Variations on Prayer by Sophie Lucido Johnson

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fluffy colorful macaw

Jack Levine loves parrots. Specifically, he loves macaws – the big, multihued, long-tailed birds that star in children’s cartoons and commercials for Amazon River cruises. Levine may love macaws more than anyone else on earth: he has more than 90 of them, which makes his parrot sanctuary the largest of its kind in the world. If you call and schedule a tour, he’ll take you around his house – which is also the home of his nonprofit, The Macaw Landing Foundation – and tell you everything you ever wanted to know about macaws.

If you see them flying through the sky in Costa Rica, you stop in your tracks. They are a parade of stringless, impossibly fast kites; so kaleidoscopic that a sighting conjures questions of hallucination. There are nineteen different species of macaw. They squawk belligerently, crack open gigantic Brazil nuts with their tough black beaks, and present themselves to the world as loudly magnificent celebrities to be swooned over.

When you step inside the Macaw Landing Foundation outside of Portland, Oregon, you understand none of this. The bright birds that greet you aren’t like the ones in the video Levine has you watch as a prerequisite to visiting his cages. They’re peppy, sure – some of them start “talking” as soon as you walk in, and they flock to Levine and jump on his shoulders. The difference is that most of the birds Levine keeps in his sanctuary are missing up to half their feathers.

Macaws didn’t evolve to be pets. People covet them the way they covet Kandinsky paintings: they want bright and colorful objects designed to perch in a living room, impressing important guests. To meet the demand, thousands of parrots are trapped and traded illegally in South America every year. The high trade rate, coupled with rapid rainforest deforestation, puts most species of macaw on the endangered species list. Traveling isn’t easy for a captured parrot, either. BirdLife International estimates that 75 percent of all birds caught to be sold illegally die before any money changes hands.

Those that do make it into households to play the part of the Exotic Family Pet unanimously find themselves miscast. Macaws are an extremely needy species: they want attention all the time, not unlike newborn children. They’re wild birds, and they naturally long to forage and engage with the wood from tall trees, so birds set free in a house will often rip apart fancy furniture and high-end tchotchkes (behavior which can unremarkably irritate the fancy and high-end people that adopt macaws to begin with). Mostly, macaws hate to be left alone. Most of a macaw’s life in the wild is dedicated to finding a partner (just one – macaws mate for life), and raising a family. In short, most people don’t have the time, energy, or wherewithal to give domesticated wild birds the attention they need, and without it, the birds get depressed. When they are depressed, macaws pluck out their own feathers.

Levine adopts macaws from people who want to get rid of them: he rescues them from households that got more than they bargained for when they purchased a manic-depressive self-mutilating bird with a life expectancy of 85 years. Levine lets fed-up macaw owners drop their damaged parrots off at his house, no questions asked.

Parrots aren’t the only animals that self-mutilate. Monkeys in science labs notoriously bite themselves. Dogs sometimes obsessively lick their fur in one spot until it corrodes and they expose the pink meat underneath. Even mice have been observed pulling out their whiskers and facial hair. And then, of course, there are humans.

* * *

The first time I cut myself, it felt innate. I was sixteen, and I was sad. This had to do with a boy. He was the first boy I’d ever dated. He was tall and wore soapy, manly deodorant that lingered on the sleeves of my T-shirts because he put his arm around me a lot (which was a very big deal). We had been dating for five months. At the juncture of the first and second month, he kissed me on the lips (in a closed-mouth, religiously acceptable sort of way) right before he got on the bus to go home. He spent all his money on buying me the sorts of gifts that serve no purpose but to indicate to another person that you can’t stop thinking about them: novelty tin lunch boxes, fist-sized stuff animals, and children’s books with underlying messages about the importance of love.

At the Halloween dance, he told me he loved me. I knew that “I love you” was supposed to be a big deal. What did “love” even mean? I had learned, through after-school television and magazines for teenagers, that you were supposed to hold on to your love and keep it to yourself unless you were absolutely sure that the person you were saying “I love you” to was the person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. Love was a dangerous complication, and you were supposed to hide it like a cash inheritance in a hole in your mattress.

So I didn’t say “I love you” back, which hurt him. He retracted his statement. He had to rethink everything. He needed space. At sixteen, this was the emotional equivalent of an expanding sinkhole in the ground outside my house.

The decision to carve into the insides of my palms with safety pins didn’t seem like a decision at all. It was like closing one’s eyes upon sneezing; it was the natural way for the outside of a body to react to what was happening inside of it.

For people who do not self-mutilate, this can be confusing. Psychologists have been puzzling over why people hurt themselves for decades, and they have come to several conclusions. For the roughly 10 percent of people who cut themselves, self-harm may be a coping mechanism to try to control emotional duress, or to self-medicate chronic depression. Others have called cutting a fad, saying that its primary purpose is to fetch attention and label oneself a victim. The body reacts to cutting the way it reacts to drugs and alcohol: it affects the part of the nervous system called the opioid system that controls feelings of being rewarded.

I have turned the psychological studies inside out trying to figure out why, exactly, self-mutilation was my chosen form of teen rebellion. There was no voice in my head saying, “You want control. Cut yourself and you will be able to control your pain! You want attention. Cut yourself and people will see and they will feel sorry for you! You hate yourself. Cut yourself and you will be sufficiently punished!” There was no infomercial-sales-pitch interior monologue the way all these scientific studies had me believing there should have been. I just picked up a pin, scraped the inside of my hand with it, and felt all my sadness rush to this one tiny space in my palm. It felt like I had discovered a sieve.

* * *

When Levine talks about his parrots plucking their feathers, he gets this very sad look on his face. Somber, deep lines form in his forehead and he says, “At the end of the day, they just need to love and be loved.” He says it like parrots are somehow unique in that way.

* * *

Cutting got even easier; more methodical. I switched from safety pins to razor blades sterilized in alcohol, and moved from the inside of my palms (small and out in the open) to my stomach and upper arms (large and easily hidden under sweaters). I knew there was something about cutting myself that was wrong, so I hid it; but privately, I thought I had discovered the greatest secret in the world. I had discovered a shortcut to emotional survival.

When I was seventeen, my family went to Italy to visit my mother’s mother’s birthplace. We rented a car and drove to Morbegno, which is a town in the low Valtellina Valley. The countryside there is made up of fields of sunflowers so exquisite and redundant that after a while it feels like you are going through books of wallpaper patterns just looking out the car window. We stayed at a villa by a lake where the water was warm and clear and the ground was sandy. Under my dress, I wore a little red bathing suit I’d picked up at a kiosk in an outdoor market in Rome. I was looking forward to swimming. I imagined it would feel like being on the cover of one of those pamphlets they put in hotel lobbies touting impossible dream vacations.

I tried to disrobe quickly and run into the water without anyone seeing, but I was clumsy and slow. My mother said nothing.

Three days later we drove through the fields of sunflowers to an almost-comically small cobblestone church on the hillside that a tour book had described as being home to the most elegant and meticulous stained glass windows in the Western world. My mother was raised Roman Catholic, and technically so was I, but we were textbook terrible Catholics. My dad and sister got out of the car to look at the famous windows. My mother walked over to my side of the car and stood over me. Her face was neutral, but her hands were balled up.

“You are going to go into that church, and you are going to kneel in the chapel, and you are going to apologize to God for cutting yourself.” And that was the last thing she ever said about it.

* * *

If you decide to adopt a pet macaw, here is what you can expect. You will need to get the biggest birdcage possible, because macaws like to move around and forage and play. You will need to feed your macaw several times a day, because they require fresh fruits and vegetables to stay happy and satisfied. If you don’t provide a mate for your macaw, you will have to give up your nine-to-five job to stick around the house and play with your new pet so she doesn’t get lonely or feel abandoned. If you can’t do these things, your macaw will get finicky and withdrawn; she will pluck at her feathers mechanically, day and night; she will appear to give up.

Under Levine’s care, an interesting thing happens. For a while, the macaws he takes in continue to pluck their feathers: it’s a habit as standard as eating breakfast. But then, in time, they stop. They often couple with other birds in the Macaw Landing Foundation, and stay with their mates for the rest of their lives. It’s peculiarly simple: give macaws something to love, and they begin to care for themselves.

* * *

Scientists who study self-injurious behavior in nonhuman species note just one compelling similarity among the animals they watch: almost all animals who self-mutilate are evolutionarily social creatures who have been confined to at least relative isolation, against their will. When an animal loses control of her choices (say she is locked in a cage), she longs for touch; for some other creature to share in her trauma; for a social confidant. Without that, obsessive self-touch becomes a natural – if insufficient – substitute.

Humans are a little different, because so often we build our cages ourselves. We experience trauma in our lives, or setback, or failure, and we allow those experiences to scare us into believing that we are ultimately utterly alone. Being alone can feel strangely safe; far away from the terrifying possibility of love, which might hinge on the decisions of other living things. All alone, locked away, nothing can hurt us. But this is a false refuge. All alone, locked away, nothing can startle us into joy, either.

* * *

My mother adamantly read out loud to my sister and me every night when I was a child. After, she turned out the light, and the three of us all closed our eyes and held each other until the edge of the moment when we all began to sleep. She did this until we were too old for it to be really acceptable anymore. I was afraid to go to slumber parties in middle school because I hated the idea of going to bed without making human contact for at least an hour beforehand.

We always said “I love you,” like it was innate. Why wouldn’t a person say “I love you?” For my mother, loving loudly and openly was a daily habit; it was the natural way for the outside of a body to react to what was happens inside of it.

I loved my mother, but I didn’t say anything to God at the church on the hill in Italy. God seemed like a pathetic, emotional crutch to me. I went in to the church, and I went through the motions. I knelt and thought about CDs I wanted to buy when I got back to the United States.

* * *

The thing Levine loves the most about his birds is that they aren’t simple. Each one, he will tell you, has a unique personality. This one climbs the walls all day, up and down, back and forth, with the determined fervor of a body builder at a gym. That one is chatty as a woman at a hair salon, unless she is in the presence of children, and then she clams up like a girl with a crush.

And that one, the bright blue one who is missing all the feathers on her left wing, is quiet. She hasn’t found a mate yet; she is particularly shy and occasionally lackadaisical. But some days, you’ll see her turn her head and open her beak, like she’s about to pluck at her feathers, and then stop. It’s the strangest thing. It’s like she realizes, somewhere inside herself, that in this world, there is the smallest, brightest possibility of love.


sophie johnsonSophie Lucido Johnson is the editor-in-chief of Neutrons Protons. She is a writer, artist, and educator living in New Orleans, where she regularly blogs and makes occasionally-nihilistic comics. Sophie’s work has been published in The Nation, The Hairpin, McSweeney’s, Punchnel’s, and elsewhere.




IMAGE: Flickr Creative Commons/Eric Kilby

  8 comments for “Variations on Prayer by Sophie Lucido Johnson

  1. Sophie…this is brilliant and as a mother of someone who self injured it brought my understanding to a new level. Gratitude to the moon and back.

  2. The way these storylines weave together is absolutely expert. And I love your author picture because now I recognize you when I see your work in other places!

  3. Sophie-Variations, we all have them. One I share is being published in this edition with you. I am happy for that. The pictures you painted were shocking. I hope you and the birds have found company. I bet your Italian family called you Sophia.

  4. Like Jennifer, I also learned a lot from this piece. The emotional depth you achieved in its telling was like a chasm I fell into and then just kept falling. The imagery of beauty against such sadness meshed to create a very powerful piece. Congratulations, Sophie.

  5. Sophie, what a brave, beautiful piece, and such rich, metaphorical juxtaposing of your own story and that of the macaws, those fascinating creatures. I’ve learned something in reading this today — thank you for sharing.

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