Sunday, February 22, 2015

Finches in Frenzy: Teachable Moments

Goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, pine siskins and dark-eyes juncos find nyjer seeds magnetic. These bite-size morsels pack a punch with their high oil content. Hang a small feeder filled with these seeds in the backyard and you will never experience a dull moment as the wild songbirds alight on it from nearby trees and put on a breathtaking display of avian acrobatics.

It becomes clear after a while that the pine siskins are the feisty ones, thrusting their beaks at the goldfinches and purple finches to hog the seeds. The polite cousins put up with the bullying for a minute or two and then fight back, or at least, pretend to. That seems to be enough. A kind of a uneasy democracy settles in as the birds take turn feeding, flying away to rest on the nearby trees to catch their breath (and poop), and flying back again to begin the cycle.

The goldfinches win the beauty contest hands down. The flash of their yellow brightens up any gray, cloudy day. They keep clear of the siskins as much as possible and use their acrobatic skills to get at the nyjer seeds, often hanging upside down to avoid invading the siskins’ space.

The dark-eyed juncos are content to walk the ground beneath the feeder, avoiding any possibility of a skirmish with the other birds. Plenty of seeds fall from the feeder, enough to feast on. You can see them pause to look up, almost as if pitying the feisty ones for their foolishness.

Feeding frenzy reaches its climax when it’s raining. The joy of the songbirds is palpable. They seem to be filled with a mysterious energy as they flutter, swerve and hover, their jostling increasingly dramatically for the privilege of a peck or two at the seeds. Leaves tremble as water drips from the trees and squirrels frolic in the fresh green grass but it’s the raucous songbirds that own the world as they dart back and forth from nests to seeds in their ruffled, rain-soaked plumage through air translucent with raindrops.

College campuses teem with birdlife. Jays, sparrows, robins, juncos, finches, swallows, buntings, bushtits, bluebirds, towhees, red-winged blackbirds, doves, warblers, hummingbirds and many other kinds enrich campuses in their ineffable ways, offering teachable moments to students as they hurry between classes or meet up with tutors and friends.

These moments are unfortunately rarely recognized. Birds connect us to the natural world in ways unmatched by other species. We become keen observers ourselves by observing them. These symbols of freedom tune us to the rhythm of the seasons. As they swoop and hover and descend from trees like autumn leaves, they kindle our sense of wonder and remind us that there is more to life than jobs and commerce.

So when you take a walk in that familiar campus, observe the junco as it seems to appear from nowhere in front of you to stroll the ground and acknowledge its fleeting grace. Pause for a moment to follow the movement of the towhee as it searches for worms beneath the sprawling oak and marvel at its dexterity. Whatever you do, don’t go around campus with blank faces plugged into ear buds. Open your eyes and ears. When from that evergreen pear tree emanates the trill of a red-winged blackbird, ask yourself, have you heard any song as lyrical?

The joy that birds communicate can perhaps translate to joy of learning. A sensitive soul can even conjure life’s meaning from birds. Whatever one’s disposition, taking the time to reflect on the beauty of birds can help any life take wing.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Lessons from the Chapel Hill Tragedy

A deranged American, a ticking time bomb by any definition, kills three bright, young Americans in cold blood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It is not clear if the killings are due to a
long-simmering parking dispute or to the killer’s antipathy toward the “otherness” of
his victims.

What is clear is that when Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, shot dead Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, in their home, it sent a tremor through Muslim communities throughout America. Hicks’s victims were Muslim.

American Muslims are experiencing the same combination of shock, fear, frustration, anger and grief as they did in the aftermath of 9/11.

Events have a way of juxtaposing themselves. On February 2, the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, got underway. On the same day as the Chapel Hill murders, the terrorist organization ISIS confirmed that the 26-year-old American Kayla Mueller it had abducted months ago was dead. In Peshawar, in the same city where the Taliban had killed 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren, last year, the same group killed at least 20 worshipers in a Shiite mosque on February 12. And on Valentine’s Day, one or more terrorists attacked a cultural center and a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, perhaps copying the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris on January 7.

Some Americans have unfortunately conflated the atrocities of these terrorists with the religion of Islam. What makes the situation even scarier for Muslims is that the conflation is fueled by media personalities and public officials with impunity.

Television host and comic Bill Maher often speaks of a “Muslim problem,” and has suggested that “the Muslim world … has too much in common with ISIS.” The neuroscientist Sam Harris is convinced that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a GOP Presidential hopeful, has concluded that “Islam has a problem,” and called the immigration of Muslims to the U.S. an “invasion” and a “colonization.” Oklahoma state representative John Bennett recently declared to applause that Muslims in America were a cancer that needed to be cut out of the country.

The list goes on, despite the unequivocal condemnation by Muslims of terrorist acts that occur in their name.

Anti-Muslim bigotry seems to have gained a firm foothold in America. Is it any wonder that American Muslims feel besieged?
Yet there are reasons for hope. Anyone watching the funeral of the three slain Americans must have noticed the inspiring mix of attendees representing all creeds and color. Their presence spoke far louder than what we read in the media and hear from some of our public officials. As the pastors of the United Church of Chapel Hill said in a statement: "As leaders of faith communities in Chapel Hill, we deplore the senseless killing of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and we share in the profound grief of their families. An attack on any of God’s children, our sisters and brothers, is an attack on us all. We renew our pledge to continue the vital work of fostering mutual understanding and respect that cross all lines of difference."
President Obama condemned “the brutal and outrageous murders,” adding that no one in America should be targeted “because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship.” The President was echoing what Yusor recently said of her life in America: “Growing up in America has been such a blessing. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There are so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions – but here, we’re all one."
At the somber Friday congregational prayers in mosques throughout America following the murders, Imams emphasized the need for patience and faith in the due process of law. At the South Bay Islamic Association’s mosque in San Jose that I attend, Imam Tahir Anwar reminded congregants that when any calamity befalls them, believers are instructed by the Quran to say, “To God we belong, and to Him shall we return.”

One way we American Muslims can remove the fear of the “Other” from among our fellow-Americans is by getting to know our neighbors. Instead of offering a perfunctory “hi,” as many of us often do when we run into them, we should introduce ourselves and lend a helping hand whenever there is a need. Woe to the worshipers, the Quran warns, who do not heed the needs of their neighbors.

There is a lesson that, particularly the youth, can draw from this tragedy as well. Barakat and his wife Yusor often volunteered to help the homeless in their college town. They were also active in raising money to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Setting aside a part of our busy lives to help those in need is perhaps the best way to honor and remember these selfless Americans.

As for Craig Stephen Hicks, we pray that God’s grace will find its way into his heart. And when the time comes for society to judge him, we pray that society will temper justice with mercy.