Part of my spiritual discipline these days is sitting out back of my home here on St. Simons Island which is set in a nature preserve, just over from the Mackay River.
There, I am treated to an extravaganza of birds. I have two chickadees nesting in the church birdhouse my daughter gave me for Christmas, that my new son-in-law installed.
There are a pair of cardinals that hang at my bird feeder, gorgeous birds that make me think of my mother, who taught biology at Fulton High School, the Cardinals their team name. She had a particular affection for those birds and I like to think her spirit is visiting me in the moment. Certainly her memory does.
There are numerous other birds that come visiting me daily. Wrens, finches, sparrows,, a brown thrasher, and a red-bellied woodpecker. A hawk actually surprised me by landing of the top of a feeder hook, and asked me what time it was. Hummingbirds are a special gift as their flight pattern amazes. Part of my developing Franciscan spirituality has prompted my close attention to their habits and eccentricities, and to receive the gift of their presence reminding me of my connection to God’s Creation.
Today, my attention was snagged by two doves that have made the pine straw patch their home. They will land, with a steep vertical descent, and then proceed to walk around with their odd Chuck Berry strut, making their way around the patch, though I am not hearing any lyrics of Johnny B. Good. With any sudden movement within their presence, they take off with a mighty stroke of their wings. No wonder the church has used the image of a dove to personify the movement of the Spirit, coming and going quickly, and as it will.
When I see a dove, several images come to mind.
One is of a trip my friend, Wayne Brown, and I made to find and purchase a Labrador retriever puppy, driving from Tyler, Texas to outside Memphis, Tennessee. There was a breeder there who specialized in the English stock of Labs, with more laid back demeanors and the traditional blocky heads that I prefer. Notably, I wanted to see how the breeder handled his dogs, humanely or not. We wound up not being impressed with the man or the dogs, which meant it was a hell of a long way to travel for disappointment, but better to find out up front.
Wayne came from a Texas family tied to pointing dogs. His father had bred national champions, two winding up the Bird Dog “Hall of Fame”, Texas Squire and Texas Fight. The hall is located in Grand Junction, Tennessee where the national championship is held each year on the famed Ames Plantation. Wayne and I rented a cabin once we arrived and sat on a deck overlooking a pastoral hillside. Two bucks treated us to an loud antler fight around dusk. as we partook of Dixie dew, otherwise known as bourbon. Wayne also introduced me to a Texas treat of cream cheese covered with a Jamaican sauce named PickaPeppa. It will set you free! It was a good evening of friendship, stories, and nature.
On the way there and back, Wayne and I quizzed each other as to the birds we saw. Our biggest dispute came over identification of doves. Wayne had claimed that several birds on telephone wires were doves, to which I had to correct him that they were, in fact, common pigeons. We spent untold hours kidding each other about our ornithological expertise….even to this day. So when I see these doves, I am prompted to call Wayne or send him a picture by text, just trying to help this poor Texas boy out. And I get a peculiar hankering for PickaPeppa.
But the strongest memory of doves come from the Southern tradition of dove hunts. The opening day of dove season is always around Labor Day, meaning that the heat and humidity of summer was still in full bloom. “Sweat” is a word that springs to my mind whenever someone mentions “opening day” of dove season.
Typically, this event signals the end of summer and the momentous move toward hunting season in the South. In my world, we would gather with over a hundred people, men mostly, at some hunting preserve. In my case, it was Burnt Pine Plantation, located outside of Madison, Georgia, not far from the quaint spot in the road known as Social Circle. Bay, the camp cook, would render some of the best Southern cooking for this itchy group of bird hunters. After a leisurely meal, we would be taken to the field to positions that are assigned in a drawing.
The social time prior to the hunt was a major piece of the gig. I was usually hosted by my good friend from the Cathedral, John Miner. John often would invite a few other folks to the festivities, sometimes his clients and other times friends. It was always a treat to be with a group of compatible fellows. Rob Townes was often a part of our posse, a good seminary friend of mine who decided to get honest and just out right raise money from people. The 50-cent word he uses is “development” but it’s all about the money. And Pat Renn, a financial planner, would come, often with hunting outfits that were straight from the Orvis catalog, looking like a field-dressed Brooks Brothers model. We had us what they call in Texas “a time”.
One time in particular, John and I were at the opening day festivities by ourselves. John had suffered a stroke and although he recovered mostly, he had lost some of his peripheral vision. He was concerned that he would be unable to pick up the rapidly darting dove, follow them with his shotgun, and make the shot. As long as I had known John, he had been a remarkable shot as we tackled quail, pheasant, and turkey. I could sense his anxiety at being in the field for the first time after his stroke and wondering if he could still function. He had an uneasy look on his face that was new to my old friend.
The draw put us in spots near one another in the field so that I could see him and keep an eye on him. The action was fast and furious, as the dove began to fly, screaming across the field, beginning from a line of trees to our left. The birds were flying quickly across the field to our right, John being in the first position from where they were coming.
There were a raft of other hunters strewn on down the field. The problem for those guys was that John picked up on the birds so quickly with deadly aim, so much so that the birds never made it past John, leaving these young hunters never even getting a shot. You could tell that they were frustrated and wondering if this was going to be a bad day for their hunting dreams.
Fortunately for them, John got his limit of birds quickly which meant he would “retire” from the dove field, going back to the club house for some adult libations. As John gathered up his birds and begin to walk to the van to take us back, I overheard one of the young hunters exclaim, “Man, that old son of a bitch can shoot!” His friend agreed, using a rather derogatory phrase aimed at this elder marksman.
When John and I got back to the clubhouse, I was able to tell the story in front of the crowd, with John listening and grinning. I don’t think I had ever seen John smile as wide as that day. He smiled all the way back to Atlanta, and had that same grin when I saw him at the 8 AM Eucharist the next morning at the Cathedral. He made a point to remind me of the appellation that young man had conferred upon him….again with a grin.
It’s odd that the dove in my backyard were the prompters of memories from so long ago. The cooing birds no longer need fear me from hunting them, other than with my Canon camera or my phone sneaking a peep. They have transformed into a symbol, linking me to a memory and relationships that filled my life with a sense of abundance and connection. Wayne and John are two of the connections that I made that were clearly worth the price I paid.
As I am doing my Eriksonian life review work, I find myself remembering those relationships that form a broad mix of memories from my past. In last week’s article, I mentioned a number of palettes on which the colors of my life were blended and found expression in my experience through the various locales that formed my moveable playground. I have been impressed with the blessings of so many remarkable people who have been so generous with their love and energy. Names like John Miner flood my mind when I count those blessings of people I have been fortunate enough to meet along the long trail of my life.
Here’s an idea, not novel or ingenuous, but timely. As we are just a few weeks from summer, why not make a list of those folks in your life story that have made a difference. Then, during the lull of the summer, make a time to place a strategic phone call to check in and tell them how much they meant to you. It’s an easy task, and yields so much benefit to the person that you call. And, as the Dalai Lama talks about in his teachings, it becomes a case of being “intelligently selfish”. I love his ironic twist:
“If you like to be selfish, you should do it in an intelligent way, The stupid way to be selfish is seeking happiness for ourselves alone, The Intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the the welfare of others.” By being compassionate to others, you are, in fact, receiving a sense of well-being and making meaningful connections with other human beings who share this planet. So by calling up others, and thanking them for their contribution to your life, you not only make them feel good, but you are receiving a benefit yourself.
Think about how you might exercise compassion in this next week, in the next day, in the next hour. Do something good for someone, and then pause and check out how it makes you feel. There is a dynamic that occurs with compassion and I am betting you will receive an internal gift by your action.
That’s what happened when I told my friend, John, about what these good ol’ boys said. That’s what happened when I made a few calls to old friends this week. They felt good about my recognition of their gift to my life. But I got a good feeling for this human interaction as well.
I think that is what they call a “win-win”. “Intelligent selfishness”. Compassion. Or just good old care, being a friend.