I like to run, even when dogs and the police aren’t involved. A few years ago I trained for a marathon. On the big day, however, I only ran half the distance. Running a half marathon is like being pregnant with twins but only giving birth to one baby. It's both painful and rewarding . . . and when you finish, you always wonder if you should have pushed harder.
I watch the sidewalk when I run. Even on the prettiest spring days I ignore the sky and search the ground, hoping some other runner might have dropped his second wind. Once, during the final push of a 10 mile trot, I was counting cracks when a flash of movement caught my eye.
did I just see a *breathe* over near the *breathe* is that a . . .
I looked up from the sidewalk to see a small spark of a bird dart out of a ditch and fly a few feet from my sweating face.
This wouldn’t have been noteworthy except for one small detail – the bird’s color. Instead of camouflaging its feathers to blend with a earth toned environment, the bird was bright green, like a crayon or piece of construction paper. Crossing the street, its wings flashed neon in a cardboard world.
Of course, I hold no prejudice against green birds. I believe all of God’s creatures should be proud of their heritage and display their colors without fear of drawing undue attention to themselves. It’s just that in most neighborhoods outside the Amazon, birds tend to be less flashy. Less exotic. Less green.
In Nashville, where I was running, we had many lovely blue birds, brown birds, red birds, and gray birds. We even enjoyed a few spectacular yellow finches. The only place in the Music City where you might find green birds, however, was at the zoo and on the Discovery Channel.
That’s why it was surprising, as I ran up a hill and into what I feared might be the beginning of cardiac arrest, when a wad of emerald feathers flashed across the sidewalk and into the great suburban wild of Nashville. I was certain the bird – a small fist-sized parrot – must have been an illusion, a figment of my sweating imagination. Had I suddenly tasted pennies or felt a tingling sensation in my left arm, the hallucination would have made much more sense and I might have expected to turn the corner and find myself running into a warm, white light.
But instead of a glowing end to my suffering, all I saw on the street was a rust red pick-up truck approaching on my right.
When you’re running and a truck passes going the opposite direction, you don’t have long to look through the windshield. Dolly Parton could drive past and you probably wouldn’t notice. But because the rust red truck was moving slower than it should have been, I had a few extra seconds to see the driver. Sitting behind the wheel was a sixty year old man, rough and unshaven, with gray hair, a red shirt, and a large green parrot perched on his right shoulder – the second parrot I had seen in the past two minutes.
With the exception of Jimmy Buffet – who lived in Nashville before he moved to Margaritaville – men in the Music City don’t generally wear parrots to work. In fact, the average Nashvillian knows as much about parrots as he does about recording contracts. Both are rumored to be real, but few have seen either in person.
After ten feet of careful consideration, I decided that the pirate trucker must have been driving through my neighborhood not because he wanted to spoil and plunder, but because he had a pet problem. It’s only a hunch based on unbelievable coincidence, but I think the pirate was the proud owner of not one, but two parrots - one lost, the other riding shotgun on his shoulder.
The parrot in the truck wasn’t simply along for the ride, tagging along to tell stories when the eight-track went out. It was being used as a zoological GPS to find the lost bird that crossed my path only moments before. The pick up pirate must have hoped that if birds of a feather really do flock together, he might be able to use this instinct to his advantage.
(I think it’s worth questioning whether a grown man should really trust directions squawked by an animal that has a vocabulary of only eight words, three of which are “cracker” and “pretty bird.” Personally, I wouldn’t. Of course, I don’t usually talk to anything that doesn’t have two external ears.)
It will forever remain a mystery as to why the little green spark flew away from home. Maybe he was tired of being served corn-nuts and Budweiser for breakfast. And while I will probably never know if the pick-up pirate was ultimately successful in his quest for the lost bird, I continue to be impressed by his effort. Finding a lost pet is never easy. At least when rounding up a runaway dog or searching for a lost cat, your pet’s hiding places are limited geographically by things like fences and streats. And gravity.
But when tracking a runaway parrot, there’s a tremendous amount of up to consider. The bird might be enjoying a bath in your neighbor’s backyard, or he might be eating french-fries with the parking-lot pigeons at Sonic. Or, if it hasn’t been fond of your brand of crackers, your bird might be on his way back to South America to teach a flock of its Brazilian cousins how to read the sports page in English. The sky is literally the limit.
As I rounded the corner, I glanced back to see the pirate’s truck turn left into a neighborhood filled with towering oaks and bushy maples. The Captain and his parrot sailed into the suburban jungle and I never saw them again. But on sunny days when the sidewalk calls, I still lace up my shoes and run. And I still sometimes wonder if the little green bird ever found its way home.
As a child I went through a stage of wanting to keep a bird as a pet. I was told, however, that it is both inhumane and inconvenient to keep a bird in a cage. Birds are born to fly free and cages are meant for naughty children who disobey their parents. Plus, depending on your political bias and opinion of the popular media, newspapers are intended to be read, not pooped upon. That’s why, in the redneck south, birds aren’t pets. Birds are target practice. Or dinner. Or both.
In Asian cultures a proverb says love is like a bird in a cage. If you love something, you set it free. If it comes back to you, it is yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.
In the Christian tradition, the bird is replaced with a sheep. The sheep is free to wander off – which it does – and is lost in the wilderness. Fortunately, in the traditional story, the shepherd is smarter than Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep and didn’t know where to find them. The shepherd knows his sheep and is convinced they are worth more than grilled kabobs and warm winter sweaters . . . so he leaves his flock to rescue the one who is lost.
And when he finds it, he joyfully carries it home where his friends and neighbors rejoice because the lost sheep is found.
During this season of Lent, I celebrate the shepherd Jesus. I am thankful that he is wise enough to know that love isn’t like a bird in a cage. If something you love runs away, you go after it no matter the cost.