Thursday, October 8, 2009

If the Parrots Can Make It, So Can I

This morning, as I sat drinking my breakfast tea and looking out the big windows that overlook the courtyard at the back of my apartment, I heard again the screeching sound I’d heard several times in the last week. But this time, I also saw the source of the noise – a small flock of green parrots. Not exactly what you’d expect to see in Chicago, Illinois.

I moved here to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood a little over a week ago to get ready to begin my graduate studies at the Lutheran School of Theology. It wasn’t an easy move, what with me, my dog and three cats to carry 600 miles. Thankfully, my mother agreed to fly up from Florida to ride with us. She also stayed a week and faithfully helped unpack all the boxes (of way too much stuff) to get my new home organized so that it actually began to resemble a house and not a warehouse.

In the days since, I’ve enjoyed meeting other dog owners and their pets in nearby Nichols Park, admiring the older homes, finding a wonderful little produce market (not to mention a great source of fried chicken) and just trying to get a sense of my new digs. And as I don’t yet have the window air conditioner installed, I’ve been thankful for the balmy weather we’ve been having.

It’s probably a good thing that I arrived in the summer, so that I could get connected to the place and make some friends before the famously brutal Chicago winter sets in. I’m not completely unfamiliar with winter weather, having spent my youth in New Jersey and my undergraduate college days at Purdue University. Visiting my parents in Florida for Christmas break was a welcome break from the cold. I will never forget the experience of leaving the Tampa area one year in early January where it was 70 degrees and arriving 21 hours later in W. Lafayette, Indiana where the wind chill factor was 70 degrees below zero.

But I’ve been a Georgia girl for over 25 years, and I know I’m not used to all that coldness. Luckily, I do own a down coat and some sweaters, but I’m sure I’ll have to make an investment in thermal underwear. That kind of material investment will be critical, but there are other investments I’ll need to make to survive the winters here. As I investigated the presence of South American parrots in Chicago, it seems that once again I can take a cue from nature on adapting to an unnatural environment and climate.

These small Quaker parrots moved in to my neighborhood in Chicago back in the early 1980s – right around the time I left Indiana and settled in Georgia. And now that I’m here preparing to immerse myself in the study of theology I find it ironic that these hardy little birds are also known as monk parakeets. And like their namesakes who are known for clustering in communities, monk parakeets are able to withstand the cold weather here because they nest together in groups to keep themselves warm. According to the website, “these highly intelligent little parrots have adapted to the urban environment and cold Midwestern winters by building communities.”

In my visits in the last year to various seminaries and divinity schools, it became important to me to get a sense of what the community in each place was like. Did people connect to each other in common purpose, or was there more of a cut-throat attitude of nearly voting people “off the island” like they do on television’s “Survivor”? My sense was that this Lutheran school had the best of both worlds – a small institution with a family kind of feeling that was connected to the amazing academic resources of the University of Chicago and all the other seminaries in Hyde Park. And it was the only place where I felt that deep gut instinct that said “this is where I want to be.”

Theologian Howard Thurman once said “The moving finger of God in human history points ever in the same direction. There must be community.” I’m new here and just beginning to make friends, but I’m hopeful that I will thrive in this environment, that I will feel I have found my flock.

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