Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For the Love of Lammy...

He came from nowhere, as the best things in life often do. One day he wasn’t there, the next day he was, simple as that. But to say we got off to a rough start was an understatement…he came in like a hurricane, chasing my other three cats, battling with them at night, and hanging out on the edge of the woods, watching my son and I when we were in the yard like a predator waiting to strike.

“Go away,” I’d stomp my foot and shout when I caught him terrorizing my little female kitties. He’d bolt like lightening, his black-bottomed feet disappearing through the trees. Then one day, he stopped running. “Go away,” I’d stomp, but he’d just yawn and bathe himself. I’d walk closer, and he’d rise slowly, never taking his eyes off me, and then slink off when I got too close.

I called the Humane Society and asked to borrow a trap one spring day when he’d been particularly brazen and refused to disengage from fighting with Sage, a rescue kitty who is handicapped. Now anyone who knows me knows that to say I am an animal lover is just putting it mildly. As a child, I greatly preferred the company of animals to people to such an extent my parents were actually concerned. I’d rather have spent my day in the woods with the family dog than have a play date with a classmate; that was just me. As an adult, I still prefer the company of animals to people at times. I’ve been blessed in life with some wonderful animal experiences and connections. I’ve done wildlife rehabilitation and rescue as well as domestic animal rehab and rescue (I once heard about an abused cat, went to the owner’s house, talked loudly and articulately and demanded they give up the cat or I’d go to authorities. I walked out with the animal in hand, then got the hell out of Dodge before they had a chance to consider doing to me what had been done to a 4lb animal – malnourishment, a broken jaw, wax burn marks, and a respiratory infection that required massive doses of antibiotics.)

But I’d had enough of this big grey bully, so I made the call. I am now extremely grateful that the Humane Society doesn’t loan traps anymore. Everything I’m about to write would never have happened if they had.

In my mind, the big grey tabby was a mean, feral nuisance. That was the only side of himself that he’d shown since he appeared in my life on a cold winter day. Then, on a cool June morning, I walked outside to feed my cats, and there he was, at the dish. Just sitting.

He didn’t run. He didn’t hiss. Instead, he looked at me and meowed. Tentatively, so tentatively, I knelt down, slowly reached out, and touched his fur. Of course, he immediately pulled away, and so we began a dance that would go on for much of that week. By the end of it, he had a name – Lammy, short for Lamington Deer, and he had established himself firmly in not only our home, but our hearts.

He wasn’t feral at all. He understood simple commands and responded to kitty talk. The second week he was ‘tame’; I tricked him into the cat carrier and took him to be neutered. I worried this act would violate the trust I’d been working so hard to build; it didn’t. During his convalescence, I attempted to make him an inside cat, but he wasn’t having it. Amazingly, he was house-trained rather than litter-box trained. Each morning, he’d wake me before dawn to go outside. I would stand by the door and wait, and within a few minutes, he was back, ready for breakfast. When I pulled into my drive each afternoon, he was there by the door, waiting.

It was a beautiful thing. Each day we grew to love him more. My son called him his ‘brother,’ and I called him my ‘soul kitty’. He had the freedom to go outside, where he loved to be, but spent much of his time indoors, with us. Although he never became too chummy with my other cats, he did mellow out considerably (neutering has that effect!) and they existed in a state of feline truce, giving each other considerable space.

We, however, did not give Lammy space. We enveloped him with love, and he ate it up. He had obviously had owners, once. But what had transpired to lead him to our door, we never questioned. “He could have gone to anyone, but he came to us,” I’d tell my son. And we were so grateful. His role in our family was that of an equal member. When we went on vacations, I’d check in with my neighbor near continuously to make sure he was okay. My friends teased me about Lammy, how much I adored him. But they adored him as well; it was impossible not to.

My son would often tease me about taking Lammy with him when he grew up and moved out. “Oh no,” I’d say, “Lammy stays here.”

And in all honesty, I believed that he would stay here, forever.

But it wasn’t to be. I was at work when I got the call. My father had came by my house to drop off some kale from the garden and seen a big grey tabby cat, killed in the road. He was almost 100% sure it was Lammy, so he moved him from the road to a safe spot where I could identify the body later. My heart fell to the floor. No, I thought. No, no, no, Lammy doesn’t go to the road. He just stays around the house, or in the garden. He lies under the eggplant bushes, or by the front door. He doesn’t go to the road, ever. Quickly, I contacted my neighbor. “It doesn’t look like him,” she said. “It’s too fluffy. Like a bigger cat or animal.”

But somehow, deep down inside, I knew that my father would not have taken such care to put the body in a safe spot and contact me at work unless he believed that it was Lammy. He knew how much I loved that cat, how much my son loved that cat. When school ended, I sat Eric down, and told him what had happened. Tough as it would be, I believed he deserved to know the truth. We drove home, praying ardently that my neighbor was right and that my father was wrong.

At home, we walked to the place where the body lay. For an instant, I thought it was a raccoon, or rather, had convinced my mind to see a raccoon (as if my woodsman father would confuse a raccoon with a cat!) but the black bottomed feet ruled out all doubt. And in that moment, our hearts broke wide open. I carried him to the back yard, my son in tears beside me. I did not try to hide my own. My only solace was that the injuries were ‘clean’, there was no external damage and death would have been instantaneous. Still, I’d rather someone else have been there to lift him up, carry him back across the road, to my yard, and dig the hole for burial. I wanted to be in the house, distancing myself from this reality, the way my mother used to do when we lost a family pet. My life, however, has been nothing like my mother’s. With my son weeping beside me, I dug the hole, and then placed the body in the ground.

When our dog died two years before, my son took total part in the burial process, helping to dig the hole and cover the body with dirt. His tears came later, when we got home and the emptiness of the house was too much. But he is older now; he understands better now both the depths of loving another creature and the finality of death. His grief was overwhelming, as was mine. The house, again, seems empty.

Now an angel cat statue and a flower pot sit atop the spot of ground where Lammy rests. Nearly a week later, I still shed tears at some point every day. I miss him the most at night, and on lazy mornings. Lammy brought us so much joy, and so many lessons about the unexpected. His surly demeanor I discovered was merely a front for fear; it melted completely with a little love and affection, and he became one of the dearest animals I’ve ever had the privilege to love. His time with us was short, only a year and a half, but the memories we made will last a lifetime. He taught me to look beyond first impressions and surly demeanors, to be careful what assumptions I might make, to give something a chance to come around to kindness in it's own time, and to remember almost every creature simply needs to feel safe before it can feel loved. Lammy came to us, when he could have went to anyone. I'll not forget that blessing. Nothing happens without purpose.

“My heart is starting to heal back again,” my son says to me this morning. “When I think of Lammy now, I can do it and not cry.”

“Good,” I say. “That’s the place you want to be in.”

I’m hoping I get there soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Zen and the Art of...

Or should I say, living.

I think, after 39 years, I still know so little about the latter. I wake up to thunder showers, which I love. But they evoke a melancholy that I will likely struggle with for the remainder of the day.

It's okay; it's been a long time coming. I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from feelings I did not want to confront by immersing myself in the pleasure of beautiful whirls and swirls and words and promises and surprises and smiles and the warm, lovey-dovey dream-being-fulfilled feelings that events of the last few months have conjured. I cruised through August, September and October with a smile that could guide a ship to shore, so bright it was.

There is a funny thing about being hurt, though. When you don’t acknowledge the pain, it festers like a neglected wound. You can distract yourself completely from the horrible way someone else made you feel, but it unless you finally confront it, acknowledge it, and accept that maybe, just maybe, everyone else was right about them and you were wrong, the hurt feelings are going to keep coming back again and again, rising up when you least expect it. Like the venomous snake on the floor of my home recently, waiting for me when I stepped through the door, catching me so off guard I almost made an impulsive decision that could have been quite costly, hurt feelings that catch us by surprise have the potential to bite. Hard.

But here is the thing about snakes - faster than the speed of light is their strike. We don’t even know we’ve been bitten until we see the blood. The pain comes later, as the poison settles in, getting worse and worse as time progresses. It paralyzes the muscles, all the way from the site of the bite to the heart. It's not an easy thing to endure, and yet, knowing this, all of this, there is still, inside of me, some botched idea that if I approach from the right direction, move in the right way, if the snake knows that my intention is not to harm, that it won’t bite me.

But it I am not the snake whisperer. I've got the scars to prove that snakes strike out in self-defense, even if your intentions are good.

I close my eyes, listening to the sound of rain hitting the windows. There is a sweet, sweet sadness to the start of this day. I’ve been running away from how I feel for a long time, and I’m not sure anymore about the direction I’m heading. The worst part is no one can show me, and I’ve lost confidence in my own ability to tell. Now I’m just riding the wave of it all, seeing what happens, and feeling numbness inside more than anything else. I flow through my morning asanas, reminding myself to breathe. Breath in your feelings, my mind says. Breathe through them, and let them go.

My friend Eddy tells Cherokee stories to children at school, and I listen with the same rapt attention that they give him. I’ve heard this one many times before, the tale of a young man fooled by a rattlesnake. It’s a long story, but in short, the snake begs the boy to pick him up and put him in his shirt, because it is so cold and without warmth the snake will die. Because the boy wants to believe the snake is good, he picks it up and tucks it into the folds of his shirt. When he feels the sting of the snake’s bite, he’s startled. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” the boy cries.

“But you knew what I was when you picked me up,” the snake says as it slithers off into the night.

The kids love the story. I wonder, however, if they really understand it. Probably not right now. In twenty years, maybe...

Yesterday evening, a friend came over, and we swifted some skeins of yarn in preparation for holiday projects. I enjoyed the friendly banter and the calming repetitiveness of the work, but it was the feel of natural fibers in my hands that I found the most soothing. This connection to the natural world evoked the same healing that spending time outdoors has always given me. There is some spectacular beauty to sitting at a kitchen table, as women 100 years ago or more might have done, swifting yarn while children played in the neighboring rooms. My friend’s swifter was handmade for her by someone she knows. I cannot imagine a more beautiful gift than one like this, made by hand. Even though it isn’t mine, I’m sad to see it go when she leaves. Something about using that simple instrument seemed to free me just a little from the heaviness that’s been resting where it shouldn’t. It seemed to make laughter a little easier, to make life a little better in some small way. My swifted skeins of yarn sit ready in the basket to be transformed into beautiful things. I am the alchemist of this fiber, I will make with it what I like, and it will simply form to my wishes. Perhaps this is what I love most about the craft; it is the one small area in life where I begin something with the end in mind. Knitting follows patterns; it actually makes sense. Life...not so much.

I’ve heard it said that we may forget what another person says or does, but we will never, ever forget how they made us feel. This is so true. The idealist in me wants to live in a way that lifts others up, but the realist in me has learned that this attitude will not keep others from bringing me down, or even knocking me down. Still, the dreamer in me wants to believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, I am not a fool to care as much as I do, whether it is about people or snakes. Sometimes those lines get blurred anyway.

I’m ecstatic; my son has learned to tie his shoes. He’ll soon be another year older. We plan the party. Time passes, mercifully healing all wounds as it marches on.

It is the only thing that does.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A World of Value

Yesterday, I spent the entire morning and afternoon painting... home, that is. It's been long overdue, and I was just in the mood for the mini-vacation that redecorating can sometimes be. I was ecstatic by the way the dry-brush technique looked, and inspired to take a bold leap of color with some red paint I had left over from another project. My son had a friend over and they sat at the table for hours, engaged in building a Lego city. Periodically, he came to check my progress. A lover of beauty, his eyes widened when he saw me painting the door red. "Oh, Mama, our house is the most beautiful of all," he said. I smiled.

When a friend called later, and asked what I was doing, I answered, "Painting."
"Oh I'm glad to hear that," she said. "It's about time you started a new painting." For a moment, I didn't respond. Then I simply said, "I'm painting my bathrooms and hallway, not a canvas." "Oh," she said, and shifted the conversation to the reason for her call.

The previous weekend, in a second hand store shopping for new reading material to have on hand for the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, I discovered a little gem called The Wisdom of the Elders, a collection of quotes by esteemed African American women and men compiled by Robert Fleming. The book's cover, featuring a linocut by artist Elizabeth Catlett, caught my eye, and I opened up to a random page to find a quote by Jean Toomer called, 'A World of Value."

"I must see my understandings produce results in human experience. Productivity is my first value. I must make and mold and build life. As an artist, I must shape human relationships. To me, life itself is the greatest material. I would far rather form a man than form a book. My whole being is devoted to making my small area of expertise a work of art. I am building a world."

To that, Fleming had added, "Novelist Jean Toomer, noted for his classic work Cane, wrote about the need to elevate the purpose of our lives above the usual pursuit of the dollar. Blind materialism rarely offers us the kind of positive outlets that allow us to tap into the totality of who we are. How many of us work for forty years without stopping to cultivate human relationships outside of the family or workplace?

It's not enough to fill our homes with pretty or costly things. We must be conscious of how we live, the colors we use on the canvases of our lives. We must open ourselves up to new experiences, new adventures, and new friendships. We must free ourselves from the prison of ego and habit and reshape our ideas of who we are.

The artful life begins when we take hidden dreams within us and bring them to life. Life as art affirms the best that is in us.

My life is a work of art."

Of course, I bought the book.
For months now, I've made it a point to do a variety of things that, for odd reasons, I've always wanted to do but hadn't. Small things. Visiting The Rock House, a local landmark that inspires much legend and lore. Wrapping my hair up in a beautiful scarf, gypsy style. Painting all of my doors red. Making Baba Ganoush from scratch. Going to the beach on my birthday weekend, staying at an ocean front hotel and diving into the sea on the morning of my birth. Seeing The Angel Oak Tree. Taking my son to a Renaissance Festival. Attending a knitting retreat, and mastering the most complicated pattern I've encountered since I first picked up my needles. The list goes on and on, but in order to do all of these new and wonderful things, I've had to lay down ego and habit and reshape my own ideas of who I am.

For years I spent my evenings alone with brushes and paint. I’m not sure what I was ultimately going for, but I was disciplined as hell. If I wasn't painting, I was writing. When I wasn't doing either of those things, I was thinking of what I could be painting or writing. What I wasn't always doing, however, was living. I'm sad to say there was a time when most of my friendships were maintained via email or text. I was just too busy to give any real, actual time to anyone...or was I? Truth is, I was no busier then than I am now. My priorities were simply skewed. I had, along the way, forgotten that it is pretty dang hard to paint about life, or write about life, if you aren't actually living your life. Whether it is big things or small, if you don't step away from time to time and allow yourself new friendships, new adventures, and new experiences, your subject matter becomes redundant...just like life.

This morning, as I went downstairs for coffee, I had to smile at the gazillion jillion coffee cups and wine glasses and tiny little saucers that were strewn all about my den and kitchen. It was a nice time, last night, as coffee gave way to wine and later back to coffee and there was laughter and friendship and my son, maturing by leaps and bounds every day, saying goodnight to everyone and putting himself to bed on his own, and the ones who left early and the ones who stayed later and the one who stayed longest and the talk we had as we tidied up the remnants of foods from the kitchen table. This was no Saturday evening alone, laboring over a canvas, trying to express the same idea in a new way while trying to keep alive a skeleton of a social life through texts and social networking. I've had enough evenings like that to do me for a long, long time. And while I'm still passionate about creating, I'm more passionate now about living. Fully. In the moment. I still have goals, but they are not the same as they were before. And that's okay.

I want to tell my friend, who for some reason needs to compartmentalize me as a painter only and is oddly bothered I'm not showing or making art right now, that change is the only thing in life that is a constant, no matter else what we try to hold on to. I want to tell her that writing is the only creative constant that I've never ebbed and flowed with, and that every experience I live becomes words in my head that I store for future reference, that even if I'm not talking about it, I'm working on the new story everyone's been asking about, only I'm doing it slowly, because I've got a life to live and child to raise and people to love and things to grow and make and mornings to spend on my patio with coffee listening to the birds sing and evenings to watch the sky turn dim, and then release its burst of stars, while I breath in deeply the night air and watch the foxes slip out of their hidden dens. I want to tell her that there is no hurry. That there is time. And that time is now. And it will all be as it's meant to be, so long as I remain strong and focused on what I know I want for my life. I do not buckle under what I've seen take down so many others - fear and the need to control. Or maybe fear of the loss of control. Or maybe just fear.

Gone now are the tiniest remnants of doubt that still lived in me. Life is nothing without risks, big or small. Sometimes the smallest risk takes the most courage. I write a lot about '20 seconds of insane courage,' a line I loved from movie I saw months ago. But in truth, courage isn't something that can be suddenly mustered up in a matter of seconds. It's simply something that is in us...or not. It took courage for me to step away from the habits, routine and ego associated with the way I'd lived for so long, to throw away familiarity and embrace new, untried ideas about living fully, in the moment. I want to tell my friend that living fully is a totally relevant thing, relevant to the person who is doing the living. In the end, only we know if our lives are what we want them to be. From the outside looking in, others see what they are conditioned to see. They interpret our lives based on their own experiences. This is not the gauge we should use to assess how we're doing; that mistake can be fatal to our spirits. Only we know what truths lay behind the words we write, the statuses we post, the pictures that can make even the most dysfunctional situation seem idyllic. Only we know if enough courage lies within us to seek our treasure, whatever and where ever it may be.

I want to tell my friend that I'm painting my house, not a canvas, because this is where I live right now, and it should be as beautiful as it can possibly be. That my red door makes me deliriously happy every time I see it, and that the piece of plant I found on the balcony of the hotel at the beach is growing just like I knew it would.
I want to tell her all of this and more, but I don't, because I know she won't understand. I'm not painting, haven’t since late summer, and she's determined to find out why. But I can’t tell her. I can only write this, hope she sees it, and understands.