BY HEIDI JOHNSON-WRIGHT
When I was about 8 years old, I had an old, dog-eared field guide to the birds of North America. I read up on the most common birds found in the Cleveland area: blue jays, cardinals and robins.
What caught my fancy the most, though, were the brightly colored songbirds of summer. It was always a treat to catch a glimpse of a Baltimore oriole in the backyard or a scarlet tanager along a country lane.
Peculiar kid that I was, I thought I’d better figure out what kind of bird I wanted to be. I’d seen enough episodes of the Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits to know that someday I just might find myself in a position to have to make such a choice. It was best to be prepared.
After careful consideration, I selected the indigo bunting. It’s a small migratory songbird that eats seeds and navigates by starlight. Its defining characteristic is its color. It’s a feathered embodiment of the intense blue in Renaissance paintings. The first glimpse of an indigo bunting can take your breath away.
Then I got clobbered by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The arthritis hit me the way a closed window stops a sparrow in mid-flight: stunned, dazed, lying on cold concrete on a gray winter’s day. It sped through me with the intensity of wildfire. My immune system began an absurd attack, triggering an inflammatory response of the joints, resulting in swelling, excess fluid and severe pain. My body began destroying itself, the disease steadily consuming me. One day I awoke and realized: I am my own assassin.
By high school, I had permanently morphed into a member of the JRA race. My arms were short and my hands twisted, gnarled. I would never have an elegant gait, long straight legs or graceful posture. The arthritis had claimed me, had – as the result of my appearance – placed me on the margins of the human race, where those who are deemed “too different” reside.
At some point, I reconsidered my choice of bird should I ever change corporality. Beauty seemed out of the question. Because I felt marginalized and voiceless, I thought it would be cool to be the baddest bird on the block. No sweet little songbird for me, thank you very much.
I changed my choice to the harpy eagle: the largest, most powerful raptor of the Americas. An apex predator, the females are twice as large as the males. With wings that can span more than seven feet, they swoop down to make a meal out of monkeys, deer and domestic livestock.
I’m now on the other side of 50. While beauty and power still hold an allure, my perspective on life has changed. The days that bring the most joy are ones of balance and tranquility. Days when I don’t feel compelled to push the rock that will inevitably roll back down the hill. Days when I embrace, rather than run from, the things that set me apart from the masses.
I’ve selected another bird yet again, perhaps for good. Ideals of beauty be damned; I’d be fine with bald head and hooked beak. I don’t have to prove my power to anyone, instead content to hold my wings still and float for hours on the thermals.
So, on winter days when the sky is sunny and clear here in Miami, I gaze out the window at the turkey buzzards and imagine myself gliding on the updrafts.