Personal Experience: Pigeon Karma

Pigeon Karma was taken from:  Gathering My Life into Feathers

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I read the word “karma” for the first time.  No definition was provided.  That was in 1974, and I didn’t read much.  Besides, the word karma was still very foreign to our culture.  So I rode my bicycle to the library in order to reference the word in their large dictionary.  “The law of cause and effect over many lives.”  A statement like that could fuel hours of contemplation.  At that time karma was a good word because most people knew they didn’t understand its meaning.  Now, most people think they know what it means; the word has been assimilated by our culture.  When people think they can pigeonhole a meaning, something essential gets lost.

Now to pigeons.  During my junior year at college, a friend and I played a short-lived game.  It was winter, and pigeons roosted on a sheltered ledge near the top of a three-story “North Dakota skyscraper.”  We threw snowballs at the pigeons.  To make it more sporting, we kept our distance.  The chances of actually hitting a pigeon were remote.  But I was getting closer, and I had a Zen moment of direct knowing.  I knew I would hit a pigeon on my next throw.  I could have put the snowball down, but I didn’t.  Thwack!  That poor pigeon never knew what was coming.  I watched as all the pigeons fluttered about in the cold before nervously settling down again.  No harm done, I thought as I walked away.  I didn’t apologize.  I thought it was enough that I just quietly faded away.

That spring, I was walking in the area of our winter pigeon game, minding my own business.  In perhaps the exact same spot that I chucked that somewhat fateful snowball, I received a pigeon rebuttal.  It was more like a splat than a thwack, hitting me on the top of my head.  I wasn’t wearing a hat.  As I confirmed the reality of the pigeon dropping, I looked up and saw the offender flying off in the direction of their winter roost.  I knew instantly: pigeon karma.   Fair was fair, and I accepted their return volley with grace and humor.  We were even.

Four years later, after living in Beaumont Texas for six months, I returned to Grand Forks.  Within a year, I was working at the North Dakota School for the Blind.  The school was located adjacent to the college.  That spring, I had just walked outside when I saw a peculiar sight.  Perhaps a dozen people were loosely gathered, watching a pigeon flutter aimlessly on the ground.  I knew it was dying, and I knew what to do.  I walked over to the pigeon, picked it up, and hoisted it into the air.  The pigeon flew about 60 feet, then died mid-air, falling motionless to the ground.

There is something both symbolic and powerful in providing an opportunity for last flight.  So much better than dying helplessly on the ground.  The spectators were all stopped somehow.  I bowed, as I bowed in my practice of karate, and walked away.flying-pigeon

That would seem to be more than enough pigeon interaction for me in one lifetime, except there’s a postscript.  As I was writing this chapter, I discovered that the house that I lived in at that time was once a site for pigeons.  Here is the story: the guy that owned our property prior to us didn’t build a home or live on site.  He had a shack and a garage that he used to house pigeons.  Apparently, he got very sick and neglected the pigeons.  The buildings were old and the pigeons escaped, flying away.  Rats from the Mississippi River eventually took up residence and ate the leftover pigeon food.  The neighbors banded together and convinced the city to condemn the buildings.  The buildings were torn down. A contractor purchased the land and began building a house on speculation.  As we were in the market for a house at that time, we decided to stop in one day as we were walking past.  The house was under construction, and we didn’t think we could afford it.  For some reason, the builder liked us right off.  The bottom line was, we could actually afford that house, and the builder took pleasure in custom building it for our needs.  For over 23 years, it was a good house, perhaps the perfect house for our needs.

So, is there a meaning or moral to this story?  Am I suggesting that my interactions with pigeons somehow paid off by finding us a good house?  If that were true, maybe all it would take to find a proper mansion would be to spend an afternoon in the park feeding pigeons.  I think they like breadcrumbs.  No, what got us our house was intentional searching.  But the universe is Mystery.  And I still don’t entirely understand what that word karma means.

Postscript 3/2013:  In the original Sanskrit the word karma meant action, and early use of the term implied interaction with the world, creating one’s perception of the world.  Perception influences how we process and even channel our experience.

Here’s a Sufi story to illustrate.  A traveler approaches a city and pauses to ask an old man a question: “What are the people like in this city?”  The old man answers: “What are they like from your city?”  The traveler responds: “They are mean and selfish.”  The old man says: “You will find the people in this city to be a lot like that.”  The next day another traveler approaches, asks the same question, and receives the same question from the old man: “What are they like from your city?”    This traveler responds: “The folks in my city are kind and loving.” The old man says: “You will find the people in this city to be a lot like that.”

By the way, what we commonly call a pigeon is officially called a rock dove.  It somehow sounds more dignified.  A carrier pigeon is a domesticated rock dove.  Nobody really knows how they navigate, though I like the explanation of morphic fields (connection at a distance).

Gathering My Life into Feathers eBook ($1.50):


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