I often reminisce about my Grandfather. He passed away when I was a little girl, but my memories are well inked.
He would hold my hand and we would walk down the long concrete path to see his pigeons. He would lift me to scoop the grain from the feed shed and I would scatter it to the hungry birds. To my child's mind there was real magic in this ritual. I sensed my grandfather might have been 'different' to other men. I didn't know any other people that kept pigeons, and I was fascinated that he chose to. The romance with the pigeons has continued throughout my life, however I do recall one upsetting conversation with my mother when I was about six years old. In the car ride home one afternoon, I remember asking her 'why' grandfather kept pigeons? Mum explained that they were in fact 'racing pigeons', and that my grandfather would 'let them go'. I remember the horror that filled the pit of my stomach at the thought of him letting his birds just fly away. Although my fears were somewhat alleviated when my mother reassured me that the birds had a 'homing instinct', I still retained a healthy amount of suspicion they may never return home. My horror was not attached to the thought of giving these birds their freedom, but at the loneliness or emptiness my grandfather would feel once he was alone with an empty cage.
As I grew older, my feelings changed and I began to appreciate the beauty and find comfort in the natural instinct of this bird. What an incredible instrument it held within itself to navigate its way home. As I became increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with my own life's trajectory, this memory of the pigeons would bubble back up from my sub-conscious regularly. What was the relevance of this recurring thought, and why was it nagging at me?
I have always become a little tongue-tied when people ask me 'what I do' for a living? The answer never seemed straight-froward. I would become uncomfortable and fidgety, shifting suspiciously from one foot to another. I would find myself 'listening-in' to my answers. A vibrant full panel judge and jury existed in my mind as I either deprecated myself and my achievements or acted at best like a weak salesman. In the silent moment that exists between question and answer, I wondered if I should give the long unabridged version, or a short synopsis? The truth is my life has been a messy jumble of things, (not at all what I had planned or expected of myself), but mostly it has involved a process of becoming 'un-stuck'. This has ironically, become my most proud achievement.
The feeling of being stuck is probably a universal feeling to some degree as most of us have likely experienced it to various intensities. What I found had become a problem for me though, was that I had become 'chronically stuck'. I had followed a fairly traditional life path, from High School to University, working part-time to earn money. (I often marvel that the institutions that pride themselves on the pursuit of 'critical thought' seem surprisingly narrow-minded when it comes to the pursuit of un-conventional careers). I believe I was burnt-out before I set foot at University and then entered a highly-competitive degree program that left me feeling lonely and lost. After seven years studying part-time, I very nearly graduated from that course and my life would have been very different. I am sure I would have been more wealthy, but I suspect that depends on your definition of 'wealth'. For twenty years I stuck with the same part-time job, working five days a week for the best part of those years. I was every bit the caged Pigeon, but in un-healthy conditions. I was anxious everyday, eager to please and well-used, and while I can give many excuses and justifications as to why I stayed, I have to take responsibility for my part in becoming as stuck as I had. A woman's wings, if she is not careful, can become clipped by others for their own interests, but perhaps even more dangerous is when a woman begins to clip her own. And somewhere along the line I dangerously fed into that narrative of being permanently stuck, which only served to make me feel even more helpless and hopeless. I now realise the clippers that I used on my own wings, was fear.
My hope in sharing my own experience, is to reassure any one else who is feeling helplessly stuck or unhappy that it is possible to free yourself from whatever is making you feel stuck. In my case it was possible to do this in gentle ways over a period of time. I didn't become stuck overnight, so it is understandable that it would take time for me to become un-stuck. From personal experience I understand that being chronically stuck can have chronic consequences across a whole spectrum of health. So how did I begin to loosen the super-glue that had cured me into position for so many years? There were a few practical and important tools. I was lucky to find someone I trusted who believed in me and could breathe some confidence and excitement back into my heart. Engaging with this friend reignited my imagination and gave me some courage to pursue my creative interests. I began challenging the negative thoughts and irrational fears associated with the risks of upsetting the 'status-quo'. I tried to minimise some risks by starting a small side-hustle and growing it. I was honest with myself when I started to make excuses and I recognised when other people were making excuses. I tried to stop internally fighting with myself and panicking I had missed the proverbial boat and that the ship that was to be my life, had sailed. I tried to comfort myself that perhaps I too had a homing instinct inside myself like my grandfather's pigeons and I would just need to trust it.
I now realise that there is a a giant chasm between 'what do we do for a living' and 'what we can offer with our life'. As one of my favourite authors Noel Monkman writes
'I should have paid more attention to the locust that eats up the years. When I did notice the voracious creature, it had already gulped the soup, and had started on the meats; but at least I chased it away from the dining table in time to get my share of the dessert'. I am no longer embarrassed when someone asks me 'what I do'. I still don't have a precise answer at the ready and it's still often clumsy at best, but surprisingly, people seem more genuinely interested in my unconventional messy life, than any traditional career path I was trying to apathetically claim attachment to.
Every time I think of my grandfather and his pigeons now I smile inside. They have become a metaphor for my life. In remembering his pigeons, I often wonder if we too have our own intuitive navigator, a pre-ordained flight path we were intended to follow? And if we have an innate homing instinct, to what destination would it lead us? I often reflect how easily we can be blown of our own course through the weight of expectation, life pressures and perhaps, like these very racing pigeons, by competing against one another in a collective life race, rather than supporting one another to succeed in our own personal race.
So what would I say to the six year old girl, full of grief that her Grandfather's pigeons had flown away? Well, she might be a little young for this lesson, but I have a few thoughts on these homing birds. I would gently explain to her that it doesn't matter if they don't return home at all. The most important thing is that they took flight. I believe that there is integrity in the flight path. The flight birds are doing precisely what they were born to do and perhaps seeing them take flight is what brought real joy to my grandfather. And in 'The Race of the Pigeons', as in life, I do not believe that the destination is what is most important. Perhaps 'home' is not a physical destination, but a turning inward, returning to the 'home' of oneself and granting ourselves permission to unapologetically follow ones own interests, hopes and passions. To do that is to truly honour our 'homing instinct'. If we happen to navigate our way home, full circle, well that's just a bonus.
And what would I say to the 41 year old woman , who spends not an insignificant amount of time regretting her life-choices that swallowed almost a quarter of her life? I gently reply, "You served your apprenticeship. Listen to your mother, the hard times will only make the good times, that much sweeter!". And I know in my heart she is right.