Lessons From Panama

Panama City to Playa Venoa and back. A chance to see parrots. Papagayo, loro, perico. Macaw, Amazon, parakeet. Living as nature intended, in their perfect evolution. Wild. Salvajes.

………

Panama City was just as you’d expect in a more progressive Central American country where vast amounts of humans live in small spaces. Six lanes traffic merging into two lane roads, blinkerless maneuvers and the honk of horns in secret communicae. A multi-billion dollar canal generating fathomless income. Stunning skyrises, lavishly lit, reaching fingertips to the sky, juxtaposed with decrepit housing splattered with human debris, mangy boney dogs, and anti-government rhetoric spray painted on stuccoed surfaces. ¡Viva la resistencia! Haves and have nots. Not so different from us. Foreign investors deposit their money here. Immigrants, escaping persecution and war, stake their claims in an effort to create a better life for their children. Expats retire comfortably, their dollars stretched much further. While humans jockey for purchase and position, perched atop aged churches, black vultures, buitres negros, silently watch a diverse city with an energy both comforting and calming.

And Boquete coffee? ¡Muy bien!

Six hours southwest, Playa Venao was sultry and green. The surfer waves thundered with a power both awesome and humbling. Such a rich biodiversity that I’ve not experienced before, yet dwindling and suffering at the hands of human encroachment. The papagayo, I was told, once vast in their numbers, now all but gone, poached or killed to critically endangered numbers, their feathers fetching a fantastic sum. Undeveloped properties se vende, and a melancholy knowing that lush forested beaches would be replaced by upscale housing and the relentless beat of resort music. Dun, dah dun, dah dun dun dun, pause, dun, dah dun, dah dun dun dun, pause…repeat… And why would I think this place different than any other beautiful place on earth where nature falls victim to the 3 C’s of capitalism, commercialism, and consumerism?

Orange-chinned pericos. Every morning I watch as they fly east from the dense forest to the resort. Pairs, groups, in constant chitter, as if excited for human delicacies. Every evening they reverse course. I coat myself with DEET to protect myself from the chitras, who, nearly too small to see, will dine on every inch of my exposed flesh, and whose potent saliva will itch me for weeks, and follow them into the forest. I find the first of the pericos, no longer the gregarious and vocal creature of the tree tops, but silent and cold. An obvious victim of human/animal conflict, his 60 grams no match for one and a half tons of rolling steel, on a road where speed limit signs are merely a suggestion.

Sea turtle. Tortuga marina. She who graced us, burying her precious cargo in the warm beach sand. Her offsprings’ future is uncertain. Will they be dug up and eaten by rich socialites or crushed beneath the feet of dancing, drunken party-goers? Will they hatch and in that hatching, will the young ones maneuver down the the debris littered, obstacle course of a beach or find themselves lost by the light of human dwellings? Or maybe they become yet another casualty of the human/animal selfie epidemic. These are ancient beings, who, programmed with equally ancient knowledge, return to the same spot every year to lay eggs, with a biological GPS that rivals our best electronic devices. This is their journey, unchanged through the centuries, and this journey has ensured their species’ survival. Until now…

These are the things that wake me in the early dawn and wet my eyes. Small and seemingly insignificant, they are just a fraction of bigger, global injustices. How can my mind reconcile the pain and suffering and disrespect such a perfectly successful species has wrought upon earth’s non-human inhabitants? We kill and consume and cage the beauty of the world. My heart constricts by a barbed-wire tourniquet, oozing sadness and anger caused by a broken world.

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I’m back on the rooftop balcony of my temporary haunt. There’s progress here. Old Panama City, Casco, with its quaint Euro flair and narrow brick streets had seen better days, but a surge of foreign investments and those buildings are being renovated and renewed. While mine is modern and sheik, the dwelling next door, like so many others, is crumbling off its bonesSe Vende. Squatters live among the debris, and I glimpse brightly colored fabrics and plastics through boarded windows. Roofs sag, walls crack, and in those newly formed valleys, fertile seeds sprout, easily adapting to a changing landscape. 

Two Red-loreds fly across a cloudless blue sky. Lora and loro. Relentless are the beat of wings and the laugh of contact call. My heart is lifted and my eyes leak yet again, but this time in joy. These feathered beings live amidst the concrete and steel and rapid fire jackhammers pummeling revitalization and modernization into a ramshackle city. Like the humans and vultures and plants and numerous other animals, they too, are carving out a life, like feathered squatters, where concrete replaces lush, soggy forest and the humid air is tainted with the smell of diesel exhaust and ropa vieja. I’m lost to their journey, but I assign my own story as their emerald bodies flash by. This is a story of hope. As humans create the sixth mass extinction, these creatures are adapting to a new world contrived of new opportunities and that adaptability has ensured their survival. At least for now.

And hope for me. Like the loros y buitres negros y plantas y okupas humanos, I must adapt. Adapt by changing my perceptions. Adapt by releasing my expectations. For my own sanity, I must see past the heartache and heartbreak and insolence and grasp the good. Because it’s there. It’s in the kindness of shop owners and in faces of Israeli immigrant children. It’s in the conscientious farmers growing bird friendly coffee beans and in the animals that persist despite, and thrive because of, human intervention. It’s in one baby turtle that makes it to the sea.

Adapt.

I’ll need this to survive in a broken and beautiful world.

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Red-lored Amazon pair
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Black Vulture on the neighbor’s rooftop/Panama City skyline

 

Untitled, for now

happiness is perched
on tippy toe
atop a teetering, wobbling mountain
stacks of hopes and dreams
frail as spun glass
waiting to be shattered

Foundation, Memory, & My Friend Martin

My memories of Martin are choppy and fragmented like collaged photos plastered arbitrarily on wilted, sun-stained paper, clinging precariously by cracked and yellowed glue. Or snippets of a movie reel taped together in mismatched order. But strong are the feelings that remain. Commitment. Attachment. Acceptance. Loyalty. Safety.

He was my first best friend, protector and confidant.

Our time was spent on clover sprinkled lawns or those same vast spaces hushed by the depth of winter. He always greeted me with saintly smiles whether I was perfect in my endeavors or if I grossly failed human expectations of me. Martin didn’t withhold affection as a means to manipulate, nor did he shame, coerce or bully. He simply was, in the true definition, a friend, unconditionally.

Early in my tender life, Martin would teach me about attachment and the trauma of losing a precious thing. And by precious I don’t mean some material trinket or mechanism that helps us live our technological life, but that thing that sits so deeply in our soul that when we lose it, we know we’ve lost a piece of ourselves.

It wasn’t death, but still the trauma and loss haunted me. Adult decisions were made. Moving. Expenses. Space restrictions. Martin would not accompany us to our new life. Instead he was sent to pasture, the consort of another such lovely beast. I’m sure he, like all animals who adapt easily to their human-dictated fates, embraced this new life and may have forgot the little girl who loved him more than all others. In the void that was left, feelings of voicelessness, insignificance, and betrayal, took human form, clung to and cradled me, creeping into my thoughts like and infectious disease, and built a shack of treachery and deceit around my heart…time to grow up…hide the pain…he’s only a dog…sadness is weakness…stop being a baby…harden your heart…

It was then I lost control of my world and I lost the truth of my heart. But one can not find a thing unless it is first lost.

Many years would pass but the oily lie of my existence began to surface and seep through porous, fragile membrane into consciousness. My real heart–the loving and caring heart, the heart that appreciates and respects non-human life, the heart that realized it didn’t have to hide its pain behind cruelty and bravado, the heart that remembered it had been adversely influenced by others–stirred and stretched its atrophied muscles, found the walls of its prison shanty, and began extricating itself, board by rotten, splintered board. And under that festering garbage pile lay the footer of who I really was before the world told me who to be, concrete and cinder block strong.

Was I born with intrinsic love of animals–a tiny strand of fiber woven deep in the strands my DNA–or was it learned through the interactions with my unlikely first best friend? I can’t begin to unravel that mystery. All I know is Martin helped me build the foundation of who I am today. Not only did he give me years of companionship and joy, but the gift of a stretch-marked heart wrapped in the scars of love and grief.

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

2019

The new year brings millions of resolutions, publicly scrawled on Facebook; scribbled on post-its, to be laid at the feet of our altars, lit match to paper, sending thin, corkscrew smoke as some secret call to the universe; or perhaps squirreled away in the depths of our own minds, hidden like a secret lust.

This is the time of renewal and intention.

So today on this new, fresh day of beginnings and endings, I resolve to take advice from those with whom I share space. They’ve taught me that despite the brokenness of this world, it is still tragically beautiful; that living life in the moment is paramount, because this moment is really all we have; to eat the good stuff first (or perhaps, eat ONLY the good stuff); that toys are meant for playing; to recklessly create and share, because that’s what your art is for (and art comes in many forms); that we are perfect in our imperfection; and to be loudly opinionated, but listen for others. From this council of nine, I’ve learned that despite our differences, we are a flock and every member matters. When one of us departs, whether for an hour or an eternity, that individual is missed and mourned. We are all part of a greater whole, and together we flourish.

Thank you for being part of The Laughing Parrots flock and journeying with us through this wild and ravishing world.

This is Christmas

I stand amazed at the frantic buying of Christmas; the laundry lists of recipients; the piles of stuff stacked precariously on multiple carts. Black Friday chaos, the pressing of bodies and tugs of war captured for 15 minutes of fame on Youtube. Millions of animals frozen and wrapped like presents in shiny plastic skin so that we may celebrate in feast. Tons of plastic goods manufactured, shipped across the Pacific and through the veins of this country, to be presented on pallets, purchased and used minimally before finding their way to a landfill or fading in the backyard sun. Plastic bags wafting on the thermals like raptors, clinging haphazardly to the skeletons of sleeping trees or disguising themselves as a delicacy for some innocent sea creatures.

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I managed a small, independent bookstore, and I know the monetary value of the season. The little guy, providing a service to the community, paying the bills and keeping people employed. No one’s getting rich, save for the experience. The joy of a customer finding that perfect something for that special someone. So simple and pure. The gift of fantasy, intrigue or knowledge, through words on paper, tactile, to be held like a lover on a cold winter’s night.

Kindness and giving are dictated this time of year but I challenge that we practice this year ’round, without obligation. That we gift when we want, uncommitted and without expectation. That we simplify, share space with those we love, and always sense the joy and wonder of the season, no matter the date.

So on Christmas, as with every other day, my dogs will wake me at the hint of dawn, cold wet noses in my face. Tails wag, butts wiggle. A pure infectious joy that makes my heart want to burst. Later, Dave and I will walk with them in nature. We’ll laugh as they run across honey colored sleeping grasses, marvel at the sun gleaming on icy water, feel blessed at the sight of a Great Blue Heron or flocks of local Canadian geese. Though the land and her creatures lie in quiet contemplation, I’ll know that the sun is now creeping northward, the days are expanding, and soon the sleeping earth will reawaken.

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Today I will also connect with my human tribe, ever thankful for their presence in my life, for creating me, supporting me, challenging me, and being co-travelers on this great journey. Great love and powerful bonds come from blood-born family, but equally from that family created from the closest of friends.

In my yard, the squirrels and wild birds will entertain and delight me, bathe in warmed waters, hang and swirl on contraptions filled with human offerings, because life is richer when shared. And maybe a Sharp-shinned or Red-tailed Hawk will present me with the beauty and cruelty of nature.

I’ve not decorated for the season, but the interior of my home is adorned with the colors of the rainforest; beings to which I’ve dedicated my life, trying to give back what they’ve lost and atone for previous human cruelties. In return, they bless me with their presence; living jewels that remind me every day to show true colors and speak the truth as loudly as possible.

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This is a Mixa Christmas, today and every day of the year.

 

Crossroad

I’m on a long and pin straight dirt road driving a vintage Ford pick-up. I don’t know the year, but older than me, with crank windows and big round fenders. The original paint may have been green, but it’s thin and faded and I can’t tell where the decomposing rusty skin ends and the smut of my journey begins. Powder fine dust creeps through squeaking metal seams and sticks to sweat and tears and streaks down my skin. I have no baggage. The truck bed, capable of carrying so much, is an empty void as if somewhere along the journey I’d left the tailgate open and all the contents flew out. The passenger seat sags with the memory of previous companions who journeyed with some previous driver into their previous unknowns and toward their own crossroads. Their ghosts taunt my aloneness.

I hear distant human voices. Some jeer me, attempting to project beliefs onto my empty canvas. Others encourage me with old soul magic; the mastery of faith and the knowing that all things happen as needed. Their words lost in the drone of pistons and combustion and exhaust.

My intersection lies somewhere in the distance. I can’t see it yet, but I know it’s there on the horizon. I feel it like a secret in my gut and I’m not sure if I’m nervous or excited. Still I drive. I ask the universe for a sign. I hope, with every dawn seeping into my existence that I’ll somehow mysteriously know which way to turn. I can’t go straight. Straight is not an option. For my sanity and insanity, I have to turn. But my truck has no power steering, so the changing direction will take a strength I’ve not known before and I’ll be fighting decades-old muscle memory that wants me to go straight. Into sameness. Into comfort.

The sky is cloudless, however in it I see figures. Their colors splash the endlessly monochrome sky with vibrant life. The beating of their wings match the pounding of my newly wild heart. Raucous voices call me in a language both foreign and familiar. Feral laughter drowns out all other noise. Their eyes smile and I bathe in the comfort of their unity. They are my sign; the sign for which I’ve been waiting; the sign I’ve had all along.

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The Tale of Two Benjis

Lisa: “Benji is a beautiful soul, so sweet and willing to trust people. She must be a girl.”
Me: “You’re right. She’s so benign. And look at that face. She must be a girl.”
Lisa: “If you have the chance, get a DNA test. I’m dying to know!”
So begins the tale of two Benjis.

Most parrot species are sexually monomorphic, meaning humans can’t tell the difference between males and females. Those of us who live with these fascinating creatures play the guessing game. We stereotype, thinking we know the subtle differences in mannerisms and shape and size of the beak, head and body between males and females. We’ve compiled enough data through the years to make pretty accurate guesses. We discuss with our friends; we place wagers. But we still get thrown the occasional curve ball and that petite, sweet Congo Grey that definitely must be a girl turns out to be a boy. Or that Sun Conure we all thought was a boy lays an egg. And until we have that DNA result, we’ll always wonder: is this bird a boy or girl?

When Benji came to me, my friend Lisa and I thought she was a girl. Those of us who know Double yellow-headed Amazons (DYA), know that the boys can be slightly larger and their temperaments can be, how do you say? Obnoxious? Pushy? This isn’t always the case, of course. I also live with a DYA, Frankie, that is very large for her species. But her personality betrays her, and my suspicions of female were confirmed when I received her DNA results. Now we have Benji, who not only had that girlie demeanor, but also weighs in at only 380 grams. Small for a bird that typically weighs between 445 and 650 grams. We can attribute this to inadequate diet or muscle wasting from frozen wings, but her physical presentation also hints at underlying medical conditions that may have adversely affected her physical and emotional state. In a nutshell, Benji probably felt like crap.

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But as Benji settled in–relaxed into an environment of positive energy, wholesome food and natural light–her behavior changed. I noticed the big, blocky head when she was excited, the pinning eyes and vampiresque delight when chasing my husband, Dave, and I became suspicious of an incorrect gender labeling. What’s a human to do? We lack the natural tools, the specialized vision, to correctly label, with 100% accuracy, the sex of these birds.

Had Benji not needed blood work to precisely diagnose her medical needs, I wouldn’t have subjected her to a veterinarian visit and needle poke in the jugular for samples. However, she did and it was the perfect opportunity to take a little extra blood for the coveted DNA analysis. Finally, Lisa and I could use the proper pronoun for Benji because proper use of the English language when interacting with our parrots is of the utmost importance!

Two weeks later, the results were in.

And the gender is…

Anyone care to place a bet?
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(“Don’t mind my messy beak…I just finished devouring my latest victim!”)