I saw my first red-shouldered hawk in early March of 2021 at a wildlife preserve located just outside of Savannah, Georgia. She was found in the nearby woods with an injured wing, and she will never fly or survive in the wild on her own again. She will live out her days in the safety of a generous enclosure as the newest next-door neighbor to a black vulture with a limp and a one-eyed screech owl.
I observed the hawk’s long talons extending from thick yellow legs, asher brown and russet feathers shimmered with glints of rubied gold in the late-afternoon light. A dead shrew rested under her onyx claw, limp and bloody, and she side-eyed me with a narrowed lid of suspicion. Alone in her cage, the hawk had no competition for food, and yet she still fixed me with a look that said, “Back off, asshole. This rodent is mine.”
I can relate.
And I wish I couldn’t.
This past year I have snapped and snarled at my family, friends, and neighbors as I scrolled through my screens, ravenously consuming information to create a safe shelter on my own terms.I have felt my talons close around what I call mine ever since the pandemic clipped my wings and grounded me in a Boston lockdown behind a mask.
It happened again yesterday.
My husband and I went out to lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant, and I felt a thrill as I slid into the plastic booth and balanced the weight of the menu in my hands. We were out in public sharing a common space, eating next to other people, and it felt like progress. But when my bun bo xao arrived in a large white bowl that gleamed like a new moon, the tide of my hunger surged.
I clutched my lunch close to my heart, lips hovering over the rim of the bowl, as fresh wooden chopsticks flew between my salad and the accompanying platter of bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and hot peppers. I greedily shoveled noodles drenched in salty fish sauce and bright lime juice to one side of my mouth, while the other became a stash for succulent steak sprinkled with a snow of crushed peanuts.
Mid-swallow, I caught my husband’s startled eye across the table as he added bean sprouts to his simmering beef pho. I sat back against the booth, gripped my food with a jealous frown, and thought of the red-shouldered hawk. My lips curled into a hooked beak as feathers sprouted from my chest, and my fingers shriveled and sharpened into paw and claw to signal, It’s mine and I refuse to share. Back off, asshole.
The bestial moment passed, and he looked away. But I knew what he wanted to say and didn’t, that in these long months of pandemic and panic, of lockdown and unlockdown, my table manners have gone to hell.
Months pass. I seek out a different sort of meal.
Forgive me as I slouch toward the eucharistic table; it’s been a long time.I know I have cilantro in my teeth, my hair is an owl’s nest, and there’s a protective glint in my eyes. I have tried to be a good flock member in this season of unrest, but I have also gobbled my food and hoped the frantic chewing would drown out the anxious warbling of my mind. I’ve grown selfish in my isolation, and it’s important that you see me as I am, as I find my way forward.
Shifting in my seat, I accidentally bump against other bodies and recognize that I sit next to those I have judged during lockdown: the man limping like the black vulture as he pushed past me to get a good seat on the bus; the woman glaring like the one-eyed screech owl when I got too close at the grocery store as we both reached for fresh produce.
I listen as the pastor reminds us that we need table manners, that to celebrateEucharist is to participate in a sacred meal of hospitality, inclusion, and reconciliation. She holds up the cup and the bread and speaks the liturgy I used to know so well: Jesus was betrayed and suffered; Jesus experienced grief and death; Jesus became a wounded beast so that we could become holy.
For too long I have denied that beneath my hunger for comfort food and my instinct to self-protect is the rumbling ache for presence and connection. I confess that both are possible only if I tame the greedy raptor within and receive this holy meal alongside my fellow wounded beasts.
The pastor beckons us to come forward, and as we shuffle down the aisle, I recall an image from the Psalms: something about a table prepared for the poet in the presence of his enemies. I realize it’s only at this prepared Eucharist table that we wounded hawks, limping vultures, and one-eyed screech owls can reclaim our humanity and cease to feel like enemies.
When I arrive at the table, the pastor smiles and wraps a blessing around my name as she dips the bread into the wine. I extend my talon-hands, shriveled small by fear, to receive and to remember who I want to be. As I chew and swallow and walk back to my chair, I pray that this supper of the Lamb will free me to throw my own dinner party.
Picture this: bowls heaped with bun bo xao or pho ladled out in steaming servings; platters of bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, and hot peppers passed around until everyone has had their fill. No more fang and talon, beak or claw, not at this feast where all will be welcome.
I want that dinner party with my community, but I must confess I’m not out of the woods yet. Since that Sunday, when we were blessed and fed, I’ve snarled, snapped, doom-scrolled, and judged. I’ve felt flight feathers prickle beneath my shoulder skin and a sharp edging at the curve of my lips. Eucharist on Sunday wasn’t a one-time fix to my ravenous self-protection—I pray that my portion of daily bread includes enough kindness, enough generosity, enough table manners for today.
My husband and I decide to invite a few friends over for lunch. We haven’t seen each other in months, and I finally feel safe to sit inside and share a meal and conversation together. I remind myself to listen well, to take small bites and chew slowly. I wish I could make bun bo xao, but that will take time to learn, so I make chili and hope it’s good enough.
When they arrive, I welcome our friends inside and tell them to pull up a chair. I tell them that it’s been too long. Then I silently bless the space between us with the words, My talon-hands are open, and I want to share my shrew with you.