"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Owl Quest

I’ve been on an owl quest for most of my adult life. Why the sense of connection? Why a belief in the creature as a totem or familiar? I don’t really know. But as much as I want to see one, I never seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Ten years ago, I stayed with hosts in northern California. We drove out to the hills, to a spot where they regularly called owls via a pre-taped recording. They assured me they were rarely disappointed. But that night we shivered expectantly in the frigid air for two hours; finally giving up because I had to teach the next morning. The owls were no where to be found.

And what about my friend Niki? She spent several summers hiking in a local park with Katie, her Texas Brown Dog, relishing the cool mornings; rebuking the oppressive heat of midday. More than once they encountered an owl dissecting a small rabbit or a mouse in the dry creek bed. She always called me on the spot; eager to share the gory details and the magnificence of the bird. I was always green with envy. But no owl for me.

And just last month?
My friend Diana visited the San Antonio Museum of Art at dusk on a Tuesday evening. The next morning she beamed as she produced the photo on her phone - an owl gazing directly at her, framed by one of the museum windows. I couldn’t believe it. How had she noticed it - on that branch opposite a third floor window?

“I just looked out the window and there he was!” she laughed delightedly.


So. Summer 2011. My morning bike ride lasts about an hour. I tour miles of manicured lawn before turning into a surprising stretch of urban wildness, which serves as a buffer between the stately neighborhood and a sprawling north/south highway. I adore the contrast of smooth green lawns with the tangled vines that threaten to choke the Live Oak trees towering above the bank to my right. Every morning of this ride - every summer for several years - I’ve scanned the woods, anticipating the flourish of wings that would reward me if I startled an owl.

To no avail.

Bursts of Cardinal red. The silhouette of a Red Tail Hawk, hunkered over an arroyo gone dry in the drought. But never the coveted owl.

Last week I rode and I pondered. Rode and pondered. That’s the routine by which the hour long ride is paced. I pedal and consider my Year of Letting Go. The elusive safety net of health that once held my beloved family and friends. Gone. The solid form of relationship that wasn’t so solid after all. Gone. The crisp, precious reality of this single moment. All we have. All I have.

The owl quest popped into my head. OK. It’d been a lot of years. Maybe time to let it go. I could be ok with that.

I rounded the next corner, and peered into the woods, softly lit by the dawning light. Of course. There it was. A Barred Owl, not six feet from the road. Eye level.

I laughed out loud. It startled and flew, majestically, and only a few feet further along the road. I got off the bike and walked until I was even with the bird again. This time we took turns looking at each other and then looking away, until it tired of me, and lifted from the branch, deep into the woods.

My ride home was a mix of elation and awe. Even better, three days later on my ride, I saw the owl again. Same tree. Same branch. I was learning where to look. And to ride quietly on my path.

Somehow, seeing the owl clarified how I think about time and being. I would usually say if asked, that I’m lucky. That many of my successes have been about being in the right place at the right time. But this week, I witnessed the illusion of timing. I can’t control time. I can’t plan to be in the right spot. I can only show up and pay attention.

But it helps to pedal quietly. Then I don’t screw up something I would have missed because of my noisy, misguided meandering.

And it helps to remember where to look. If I found inspiration there before, I might find it there again.

I’ve been away, so I haven’t seen the owl again. But I have no doubt that I will. As long as I show up, keep pedaling, and don’t forget where to look.
I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Timing is so much with owls. Almost every evening just after dark, they gather in the woods behind our house and call to each other. I sometimes try to answer back but no one seems fooled. If you stand still long enough on the deck you'll catch them flying through the trees from one perch to another.

  2. I love owls. To me, they have become a symbol of letting go, of releasing the anxiety, of knowing that everything is OK--just as it is.

  3. I have a friend who says that life is all about what you notice. I think this is true.

  4. You have captured the essence of living conscientiously. The letting go thing has been a process for me and your experience raised the hairs on my arms as my soul recalls such times! It's all out there and surrounding us. We are the obstacles to witnessing the grace that is. Whew, life is good.

  5. Dear Jane,
    Certainly chance and timing have something to do with success, but why do we so often minimize the time and effort we've put into our work? Like your exercising with your morning ride (and the hula hoop!), no time is without the possibility of inspiration or reward. Just like your persistent riding (even getting back on following your accident--that's courage) led you ultimately to the owl, so your persistent work brings you to success in your field. I appreciate the joy in your voice in the description of your encounter. I hope you see her again--and soon. Love,

  6. this is great. learning lessons always, and learning to be present for them. how you and barred owl became familiar to one another is a good story.

  7. "I can only show up and pay attention." I'll remember this. Thank you.