Prison is a State of Mind…

Archive for July, 2011

GOGI The Hawk: A Story of Getting Strong

A Story of Getting Strong
By Coach Mara Leigh Taylor
Getting Out By Going In (GOGI)

One advantage of the aging process is that, if you are mindful and pay attention, a purposeful life comes more clearly into focus. If your goal is wisdom and internal happiness, rather than fight against the sands of time, you begin to pay attention to the events and circumstances in your life, gently linking them to a subtle meaning of personal importance.
It is a shame this process of observing rather than reacting to life comes after a half century of trial and error living, but alas, this appears to be the process of the human existence for most of us. In hindsight, I would have benefited from listening to anyone who might have told me that the world around me was not my adversary but my greatest teacher. But, even if someone shared those words of wisdom, I was not interested in listening and probably would not remember their advice anyway. In my youth, I would not have thought much about the baby hawk which prompts me to share this story. Now, however, I can see how the hawk in this story is the story of all of us, if we are willing to look beyond the obvious and into the metaphor which unfolds in every event we witness.
This spring was particularly windy in the mountain area where my father made his home. When I relocated to his cabin to care for him during the final months of his life, I left behind one of the biggest cities and all the chatter which comes with millions of people living in a tightly packed area. Life in the mountains permits a person to really think about the importance of things and between the 300 year-old Ponderosa Pines and Quaking Aspens, there is an offer of mental space for those who wish to indulge in such organic pleasures. In the mountains you are subject to nature’s laws, not the laws of humans scurrying from one appointment to the next on over-crowded manmade freeways.
When the wind picks up in the mountain, humans close their windows and remain inside until Mother Nature’s temper tantrum is over and peace is resumed. For the critters of the forest, however, they must cling on through any adverse weather and fight for their very survival. After one terribly destructive windstorm which stirred up chaos in the mountains and ripped ancient trees from roots, a county-employed meter-reader came upon what looked like a dead bird on the side of the road. Upon further inspection, he noticed it was a newly hatched hawk, complete with baby hawk fuzzy feathers and a body that could be held in one hand. When the worker went to remove the dead carcass from the street, however, the little guy not only showed signs of life, but he struggled to get away, his instinct for survival was intact. Not knowing what to do with his new responsibility, the county worker started placing calls to find someone, anyone, who might help this prematurely nest-ejected bird with the strong will to live.
After a series of calls, the county worker was referred to the Mountain Man. Don has lived on the mountain more decades than most people have been alive. He raised hawks as a child and was sometimes referred to as “Poppa Bird.” Cutting the county worker off an unnecessarily long explanation, Don gave the county worker precise instructions on how to transport the little fella to his home. Prior to the arrival of what would be identified as a 3-4 week old infant Cooper’s hawk, Don created a “hack station”, which was a netted cage on the third floor porch of his A-frame cabin. This cage would restrict the hawk’s mobility just long enough for Don to assess his readiness to return to his community. When the hawk first arrived it had been transported in a dark and barren box. Don left it in the box for a while, alone and confined, hoping the hawk would settle into his new circumstances with little resistance. The Mountain Man needed the hawk to come to understand the opportunity it was being given to live, but the hawk need to participate in the process if success was to result from all the effort extended in his behalf. The hawk would need to remain calm and begin the process of building the muscles needed to survive on the outside world. After some time, the side of the box was opened which enabled the hawk to explore its new confined setting on the porch. For quite a while the little guy simply tilted his head left and right, assessing things and occasionally puffing up his chest to ward off anyone trying to get too close.
I took an interest in the hawk and the transformation I hoped would happen. Here was an innocent bird, thrust into a cold and unforgiving world with no skills, talents, or teachers. He was on his own; a far cry from the warm nest he probably shared with his 3-4 siblings and protective mother. But, this was his last chance. If he could not make it here, he would undoubtedly die without ever experiencing the exhilaration of flying over the tops of the trees in the cool mountain air. I looked at him and wondered how his life would unfold.
As his box was placed facing out toward the world, I glanced beyond the barrier to what the hawk might see in the world around him. There were a variety of birds in the nearby trees, flying free and doing what forest birds do when the winds have subsided. My thoughts drifted to the other birds. What if they actually noticed the hawk, wondering about the misery it must be experiencing being locked in a cage? Certainly the birds flying free could not understand the role the cage played in the life of that bird. If it were not for that cage, the hawk would have been the dinner meal of some predator. The only chance the hawk had to remain alive was to be locked away for now. But being locked away was no guarantee of survival, either. In the absence of understanding of the process or a clear explanation of the goals, the hawk would need to trust, have faith, and then do the good works which would enable his freedom.
Of course, I named the rescued hawk “GOGI”. (All rescued animals are named GOGI in my world. There has been GOGI the Squirrel, GOGI the Parakeet, GOGI the Dog. And now there was GOGI the Hawk. ) Safe under the watchful, and tough-love care of Don the Mountain Man, GOGI the Hawk was going to need to learn tools he never had the opportunity to learn. He would need to grow muscles he never knew existed. He would need to think thoughts he had never thought before. He would need to have associates to which he was unaccustomed. And, if he was going to live, he would need to remain behind bars long enough develop the muscles for survival. Then, he would need to prove to Don the Mountain Man that he could fly free and live a good hawk’s life. His success, however, was completely dependent upon how he responded to his new environment.
GOGI stood still in the corner for quite some time, instinctively assessing if he was intended as the next meal for the enemy which had trapped and locked him away. His first action was to thrust his baby-fuzz body against the netting which was restricting his freedom. His little feet hung on as he struggled for release from the web-like hold of the netting. Would he survive, I asked myself? Could he possibly understand the opportunity was being given in being plucked from certain death? Would he instinctively come to learn that he needed to build the internal muscles which would permit him to get out of his cage by going inward for the answers? Knowing a supportive environment helps in all healing and learning, I was grateful Don was the one to provide the cage, but environment is not always a controllable element. Even if GOGI were to have been caged by a less-skilled Poppa Bird, GOGI had to have the will to live which was stronger than his instincts to fight like hell for escape. GOGI’s success was entirely up to GOGI and the effort he put forth.
Days passed with GOGI inching toward a modicum of comfort. His growth seemed almost hourly. As his adolescent feathers began to come into place, all the baby fuzz drifted into the gentle breeze. During the daylight hours, probably bored into a state of self-amusement, he learned that hopping from one end of the cage to the other afforded him different views of his world. He learned his talons, his little feet, were strong and could hold his body while he navigated narrow spaces. He learned his vision was superb as he instinctively began to focus on small objects outside. He learned his cage, while not optimal, was still a place for him to grow and learn. He learned to jump. Then he learned to jump with his wings extended.
The most unfortunate aspect of Mother Nature is the “survival of the fittest” design. In the world of hawks, less than 3 percent of all youngsters live beyond one year. Most get eaten, caught in wire, or otherwise disabled and devoured. Not unlike our National recidivism rate for incarcerated men, women and children, GOGI the Hawk has only a small chance of survival unless he spends every minute of every day in keen preparation for his day of freedom. If GOGI is to earn his way into that small 3 percent of survivors and soar free in skies well into his adulthood, he is going to need to be diligent in the learning of tools he will need for his survival. Once he proved ready for the wild, the netting would be cut and he could come and go as he pleased. He would leave the safe confines of the netted porch to test his wings. He would have his opportunity at freedom where he would use his flap- flap-glide flight style as he flew freely among the tips of the trees. Would he make it out there as a free bird? He could, if his skills were developed enough. Would he live to be one of those 3-percenters who live longer than a year? He could, if he took every opportunity to learn. His youth would be his only enemy; that one thing which might cut short his opportunity for a long life. In his youth, he might overlook a detail, or believe he had a certain level of immortality. His youth was his biggest vulnerability, offset, perhaps, by a willingness to observe and learn.
There is a wisdom which comes from living a long time and learning to pay attention to the lessons available in all things in our world. For GOGI, if he paid attention to the world around him, if he absorbed each and every lesson he could learn, he just might make it in the free world. But GOGI’s success was going to entirely up to him. He would be free to make the choices which would give him a long and fruitful life or he would make choices which would mean a short life. When the time was right, the Mountain Man unzipped the cage and GOGI the Hawk was given his one shot at freedom.
In my willingness to observe all aspects of life as having meaning, observing the rescue of the little hawk reminded me that cages can be a lifesaver. Feeling trapped can be exactly what we need to build the correct muscles. Being locked away can be the biggest blessing of our existence. It is my secret hope that GOGI will live to be the oldest Cooper’s hawk on the mountain. It is also my prayer that he becomes the father of other Cooper’s hawks that are taught skills and tools of survival from their master father.
In a very real way, GOGI the Hawk has been my teacher and I know for certain there will not be a day I do not look upward, hoping to witness the beauty and elegance of GOGI the Hawk soaring strong and free against the blue sky. The reality of his fate, however, will only reside in my imagination.


Lost Lady and a Mustard Seed

On February 22, 2007, my home was severely damaged by an electrical fire.  With the economic downturn and bank failures which followed later that year,  became impossible for me to secure adequate funding necessary to repair my home in a timely manner.  As a result, I had to pay for repairs in a piecemeal manner, from personal strategy sessions with clients who hire me to help them increase the likelihood of happiness in their lives.

And if the worry over funding my home reconstruction wasn’t enough, my used car’s transmission had been increasingly defiant, refusing to move from one gear to the next with the ease to which I had grown accustomed over the previous two years.  After seeking the opinion of a several dealerships familiar with the make and model, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would have a hefty bill for the replacement of what was refusing to be the self-repairing transmission.  Six thousand dollars was what one dealership quoted.  In a seeder part of town, Miguel and his father, proprietors of a little neighborhood shop next to the railroad tracks, said he could rebuild the dying transmission for a little less than three thousand dollars.

The time I spent each day worrying every time a gear slipped was inordinate, as if worrying about it would actually reverse the steady decline of its operation.  No matter how much I thought about the transmission, it wasn’t going to change the course of needed repair.  Eventually, I would be writing a check for the repairs on my single source of transportation. Whether it was six or three grand, every penny I was making was going into securing that I had a flushing toilet and electric lighting in my burned-out home.

The endless thoughts of my transmission woes followed me on one of my frequent trips to a nearby Home Depot for one repair part after next.  Danny, my home repairman, and I drove – carefully – along a major thoroughfare, making certain I was positioned in the far right lane in case the car failed to move forward.  I was coasting up to a stoplight hoping it would turn green before my car came to a full stop.  When you aren’t sure if the car can move forward, stoplights are not your friend.

Out of my peripheral, I saw an elderly woman standing on the corner under the bus sign.  I would not have paid much attention to her but something kept my attention on her every move.  At first it was nothing more than a glance, but turned my attention to this well-dressed woman at the bus stop. It was getting dark.  I didn’t see frequent buses running and I suspected that night vision was not her strong suit.

I pulled my beleaguered auto over to the curb, gently guided it into the parked position and asked Danny to keep an eye on the car while I saw if the woman needed help.  Not wanting to frighten her, or insult her, I called out, “Excuse me miss, do you know if the bus is coming by soon?”

She turned away from her fixed focus on the road ahead and looked toward me.

“Oh, I don’t know, I certainly hope so,” she said with obvious distress in her voice.

“Have you been waiting here long?”

“Oh, yes, a very long time,” she replied.

It was Sunday and I suspected the bus was not running any longer.  I could see the woman was chilled, the grocery bag she carried seemed heavy and there was no indication she would be boarding a city bus anytime soon.

“If you want, Miss, my friend Danny, and I have a car right over here, and I bet we are going in the direction close to your home.”

“Oh, that would be just wonderful,” she said with a sweet smile of relief.

I walked slowly with her back to my car.  Danny slipped into the back seat and the woman gave a sigh of relief as she sat down and I closed her door.  The woman reached in her purse and offered a couple of dollars to pay for the gas it would take to get her from Manchester and Sepulveda to Western and 54th, or, at least, she thought it was 54th, but it could be 45th, or somewhere in that general area.

“Alzheimer’s is trying to eat my brain,” she offered. “But I go to the casino and work on numbers.  Watching the numbers on the machine keeps my mind sharp,” she explained.

“Do you have someone we should call, to let them know you are going to be home soon?” I asked, knowing there was a great many homes between 45th and 54th streets and it wasn’t the safest area in the city.

“I have a daughter in Lancaster,” she replied, “but no need to call her.  I will be just fine.”

The car got quiet.  Danny was observing the frail woman and her gentle hands holding her bag of groceries and her vintage handbag.  She seemed quite relieved to be out of the cold, trusting out of necessity that she would make it home.

I began wondering what my life would be like in fifty years and if someone would stop and take me home if I got lost.  It was then I realized, I wasn’t paying attention to the transmission any longer.  There were bigger challenges faced by less fortunate individuals than myself.

The woman’s story unfolded.  She had been a registered nurse for the better part of her life.  During her career, she had discovered two vitamins that, she believed, if everyone took, they would “live a very long time.”  Fruit Essence and Bone vitamins, she said.  Well, unfortunately, neither of her favorite vitamins was being manufactured any more, but there was a store a bit further from her normal route of shopping that had something like it.  She had gotten on the bus to track down that store and those essential supplements.

Somehow, she had gotten on the wrong bus. Nightfall arrived, and she found herself standing on a strange street corner, she said, praying for a nice lady to come to her aid.

“Are you’re sure I can’t give you a couple of dollars for gas?” she asked, again.

This time Danny interjected.  “She won’t take your money, ma’am, but since your prayers seem to work pretty well, she sure could use a prayer that her house and car gets repaired.”

Without missing a beat, the woman bowed her head and took on the countenance of someone who knew exactly how to dial the direct line to the Almighty.

“Our God, you have told us that all we need is the faith of a mustard seed, Lord, and our needs will be met, Lord,” she began.

Her fragile hands moved like a skilled pastor addressing a full congregation, and her voice was filled with the conviction of someone who knew every word was being heard by a power greater than any human.

“This fine woman needs her home restored, Lord,” she continued. “She needs her home restored, Lord, so she can do your work, Lord.”

My mind drifted to the events this woman must have endured in her life which had created such a deep faith and direct line to the Powers that Be.

“We have the faith, Lord, now you do your work.  Amen,” she concluded.

“Amen,” Danny and I repeated.

“Oh my, we are close now.  I know where I am now,” she stated as she recognized some of the brightly painted buildings.

“Yes, we are very close, now.  We are at 50th Street.  It was very lucky we were headed in this very same direction, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“That’s Jesus,” she said, “I just prayed and asked that some nice lady would come my way and help me out.  That was the Spirit that brought you to me,” she added.

On the way back to the safer side of town, I didn’t worry so much about the transmission or the needed repairs of my home.  My problems were, in fact, relatively petty.  I was not lost in a physical sense of the word, but maybe I had gotten a little lost in the superficial importance of earthly things.  And, the woman with the faith of the mustard seed got me back on track.  Imagine that, a frail woman at the bus stop with a bit of Alzheimer’s fixed my transmission problem.

Is “Less” Actually “More”?

It”s been a decade since my first visit inside a prison. It was Terminal Island Federal Prison in San Pedro, California, in 2002 where I first passed through the metal detector and was viscerally assaulted by the sound of the heavy metal doors slamming shut behind me.  Since that time, I have experienced a great many things behind bars, all leading to  the reason for this blog.  Somewhere along the way, amongst those who have no freedom, I learned how to find mine. I hope you enjoy the journey on which I now embark; sharing my experience of internal freedom with you….

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