By Mike Abkin
It was the mid-1990s. I was well settled in my long-time technical career and working as an aviation systems analyst at a small government contracting firm in Sunnyvale, California. When the weather was nice, which was often the case, I made it a point at lunchtime to escape from the world of numbers, equations, computers, and management responsibilities and venture out into Silicon Valley to eat my sack lunch at a nearby park.
Walking to and from the park each day, I would purposely avoid the right-angled streets and sidewalks, choosing instead to meander through the asphalted parking lots that flowed behind and among scatterings of tilt-up office buildings. One of the best parts of that walk was when I skirted the edge of a manicured golf course that inexorably drew my eyes through the chain link fence to my right as I passed. Another part of the lunchtime journey took me past what is typically called an “empty” lot, though it was dotted with scrub trees, filled with tall grasses, and populated by dozens of red-winged blackbirds who would greet me with their distinctive screechy, whistle-like cry.
One day, as I was walking back to the office after lunch, I was startled by a sudden thwup thwup sound and the feeling of a soft brushing against my face. I looked up and saw the red-tailed hawk that had just swooped from behind over my right shoulder, its wingtip kissing my right cheek as it flew by. The hawk soared on ahead a little ways, perched on the edge of a roof, and just sat there, looking at me. Mesmerized, all I could do was stare back at him. After a few moments, he hopped, little by little, toward the far corner of the building, still looking back at me. Like he wanted me to follow him. Which I did. He rounded the corner out of sight. By the time I got there, he had disappeared.
Where did he go? What was he trying to show me? I imagined he’d taken a liking to me and was perhaps leading me to some sort of lost treasure, a hundred dollar bill dropped in the parking lot, for example, or even a winning lottery ticket. But nothing of the sort was to be seen.
Was he trying to tell me something, a deeper message perhaps? What was I supposed to learn from this encounter? For many years afterwards, I pondered those questions. Still do, actually.
Searching to understand, I wrote the following poem. A couple of years later, my wife (thankfully!) dragged me to a mask-making workshop, where, as an exercise in self-discovery, we were to make a plaster mask of our own face and then decorate it. In struggling to come up with some meaningful way to decorate my mask, the hawk encounter and poem came to mind. Thus did a Santa Clara County roadmap, a collage of magazine clippings, some red and white beads, a couple of blobs of papier maché painted green, and some bird feathers pasted to my half-darkened, half-sunlit head come together to express graphically the essence of the poem.
Hawk swoops, lifts me aloft.
Together we fly along channels of concrete,
of plumb-perfect buildings, rectangular grids
where parallel files of iron-clad lemmings
roll over the edge all alone, on their phones,
Hawk veers to the left, away from the valley
of binary brains and protocol minds,
over the mountains and into a space
where we wander the chaos of cumulus clouds,
meander with rivers and whirl in their eddies,
sway in the swells of the meadows and seas.
With nary a warning, Hawk loosens his grip,
and downward I drift toward the peaks of my valley.
With eyes open now, the choice is before me:
Which side shall I land on?
Which shall I choose?
Which, indeed. I soon began to phase out of my systems analysis engineering career and into… what? How to describe it? How to characterize the road that I was choosing to travel?
Looking back on it, I realize that I actually embarked on that road decades ago, in my initial decision to heed an inner prompting and study a new field called systems science, with the intention of applying it to problems of social and economic systems. Now, though mathematics and statistics are a distant, fading memory, the systems view persists in all that I do, in how I see and understand the world.
Hawk now serves as one of my shamanic power animals, and I have made the choice to seek wholeness, both within myself as well as in the world at large.
Mike Abkin is a trustee and former director of the National Peace Academy, past president and advisory council member of the Global Alliance for Ministries and Infrastructures for Peace, and volunteer staff with Nine Gates Mystery School. He previously served with Peace Partnership International, The Peace Alliance, and Foundation for Global Community. At FGC, after 9/11, Mike helped develop a vocational training program in Afghanistan. In his former technical career, he applied systems analysis and simulation modeling for agricultural development and air transportation, including projects in Nigeria and Korea. Mike also served with the Peace Corps in Nigeria and earned his doctorate in systems science at Michigan State University.