Friday, June 26, 2009

A Friend

What do friends do together? I don’t know about you, but when I was 10 years old my best friend and I ran races, climbed trees, spent hours sitting together, and had all sorts of adventures exploring the field and creek behind my house.

You may have similar memories, but in my case, my best friend was a cat. She was there for me when I needed companionship, a friend, and a creature to love and care for. I was there for her when she needed a home, food, protection, and love.

It has been 3 years today since Empress died, and I still think back with the fondest memories of her years with me. She was the sweetest and the best. As some of you know, I have been writing a few of my childhood memories lately - with a special emphasis on my family's pets. The post (or posts) about Empress are in progress right now, but I wanted to commemorate today with something short and happy.

One brief memory... I remember back when she was an outdoor cat only. Empress and I had an unspoken agreement with each other. If I called her, she came. If she called me, I came. Well that was fine during normal daytime hours, but what about when she is an early riser, and I want to stay in bed? Empress would come to my window, climb on the screen, and make such a meowing racket that I could not sleep! She wouldn't stop! So, having tried the pillow over the head option with no success, I was left to grab my blanket and pillow, go out the back door and curl up on the deck to sleep. Empress, happy to have achieved her goal, climbed on top of me and rested contentedly until I was ready to get up for the day. Let's just say we were both overjoyed when she was finally allowed in the house.

I thought this was supposed to be a happy memory. Since when has happy meant being pulled from my bed when I was too tired to think straight only to sleep on the porch? Well, I was happy -- happy to have Empress.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Garage

My family rented an old house in Franklin, MA when I was young. Property taxes are high up there, so a good eyesore can help keep things reasonable. Our house’s eyesore was a rickety, worn out garage. Rickety went to new heights with this structure; at least, that is what I was told. The entire neighborhood was carved out of a hill, so the basement of the house had a door into the backyard, there was a cliff on both sides of the house (our own personal rock-climbing wall), and a garage built on very old stilts.

As renters, there was nothing we could do about the garage, so my parents taught us not to touch the old thing. I got the impression as a small child that the whole thing would tip over or crumble if I even put a finger on it.

I obeyed for a time. I looked at the garage, got close to the garage, and looked through the windows of the garage (it was full of junk), but I did not touch the garage. I just knew that if I laid one finger on that building, it would come tumbling down. I wasn’t too concerned about the garage itself, but if the garage fell down, Mom and Dad would find out I touched it. There would be bad trouble if that happened.

At some point, an unneeded measure of bravery rose up in me. After looking at the garage long enough, I gave in to temptation. No one was in sight when I reached out my hand and gently poked the garage with one finger. Nothing happened. I did it again. Nothing. I checked again to make sure no one was watching and placed my entire hand on the rough brown siding of the garage.

Fear diminished, the neighborhood kids and I eventually learned how to climb in the windows of the garage, although we never ventured very far in – we needed a quick escape route in case someone came near, and we were still a little nervous about toppling the garage.

Given more time, we climbed underneath the garage among the stilts. There were piles of old lumber under there, and we collected it for use in “building” a club house. We yanked and pulled on those boards. Sometimes, we weren’t sure if we were pulling on the foundation or the scrap! There were old bottles, rusted nails, spiders, mice, splintered ends, and who knows what else under there… There was good reason to honor my parents and stay far away from that garage.

1 John 1:5b--6 says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”

I remember that garage well despite the fact that nothing disastrous ever happened in or around it. How often do we push little boundaries – that turn into big boundaries – and are protected by a mercy we don’t deserve? Looking back, I call my adventures around that garage what it was: sin. I knew it was wrong at the time, and I still know it was wrong. I am thankful we were kept safe. Anything could have happened under that garage. Someone could have been badly hurt – or killed. Frankly, I didn’t deserve safety, but isn’t that what grace is about?

We do stupid things in this life. All sin is stupid, because it is a rebellion against the all Holy God. It doesn’t matter if no one gets hurt. It doesn’t matter if the garage stays upright. It doesn’t matter if the parents never find out. What matters is that God’s law has been broken. A crime has been committed against the holiness of God and we are in desperate need of saving. Little or large, every sin is equally worth the judgment of God.

What amazing grace God offers us in Jesus Christ! He took the punishment for me! I could have died under that rickety garage. Worse, I could have made it out safe and sound, lived a long life, and died a natural death only to suffer eternal separation from God in hell.

Thanks be to God for the gift of grace that is mine through faith in Jesus Christ.

“The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:7b--9

I thank Him for saving me, giving me a second chance (and many more), and giving me a desire to do His will and obey His law. I still don’t obey Him perfectly, but everyday is a new day to live for Him and thank Him for His undeserved grace.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Micah

The search was on for a new bird after Popeye flew away. We wanted a friendlier and younger bird than its predecessor, and Mom found the perfect place to find such a pet. It was a little shop that specialized in reptiles and handfed birds. During this critical adoption process we were taught three important truths.

1. Cats are evil.
2. Birds are the true royalty of the animal kingdom.
3. Mankind’s main purpose in life is to serve, love, and protect said bird.

We didn’t learn these lessons perfectly, but that was not the pet shop’s fault. After all, this was a New England pet shop, and these were typical New Englanders – they spoke their minds truthfully and often.

The birds ruled the roost at this pet store; they were pampered and adored. We were taught that handfed birds make better pets, and that normal birdfeed is not acceptable. Potential customers were screened through an intense interrogation process; this pet shop was not about to sell their birds to just anyone!

The people at the pet shop found out quickly what a pet lover my mother is, so everything was going great – until they arrived at the crucial question: “Do you have a cat?”

“Yes, we do.” My mom answered.

That was almost the end of the transaction. They did not sell their birds into cat-owning homes.

“But our cat isn’t a real cat,” my mom assured them. “Charity is a Persian, and she wouldn’t harm a bird. In fact, we came home once to find the bird cage open. Our old bird, Popeye, was standing at the end of the door, and Charity was nearby on a chair. Charity would never hurt a bird!”

“Well, in that case, I guess it would be all right.” They responded reluctantly.

The newest brood of cockatiels was too young to be adopted yet, so we couldn’t bring our baby bird home right away. We didn’t know if our bird was a girl or a boy yet either. We wanted a male, because they are prettier and more outgoing, but we didn’t have a choice if we wanted to take home a young and impressionable bird. We would have to wait and see if the bright yellow we remembered from Popeye would show up in our new bird’s face and indicate we had chosen a male.

Finally, our cockatiel came home. Of course, it had a nice collection of toys and trinkets for its cage, and we bought a good amount of food too (more on its diet later).

Dad had the privilege of naming it, but it remained nameless until its gender was determined. We hovered around the cage and took turns holding it. Any change in its facial feathers was scrutinized as we waited. We wanted it to have a name!

Finally, we saw evidence of yellow. The cockatiel continued to brighten. We had a boy! Dad named him Micah after the Old Testament prophet. He said that like the prophet, our bird was loud! Dad used the opportunity to teach us more scripture by posting a Bible verse from the book of Micah on the cage.

I was in my room looking out the window one day and saw my mom talking to the neighbor across the street. This neighbor was the big pet person on the street. I remember going to her house to watch her “bunny” rabbit, pet her cat, and hear her large family of birds whistle and talk.

From my perch in the window I could pick up bits and pieces of my mom’s conversation. What were they saying? Both ladies were excited, and I heard the word “baby” once or twice. Could it be? I really wanted a baby sister. Even a baby brother would do – although I already had one of those. Was it possible the long awaited fourth child was on its way? If there was a baby coming, when would it be here? I knew babies took 9 months, so I counted through the months in my head.

But why would Mom tell the neighbor before she told us? I was a little offended. Then again, I couldn’t be sure if a baby was coming at all. I decided to be extra watchful of my mom and look for symptoms of pregnancy. Of course, I wasn’t sure what the “symptoms” were like besides being tired a lot and having a big belly – and I wasn’t about to ask!

Several days went on without any “big news” from my parents, and I eventually gave up any hopes of having a baby sister. Only years later did I realize that the “baby” my mother spoke of was our own little baby cockatiel Micah!

Micah had a special diet. Birdseed wasn’t good enough for the handfed tweedy from the bird and reptile store. They sold a mix of assorted beans uniquely formulated for maximum bird health. There was a specific percentage of this bean and that. It needed to be cooked over the stove in large batches, divided, and frozen in ice trays stored in the freezer. Meal time came twice a day. Mom would pop a bean cube out of the tray and warm it up in the microwave. It couldn’t be too hot or cold for Micah. We were bird people – just not as strange as the people at the pet shop!

Micah is a friendly bird, and we all loved him. I liked to exercise him with what I thought of as an endless staircase. I would hold him on one finger and present my other hand at the level of his chest. He stepped up, and I did the same with my other hand – alternating him back and forth until we both bored of the game.

As much as we all liked Micah, it was my mom who spent the most time with him. She kept him close to her on her shoulder and kept him happy by petting, cuddling, kissing, and hand feeding her bird – okay, so maybe she was as bad as the pet store people – but then her first job out of high school had been at a pet store. What else could we expect? She wanted him to be well socialized and be good with people. Well, he was good with people, but he was at his best with her. To this day he lets her pet and play with him like no one else. She grabs him by the neck and plays rough with him, cuddles his little face, whistles with him, etc. In fact, Micah and my mom have so much fun with each other that Micah laughs like her! My mom has a certain joyful laugh that is very distinctive, and Micah picked up on it. If he thinks something is funny – or can just sense that my mom thinks something is funny – he starts laughing – and that causes her to laugh even more!

We taught him several phrases to say like, “I’m a good birdie!” and “I’m a pretty bird!” Eventually, they started to run together. Now, he will spout, “I’m a pretty good birdie!” It was my dad’s idea to teach him the theme song from The Andy Griffith Show. My mom and dad both knew it well from their old TV days, and soon, it was the most popular melody in the house. Susanna, David, and I didn’t know it as well, and I am sure Micah picked up some of his confusion from us. He never quite got it, but it is still one of his favorite sounds. He tries to do it, but I wouldn’t count on a stranger recognizing it. He does best when one of us is whistling, and he can just chirp in with whatever notes he can. It excites him all right!

My family moved from Massachusetts to Oklahoma the year after Micah joined the family. It didn’t have an impact on his happiness at all. He still had Mom; what was there to worry about? The move did affect him in one crucial way however: his diet – and that brings me back to the pet shop.

My mom brought Micah in to visit his old friends at the store once. He was happy to see them and chirped away, but they were less than impressed. “Is that his travel cage?” they asked. Mom had carried him in the only cage he had. They would have sold us a more ample cage on the spot, but Mom declined. Their cages would take up a lot of room, and we couldn’t afford the space or the price tag. They couldn’t see how Micah could be happy in his “tiny” cage. We knew he was more than content, and Mom settled them down by assuring them that he spent a lot of time outside his cage.

We made one last trip to the pet shop before leaving New England. Mom bought a large quantity of beans. She needed to stock up on feed: who knows when she would be able to find more? The pet shop people wondered what was up, but Mom was not about to tell. What would they have done if they found out their “baby” was going on a four day car trip? That would not be pretty!

Micah made the trip just fine, and his beans lasted a long while too. Eventually, they ran out, and Mom had to find a new food supplier. She walked into the Oklahoma bird store and explained her predicament and need for the bean assortment. With a true Oklahoma accent that was refreshing in more ways than one, he told her, “Ma’am, birds eat seeds in the wild, and that’s what we sell here.” That was argument enough for my mother. She bought her bird seed, and both Micah and she adjusted to the easier and cheaper diet quite well. Who was to know? We were free from New England!

The two stores did have one thing in common, however. Cats were still evil.

Micah has brought joy to countless children over the years. He fascinated the kids my mom babysat, our young friends, the neighbors next door, and my cousin Michael (shown on right). Micah is both fun and intimidating, so it is amusing to watch the small children battle their conflicting urges: fright accompanied by a strong desire to touch. Poor Micah has dealt with fingers poked in his cage, loud laughter and tears – even being dropped in a bizarre attempt to see him fly.

Now, 11 years after Micah first came to our home, he still chirps away happily in his cage – the same one the pet store in Massachusetts despised. Micah still begs for food when we sit at the table for meals, and Mom still gets up from her place to care for him. He can be shrill and annoying or happy and entertaining. It is true Micah still gets banished every once in a while when the noise becomes too great. He takes a “vacation” to the back porch or upstairs bedroom, but Micah doesn’t mind a bit.

Even now, as I’m writing this in my room I can hear him chirping excitedly downstairs. It makes me glad I am not trying to concentrate down there. I might have to say, “Micah! Are you a pretty good birdie? Be quiet!”

Monday, June 08, 2009

Let the Weak Say...

Onward and upward. Sometimes, you just have to keep going. That is me today. My yesterday was long, and I didn't sleep well last night. A phone rang behind my ear after midnight, and it woke me up. It was an earlier morning than usual for me too. Today went well, but I admit, I'm writing this now to keep from falling asleep.

My Principles of Management CLEP was this morning at 7:00, so that means I left the house at 6:30. I passed the exam, and I am moving on to both Marketing and College Mathematics now. I am excited, but I would be even more excited if I wasn't so tired.

My phone consultation with my CollegePlus! coach was at 10:00, so it felt like a full day had passed already by the time lunch came. The day was far from over, however. Work started at 1:00.

My mom was sitting at the table reading her Bible while I made my sandwich. She knew I was tired and said, "Here's a verse about being weak." She began to read from Joel 3:10.

Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;

let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”

I couldn't help but paraphrase...

Let the weak say,
"I am a library clerk!"

And again,

"Let the weak say,
"I am a student!"