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Pelicans

by Ken Schmidt


A couple of months after, my wife, Barbara's death, I decided to repeat a Sunday evening pattern that we had enjoyed together for years.  About an hour before sunset I drove, stopping to get a couple of hot dogs on the way, down to our beach in Ventura.  I sat and enjoyed the rhythm of the waves coming up to the sand and watching the birds fly over the waves.  

This time, I got out of the car and took my hot dogs and cola down to our promenade along the beach.  As I sat and watched, I also read, When the Heart Waits, by Sue Monk Kidd.  As I read I gradually realized that I had the perfect opportunity to practice what I was reading.  She was describing how learning to wait expectantly was becoming a new way to life for her.  She found that God worked through her waiting and spoke to her in unexpected ways.  I decided to practice this while I was at the beach.  

I sat quietly observing and being aware of what was happening and not trying to do anything but simply be present in the moment.  I saw people jogging, walking, skateboarding, and bicycling along the way.  I decided to nod in acknowledgment if people looked my way.  This would usually bring a quick smile and a nod of their head.  I was experiencing that I was not alone and became even more relaxed in my situation.  

Barbara and I would usually watch the birds as they flew by or looked for food on the beach below us.  I have always loved pelicans.  They are among the ugliest birds on earth from a human point of view but I've been struck by their incredible grace, beauty, and rhythm in flight.  They flap their wings for a little while and then they glide along with almost no movement.  Gliding just slightly above the waves just off the beach, they will swoop down nearly touching the waves flowing by underneath them.  I receive a peace from them as they do this.  

Tonight I began to see them with a greater awareness than ever before.  Kidd's perspective opened my eyes to receiving “lessons in life” from these graceful birds.  

I watched as a group of five pelicans flew by.  At first they seemed to be flapping and gliding in unison, as if they were one creation rather than five.  Then, as I watched more closely, I saw that they were actually moving from active to passive mode individually yet they did it in such a coordinated rhythm that one had to watch closely to see the individuality.  They were individuals, yes, but they worked together beautifully well.  

I also realized that the “lead” bird never attempted to fly faster than the others to see if they could keep up or expecting them to keep up but, instead, flew at a pace that was comfortable for the others.  They were not competing they were flying as one.  The one thing that the “lead” bird did was providing direction for the others.  He or she made no abrupt turns but gradually changed direction so all could follow comfortably.  

Pelicans did not always fly together in groups but often also flew alone.  It was easy to see that the one pelican had a purpose in its mind that it was pursuing.  Also, when they hunted for food, they would fly individually flying and gliding overhead waiting patiently until they saw what they wanted then they would abandon all for their quest and dive abruptly yet beautifully straight down into the sea.  They would tuck their wings as they dived and would apparently grasp their prey in their beak under water.  

I'd seen and enjoyed some of this behavior in the past but now I was watching with greater awareness and the spiritual metaphors were being revealed to me as I observed.  In the birds flying together I saw a beautiful image of spiritual community.  They were flying individually, yes, but they were following a leader who was very aware of what they could do and did not move in ways that the others were not ready to do.  The movements were smooth and coordinated and the followers received direction almost without effort.  They knew where their leader was leading although they may not have known any final destination or perhaps they were already in agreement about that.  

I decided to practice the same peaceful gliding they were in during their times of skimming the waves.  I wasn't looking for anything at the moment and that was good yet life kept giving me opportunities to learn.  

As I continued my walk I came upon a group of young people (20s) who'd pulled a long flexible “rope” between two trees and were practicing walking like circus performers do along this rope.  I later learned this was called a “slack rope”.  As I watched and enjoyed their experience with them, it was simple experience of fun.  Then as I began to walk away while watching the most experienced of them as he walked the rope and turned around on it to change direction.  I realized that he was practicing a very purposeful focus on one point as he moved along.  The top of his body was moving to maintain balance but his eyes never wavered from his point of concentration.  

A new metaphor for spiritual life arose within me.  I moved back to the group and, when he finished rope-walking, I told him I'd like to ask a question about what I'd seen.  He affirmed that maintaining his focus on one spot was part of his walking.  

As we conversed another young man jumped into the conversation and said, with energy, that he knew exactly what I was seeing.  He was excited that I'd noticed.  He said that just a few weeks ago, when he was just learning how to slack rope walk, he'd discovered in an “aha” moment that he needed to maintain a particular focus and, all of a sudden, he was walking.  He'd realized the spiritual metaphor also and we enjoyed talking for a while about our shared discovery.  We introduced ourselves to each other (his name is John) and I went on but we carried that shared experience within each of our souls.  It was a precious moment together between strangers.  My experience of being quiet and present until something caught my eye was revealing more and more truth with every passing moment.  

The metaphor was revealing that my life lived with one focus, my relationship with God, would bear fruit not of my own making.  All I had to do was relax, trust, and keep my eyes and my soul open.  

As the golden sun was beginning to set I reached the end of my walk, the mouth of the Ventura River.  I enjoyed seeing a large flock of pelicans sitting together in the small delta area there.  Then I noticed what I now know were sandpipers flying madly around over the still water just inside a sandbar at the end of the river mouth.  They were constantly darting about moving with little apparent purpose but quickly changing direction and moving completely independent of one another.  I talked to a couple near me and asked if they knew what the sandpipers were doing.  Were they hunting insects or what?  We concluded it must be insects but weren't quite sure.  

As we watched I suddenly realized that the lessons I'd learned from the pelicans seemed hardly appropriate here.  The sandpipers were hardly waiting based on my sense of time but their internal clocks were definitely on a different pace than my own.  

Then I began to laugh.  I realized that Barbara had lived her life like the sandpipers and I'd lived mine more like the pelicans.  Barbara was constantly jumping from one task to another.  She seemed to very seldom rest but when she did she simply dropped into sleep without any problem.  I was sure that when these sandpipers were finished catching insects they would crash into rest like Barbara had.  

We had always been living on different clocks.  Fortunately we'd each learned to live on the other's clock for a while and then shift over to the other living on ours.  Before, when we came to the beach like this, she would sit quietly in the car eating her hot dogs while I got out and stood or walked by the ocean.  We would also spend some time just sitting together and talking.  Those had become special times for us without our even realizing it.  

I then realized that I dare not try to convince everybody to live like a pelican as seemed to fit me for Barbara would have had great difficulty waiting in the way the pelicans did.  She was different than me and that was not only OK but wonderful.  I was so glad we had been able to transcend our differences and take turns following each other with a good amount of resultant grace, though the struggle at times had been difficult.  I wished I'd had my new discoveries as clear in my heart and mind as I did now.

I also thought back to my conversation with John and remembered he had said that his point of focus was different than his friends.  He focused on the ground ahead of him while his friend whom I had watched earlier, focused on a spot directly ahead of him.  Again I realized that the difference was God-given and need not be a source of judgment or conflict but something that could revealed and used, even as we flew together following our graceful leader Jesus Christ.