Nature vs. Nurture

About 3 weeks ago, a mockingbird family took up residence in the jasmine arbor that surrounds our front stoop. We looked on with delight as Mama flew back and forth between the nest and the crepe myrtle trees along the steps, and listened to the little nestlings’ funny cries right outside our front windows—like a squeaky swingset: EE-aw EE-aw . . .

We cleared out fast when she seemed to think we might be lingering a minute too long on the step . . . her (or were they Dad’s?) threatening displays of chest-puffing, wing-beating, and strident vocalizing were clues that were hard to miss.

Today the birdbabies reached a milestone: instead of the wobbly beaks we’d been seeing wavering up from the nest as we passed by, we saw actual feathered birds, perched on the edge…

I was grateful the nest hung over our soft green lawn—having witnessed some less forgiving fledgling situations in Brooklyn. Like . . . Fledgling Situations—with poor, puny birdlings lurching across the sidewalk while hungry dogs looked on . . .

Good Lord these babies on our porch were cute—they had this funny, wispy hairdo I’ve never seen on a bird before . . .

For a couple of days we marinated in joy and dread in equal measure: would there be a Fledgling Situation?

I tried to practice isvara pranidhanam—total surrender of my individual will to some greater Will (see Yoga Sutras, II:45)

I repeated the mantra:It is not up to me to raise these birds. Thy will be done.”

But I knew from experience it was likely there would be a few hiccups before the little guys were successfully launched from their nest . . .

The days passed without incident. No attempted launchings. No need for me to do anything about them . . . until:

Tonight I was leaving the house around 7pm, when something caught my eye on the corner of the bottom step–

OH NO!!!

A dead birdbaby. Flattened against the bricks, on its side, scrawny, scaly legs pulled in, eyes closed . . .

Setting aside my evening plans, I went back inside for a soft cloth, planning to wrap the poor thing and bury it in the back yard But when I picked it up, I felt life–


A tiny silent pulsating.

Its mouth opened and closed noiselessly (no more squeaky swing set.)

I held it to my breast, whispering soothing nothings (even singing, at one point, the same poignant lullaby I had sung to my daughter when she, too, was a scrawny newborn teetering on the precipice of life) until I could find the key to the garage and bring out the tall ladder.

I put the baby back in the nest (inciting no small degree of distress amongst its birdbrothers and sisters) And . . . hoped for the best.

I know nature does its own thing, and I know better (usually) than to interfere.

But, damn it, nature is not always kind. In fact, nature can be kind of a heartless bitch.

What was I going to do? Just walk on past the sad little pile of feathers on my very own doorstep and pretend I hadn’t seen it? Clearly not.

So, in spite of my mantra, I got involved.

I pray the critter is okay in there tonight, nestled back with its maybe-not-so-friendly siblings (I read somewhere that the stronger baby birds will sometimes push the runt out of the nest. Ya know, Darwin and all . . .but, Darwin be darned, I was there and I saw that little runt on the bricks and I could not un-see it.)

These birds, God love them, did not choose to build their nest off in the forest somewhere. They chose to build it in my front doorway, right here in one of the more urban areas of Savannah. So if nasty old nature was going to take her course, I was going to be part of that course.

Isvara pranidhanam. Thy will be done.

I, too, as the birds, am part of the fabric of nature. And if it is indeed true that only we humans enjoy free will, not to mention opposable thumbs (not sure how Mama Bird would have lifted her kid back into the nest . . . )

Let’s use it. Not to contravene nature, but maybe, once in a while, to be the deus ex machina—perhaps even the agents of miracle? where we see that we might.


And Namaste,



Only in Savannah would you find purebred puppies running loose in the streets.

 We have had a wild ride the last day or so:  one of the city’s many stray dogs literally arrived on our doorstep late yesterday afternoon.

 I had gone out front to sit on the brick steps for five minutes and bask in their accumulated heat, which I often do when it’s cold inside the house (the sun is always shining in Savannah!)

 I hadn’t been there a moment before a scruffy little dog trotted by, sans owner.  I craned my neck down the block, trying to see if someone was with him . . . very soon it was clear he was traveling solo.

 The four-lane highway to the beach (US Route 80) runs one block parallel to us, so whenever I see a loose dog, I make an effort to grab him before he makes his way toward certain doom amidst the fast-moving traffic so nearby.

 This one was no effort at all.  I made one small kissy noise from my stoop, and he was in my lap—not to move from there for the next 24 hours.  (I have always had an image of myself as a big-dog kind of gal.  Indeed, the only dog I ever owned was a German Shepherd-y mutt.)  This little Yorkie showed me the joys of small dog ownership.

 In the car running errands, there he was, standing on short hind legs to peer out the window.  In the back yard he clambered into my chair.  On the couch he was a cuddle monster.

 Sure, he had his vices . . . in spite of our cat’s extremely gracious and tolerant welcome, he behaved like a spastic derp—alienating her at first, only to be given a second (and a third, and a fourth) chance, and blowing it then, too . . .

 An un-neutered male, he developed a disturbing relationship with a treat-filled Kong toy we offered him (I won’t go into detail, lest this post cross over out of G-rating).  He had clearly never learned to walk on a leash.  He smelled strongly doggy (but in that good, maple-syrup sort of way).   His bark earned him the middle name “Chuckles” from my daughter—the high-pitched, breathy yap sounded almost like laughing, even though it was plaintive.

 But he was a total sweetheart.  He adopted our family instantly—barking at passersby that first night.  Jumping for joy when reunited after brief separation . . . everyone who saw him fell in love with him.

 I wanted to keep him.  I had an inkling he might have come from “the wrong side of the tracks,” and I thought it likely that he might vanish into the vast statistics of “strays” here in Savannah . .  . Even though we made sure to do our due diligence (calling Animal Control, Humane Society, posting “Found Dog” flyers all throughout the neighborhood, an ad on Craig’s List, and even in the PennyPincher, a posting on the board at the neighborhood veterinarian’s office), I thought he was likely to slip through the socioeconomic divide . . . and become mine.

 We had two near-miss responses to our postings by noon, and I was growing more and more certain he would be ours, when a terse reply came through via CraigsList:  “I saw your posting and that’s my puppy Ian.  Call me.”  We agreed to meet in the nearby park, and, sure enough, it was a bona fide match.

 Ian (pronounced Ee-on, it turned out, and dubbed by our daughter “Sir Martin Chuckles of Yorkshire”) was not ours, after all.  It was a quick turnaround.

 When his true family pulled up to claim him, Grandma got out of the van and held out her arms, real tears in her eyes.  Ee-on bounded toward her.  Then a daughter, barely 20, and her bi-racial son (who evidently called the dog “Brother”) reunited as well, scooping the little dog into a family hug.  Grandma said, “Oh, thank God, thank God, we didn’t sleep last night.  [Daughter] was crying and crying, and . . . oh, thank God . . . “

 Well.  That was quite the reframe for me, because I too had hardly slept last night, and also on account of Ee-on.  But for me it was because he was barking, or scritching at himself or the bedroom door, or noisily humping his Kong.  Or because I was worried he would pee in my bedroom, the way he had several times in the PetSmart when we went to get him food and a leash (and that Kong) . . .

But that other family—Ee-on’s real family—hadn’t slept because they were frantic with worry.  They were imagining him dead by the side of Highway 80.  They were grieving in advance the loss of this furry angel who had kept them company through a teen pregnancy, a father away in military service, a life of economic scarcity . . .

 That simple sentence:

“We didn’t sleep last night.”

meant such very different things for us, respectively.  We couldn’t sleep because we had the puppy.  They couldn’t sleep because they didn’t.

 The strange, mirror-image nature of this fact reminded me of the yoga idea called pratipaksha bhavanam —or turnaround:

When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of.  This is pratipaksha bhavana. (Yoga Sutras II.33)

I have always understood this concept to mean substituting positive thoughts for negative ones . . . but maybe it just means to bring our awareness to our perspective of a situation.  And realize that there might be others.  This also makes me think of The Work of Byron Katie.

 Anyway . . . as Grandma hugged me tight and thanked me, still crying from joy, I could see clearly from this more panoramic perspective.  While I honestly mourned “losing” my temporary companion, I was glad at the same time that he was going back home.  I could see both sides of the coin.

 Things sure seem a lot quieter around the house today now that Ee-on has gone.  At least the cat is happy about that.


Seeking Balance

The yoga literature discusses the interplay between steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukham).  When we practice the physical postures (asana), we seek to experience both.

Often we assume that people begin to do yoga because they are stiff (steady) and want to become flexible (easy).  In fact, there are many different body types.  Flexibility and strength are to some extent determined by constitution.  I, for one,  am a loose-limbed person and always have been, no matter whether I am exercising or not.  This is at least as much a liability as it is an asset; my joints and muscles are weak and vulnerable to injury.  When I practice asana, many times I am striving more to find steadiness than maximum range of motion.  Dramatic displays of stretching are enjoyable, but risky.  What I need to do when I practice asana is spend more time on poses that demand strength and endurance (even though they are difficult and I sort of hate them), as these qualities are what I lack, and what will protect me from injury and ensure that my body continues to function well for the long haul.

I have a friend who is trained as an addiction recovery counselor, and she once told me something fascinating:  evidently, people who become drug addicts gravitate toward the drugs that make them more of what they (constitutionally) are.  That is to say, a naturally nervous, excitable person will become a speed freak.  A couch potato type will become a heroin addict.  Rather than seeking her opposite (seeking balance?) the drug addict seeks more of her extreme.  Hm.

In herbal medicine, different plants are classified according to their medicinal effects.  Obvious examples are stimulants and sedatives.  There are also carminatives (relieve gas), expectorants (expel mucous), emmenagogues (increase menstrual flow), and many more.  One special class of herbs is called adaptogens.  These are pinch-hitters, stepping in to do whatever is needed in the moment.  If the body is exhausted, they will revive; if over-excited, they will calm.

I don’t believe it is classified as an adaptogen, but this is what I always loved about nicotine– a drug I have indulged in more frequently and more recently than I would like to admit (not to worry, yoga purists:  I am not currently a filthy smoker).  It always seemed like a cigarette could magically provide whatever effect I might need–lifting me when I was tired or down, mellowing me when I was tense, or anything in between.

I think yoga acts as an adaptogen.

Where we are weak, it can make us strong.  Where we are stiff, it will loosen us up.  When we are stressed, it will calm us, and when we are tired, it will energize us.  If it is to do this, however, we must take a different approach than the drug addict does.  Instead of moving farther in the direction of our natural extreme tendencies, we must head in the opposite direction.  This often means doing exactly that which isn’t easy, or what we don’t feel like doing.

And it is not a quick fix.  Maintaining a yoga practice takes considerably more time and effort than, say, lighting a cigarette or popping open a bottle of wine.  But, rather than leading us farther down the path of extremes, it can lead us away from our inherent imbalances and toward wholeness and true well-being.

To the question of how do we live in these human bodies, with their aches and pains, their desires and limitations, their frailties and also their unexplored capabilities, yoga practice offers an answer.  Not the answer, perhaps.  But an answer.