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The Ostrich and the Pelican

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In late August, I start thinking about how this summer has gone and remember the highlights of summers past. When confronted with a challenging personal situation, I shuffle through the memories like index cards, trying to see whether there is some lesson I can apply. In this case, I cannot stop thinking about the ostrich and the pelican.

As a mom, I am always looking for adventures for my kids. One balmy summer day last year, I took my two children to a safari-type zoo thinking it would be eye-opening to see exotic animals from the comfort of a cart. My friends brought their families and we got into a "tram" for a relaxing romp around the property. We had purchased food for the animals, and all the kids filled with the anticipatory joy of feeding them. Things were going smoothly until the appearance of the ostrich (or emu, for our guide said one thing and when I called inquiring about the creature, the receptionist said another). Pinkish grey, with a long neck and what appeared to be a very sharp beak, the ostrich looked hungry in a way that made me clutch my 7-month-old to my chest and hope I would be eaten first. I tried to reassure myself that my panic was unwarranted as the ostrich eventually walked away. However, I soon saw the ostrich circle a bonfire we were passing, fall in, and with a yelp, get up and run in a different direction. Now, as someone who kept her singed long-sleeved shirt well into my 20s to commemorate the time I, too, got a little carried away and danced my way in and out of a bonfire, I should have had a lot of mercy and grace for the ostrich. Instead, what I had witnessed confirmed my fear that this ostrich was insane. And to my utter horror, I noticed that ostrich had turned around and was now literally running after the cart (you may know that the ostrich is the fastest bird on the planet). I heard its feet hit the ground in slow motion. Boom-bam-boom-bam-boom-bam. It seemed needy and crazed, and doesn't that fit the profile of many a criminal? The ostrich anxiety transferred to me, and I literally said, "Is anyone else seeing this?" I looked around and was relieved to see that many others looked terrified. The guide must have noticed and said, "Don't worry. He's harmless." And it turned out that the ostrich was harmless in the sense that it did not eat me or my children, but it definitely put fear and anxiety into the hearts of the parents.

And then there is the pelican. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology attests, its "wingbeats are slow, deep, and powerful." Gliding on the winds above the murky Galveston water, the purposeful pelican has perspective. Looking prehistoric, as a friend once said. The terse pelican, not so much erudite as wise, possessing an arcane wisdom gathered from millennia of flying high above the chaos. A symbol in Christianity of a caring mother, wounding herself to feed her young, sometimes even representing the Passion of the Christ or the Eucharist, the pelican has inspired many.

When you are the pelican, you do not need to lionize any one man or woman. You have seen what they have done, the good and the bad, and what they have left undone. Contrary to the frenetic, unnerving ostrich, the pelican inspires a sense of awe and peace, at least in me. I can write an ode to the pelican, for this world needs its calmness and grace.

So, what does this have to do with you? Well, I am guessing you know some pelicans and many, many ostriches. The ostrich would be the person who either ignores the problem or runs after it full steam, scaring onlookers. He could ignore the problem, run after it, pretend it doesn't exist again, and then have an "Aha!" moment and run after it again. But there is no deep reflection, there is no calm, there is no grace. The ignoring and the panicked, manic chase -- these are two sides of the same coin. However, we have to keep in mind that the ostrich will never magically transform into a pelican. She can learn from other creatures, but at the end of the day, she is still an ostrich. That manic energy is still inside her and she feels she cannot stop. And she gets a lot done! Yet there is no middle path of reflection, of trying to balance work and family, of setting realistic deadlines, of accepting the help of others. You can almost hear the ostrich shriek, "It has to be done NOW! And I have to do it all MYSELF!" You hurt for the ostrich because you see she is overwhelmed, her family is like, "Why is she doing this?" and you want to help but she is refusing it. Moreover, she is wondering why you don't appreciate her manic hard work. "Don't you see what I am giving up? What I am sacrificing?" Ostrich, no one asked you to run after the cart. No one would ever ask you to try to kill yourself in pursuit of some goal that frankly, you set for yourself. This is a self-imposed hell, ostrich. And the best part is that we want to help, but you want to do everything yourself, because no one can do it better, you think. Maybe you are right. Time will tell. But man, do I wish that you would look up and notice the pelican.

The pelican can see above the fray and set priorities. She is not afraid of calm and rest. She is not afraid to say, "I do not know," even though she probably knows much more than she realizes just from observing the world. She knows her value, but doesn't impose it on others. She has to eat, too, and dives in to make the catch, but she is not diving in compulsively. The pelican is not perfect -- he is only a pelican, after all -- but he can be realistic because he is able to see reality from above and not just the immediate, few, quickly-approaching feet.

The pelican can love the ostrich, though I am not sure it can go both ways. To love something or someone, don't you have to stop to get to know it? The pelican can see the ostrich, be slightly annoyed (let's be honest), but can understand that the ostrich is an ostrich, for God's sake. She has to be what she is. And the pelican has to be the pelican. She can become inured to the neurotic fussing of the ostrich and no longer pay attention. She's not into its jingoism, its one-sided thinking, its neurotic race to God knows where. But she can still love the ostrich because she realizes that it is what it is. It cannot change.

Or maybe she can?

Because we are people, after all, and not birds. In any case, I choose to breathe and soar, letting the wind carry me above the painful quagmire so I can remember what matters most and do that.