Thursday 22 June 2017

THE PIGEON DIARIES - episode three

I'm just finishing this episode to post. I hear little footsteps on the floor near the balcony door. "George, you really, really, really can not start coming in here!" He looks at me, turns and walks back outside. He jumps onto his feeding perch and croons at me, cooing and nodding, doing his little feed-me-feed-me-wiggle. He speaks human now, just like I speak bird.
episode three

Shoreditch grew with the zeal of that little rubbery grow-your-own-boyfriend avatar. Every day he was bigger and uglier. But the universe had landed him on the perfect balcony; I habitually gravitate towards strangeness, love subversion and become catatonic if shrouded with too much imposed “normality”. I’ve felt a little odd most of my life and I was going to love every cell of that ugly little goose with every ounce of my being regardless of what anyone else thought.

Ugly little 'ditch.

The aesthetic of okayness is so peculiar. It’s a segway but can I just say, who cares if Jeremy Corbyn looks like a nice little old man, not a politician. I certainly don’t. He’s cute, crooked and reassuringly normal. Many humans got closer to JC on his last campaign trail. They stopped objectifying him and saw past his little old man cuteness. Ka pow! 

I started to learn some things about Pigeons that I never would have, had I not allowed myself to learn to love the things I hate. I realised that if you get up close to something, it can rewrite your prejudices in the most beautiful of ways:

Pigeons mate for life. George and Gladys, those crazy, annoying Geese, they were going to be forever-ever partners. No divorce in Pigeon world. No affairs. No late coming out or transgender reassignment. Georgie and Glad are an item for eternity. They care about each other. They groom each other. They stick together through thick and thin. George protects Gladys and in return she’s loyal and faithful. They bring up their children together, completely together, no sort of maybe parent sharing. Real parent sharing. She follows him everywhere. She looks at him with kind eyes. He coos his heart out for her and puffs up his feathers and dances around like a dad on the dance floor. He might not love her, pigeons might not know what love is, but they go through the motions in a very human way.


They are territorial. No other pigeons were allowed to come and hang out on the balcony. This pleased me immensely; two were enough, perfect in fact. And now that George and Glad had moved in they had chased all the others away, which pleased me even more. Of course the neighbours didn’t know there were only two. To them there were probably still a million marauding pigeons defecating on my two square meters of real estate and its fringes, flapping their god damned wings like they thought they just could make birdnoise in the face of building sites, traffic congestion and internet-addicts. It was almost as if they felt entitled to be there.

The male guards the roost against other males. If it is a successful nest, other males will see it as a good place to live and try to usurp it. George fought them off ferociously. There is one in particular, I named him The Impostor. The Impostor never gave up. George and the Impostor fight everyday. Still. The Impostor is a veritable bully, he’s Donald Trump in my menagerie. He’s bigger than George. He has a quiff. His gait is noticeably different, he struts around with a superior air and coos monumentally loudly. I’m endlessly whispering to him, “shut up Impy, you’ll piss all the neighbours off and they'll make me get rid of you all." 

He listens for five seconds then starts over. Whenever a new bloke comes in to sniff out the nesting ground Impy appears and starts a fight. He’s not stupid, he recognises my balcony as prime real estate with a good supermarket that delivers fresh birdproduce daily. Impy can't seem to make it with the ladies, he brings new birds round to check out his stomping ground, but they never stay. I reckon in bird world he's like the human equivalent of a narcissistic ego maniac, potentially attractive for one second then repulsive for eternity.

George keeping 'Ditch safe from humans and other animals.

Only the men can speak. It sounds like a lyric from an 80s ballad or a line from The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s true though - only the men can speak. Lady pigeons don’t speak. They just walk and nod and look and fly. This doesn’t mean they can’t communicate with the men. They only talk in body language, or perhaps it’s pigeon contemporary dance. Sometimes Gladys leans into George and lets him scratch her brow, other times she pushes him out of the way so she can eat a few seeds before he’s cleaned the table. Familiar?

The men make a bloody racket. They love to try to tell the other guys who’s the boss, who’s house is the best, who’s got the best menu-del-dia or just to do one and go find another railing to perch on.

Voice was one of the ways I figured out that Shoreditch is a girl. That also means that Hoxton, rest his little soul, was a boy. Every brood has one male, one female. No way? Way.

(‘Ditch is now married to Angel. Angel is a boy. No gender bias names in Pigeon world. Angel is Shoreditch’s brother. She comes along later.)

Shoreditch TV, complete with a little beating heart.

Brexit happened whilst Shoreditch was growing up. I was so pleased to have Shoreditch TV to immerse myself in rather than the-flat-screen-of-doom. I am one of the people that hates Brexit. Hate is a big word but I  felt my visceral response to not wanting to be separated from the rest of the world just as I was finding my way in to it.

I heard the voice of people that felt they weren’t being listened to asking for something different to my bent. I didn’t agree with it but I could empathise with where their “out” came from. “They” wanted what “they” wanted “we” wanted what “we” wanted. “Them” and “us” wanted different things.

Rather than us and them I settled on thinking of them as another us with another agenda. That seemed fair enough, it wasn’t like I was going to be able to convince them all that I was right and they were wrong.

Then, I heard a person say to me, “there are too many immigrants, we need our country back.” 

For the first time in my life I heard myself say these words out loud, “I am an immigrant.”

The person answered, “not like you, you don’t look like an immigrant.”

I paused for thought.

She noticed me pause and attempted to explain herself better, adding, “you know what I mean?”

I didn't know what she meant. I could figure it out in my head, but not in my heart.

I hurt. I raged. I turned my heart towards my Pigeons questioning humanity and vowing to steer my moral compass mindfully forth.

Africa (is not a country.) 

Sometimes I think that if I was black people would understand me better. There are complex identity issues that come with being a white African. Once years ago I did some comedy about this: I recited the joke about the cab driver that asked me, "are there other white people in Africa?" And the one who asked me where I was from and when I said Zambia, he said, "where's that?" and when I said, "in Africa" he said, "you don't look like an African."

There are people that automatically write your story for you when they realise you're a white african. It's okay, I get it. In the beginning, white didn’t arrive on the beautiful continent with moral integrity and that will stain us eternally. 

Sorry can be a useless word sometimes, but I am sorry. I wear the shame and guilt of misguided lineages somewhere deep in my fibre. I am an African.

Thursday 15 June 2017

THE PIGEON DIARIES - episode two

This story has been unfolding for about a year and a half. As I settled into the silhouette of "The Pigeon Woman" I've often wondered how the fuck I became her. She's not someone I had intentionally set out to be, unlike an artist, an aerobics instructor, a design strategist or a meditation teacher but I like being her. The Pigeons have taught me a lot about life, a lot about people, politics and a lot about pigeons.

I'm releasing the box set here an episode at a time, so if you're just joining in you may want to start at the beginning.

Look deeper.

episode two

Not everyone shared my growing fascination. Most people hate Pigeons. Why is it that Finches and Robins and Thrushes are okay but Pigeons aren’t?


As I started to get to know them, I also started defending their rights. This nest and its inhabitants became a moral journey for me, an ethical incubator and a perfect equanimity practice:

Regard all things with equal measure and composure.

Hold difference with balanced regard.

Human rights are human rights, no matter what kind of human you are.

Bird rights are bird rights, no what kind of bird you are.

A bird is a bird, just like a human is a human.

Practise discernment, or curiosity even, rather than judgement.

At a fundamental level all sentient beings have a right to food, shelter, compassion and freedom.

If you don't eat you don't shit and if you don't shit you die. Shitting is part of living, deal with it and move on.

My little Pigeons were serving my Practice and my Politics.

As I become increasingly hooked on exploring The Antidote to Modern Life I spend a lot of time retreating from modern life. I have turned off all the notifications on my phone. I meditate a lot. I allow myself at least a 30 minute savasana a day. I read and listen to a lot of dharma. I live close to Buddhism. I practice and teach mindfulness, meditation and yoga. I endeavour to carve an ethical groove with my thoughts and actions. I work hard to live in all of my self, not just my head or my fingertips. I think my purpose is finally shifting to becoming whole rather than perfect. 

The one irrefutable thing I have learned in developing good Practice is that kindness sits at the core. Compassion: the courage to identify with the feeling-tone of other beings, with a strong desire to propagate a sense of okay-as-you-are, through mindful being, human heart and moral action. Not in denial of the dark side, but in conjunction with it. Dark and light are symbiotic things, they depend on each other to exist.

I gathered the compassion I was cultivating on the meditation cushion and shone it brightly on My Bird People.

Shoreditch was born first. Smallness has an amazing way of pulling the heartstrings of humans. He was tiny and yet given he had come out of an egg that was smaller than him, he was also kind of huge. It was like one of those new-fangled expanding memory foam mattresses that know how to grow big but once they've popped don't try to squish them back into small again. I felt the preciousness of his tiny life and, in what may seem like an over inflated gesture to some humans, I knew I must guard this tiny life with my own.

 The birthing unit.

I gave Gladys and George space. I didn't want to interfere with mama nature. I was terrified I'd fuck it up like humans can fuck things up. I peeked in from time to time to make sure ’Ditch was still there and twitching. He seemed to be. My heart swelled with the miracle of life born from the vast-grey-concrete-lands.

Hoxton arrived three days later. Bizarrely over those three days, Shoreditch had grown. So Shoreditch was tiny but Hoxton was tinier. It was still very cold. It was still winter.

I filmed Hox desperately trying to find a way under George's wing to get out of the cold. George didn't lift his wing and scoop him in. I waited for that parental gesture but it didn't happen. George is a pigeon not a human. I was still clucking from my maternal-nature-lover-eco-warrior remove. I thought Hox had just wiggled out and was trying to wiggle back in. I didn’t realise that George was pushing Hoxton out of the nest. He had chosen Shoreditch as the strongest one. He had decided to try to get one through rather than lose them both. 

I thought he was cute but he was dying.

I have never really been attached to creatures. I like some and others spook me, but I’ve never loved them. The next morning Hoxton was dead. 

Hoxton was dead and Shoreditch was wiggling next to him and George was eyeing me with his beady, fixed, “come any closer and I’ll peck your hand off,” gaze.

That was the first time I really hurt in the middle of me because I had become attached to the Pigeons. I felt the loss of Hoxton acutely.  A tiny, little, budding life, seeking refuge in my flowerpot, sidelined from the lifeboat because he was weaker. I felt somehow responsible: I could have saved his life, like I said I would, but I didn’t.

I hurt because little Hoxton died in my flowerpot. I was powerless to that sentence. Even if I had scooped him out and tried to shovel human mulch into him with an eyedropper, he likely still would have died.

I left him in the nest, bowing deeply, surrendering to nature’s churn.

'Ditch and dead Hox' 

George and Gladys ate him.
Shoreditch was an ugly little fucker, feisty as they come; hungry as modern-life-obesity. I showed a lot of people pictures of ‘Ditch. They all said the same two things:

Fuck he’s ugly.
I’ve never seen a baby Pigeon before.

And a lot of them said:
No one has ever seen a baby Pigeon before.

Although of course the last statement isn’t true. I became quite smug about being an anomaly human, another against-the-grain hashtag I could brandish.

Ugly little Shoreditch 

I fell in love with Shoreditch quickly. Some may say I was too in love with him. This is characteristic of my interaction with some beings: I believed him to be more than he was, pedastalling his little life as though he may save me or the world. I bestowed him with magical qualities, I made him more than a bird in a box, I made him into my cause, my fairytale, my side kick. All the children I had never had.

When The Pigeons arrived I was about a year into recovery from serious illness that had floored me. I left hospital and went into a long period of "chronic illness" that label you don't ever think you will own but once you do it's shakeable to everyone but yourself, you're stuck with it and only the other people with it will ever really understand that bad days are still bad days, even when they're invisible.

So it's not impossible that I projected the rescue I craved onto the birds. It's not impossible, but it was not conscious. I wanted to be saved from this life sentence and humans weren't up to the task.

I "anthropomorphised" him, a big word my brother taught me when he was trying to explain that people in England turn animals into people in a bizarre way, in a different way to our African home-tribes. So the pigeons were also a sign of my re-culturing. In humanising My Bird People I was adapting to the way of the indigenous folk to fit in more seamlessly, only I had missed a key detail: pigeons don't really count. 

To me Shoreditch was like a transitional object for someone that wasn't transitioning,  someone so stuck in their solitary life, they need to hold on to something with a pulse to make them feel more alive. At a time when humans felt out of reach, Shoreditch made me feel more alive. 

To be fair my growing attachment made me uneasy. I knew I was doing something unusual here but I had a compulsive interest in My Bird People that though weird seemed unstoppable. It made some humans quite noticeably uncomfortable. It made them want to change the subject or make a joke about how peculiar I was. Both of those things made me feel like there was something wrong with me, but a voice in my head said, “there is something wrong with them.”

A few humans understood my love and growing attachment to Shoreditch, George and Gladys. 

Swapping shifts was perfectly timed and methodical twice a day. Protect the new life at all costs was the protocol.

I made the irretrievable mistake of giving them a small amount of accessible food daily. Pigeons have a self-regulating mechanism that prevents them from turning into ostriches. They will never stop eating if there is food available all the time. This is not dramatic or an over-statement. It’s pure fact. Perhaps that’s why they shit so much, they have no attachment to food, they just know food. And part of their knowing food is knowing it must go in one end and it just comes out the other end.

For the Buddhist sangha in my readership, may  I remind you: Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.

Because I loved them, I fed them too much. Us humans can be like that sometimes. We have strange ways of providing affection and trying to keep others close.

In my early thirties my brother gave me a “grow your own boyfriend” kit. It was probably around the time people started wondering if I was gay or if I would ever settled down, get married and have children. So far I am none of those things. Sometimes I think it is okay or even good. Sometimes I feel like I've missed the golden ticket and done life all wrong.

The kit consisted of a small rubbery man you put in a bucket of water. Overnight he grew into a bigger rubbery man. Nice idea but I couldn’t feed him or talk to him without feeling like a complete nutter, unlike with the pigeons. I grew bored with that kind of relationship quickly. I like the nuances of interdependence and insight.

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