred miles. Deliver it in the Woodsian dialect, so only those with roots in the Woods will comprehend the urgency and the duty.” ” We don’t want riff raft from the plains thinking they are welcome.” Cassandra continued ” I don’t think we should use the Your Majesty title in public. Magpies believe they are independent thinkers and we can expect resistance to anything that sounds like the Monarchidae; those flat-billed flycatchers we have heard about from across the great sea. They are so full of themselves with their bright colors and lyrical songs.”

” I understand, Queen, er Cassandra. But you do need a title that befits your regal position. What would you suggest?”

” I have been toying with Regent. How does that sound? Is it regal without pretention?”

” Regent Cassandra, All hail the Regent” teased Maggie.

The sarcasm was missed, and Cassandra declared ” Then it is settled I will be the Regent of the Woods.”

” The next item on my agenda is assembling an entourage to add force, credibility and security at the Parliament.” The Regent was on a roll again, and Maggie needed to keep up. ” A show of considerable support and force will impress and influence all those in attendance. Who can we immediately recruit, who can at least look formidable and would sign on as early adopters of the movement?”

” Almost all of the juvenile males and yearling females would be easily swayed and can strut their plumage at the hint of recognition. I can think of thirty who are lolling in trees within five hundred yards from here.”

” Alright, but be cautious, I don’t want any headstrong kids thinking they are part of the court. Let’s bring in Jerome ” Angry Bird” to keep them in check and train them in some basic drills. I know you already had him in mind for a position and I have met with him to confirm his interest.”

Maggie smiled at the compliment and was a bit surprised and resentful that the Regent had been discussing the revolution with others. She wondered who else knew about the plans and who else was offering counsel and receiving instructions. She wondered, but she didn’t dare question Cassandra’s authority or wisdom in all matters. Her instructions were unquestioned and her authority was absolute. She knew that she now served at the Regent’s pleasure.

” I will contact Jerome and have him help me select thirty of the best prospects for duty.”

” Make it sixty and give him complete authority to do whatever he needs to do to whip them into shape. Let him know that this is the beginning of our standing army’s raiding force. He will understand and know exactly what is needed.”

” Anything else, Regent?”
” Not right now. Make yourself available this afternoon, and there may be more instructions after I meet with my cabinet at noon.”

Maggie knew she had just been shut out, and the slight was intentional, but she didn’t let her disappointment show. ” As always Regent, I am at your service, whenever and however it is needed.”

There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that Cassandra had heard the declaration from her underling. She just raised her regal wings and lifted off to the south and then circled back north towards the tallest trees. ” Who is she scheming with and do they have the interests of the Woods ahead of the personal agendas? ” Maggie mulled. The answer would need to wait until this afternoon or later.

~7~

Cassandra set off realizing that she had dissed and disrespected Maggie. It was intentional and necessary and one of the burdens of leadership that she was beginning to carry. ” There can only be one Regent and Her authority can not be questioned.” She hummed a melody that she remembered from her fledgling days. It wasn’t clear if it was a murmur from her mother’s brood patch, a distant chorus from the city, or a song she sang with her siblings. The humming began to form into a tune, and the tune helped recall snippets of lyrics.

We are black and white
We are going to cause a fright
Let no enemies sleep this night
The Magpies are ready for a fight

“That doesn’t seem quite right. I need to think about it and where it came from. If others heard the same tune while growing up, it could serve as a clarion call that our troops could raise when going into battle” she said to herself.

The Regent did have an appointment but not with a potential cabinet. Cassandra had long observed a conspiracy of ravens (conspiracy seems an apt name for a group, especially in this case). She had seen them training their young and teaching them valuable life skills through what appeared to be games. ” Could play help evolutionary necessity? Do these silly black birds learn something hanging upside down from a branch or swinging dangerously from a string of moss?”

She was intent on finding out and had arranged through an intermediary; the small rook named Castle, a meeting with Marquis James, the uncontested leader of the Corvas Corax.
Entering their domain on the eastern edge of the Woods was dangerous and maybe even reckless, but Cassandra knew that there was information and knowledge that the ravens held that her family had lost.
Since the great fall, Ravens and Magpies don’t understand each other well. Ravens speak in first person singular and only acknowledge the masculine regardless of circumstances or gender. The more sophisticated and egalitarian language was rooted in the same origin but Cassandra would need to be cautious about her choice of words and her interpretation of theirs. Magpies pace their communication with a rhythm that is more lyrical than the ravens, and this would create issues if she didn’t take care to modulate on their frequency.

Cassandra rolled over against a breeze, righted her wings and rose. She let out a long call ” I am here. Are me there?” and then just allowed her strong wings to carry her along the border waiting for an invitation to enter. Ten minutes passed. Cassandra was aware that there were hundreds of black eyes peering at her from large black heads atop vast all black bodies. She knew that she was being surveyed and appraised.

” Me here, I welcome.” A thunder arose, and the hundreds of eyes rose stretching across the sky on easy, flowing wingbeats and filling the empty spaces with an echoing croak. ” me here, I welcome.”

The show of force and the thunder was intimidating and meant to test her metal, and while it shook her she maintained composure as she mimicked her escorts with the same croak ” I here, I welcome” Her wings adjusted and she dropped into the formation for an aerial ballet that could as easily be a training exercise for an aerial battle. “ballet or battle” she thought ” is that a coincidence?”

Hanging above the trees Cassandra’s mind took a detour to a time long ago. A time when she wasn’t sure she was welcome.
The nest was tight three other fledges and two eggs tucked neatly under all those wings. The two boys reached higher. They squeaked louder and git most of the foot that father brought to the nest. Fairness wasn’t a consideration. Strongest meant fittest and fittest meant survival. As she pushed past her brothers, she knew that if she caught her moner’s attention, she could catch the latest meal. This was the day. ” me here, I welcome.” she squawked and reached to the sky with her last chance. The tiny piece of gopher was all the encouragement she needed. ” I here, I welcome’ and another piece was deposited. ” I here, it is me” . The rest is history. She had learned a valuable lesson in the nest. ” If you want something, reach for it. If it is out of reach, push someone out of the way.” No one noticed the tribute she carried clutched in her left talon.

Coming back to the field at the east end of the Woods, she knew she belonged, and she was ready for another fight. This was a different battle, but it would take a dance to convince the Marquis that he wanted to train the Corvid so they could make the Woods great again.
~8~

The conspiracy enveloped Maggie. Like most conspiracies, she couldn’t see anything in her peripheral vision – only the blinkered way ahead. They lead her to the meeting place, that she wouldn’t be able to find on her own, at the top of a rise she had never visited, at the top of the fir tree. The Marquis, held the position atop the highest branch and if she was to face him she needed to take a subservient place on a lower branch. Today, she would allow the Marquis his status. Tomorrow, maybe not.

There was an unnecessary and awkward silence. Both the Regent and the Marquis knew it was awkward and unnecessary, yet did nothing to alleviate the tension it created. An unnamed underling couldn’t bear the silence and interjected ” My Most Honoured Lord, may I present Regent Cassandra.”
With protocol broken, Cassandra respectfully added: ” I am honored to be in my presence.” The Marquis understood the concession she made and offered His own. ” I speak fluent Pica if that would make this easier.”

If magpies could smile, she would have been grinning but since she couldn’t she instead bowed slightly and said ” I am humbled and honored by your generosity.”
” My husband’s mother was also so honored by a former Marquis, when sh inadvertently strayed over the boundary into your territory. She was very young but the courtesy and care that she was shown stayed with her to the end.”

The Marquis knew the dance and offered a story to close the circle. ” My grandfather often spoke of an encounter with a magpie yearling who had lost her way. He spoke of his fascination of how naive and ill-prepared she was for the real life. He felt great sympathy for her and rather than taking her life, he ordered her spared and had her escorted back to your side of the divide. Do you suppose we are speaking of the same story?”

” I am sure we are and my husband, may he rest peacefully, would have wanted me to extend our appreciation for the courtesy.”

Marquis opened with ” Let me set the stage. I am a straightforward, direct, transparent bird. I avoid drama. I don’t appreciate games, and I don’t tolerate fools.”

“I appreciate that approach too. But if you will allow me one more point of protocol and tribute” she said softly as she stepped closer and held up the talon with a bright round red stone. She dropped it in a crevice on the limb she was standing on and stepped back. A young raven swooped in and snatched the gift and with flourish placed it at the Marquis’s feet. Cassie’s reading was that he was both dutifully and truly honored.
She immediately continued “and now I will get right to the point. Our Woods have been invaded by lesser birds and predators who have forgotten their place on the totem. It is time to take back our territory and make the woods great again.”

” We have seen the spillover; those unsophisticated, self-interested, scoundrels have begun flying over our territory and stealing food and supplies.”

” So, we both have reason to run these intruders out of the area.”

This time the pause was tactical, and the Marquis made it clear by his posture that no one was to speak up and break the moment. Time means very little to birds, but this break stretched into agonizing before Cassandra broke the silence. ” We need you. You have instincts and skills that I don’t possess. Ravens have training that would be valuable to Magpies, and I am seeking an arrangement where your elders teach our yearlings and fledges your curriculum.”
“That is very direct, and I appreciate you not wasting my time. Obviously, I will do you the same service. What is in it for me and what benefit would Ravens see if we do this for you.”

The approach had worked beautifully; Cassandra had allowed the Marquis to shift to Pica for the discussion and had allowed him to open the negotiations. “He thinks he has the power,” she thought, ” but I have just won the barter because he has allowed me to open as low as I can.”
” We would forever be grateful to you and your kind” she opened
” Gratitude doesn’t feed the fledglings” he countered.
“We would both be rid of the owls, hawks, starlings, waxwings, jays and any other troublesome invader.”
” We could do that for ourselves without training your troops.”
” Indeed you could, but then you put your conspiracy at risk battling the enemy. This way, you get my forces to do your dirty work, and you can swoop in and take the spoils.”
” Fodder for the battles, we could use that, for sure.”
The Marquis knew that he could ask for anything and get agreement but the outcome that Cassandra sought was the same one he wanted. Cassandra knew that she would need to agree to whatever demands the Ravens made but delivering on the promises might be something else. She was about to add a section of the Woods to the bid when the Marquis closed the barter with ” we have an agreement Madam Regent, we will start the training in a fortnight.” And with a slight flicker of his wing, the conspiracy appeared again to escort her back to the border between their territories.
The thunder and darkness shrouded her senses, and as her feet touched down at the base of a birch, she thought ” I have made a great deal, now to convince the parliament that we are able and ready to turn back time and restore our home to what it once was.” She needed to continue making plans for the great gathering, and she must somehow bring Maggie up to speed.

 

What’s left? If you aren’t sure about God, what do you believe? If you don’t see the bible as a complete and inerrant set of instructions, how do you guide your life? If there isn’t anything after this life, how do you keep going? When you stop believing, what’s left?

I flippantly and defensively said “everything” when I was asked that question a few months ago. But the word stuck with me and the idea that I had the world at my doorstep began to grow. If I wasn’t bound by a history and tradition that had been an important part of my life I was free to explore a range and diversity of ideas, opinions, and traditions. I could undertake rituals and readings that were outside the canon and liturgy of my faith community without feeling guilty. I was able to hear the same scripture with new ears and either embrace it or reject it without reprisal. There wasn’t a 6-course meal in front of me with the clear instructions that I needed to swallow it all. I could order a la carte and if I wanted only have soup or desert. I could even fast and not eat anything that was on the menu. I could even go to another restaurant or make my own meal at home. While that freedom isn’t the reason I have become an agnostic, nor should it be, it was an unexpected and beneficial outcome of standing firmly in doubt and curiosity.

When I was asked by someone who was/is concerned about my soul ” what’s left”, I am sure that they meant that there is nothing left worth living for and I discovered that there was everything to live for and live with.

In a world where for the first time political realities and armed citizens have made me uncertain about freedom, I find myself free to be uncertain. The next statement is about me and not pointed at anyone else. I think I am smarter because I am uncertain. When I had easy answers, I asked questions that conformed and confirmed. Now I ask myself and others better questions out of a sincere desire to understand. My queries are framed differently and use softer language that seems to elicit more open and thoughtful responses. My conversations have been ranging because, in my desire to understand, I get to pause and wait for others in the discussion to reflect, find their voice, and craft a response.

Tim Ferris, in “Four Hour Work Week” says that “most people will choose to be unhappy over uncertain”. I think he is referring to an addiction to a weekly paycheque and the choice to stay doing a job that enslaves you and offers no autonomy or purpose rather than make changes that allow you to live a life of meaning. Making meaning is a choice too but when you are constricted by rules, rituals and reasons from the minds and swords of others, you can’t see the choice. As the world changes and when we are conditioned to be fearful that if we don’t put a forkful in our mouth and swallow, we might starve, it is convenient and easier to suck it up and stay the course.

Right or wrong, I am choosing to risk it all. My brand, my reputation, my soul to discover what is out there if I can only wait and listen for the whispers.

 

B