Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Zen of Sparrows and Destinies

"Well you're art, you fell into this part
You play the victim perfectly holding your beating heart
You used to be so smart
You fluttered round the yard making your magic"

Electric Bird (2008) by Sia

I am reminded recently by Stephen Tobolowsky in the latest episode of his podcast of a story I learned when I used to be a practicing Buddhist. It is a Zen parable about a man who wanted to embarrass a wise Zen master, so he caught a little bird and held it in his hand behind his back. He then asked the master to guess if the bird is alive or dead. If the master guessed that the bird is dead, he would let it fly away. If the master guessed that the bird is alive, he would squeeze the life out of it with his fist and let it fall.

"The bird is whatever you wish it to be," said the sage, putting on a pair of shades. "Its fate is in your hand." He then walked away in all Zen-like with The Who screaming YEAAAAAAH! in the background.

On the night before I left for my new life in Kuching, something remarkable happened. It was past midnight and I was in an upstairs bedroom in my grandmother's house when a sparrow appeared out of nowhere and fluttered frantically round and round the restricted airspace, colliding often into the walls and ceiling.

I switched off the overhead fan because I don't really fancy having bloody bits of bird splattered all over the room. When the feathered fugitive finally crash-landed from fatigue, I gently scooped it up with a towel. I felt its warm, tiny ribcage pulsing against my palm as it respires at an alarmingly rapid rhythm. It was so alive, so afraid. Then, I had an epiphany. I suddenly realised that I was holding more than a bird in my hand. I was holding a life.

Sparrow Rescue 1
A bird in a towel is worth...

I don't believe in signs and omens, but I can appreciate coincidences and accidental metaphors when I see them. My new job in Kuching requires me to figuratively hold the lives of many people in my hands, something which I am not quite sure I am ready to do just yet. I doubt myself constantly and I hate to think how much I could have accomplished in my life so far had I been a little more sure of myself. I haven't begun performing my duties as a house officer just yet (that would be tomorrow), and the only thing staving off my overwhelming urge to vanish and live like a hobo on the streets is a few simple words which Eddie Izzard said:

"You got to believe you can be a stand-up before you can be a stand-up.
You got to believe you can act before you can act.
You got to believe can be an astronaut before you can be an astronaut.
But you got to believe."

At the moment, I feel the loss of control of my own fate acutely, just like the bird in the bully's hand. I do not even yet know which of the six departments I will be arbitrarily posted in first. More than anything else, the uncertainty is pushing furiously at my reflex to surrender. The bird I caught did not struggle because it had accepted its doom.

I eventually released it back into the wilderness of suburbia, of course. After all, I'm not a psychopath or a child (yes, most people haven't realise how similar that two groups of people really are). But catching a sparrow and then setting it free isn't at all an uncommon incident; I have even rescued a grounded bat and a lost frog in the past. What was truly bizarre was that after I let that sparrow out through the front door and returned to the same bedroom, a second sparrow materialised out of thin air and and gave an encore performance in déjà vu. This one wasn't so lucky. Before I could even react, it collided with a blade of the fan with a sickening concussive thunk and plummeted limply onto the parquet floor. Guano guano guano.

I was on it at immediately and found it dazed but thankfully, very much alive. Birds, it seems, are hardier than they look. This second one did not struggle as well but then again, it had just experienced the equivalent of a steel girder falling squarely onto a 5-year-old kid at terminal velocity. The fact that it didn't end up as a crimson stain on the wall was a miracle.

Sparrow Rescue 2
"Is this Bird Heaven?"

I gave it a brief once-over to see if it was injured in any way, but I couldn't find any damage - but it might be because I was only trained to give medical exams to just one species of flightless hominids. Still, it did not appear to exhibit tenderness in any of the places I prodded it in, and was capable of perching on my finger. I opened my mouth as if I intended to put it in my mouth, but it wasn't at all impressed. Might have sustained some temporary brain damage there, methought.

Sparrow Rescue 3
"Ohnoes, it's Bird Hell!"

Sparrow Rescue 4
Artsy mataphor-laden shot.

Sparrow Rescue 5
It looks much older and more worn out compared to Sparrow #1.

Do you know that modern birds belongs in the phylogenetic clade of Theropoda? It means that they are technically dinosaurs and a lot of theropod dinosaurs like velociraptors, are actually feathered, if you don't already know that. Nowadays, I can't watch Jurassic Park without being put off by their inaccurate lizard depiction, and whenever I look at a bird, I always get a little catch in my breath when I remember what they really are. Do you know that some birds - chickens, for example - still retain genes which code for teeth in their genome? And that they can be switched back on at will using engineered viruses, producing atavistic hens with teeth? It's a very cool mark of their saurian evolutionary heritage.

After awhile, Sparrow #2 apparently recovered enough of its senses to attempt an escape, but being stupid, it didn't know how to. I had to recapture my small avian friend after it got tired flying into walls and mirrors, and brought it to a real aperture. It must have suspected a trick because it just wouldn't let go of my finger and fly out into the night (though it's membership in a diurnal species probably had something to do with that as well). I bobbed my hand up and down to shake it loose, but still it clutched stubbornly to my knuckle.

Sparrow Rescue 6
"But it's dark out and I don't want to go, Mommy!"

I'm not particularly prepared to venture out into a whole new world as well, but sooner or later, all of us must let ourselves fall before we can fly, right? I just got to believe that I can do it. That's the trick of it.

And then it flew away, leaving it all behind.

Like a bird,
k0k s3n w4i


Das Weiner said...

A beautiful piece. I'm not sure why but what you wrote reminds me of something I once had, and no longer have. Thanks.

Andrew Jaden said...

Nice post! Lol bird heaven @@

lovealynna said...

All the best in Kuching!

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. ;)

c3rs3i said...

Pic 1 leaves me feeling very fuzzy. Hey lil birdiee <3<3

You have everything you need to fly so flap away and maybe you'll even find yourself soaring.
I don't think it's every situation that you'll get to step out of the nest on your terms, albeit gingerly. Situations will probably arise where you find yourself out of control and hurtling towards the ground and all you can do is try to regain your balance, flap your wings with all your might and hope that's enough to lift you before your skull smashes into an uncountable number of pieces on the ground. Erm.. good luck in Kuching =D

k0k s3n w4i said...

Das Weiner: you're welcome. all of us loses something when we grow up, i guess.

Andrew Jaden: thanks. birds are funny like that.

lovealynna: you just reminded me of the bene gesserit litany against fear. it goes like this:
"i must not fear.
fear is the mind-killer.
fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
i will face my fear.
i will permit it to pass over me and through me.
and when it has gone past i will turn the inner eye to see its path.
where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
only i will remain."

c3rs3i: i just returned from a 16 hour work day. in one week, i'll start going on-call, working 32 hour days. that's when i'll really feel out of control. now, i'm really starting to see the appeal of believing in a god that has everything all planned out for you.

shanaz@RS said...

I don't know how you gots to hold two little birdies in your hand and still manage to catch a lovely picture of them. The birds seemed to be at ease (at least from the pictures) while perched on your hand. This piece about birds, plunging into life, of no fear and second-guessing moved me. Divinely written.

c3rs3i said...

Isn't being an adult fun? =)
As crazy as the hours are, I suspect they'll eventually become routine and less daunting. If that were all you had to contend with you'd probably get by but life can be quite rude. Watch out for them flamin' curve balls.

k0k s3n w4i said...

shanaz@RS: thanks. it was just a post about a freak coincidence, but my inner life and preoccupations kept spilling out. i always cope better when i put my thoughts in writing.

c3rs3i: the thing about being in medicine is that we get curve balls thrown at us all the time. a difficult "client" for us is literally a matter of life and death. responsibilities and liabilities don't really agree with me.

Becky Black said...

It was to my utmost surprise that, with this post, I found myself looking for the comments box. I don't usually comment on people's blog posts (or anything else for that matter) but the sheer, raw emotion that this post was emanating truly captivated me.

As a younger medical student, I feel myself fearful of quite a number of things, HO years being the most daunting. Your post conveyed what many others have, but with the added charm of these meaningful encounters with the sparrows... It makes one want to believe. In oneself, in others, in the things that cannot be seen in life.

Needless to say I'm delighted that DiGi decided to name you Blogger of the Week and introduced me to your site. Good luck in your future endeavors, but whatever you do and however strenuous matters may get, my sincere wish is that you'll continue writing.

Because you are indeed an inspiration. :)