Since 2008, 50% of the world’s population has been living in cities. By 2050, this percentage will increase to 65%. But this is only counting humans. What about the animal population of the world?
On a hot July afternoon, I come out the metro at Places des Fêtes, unable to put down my copy of Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg. I am in that weird state of readwalking.
The chapter ends with a lovingkindness practice: go out for a walk and send good wishes to random people you see on the street.
I am already out and I am already walking, so I proceed to the sending part.
I see a family of three with a baby boy and I say “May you be filled with lovingkindness, may you be happy.” I see an old couple looking out for each other as they cross the street, and I say “May you be safe and protected, may you be at ease.”
It feels mechanic at first, but then I start really noticing people, and their emotional states, and really wishing them well. I slow down my walking, sending good heartfelt wishes to whoever I see on the street between the metro exit and my apartment.
I turn the corner, get on my street, and see that there are no other humans in sight. Just me, the July heat and a long line of cars along the side of the street. Disappointed at this sudden halt of practice subjects, I look down, and I see a cute pigeon walking along the pavement in its own pigeon-y way, sending her feathered tail one way then the other, twisting slightly with every step.
My heart swings open. “May you be filled with lovingkindness,” I wish for the bird. “May you be happy. May you be safe and protected.”
I look at her more deeply than I have ever looked at a pigeon. I wonder if her claws are burning on the 35-degree cement of a city in global warming. I wonder if she is happy with her current view of car tires and metal building gates. “Poor baby,” I think to myself, “we constructed a city around you.” I have seen pigeons before, I have liked pigeons before, but this one, this one pigeon right here, I really love her in that moment.
I realize that my heart fills with an amount of love and joy for this bird that I did not feel for the few humans I practiced on prior. I have no judgments or prejudices about this bird. I don’t notice what she is wearing, what words come out of her mouth or how she looks at me as she walks by. I feel tender; I feel like I am floating on a cloud of happiness as I keep wishing for this bird to be good.
After lingering for a few more moments in awe of the bird, I pass through my gate, enter the building code and go up the stairs flying.
The phone rings at the expected time. We chat about this and that for a while; we are on one of those calls we call an “informal chat”, meaning we don’t formally practice mindfulness. We share about how mindfulness practice is coming alive for us, how we are doing on this journey of becoming certified mindfulness teachers, and what are the exhilarating and terrifying moments of that.
We land on the topic of mindfulness meditation retreats. She tells me that at retreats they expect participants to follow the non-harming principle of Buddhism, which means to take a vow to not harm other living and non-living beings to the best of your abilities. At the retreat she has recently been to, they asked participants to not kill mosquitos, and she discovers this is easier said than done. With a very very small mosquito that you can’t even see, or with your eyes closed during meditation, how do you ensure the brush of your hand sends the mosquito away without harming it? What if you are in SouthEast Asia (where Buddhism originated) and you are awfully itching from bites during the hot seasons? What if the mosquito is potentially carrying a disease?
She tells me that two of her three children contracted Lyme disease recently, and her research revealed that Lyme disease can be carried by mosquitoes. We stop and ponder: Does non-harming a mosquito mean you potentially accept the swellings and aches of Lyme disease?
Where is the line?
The rest of the day, after our call, I am hyper-aware of all the mosquitos around me in my Parisian apartment. I start eyeing the mosquito repellent on the table differently. Is it really necessary to put poisonous gas on or around me?
Drowsy from losing sleep due to mosquito bites, I start closing the bedroom door and windows during the day to keep the mosquitos out. The room is hot as we go to sleep but my partner finds an innovative way of closing the curtains. We still get air inside and succeed in reducing the number of mosquitoes.
I stop using the mosquito repellent. It seems possible to strategically avoid or reduce harm. It seems possible not to kill, at least as a first resort.
Outside the French windows of our French apartment, we have pots we used to plant flowers in. The pots hang from the ornamented black rails of what are supposedly French balconies. The pots are empty now, or rather full of dirt, wild herbs and old soil, as this spring we got lazy and didn’t plant anything. Birds often come to our windowsills and get cozy inside the pots, taking refuge from the hot summer sun or the cold winter winds.
One pigeon starts frequenting one of the empty pots outside our bedroom window. Soon, she is accompanied by another, who to me, seems to be her partner. They often spend the night in the pot, cooing at early morning hours, and waking my partner up. I sleep through pretty much everything until I have gotten my regular 8 to 9 hours of sleep, so I am surprised when my partner starts getting irritated.
“I don’t want them here,” he declares. “I don’t like pigeons. There are too many of them. They make too much noise. I can’t sleep.”
He doesn’t say it but he is asking if we can do something to send them away.
I consider it for a brief second before I continue with a firm “no”.
I carry a piece of my grandmother in me, who used to talk to pigeons that came to her windowsill, pretending the pigeons are her son or her husband, both of which now long gone. I find something endearing in this intersection of souls, how a pigeon could carry the soul of my father or grandfather, or how at least, she could pretend it does. I wonder what kinds of messengers or soul carriers these two birds outside our window are as they sing to each other in the mornings. I don’t admit this to my partner but I like their company.
I say “no” also because I am not sure the windowsill belongs to us. I agree the insides of our apartment belong to us, but where do the apartment stop and the outside world begin? Do the windows belong to us? The pots? The soil inside? Does the courtyard belong to us? The city? Are the pigeons here because they couldn’t find trees? What leads them to hang out in this space of cement, metal, and plastic? I’m not sure. I don’t feel comfortable sending the poor animals away from territories I can’t claim.
Late July, my partner gets antsy; the lack of morning sleep is contributing but it’s more than that. He doesn’t want to be in our 40 square meter apartment during the hot summer months. He is from the South; he is one of the lucky ones, having grown up with a big garden, a garage, a shed, and grandparents next door. We are both flexible with work, and so we decide to spend the next six to eight weeks between Paris and the South, taking the train back and forth.
Our occasional residence in Paris lays the foundation of another being’s nesting, but I don’t find out about this until much later.
Early August and we are back in Paris for a weekend. We go out shopping, tasked with buying me a new pair of reading glasses. On a street full of optic shops, we leave one shop, crossing the street, to another.
We cross the street behind a big group of tourists, and as we near the sidewalk, I see there on the corner of the street, lying on the floor next to a vitrine, with its face up, one foot in the air, the other foot missing, a pigeon that is… dead.
I want everyone to freeze, but I look around to see no one is stopping. As I stand there in the corner, flocks of tourists and Parisians keep crossing the street, in both directions, and no one looks at the dead bird or lingers.
My despair grows. Grief takes over me. I keep standing there, not able to directly look at the dead body, not able to walk away either.
My partner asks what’s wrong, and as I attempt to answer my words become muffled, and my slow tears turn into uncontrollable sobs. I half hear him say things like “It’s normal, my love, all animals die,” which I know of course. I know I will die too — I just hope I don’t die like this on the corner of a street with no regard for my dead body. I wish no living being has to die like this, with complete disregard for the fact that it was once alive and a flourishing member of our beautiful ecosystem.
I sob and sob, loudly, asking questions into empty space. Do we have to construct cities around us with no concern for animals? Do we have to take space as if the entire Earth belongs to us? Do we have to let animals live and die outside their natural habitats? Do we have to leave their dead bodies there like that? Is this what we would do if the dead body was a human’s? Can we not bury this animal? Can we not take it to a nearby park at least? Can I be allowed to be sad about this? Can you stop asking me what’s wrong or implying something is wrong with me when I have explained at least three times what exactly I am sad about?
My despair transfuses into my partner. He’s not desperate over the dead pigeon; he is desperate over his partner sobbing very loudly for ten minutes on a busy street despite his hugs, caresses and occasionally soothing words. He remembers that the Paris municipality has a mobile application to signal the different needs of citizens. He marks our corner in the application, we see in the dropdown menu that there is a category for dead animals, we get distraught when the application asks us to take a picture of the dead animal to prove it is really there (which we refuse to do).
Once the corner is flagged in the application, I get convinced to start walking again. I am still guilt-ridden; I wish I was brave enough to pick up the dead body myself and take it to a nearby park. I am still disturbed; who are these robotic humans all around me? The sadness follows me around the rest of the day, as we buy me a new pair of reading glasses, as we come back home, and as we receive a push notification from the municipality application informing us the dead body is taken.
I ask my partner if he knows what they do with animals that die in the city. He says they burn them. I want to believe him.
The following days are in the French countryside. The countryside has more space for animals but it also has more animals. Lunches become a challenge with ants walking across the table as I put down plates and cups; there are tens of different types of flies and mosquitoes to be mindful of, while also being a little scared. I anchor on the ever-changing symphony of birds to find presence during my daily meditations. I also get irritated at the idea of a colorful insect walking on me as I sit eyes closed and motionless.
There are many highs. One morning, I save a mosquito from a milk bowl in the sink. I convince my mother-in-law every now and then to not kill giant spiders, although she is terribly scared of them. Another day, a grasshopper hops on my laptop screen as I am filling boring administrative forms. I put aside the papers and investigate his amazing limbs.
There are many lows. Before dinner one evening, we find a dead grasshopper next to the table. I try not to think about its amazing limbs as we brush him aside into the grass. Another afternoon, a sparrow flies full speed into the glass door of the terrace, hitting her head violently, and not recovering from the trauma. We stand by her in the shade, we cup her in our hands and caress her soft feathers, but she dies. We bury her (upon my insistence), saddened over loving her and losing her so deeply and so quickly. I question the validity of glass doors and windows. It seems to me like another innocent animal life was lost over another human construction, but at least this time, we give the animal some love and reverence.
The lowest low sneaks up on me one day, over lunch. My mother-in-law notices a giant bee in the corner of the glass wall next to our table in a restaurant. The server happens to be serving us at that moment, and he notices my mother-in-law’s discomfort. He makes a gesture of don’t-worry-madam-i-am-taking-care-of-it and fetches a newspaper. He walks around to the glass corner and starts hitting the bee with the folded newspaper. I am squeaking with my eyes closed, as I don’t want the bee to be killed, but the server continues to hit, with increasing intensity. The bee doesn’t die, although it is clear it will if we leave him alone for a second. The server then starts stomping over the newspaper with his big boots. I get smaller and smaller with every loud thump. A slow and sheepish smile spreads across the face of the server; I notice the pleasure he found in this violent kill. Once his mission is accomplished, he doesn’t even bother to take the squished body away. I have no appetite left for my salad. I try not to look at the cadaver next to me, and I stuff my food in my mouth, hoping others would do the same and we would get the hell out of this violent scene.
The next time I am back in Paris, I am alone. My partner is still in the South, enjoying hot August days by the pool, and I have to be in Paris for a few days for work. What greets me as I enter my apartment is pigeon poop.
By this point, I am starting to sense something weird going on between me and pigeons. I look at the pigeon poop everywhere. Gray, green, white and blue circles, small and big. At the entrance, in the kitchen, on top of the drawers in the hallway, on the living room parquet, on the couch, on the living room table, on our treasured Turkish rugs, in the bedroom, on the bed, on my pillow… everywhere.
I feel angry, first at the pigeon. Why would it enter our apartment, and why would it poop everywhere? On my rugs! Isn’t this ridiculous? Then I notice that I probably wasn’t maliciously attacked by pigeons, and I start looking for the root cause of this bizarre incident. I trace the steps of the pigeon back to the kitchen, and I see that I have left the kitchen window open. It starts dawning on me that I am the root cause of this bizarre incident, as I and my fellow humans often are.
My anger changes locus; I am now angry at myself. How could I be so stupid and leave the window open? Of course, when we are gone for 10 days, a bird could see it’s quiet inside and want to enter! Of course, it would poop everywhere. Clearly I am not expecting the bird to go to the bathroom?
Still fuming, and angry at whatever I can be angry at, I get the cleaning supplies and start rubbing the poop off from everywhere. This gives me a chance to get intimate with the situation. I wonder: Could the bird not find the exit? It panicked and flew around everywhere? It panicked which made it poop even more? Did it feel trapped in here? For how long? Was it scared? Was it stressed?
I finish cleaning and stand in front of the bedroom window. There are no pigeons on the window sill.
Summer takes us to many places, from the South of France to Paris, from Paris to Istanbul, from İstanbul to İzmir, from İzmir to Urla. The whirlwind comes to an end with our flight on the 10th of September; we walk up the four flights of stairs with our luggage heavy and our hearts light. I feel rested and ready for what’s to come. What’s expecting me is nothing more than work and faces of people and cities I love.
The same cannot be said for the pigeon family that appears to have started cohabiting with us. A peek through the bedroom window reveals that the pot with dirty soil and wild herbs is empty of birds, but is full of two white eggs. Someone is expecting babies!
I remember reading about rapture in Sharon Salzberg’s book Lovingkindness, and not fully understanding it. I feel a rapture in my heart at that moment, and my lack of intellectual understanding of the word loses importance. My body knows it. A feeling of intense pleasure or joy. I am to bear witness to two baby pigeons coming into this world.
My partner is not pleased and worried about the noise the babies will be making as they beg their mama for food. Later that day, I notice that he has researched the hatching period of pigeon eggs (18 days), and he is peeking behind the curtains, both at the mama bird sitting on her eggs, and also at the eggs. We discuss the size of the eggs (they are tiny), and how a bird could come out of that. I see that my partner may not be pleased but he is at least interested. I rest knowing that genuine interest is the first step of love.
I excitedly introduce my friends to my new pigeon family-friends, with photos taken at every angle. Some of my friends are equally excited, some laugh along when my partner makes fun of me as “the crazy pigeon lady”. The crazy pigeon lady I knew very well (my grandmother) was cute as hell, so I laugh along. A healer reads into this situation, saying it is a good sign that a bird decided to nest on our windowsill because they are extremely careful with where they nest.
I don’t know how to read signs, but I am happy if this trust is the fruit of my hypersensitivity to animals all summer long. We go into a strict regime in the bedroom: curtains are kept closed, as well as the windows. The mama bird is startled at small every movement and noise. We try to be gentle around her as much as possible. Thanks to her presence, I start feeling less alone during my long work-from-home days.
After a long period of the mama pigeon sitting, sitting, sitting all day, I feel a second rapture of the heart. My daily surveillance reveals that one of the eggs has hatched!
The baby is yellow and looks more like a duck. It only has the tiny white beginnings of what would later become feathers. It looks very unprotected when the mom’s away hunting. It doesn’t have the slightest clue how we, humans, could harm it if we wanted to. We keep the curtains even more closed, the bedroom even quieter.
We wait and wait, and wait more, the mom, me, and my partner (who is now very interested in all of this). The mama bird keeps sitting, sitting and sitting, both on her unhatched egg and her baby. I investigate how she can sit on her baby without crushing it (I still don’t know). We wonder if the other egg will hatch, and when, and soon we see that the mama is no longer sitting on it. The resolution seems to be one of disappointment. I feel many things about this, knowing that the bird is nowhere near my emotional spectrum. And so we continue cohabiting with a mom, a rapidly growing baby, and an unhatched egg for the remainder of September.
Come October, the baby pigeon is now flapping its wings, not yet ready to fly, but not scared of it either. It is super loud in the mornings, begging its mom for food, and by now, I am also losing a bit of sleep. My partner could get sassy and tell me i-told-you-so, but he has a big heart, so he doesn’t.
The city keeps living in the middle of all of this, with more Parisians, with fewer tourists, and the same number, if not more, of animals. I wonder if there is a harmony to it all, on a deeper level. The pigeon family outside our window, the many pigeons walking on city pavements, often with one foot missing, too close to passing car traffic, the many insects and birds of cities, the many rats we don’t like, the many cats and dogs we love, and the humans, are they in a harmony I am to yet to see?
What is the city? What isn’t the city? The separation between city and nature — is that for real?
I don’t know. I sense the suffering in my heart, the suffering of these animals, and I stay with this suffering, while a pigeon walks by me, inside a restaurant, chasing bread crumbs on the floor, limping on one foot.