Widening the CircleFeatured
“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and it’s beauty.”
A year ago today, just before Thanksgiving, we said goodbye to our Siberia cat. Only 14 months old, he was lost to us when the FIP virus took hold, and he joined his brother Jaguar after a short time of living between worlds. This Halloween, we mingled their ashes, and gave them a resting place under young birch trees in our back garden. They joined the circle of other cats who passed before them, with river rocks on each grave, and a pole at the center commemorating the best cats ever, truly loved. Letting our tears flow once again, we set them free.
Back in the house on that bright, bitter afternoon, we were welcomed by curious cats with paws mostly in this world. Our old man Finn is fading, but he still loves to cuddle and eat, his purrs rumbling through his frail body. It amazes us that a cat who has been through so much still greets the morning with enthusiasm. Sam, Siberia’s best friend, has matured into a handsome, plush cat with a tail that curls joyfully over his back. That attribute has earned him the nickname of Teapot. Unexpectedly, our goofy Teapot occupies the role of alpha cat.
Max, who came into Sam’s life while he was mourning Sibs, is a focused, serious boy. He is strong now. Only occasionally does he show signs of the fractures he sustained as a kitten before he was rescued in California and sent to Seattle to heal and find his forever home. With his broad head and compact, muscular body, he maintains quite a presence. He is Max to the max, and plays the role of social facilitator because he never, ever misses a cue.
And then, there are our newcomers, the Whidbey Island cats, both former ferals, who made themselves at home immediately. Jasper, he of handsome grayness and crossed eyes, is enamored of Sam, and their friendship has bloomed. We sometimes slip and call him Siberia. He is a dear, quirky cat, willing to fill the hole left by another gray cat who was almost as long, lean, and loquacious as he. Valentine, our only girl, is a charming little one. She sees one of her humans approach, winks and blinks, tilts her head, and flops for tummy rubs. She and Max have a crush on each other. It is very sweet how this has all worked out. And just so no one worries, we still find Sam and Max cuddled together, too. No exclusivity in this household.
A year later, our hearts are filled with memories and gratitude for this fine family of ours.
“Compassion is a verb.”
– Thích Nhất Hạnh
There are days I wonder how we got so lucky. Even with the inevitable ups and downs of life, we have countless gifts, and more than enough to share.
In these moments of reflection, I hear words that linger from a difficult discussion I had with a friend when I started work at an animal shelter years ago. “How,” she asked, “Can you justify investing so many resources in animals when humans struggle to survive?” I answered as best I could, but the question haunted me. I used to think of it each time I donated to a pet food drive, or wrote a check to a rescue. I’d like to say that my contributions to other causes are equal, but most years, they fall short. Does that make me an uncaring person? I’ve wrestled with that for a long time, and I know I am not alone.
Over time, as I have worked with both humans and animals in need, a larger truth has emerged: genuine compassion knows no bounds. During my years as a humane educator, I learned that when young children are taught to value animals, they are more likely to become compassionate adults. The reverse is painfully true as well. I remember presenting in classrooms and hearing horrific stories about how animals were treated in some children’s homes. I always shared this information with teachers afterward, and more often than not, they were already aware of other manifestations of domestic violence in those families. The stories prompted family advocates to look closer and intervene if necessary. I hoped that the cycle of violence could be broken there, and that these children could heal from what they had seen and experienced. Without that healing, the violence would most likely enslave another generation.
I am not saying that caring about animals, or supporting organizations that do, is enough to change the world. But it is a valid starting point. If we can love an animal, we have hearts. If we have hearts, we can open them to other people as well. Sometimes the pain of living with open eyes and open hearts is overwhelming, but the more we exercise our compassion, the stronger we get, and the more we can take on.
“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”
Over the last few months as more and more refugees have fled their war-torn homelands, I felt a level of despair I did not fully understand until recently. In September, after receiving results of a DNA ancestry test, I began to unravel a mystery. My mother and grandparents escaped from Hungary at the beginning of World War II after my great-grandfather was shot to death in a breadline when the Nazis entered Budapest . They fled to England, and waited for nearly two years until they could get safe passage to the United States. I grew up hearing stories about the war: the frozen bodies my aunts stepped over trying to get soup to starving friends on the other side of the Danube; the air raids in England that haunted my mother every time she heard sirens; and the eery silence of ships crossing the Atlantic in the dark of night to get people safely to Ellis Island.
I took those stories in, empathically feeling the terror that prompted my family to seek safety. And still, I knew there was more. In grade school, I read Anne Frank’s memoir and learned about the Holocaust. I asked my mother if our family was Jewish. No, she said. She reminded me every time I asked that her mother, my only American born ancestor, was of Irish heritage and a devout Catholic, and her father was a Lutheran. I pushed for more information as I got older, but could never get it. The vaults were sealed.
As a child, I had many Jewish friends. Then, as a teenager, I found safe haven with a family who survived the Holocaust. They were Orthodox Jews who welcomed me into their home day or night, no questions asked about why I needed shelter. I learned about their traditions, savored food from their kosher kitchen, and was always included in lively political debates at Shabbat dinners. Their humor and compassion helped me make it through difficult times.
More than once, my chosen family told me that I seemed like another of their children. Was I sure my family wasn’t Jewish? I wondered, too. In college, I pondered conversion, and wore a Star of David with a small cross in it. As an adult, I chose to walk my own spiritual path, but have for years lit candles at Hanukkah. Dear friends have gifted me with mezuzahs to hang by my doors. Art pieces filled with prayers, they have moved from home to home with me, and are there for us to touch now as we go in and out of our house.
When I was notified that my DNA results were available, I took a deep breath and looked. More a validation than a surprise, they revealed the truth. My ancestry is 25% Ashkenazi. Until I can reconstruct my family tree, I will not know when my grandfather’s family converted to Christianity. I can guess that it was between the wars when the world became increasingly dangerous and thousands of Hungarian Jews made the wrenching decision to change their identities.
My immediate family escaped. They were refugees, part of the diaspora, those fortunate ones who got out while they could to find somewhere safe to live. As I do my research, I will no doubt uncover the names of family members who did not get out alive. I think of my chosen family, with numbers tattooed on their arms, whose parents perished in the camps. And whose cousins may have been on the boat of refugees who were turned back when they reached America.
Every generation has been challenged to deal with waves of refugees. And every generation has had members who turned boats back, and refused to acknowledge the humanity of people in life-or-death situations. In turn, they abandoned their own humanity.
Right now, it is important to remember that in each generation, there have also been those who reached out to help in extraordinary ways. They were the quiet heroes who took enormous risks to get slaves to the underground railroad, transport Jews to safety, airlift orphans out of Viet Nam. They were not able to change the course of history, but they made a difference.
And just as significant have been the cumulative contributions made by everyday heroes who help out in ordinary ways. In our current situation, with a world coming apart at the seams, we need more than ever to reach out however we can. That begins with overcoming our fear of strangers. A current Facebook meme says it all.
What to do if Syrian refugees relocate to your neighborhood:
Bring them food, clothes, cooking utensils,
hygiene items, books, toys, or shoes.
This is probably what they’ll need most,
apart from your friendship.
“We only have what we give.”
Last Thanksgiving, I prepared to celebrate my 60th birthday after a year marked by loss and grief As I have since childhood, I found solace in animals, and in people who care passionately about animals. My beloved partner walked every step of the way with me to that significant birthday, and to this next one, and I will be forever grateful for her patience, understanding, and love. I am thankful to all of my two- and four-legged friends who helped me keep my weary heart open as I started a new decade. I ask all of you to be extra kind to each other in these times of great challenge and opportunity. Our future depends on it. May we all find ways to widen our circles of compassion.
Champions of the Undercat
February 10, 2015
A Toast to the Most Marvel-ous of Kittens
A person is a person, no matter how small.
This, and subsequent quotes, from Dr. Seuss
Over the last few months, cat lovers all over the world watched a very special kitten grow into his happy, healthy place in the world. Professor Marvel of the Kittens of Oz, he of the cleft nose and unique mouth, graduated from Tiny Kittens Headquarters late last week and was adopted into his forever home with sibling Toto. Everyone cheered, and some brave souls, including his foster mom, admitted to being teary eyed. After all, we watched this guy from the time he was born, took his first bottle, and later plunged his little face into a big bowl of mushy kitten food. He was OK! His cheerful countenance started and ended our days, and now, he is off camera.
Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.
Many years ago, as I prepared to adopt my second cat, I wandered into the Denver Dumb Friends League and read a pamphlet about how to choose a new companion. I was advised to select the healthiest-looking and the most outgoing cat in the group, the one who, with bright eyes, strolls energetically to the cage door, puts out a paw, and says, “Take ME home!”
Of course, being a contrarian and the perpetual champion of under-cats, I let my heart make the decision. Huddled at the back of the cage, a tiny gray and white girl looked at me with eyes filled with green goop, and hope. I knew my wonderful vet could take care of what ailed her, so off we went. Pamphlet be damned, because that sickly kitten grew into a beautiful sleek cat, and a dear friend.
Flash forward fifteen years, and there I am again, this time working at a shelter. Initially hired to create an education and outreach program, I did not officially do adoptions for the first several months I was there. That said, I kept track of every special needs cat who came into the shelter, and helped place as many of them as I could until I had exhausted the goodwill of friends. Most stopped answering my calls after a while, and one warned that if I told her about another blind, three-legged cat, she would stop speaking to me altogether.
It was rough to hit the wall of reality as hard as I did. The fact was, and sadly remains that there are exponentially more cats than there are homes for them. And many, if not most, potential adopters move to the next cage when they see a special needs cat. To be effective as both a humane educator and an adoption counselor, I had to become “practical”, a word I often loathe. Adulthood, with all its burdens, is not all it is cracked up to be.
Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.
In quiet moments, I can remember what it was like to be a child who loved all creatures without qualification. My grandparents had a dog with epilepsy, and one night, he had a seizure under the dinner table. We children were rushed out of the room, but I wanted to stay and comfort Beau, even though I was warned he might unintentionally bite me. It was natural to reach out, even through my own fear.
At that tender age, I started to champion beings of all species who lived on the margins. And then I began to realize that I was one of them. In third grade, a well-meaning but poorly informed teacher tried to help me write in cursive with my right hand. Until then, I had been decidedly left-sided, and as I tried my best to comply, everything went haywire. I started to reverse numbers and letters, reading was no longer easy, and although no one knew much about it at the time, I was clearly struggling with dyslexia. I pushed myself to figure out ways around it, and while I did well in school, the whole process was exhausting. It still is, although I now appreciate the value of experiencing the world through visual images. As difficult as it has been, my learning disability led me down a creative path to art.
And like so many children, I realized early on that I would never fit in with society’s expectations, let alone my parents’. I marched to a different drummer from the beginning, and by the time I was in high school, realized I was falling in love with my best friend. Ooops! At least I had the good sense not to tell her, or anyone else, until I was safely on my own.
After coming out in my early 20’s, I joined a feminist publishing collective. We spent a lot of time talking about the personal as political, and late one night after an editorial meeting, we sat around our typewriters and talked about messages we’d gotten about ourselves as young girls. Everyone shared stories about growing up, some funny, others sad or infuriating. When it was my turn, I pointed to my large, muscular legs. My mother, a beautiful woman who could easily have been a model, once asked me to stop riding my bike so my legs wouldn’t be so un-ladylike. Ouch! I never once considered abandoning my bike, but I felt the sting. I confessed to my fellow collective members that, even though I knew better, I was still embarrassed by my legs. One asked, “What’s wrong with them? Can’t you walk?” Yes, I could walk, and at the time, ran over 5 miles a day. “So, stop with that already,” she added, “And accept your own beauty.”
Every time I see someone who really struggles to walk and defies all physical odds, I think about the courage it takes to cross the street. And the beauty of determination.
Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
So, years ago, I threw out that adoption pamphlet, and have had the great joy of living with a variety of cats, many of whom had special needs from the outset, or later in their lives. It seems my partner and I have recently adopted another special cat, this time without knowing it.
After our beloved Siberia died in November, his companion Sam let us know he wanted a new friend sooner rather than later. We started to peruse Petfinder, found the perfect match, traveled across the water to meet him, and walked into a distant adoption event just as another family was finishing their paperwork. It felt as if we had lost yet another little gray cat, one we hadn’t even known. The tears welled up once again as we made our way back home without a new friend for Sam.
Back to Petfinder, and this time we read about a cute little black cat, the right age and temperament, who, in his description, promised to be a good kitty. This time, the adoption process was rigorous. We did a phone interview and meet-and-greet, and the rescue did extensive reference checks and a home visit. We were glad to comply, but there was a little glitch. Even though the organization soon knew everything about us, they hadn’t told us everything about Max. At the home visit, the shelter worker congratulated us on a successful adoption, and said, “You know about his hip, right?” His hip? Seems the staff we interviewed with at the rescue did not know that Max had major surgery in September, and the woman who delivered him to us could tell us nothing more about it. Of course, we had already fallen in love, and had committed to taking care of this little guy. We certainly were not going to send him back.
Max and Sam immediately became good buddies, and the day after their introduction raced around the house for several, joyous hours. And then, Max began to limp, and we started making calls to connect the dots. He was hit by a car in California, where he was initially rescued, and the shelter there covered surgery to repair his broken pelvis. He was then sent to Washington to recover at a local vet clinic before being put up for adoption.
Everyone at the rescue fell in love with this indomitable character, who charms humans and cats alike. Max was their official dog tester, and we can understand why. Despite everything that has happened to him, he is a rough-and-tumble cat with complete self-confidence, and a great sense of humor. Best of all, he adores Sam, and is gentle with our old Finn cat. We are told that it will still take several months for him to heal, and that he needs to keep building strength. He will either be completely fine, or he will always have a limp and an interesting way of arranging his back legs when he rests, a quirky sploot, if you will. Either way, we are keeping him as comfortable as possible as he develops more muscle, even if that requires some time-outs for rest. He doesn’t like that one bit, but Sam appreciates little pieces of peace and quiet.
Our new black cat came to us with the name of Georgie, but was quick to agree to a change. He is Max, king of the Wild Things, who returns home for dinner after his wild rumpus. We are so glad he chose us. For being adults, we aren’t half bad.
Why fit in when you born to stand out?
A few weeks ago, I had the great fortune of visiting Shelly and the Kittens of Oz. There were some bittersweet moments as I delivered the framed portrait I had created of the Jungle Kittens, but there was another reason for my visit.
In November, as I wrote about losing Siberia, I started the blog with Shelly’s voice. I had the cam up as I worked that day, and could hear her speaking gently to mama-cat-to-be Dorothy as she began contractions. The next day, the mother of Oz finally went into long, hard labor, and had no idea what to do with her kittens as they were born. Had Shelly not taken over, none of them would have survived, and that most likely includes Dorothy.
I remember how Shelly reacted as she cleaned Marvel and noted that his nose was different. There was no trace of panic, but she was curious. From the very beginning, Shelly saw him as especially cute, and perfect in his own way. We all breathed a sigh of relief when Dr. Ferguson examined him soon after and said that barring anything wrong internally, she thought Marvel would thrive with bottle feedings if he could not nurse. He couldn’t, and Shelly fed him around the clock until he started eating on his own. Everyone watching this unfold was hooked even more than they had been.
Shelly touches countless people through her work with the Langley Animal Protection Society. But there is more to this magic than just fostering on camera. Tiny Kittens engages viewers through our hearts and imaginations, and Marvel became a symbol of something we all want for ourselves.
If we are honest, each one of knows that something about us is different, and may well not be valued by a culture that narrowly defines perfection. No one can ever really fit the definition, but we can waste a good deal of our lives trying to change ourselves and squeeze into a box that is much too small. What if we had someone like Shelly to tell us that we were perfect not in spite of – but because of – our special little nose and mouth (or our unique way of learning, or our strong legs)? What if we knew that we are just fine as we are?
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better. It’s not.
Everyone who watched the Kittens of Oz knew that it would be particularly hard for Shelly to say goodbye to Marvel, and a small but mighty group decided to do something special to thank her for including us in this journey. A secret group came together, and everyone enthusiastically suggested ideas of what Shelly would like. Soon, it became apparent that nothing in the world would mean more to her than support of a project near and dear to Shelly’s heart. She has been working steadfastly to raise awareness of the need for a separate building at LAPS to house cats with potentially infectious diseases. Everyone agreed to raise money for the ISOasis, and within a few weeks, $6000 was raised in secret. Donors generosity was matched by the growing excitement as the dollar total climbed. At the end of the drive, no one could quite believe what had been accomplished, but all knew this would be an incredible surprise for Shelly.
I proposed doing a portrait of Marvel as a gift to her, and everyone chimed in with great design ideas and support. When I work with the image of an animal, the process is as different as his or her own personality. Collaborating with Marvel was sheer delight, but ever the Professor, he wanted to teach me something new about my medium. First question: how to capture the coloring of his eyes? The Oz kittens all have remnant fetal tissue in their irises, and while it causes no problems with vision, it is, well, different to capture. I expanded a close-up of Marvel’s eyes on my computer until I found the right combination of transparent papers to give them depth. And then there was that special nose. After hours of trying to shape the paper, I built a little armature, using a pair of chopsticks to form the cleft. I could hear the universe chuckle.
When I arrived at TKHQ for my visit, I secretly passed the portrait to a co-conspirator before I had even gotten a glimpse of Marvel. During the next hour, I held him and several of his siblings for brief moments before they squirmed away to join the play action on the floor. Later, when he was ready to nap, Marvel cuddled in my arms for a long time, and I studied every detail of his dear face. Unless I am portraying my own cats, I rarely have the opportunity to look so closely. Or feel so connected. That experience was a gift, one for which I will be forever grateful.
Shelly was presented with the donation to the ISOasis and the portrait the day after Dorothy and the kittens of Oz started the next chapter of their lives in new homes. Every person who donated to the ISOasis shares the same heartfelt wish for Marvel, his family, and all the cats who will eventually benefit from the ISOasis: love and good care for the length of their lives, and the chance to be treasured as a unique individuals.
And now, a parting message from Marvel, Champion of all Undercats:
I may be super special, and so is my foster mom. But there are many super special cats, and some really great people who take care of them. They all need support, so don’t forget your local rescues and shelters. Share the love, and send them a donation. And remember that rescue cats are the very best. Just tell them Marvel says so!
The Mystery of Grace
November 25, 2014
I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us. Anne Lamott
November 17th: it is a chilly, clear afternoon, unusual for November in the Pacific Northwest. I am fortunate to be home in my studio after a weekend at work, and am piecing bits of paper into a portrait of dark Maine Coon cat. Many of my commissions are memorials, and today, I am glad to work with this beautiful cat who is still alive and well.
In my office, the laptop is tuned to the Tiny Kittens livestream, as foster mom Shelly speaks quietly to Dorothy, a soon-to-be mama cat beginning labor. From my studio next door, I cannot make out Shelly’s words, but her tone soothes me as well. Even at a distance, the experience feels intimate. This sweet cat makes her birthing nest in my soul.
In the living room, our beloved Siberia is resting in the sun. A year ago, Shelly gently coaxed him back to health from pneumonia. He was determined to survive, and with her help, he did. But now, with characteristic courage, he has embarked on his own journey to rejoin his brother. Feline Infectious Peritonitis, an incurable monster of a virus, claimed Jaguar Jake in April, and has now come for Sibs. Once again in this year of loss, our hearts are shattering.
Through tears, I do my best to focus on the paper cat in front of me, and I take frequent breaks, drifting back to the computer to see if Dorothy is any closer to having her kittens, and then to the couch to make sure Siberia is warm and comfortable. This last time, I notice that he has let his friend Sam sleep next to him. We adopted Sam in June, and he and Sibs bonded immediately. We were sure the two of them would have many happy, healthy years together. But fate has made other plans, and Sam is as confused and sad as we are.
On my way back to the studio, I remember something I wrote years ago while doing wildlife rehabilitation: Midwifery and hospice work are two aspects of the same work, both labors of love and life.
I am all the ages I’ve ever been. Ann Lamott
In the middle ground between birth and death, there is, with any luck, the chance to get older and wiser. In a few days, I turn sixty, an incomprehensible thought to me. As a teenager, I had a premonition of death at forty three. At forty four, that sped ahead to fifty eight. With a sigh of relief, I gave up my career as an oddsmaker last year.
Fortunately, I have never been afraid of aging. For sixteen years, I taught with Seniors Making Art, an organization started by Dale Chihuly to get working artists into retirement and care facilities. Always an inspiration to me, many of my students explored their creativity for the first time in their long lives, and they always celebrated when they mastered a new technique. Others already knew about expressing themselves artistically, and they generously shared their knowledge and enthusiasm. How could anyone fear age when surrounded by so much creative joy?
During that time, I did discover one important fact about aging. The elders who were most resilient and engaged with life were the ones who had always had a passion, who loved one thing or another with all their hearts, even if the rest of the world considered them to be eccentric. They were happy in their eccentricity, and many of them were still in service to others. Mythologist Michael Meade explains:
In old traditions those who acted as elders were considered to have one foot in daily life and the other foot in the otherworld. Elders acted as a bridge between the visible world and the unseen realms of spirit and soul . . . The old word for having a foot in each world is weird. The original sense of weird involved both fate and destiny. Becoming weird enough to be wise requires that a person learn to accommodate the strange way they are shaped within and aimed at the world.
Elders are supposed to be weird, not simply “weirdos,” but strange and unusual in meaningful ways. Elders are supposed to be more in touch with the otherworld, but not out of touch with the struggles in this world. Elders have one foot firmly in the ground of survival and another in the realm of great imagination. This double-minded stance serves to help the living community and even helps the species survive.
So here I am, about to celebrate a big birthday after some of the most wrenching months I can remember. This last year has broken my heart, and escorted me fully and irrevocably into the wyrd, the land of fate and destiny, where I may not have control, but I do have choices.
And I choose, without apology, to be an artist, a writer, and an apprentice to all of the cats I have loved and lost, the ones who are my mentors now, and the ones who will teach me even more about love in the future.
Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises. Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
In this fifty ninth year, the one I didn’t expect to experience, I have cried and laughed and loved more than ever. My partner and I found each other’s outstretched hands in the darkest moments as we lost members of our family, human and feline. We planted seeds in the spring, pulled weeds through the summer, harvested until the first frost, and prepared a space under tall trees memorialize our cats. I start a new decade knowing that I am loved and accepted. I could never ask for a better gift.
In this year, I fell in love with two amazing kittens. Jaguar Jake embodied devotion, and showed me that it is not just alright, but essential, to need someone to love without hesitation. He was with us for just two months, but his short life was full of joy and companionship. Read his story here.
In the spring, less than a month after Jaguar Jake died, we lost our intrepid Blackberry cat. She taught me about letting go of the past, about healing and trust. She was feral, seriously injured, and terrified the day we trapped her. For nearly a year, she hid from us and hissed when we got close, and then one day, she surprised herself, and us, by jumping onto my lap. Even as she succumbed to old injuries and age, she remained the most affectionate cat in our household. I will always miss waking up with her cuddled close and purring under the covers. I will forever be grateful for her willingness to take a chance with us. More of her story is here.
This autumn, Ani, the grand dame of our home, took her last breath at the venerable age of twenty two. As she aged, Ani lost her hearing, but never her sense of adventure. As her legs got stiff, she stopped chasing her tail and took up residence on the couch, where she welcomed our company with huge purrs emanating from her tiny body. My partner observed that as Ani’s world shrank, she expanded to fill new boundaries. Our little torbie had an expansive and cheerful spirit that will live forever in our hearts. Thank you, little one, for reminding me to take delight in life, even as my legs stiffen.
And then, at the end of this fifty ninth year, just a month before the beginning of a new decade, sweet Siberia was diagnosed with FIP. How would we ever be able to go through this again?
Years ago, a wise counselor shared her views about grief and aging. She told me that loss is cumulative, and that as we get older, the inevitable losses compound, one on top of the other. As we watched helplessly as Siberia began his process of dying, I felt the weight of all the other beings who have passed before him. With so much loss this year, that weight feels unbearable.
But, as my therapist also pointed out, we keep growing and never circle around to the exact same spot. Instead, our lives spiral outward and upward, and each time we come back to a familiar experience, we understand it from a slightly different perspective.
November 24: After a difficult weekend, Siberia has let us know his time is near. The vet is coming tomorrow morning. These hours are excruciating. We know this is the right thing to do, and at the same time, we do not want to let go. Home with him, aware of the clock, I have no choice but to surrender to grief, and to words.
Losing Siberia is the most painful experience of this fateful year. As I watched him on the Tinhykittens cam last year, he reminded me of another courageous gray cat, my beloved Possum who died a few years ago. I feel as if I am losing both of them twice. I know more than ever how losses compound, how they release grief from the dark places I try to forget.
But Sibs has not let me forget anything. We lost Jaguar so quickly we went through the process in a state of shock. But Siberia has stayed longer, and has not allowed us any emotional shortcuts around grief. Instead, we have been grateful for the gift of another day with him. He will live in the present as long as he can. He mourned for his brother, and then welcomed Sam into his life. He started to get sick, but he never stopped wanting to live. I will miss the intensity of his gaze, his presence to everything around him. He has been our watch-cat, keeping an eye on the birds in the backyard, and sounding the alarm when a neighbor cat challenges him outside the window. Even today, weak as he is, he remains alert, paying attention to Sam and Finn. I promised not to soak his fur in my tears, but as night falls, the last we will all spend together, I may not be able to honor that commitment.
In the last few weeks, I have worked from home as much as possible, just to be near Siberia. Most of the time, he has not want to be touched, so we have given him space, filling it with love and attentiveness. For a few hours last week, we were able to be closer. A client-turned- friend crocheted cozy blankets for Siberia and Sam, and the first night I spread one across my lap, Sibs climbed on, kneaded, and purred. I have created special quilts for countless cats, stitching each with intention. To have that gift reciprocated, and to feel Sibs receive it so fully, has touched me deeply.
Another new friend I met through this worldwide community of cat lovers made me a pair of earrings when Jaguar Jake died. She artfully wove beads together with black and silver strands to symbolize the connection between Jaguar and Siberia. I will wear them tomorrow as Sibs leaves us to join his brother. In those beautiful earrings is the embrace of everyone who watched the Jungle kittens grow, shared our joy on the day we adopted them, and our grief when we released them.
You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp. Anne Lamott
I used to dance a lot, but I did not get on the dance floor much in my fifties. I miss the feeling of freedom that comes through music and movement, and am eager to experience it again soon. But it will be different in my sixties. There is that limp, after all. There is also the gift of letting my heart break over and over, and in the process, finding my deepest passion renewed.
One night in September after Sibs started to get sick, I sat with him in the dark and made an offer to the universe. I whispered, “If you will make sure Siberia does not have FIP, I will start taking better care of myself. I want to grow old with him, and I want to do everything I can to help other cats.” This didn’t work out the way I envisioned, but I have kept my part of the bargain. Maybe the universe has as well, and I will indeed live a long and healthy life in service to the beings I love, guided by undying love for this little gray cat. Grace is indeed a mystery. Thank you, dearest Siberia, for helping me find parts of myself I thought I had lost. Loving you has changed my life.
There but for the Grace: Thoughts about Meteor Showers, and the Loss of Two Beautiful Men
August 16, 2014
Did you ever hear the story of the Fisher King? It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.”
This and subsequent quotes from the Fisher King, spoken by Parry (Robin Williams) as he and Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) watch the stars from Central Park
Shortly after nightfall on August 11, 1993, my partner and I set up chairs in the backyard and began to watch for the Perseids, a late-summer meteor shower that was supposed to be brilliant that year. Well after midnight, having spotted nothing but the stars, I gave up, knowing I had to get ready for work in a few hours. I looked through the window one last time to say goodnight to my partner, and I witnessed one bright streak across the sky. I was grateful, and inexplicably sad.
At the time, I worked at an animal shelter, and summers were brutal. We were not yet ready to make the step to become a no-kill facility, and some nights during kitten season, we euthanized up to 40 cats. It was, without doubt, the most difficult job any of us have ever done. Knowing what was ahead of us, we often found it a challenge to start our shifts.
August 12th began like any other day, with cleaning and feeding and getting ready to open the shelter. About 9:30, right before we opened the doors to the public, we got word that one of our colleagues died early in the morning. He had injected himself with a carefully calculated does of euthanasia fluid, and in his last minutes, finally gave up the struggle he had waged for years against depression.
Scott Henry was the he meteor I had seen arching towards the heavens in the dark sky.
But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.
Almost exactly 21 years later, Robin Williams’ bright spirit streaked across the night sky during this year’s Perseid showers. When I heard the news, the twin arrows of shock and grief felt familiar. My first response was, “Damn, damn, damn.” Mr. Williams’ talent and generosity touched so many of us, and it seemed we were all cheering him on as he openly challenged the demons of mental illness and addiction. He made it to 63, had his big heart fixed along the way, and we were all so sure he had finally made it through the woods.
Heartfelt and heart-rending eulogies from his many friends have been a comfort this week, as have some insightful articles about mental health. One in particular has helped me find new understanding, and the right words to use. The author asks us to stop saying that Robin Williams and countless others chose to take their lives. He points out it is sometimes mental illness that ends life, just as cancer or heart disease does. It is not a choice, or a selfish act, but the terminal point in a long term disease.
Along with the pleas from mental health professionals to start talking about mental illness and suicide, there have been the responses from people who see nothing but weakness or failure, who somehow take Robin Williams’ death personally, and are confused and angry. Others have written that disease of any kind is a manifestation of evil, proof that our world is heading into the apocalypse.
I, for one, can throw no stones.
Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
By the time I was 19, I had attempted suicide twice. I knew that the third time would be successful unless I got help. And I was incredibly lucky to find a therapist who walked slowly with me as I began to reconcile the pain of the past, and see a slight ray of hope for the future. Some sessions we barely said a word, but instead drew, engaging in a dialog of lines and color. In time, the pictures became less dark and tormented, and occasionally, opened up to blue sky.
Depression has been a frequent visitor in my life, and there isn’t a day I don’t check in to see if it is at the door again. The right therapists have shown up when I’ve most needed them. And I was given the gift of words and art to help light the darkest corners of my mind.
Above all, I have had the companionship of animals throughout this journey. I’ve often said that they saved my life when I was young, and that is not a dramatic overstatement. Family dogs sat patiently as I buried my head in their fur and cried, and one in particular followed me to my room one awful night as I felt for broken ribs and tended to bruises on my head. I found great solace outdoors, high in a favorite tree in my grandparent’s garden, eye to eye with robins and squirrels. Cats came into my life later, and my first, a Maine Coon mix, demanded I stop spinning wildly through the past, ground myself in the present, and pay attention to what she needed. I will always be grateful to her, and to the dog who got me up and outside when I wanted to crawl into oblivion during a tenacious period of depression, and to the sweet gray cat who stayed up all night with me as I decided to leave a dangerous relationship.
My choice to work with, and on behalf of animals, is born of gratitude and hope.
One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king.
My friend Scott loved animals more than anyone I have ever known. In particular, he loved cats. When I first met him, I worked in the adjacent wildlife rehabilitation clinic. We often needed to get cat food from the main shelter, and I usually found a volunteer willing to fetch it. I hadn’t been to a shelter since adopting a cat decades before, and I could not bear the thought of seeing all those animals in cages, waiting to be adopted, or to be put on the euthanasia list. Closing my eyes, I could imagine their eyes, and I became too anxious to breathe.
One day, I had no choice. I had to go into the cat room myself, so I called Scott and asked him to meet me outside and walk me through. In his gentle manner, he agreed, and with his arm around me, he introduced me to every cat there. I cried. He held me closer, reminded me to breathe, and together, we made it to the pantry.
With his help, I crossed the threshold, and within a few months, was splitting my time between the wildlife center and the shelter. I can’t say that it was ever easy work for me, but it became a passion. I helped create a plan to reduce overpopulation enough for the shelter to become a no-kill facility. Part of that mission was to offer resources for people so they could keep their companions, and I was fortunate to train with a veterinarian so I could help set up the behavior helpline for cat owners.
We made a lot of progress during my time at the shelter. But still, we had to make daily decisions about space. Thinking about that even now, I feel my stomach knot, and my eyes brim with tears. We all had our own ways of dealing with the horrible reality of euthanasia. Not surprisingly, shelter workers struggle with disproportionate issues of addiction. At the end of the day, alcohol and other numbing substances temporarily erased the memories of so many last moments.
Depression is also the bane of many shelter workers, and Scott fought it mightily. And still, even on the most difficult days, he was always there for the cats he loved. In the euthanasia room, he kissed every one before he administered the injection. All those kisses took their toll.
Scott left the shelter a few months before he died. He moved north to a smaller community to start a new life. He stayed in touch, and we were all hopeful that things were working out for him, that he was finding some respite from haunting depression and maybe even happiness in a relationship. But like a moth to the flame, he was again drawn into shelter work. Depression and hopelessness crashed down one more time.
On the last night of his life, Scott baked a cake for a neighbor’s birthday. He returned from the celebration, wrote a note to his girlfriend asking her to take care of his beloved cats, and to send his body back to his parents. Then, at the tender and treacherous age of 30, Scott died and joined all the cats he had kissed as they took their last breaths.
As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”
It has been 21 years since Scott left this world. A Google search for his name yields nothing, but for each of us who remember this kind and gentle man, the month of August is full of memories. We desperately needed to have a grief counselor at the shelter after Scott’s death, but the administration at the time was unwilling to even talk about what had happened. In the dark of a late Saturday night, we broke rules and walked with candles into the woods behind the shelter to plant a young red cedar in Scott’s memory. We tried as best we could to support each other through this shared experience of grief and loss.
And now, in this season of the Perseids, another kind and gentle man has lit the night sky with the bright glow of his intensely lived life. If anything has changed in the last 20 years, it is that we are now willing to talk about mental illness, at least a little. Robin Williams famously said, “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” I used to love that quote, but now, it stings. The madness that made Mr. Williams talented and brilliant was also his undoing. My friend Scott’s openness to the suffering of other beings, his greatest gift to the world, would not allow him to find peace in his time on earth.
In the memory of these men, and of every person who struggles in the darkness, let us begin a real discussion of what it means to be a feeling, awake person in a world that is filled with despair and hope, unthinkable horror and breathtaking beauty. And let us never forget the gifts of bright light in the night sky. May it make us more compassionate and understanding beings.
Because You Were Born
May 4, 2014
For Jaguar Jake
You were born into a strange world.
Like a candle, you were meant to share the fire.
I don’t know where we come from, and I don’t know where we go.
But my arms were made to hold you, so I will never let you go.
This and subsequent verses from “You Were Born” by Craig Minewa, Cloud Cult
I want to tell you about Jaguar Jake. And about love. I do not want to talk about loss, but that is part of this story. Mostly, though, it is about love.
In the last few years, I have written enough about kittens to have developed some immunity to their charms. Along with so many fans of sundry kitten cameras, I’ve fallen in love over and over again, flirted madly with idea of adoption, and have in the end been grateful for a sensible partner who was correct when she told me the time was not right.
In late 2013, we were both convinced that the time was indeed right, and that the pair of kittens who captured our attention and hearts would do just fine together in our household. This was not a decision made lightly. There were many discussions, as there should be. We had to think not only of them, but of our other feline residents, all older rescues with special needs of one kind or another. When it came time to submit our application, we were ready.
Jaguar Jake and his brother Siberia were born in a wooded area near an office park close to Vancouver, B.C. in early September 2013. They were rescued by a kind gentleman who found them and 8 other tiny, sickly kittens, and took them to the Langley Animal Protection Society. They came from an extended litter, with at least 2 mothers and an unknown number of fathers, all feral. It was touch and go for quite a while as these tiny survivors faced every imaginable challenge, from malnutrition and parasites to respiratory infections and a rare form of ringworm.
The only reason they made it was the care they got from LAPS, and two women in particular. Their foster mother Shelly Roche took care of them day and night, and shared the process with hundreds of Livestream viewers who watched her medicate and bathe, cuddle and comfort on camera. Shelly named each kitten after a wild cat, no doubt intending to imbue them with the courage and vitality of their namesakes. Of course, she and a cadre of faithful volunteers came up with a full litany of nicknames. Bobcat became Bobbles; Lynx, with his wily ways, is still the Lynxstigator; our Siberia is certainly the only gray tiger known as Sibby Sibs while his fierce brother Jaguar took on the moniker of Jaggy Jags, and later in our household revealed himself to be the perfect Jake.
While we all marveled at Shelly’s devotion and determination – and did I say love? – we were awed by a veterinarian who went way beyond the call of duty to help these kittens survive otherwise unbeatable odds. Dr. Renee Ferguson was on hand whenever her considerable skills were needed, and we will always be grateful to her for saving Siberia at her own home on a frightening dark night when he could have succumbed to pneumonia. I did say love, right? Dr. F did not want to neuter Sibs until his lungs were completely clear, even if that meant that he couldn’t be adopted until he was nearly 5 months old. We waited patiently, and were delighted to see pictures of the good doctor’s happy dance in early January when Sibs was finally declared snip-able. At that moment, we started to plan the drive north to pick up our boys.
And now the true love story. 8 of the Jungle kittens are tabbies, as exotically marked as their namesakes. Jaguar and Siberia were the only “solids” in the lot, with subtle stripes and spots showing through their respective dark brown and gray coats. In this group of uncertain parentage, these guys were obviously brothers. Perhaps because of that, perhaps because of Siberia’s serious illness, they were also the most bonded in the group. Shelly insisted they be adopted together, and did her very best not to separate them for even short periods. The day Sibs was neutered, Jaguar went along to be with him. The day we brought them across the border, they nearly fused in a corner of the carrier. In a rare moment when they explored their new home separately, Siberia ended up behind a closed door, and Jake came to tell us immediately.
Love your mother, yeah she’s a good one.
She’ll build you armor; keep you warm as a hen.
The stars may fall and the rains may pour,
But I will love you evermore.
BecauseYou were born to make this right.
You were born to chase the light.
In the weeks before our trip to Canada, we transformed my sewing room into a kitten kingdom. We furnished perches with beds, installed a tall climbing tree, and stocked up on every toy that looked interesting. The kittens spent the first week in there, and during our frequent visits, we started to get to know them. Despite their closeness, they were two very different characters. Jaguar Jake interacted with us most and cuddled when we held him, while Siberia was much more interested in exploring beyond the door. He was the first to escape, and walked right up to our Finn cat, tail in the air, completely self-confident. When Jake met Finn, he looked surprised, and let out the fiercest little hiss. We all laughed, and even Finn seemed amused in his own way.
Jake’s greatest delight was in stealing feather toys and running off with them. We cached some toys-in-waiting on the bottom shelf of the linen closet, and one day when we left the door ajar, the kittens discovered them. Jake grabbed a da-bird feather replacement, still on its card, and trotted proudly down the hallway. For the next several hours, he hid his prize under different pieces of furniture, always keeping tabs on it, and growling quietly if we approached. His fierceness made us laugh, because underneath the bravado was the dearest little guy, a complete goofball with a sense of humor who was very happy to be with his brother, and with us.
To make sure the kittens could eat their fill without pressure from the adult cats, we fed them in their room. It was quite a parade down the hallway from the kitchen, with Jake in the lead, peeping all the way, and Siberia halting progress by stopping in front of us to yell that we weren’t moving fast enough. Sibs started developing an adult cat voice quickly, and he uses it often enough to earn the title of Town Crier. His brother, in the meantime, stayed very much a sweet kitten, with the softest fur and the gentlest disposition we have ever had the privilege of experiencing.
With a little distance, we can now point to moments when we knew something was off with Jaguar. From the beginning, we noted that he was smaller than his brother. He ate well, and we assumed he would start catching up soon. Instead, he fell further behind, and seemed increasingly less energetic. Imminent growth spurt, we’d say. But that never happened, and as we observed changes in the shape of his stomach, my own tied itself in knots. On our first visit to the veterinarian, I finally blurted out the question that was waking me up at night: could he possibly have Feline Infectious Peritonitis? I was assured that he looked too healthy and didn’t have any overt symptoms. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that we would soon be hearing the words every cat lover dreads.
FIP is a cruel disease, impossible to detect without symptoms, and difficult to diagnose even as it becomes more obvious. At this point, there is no cure, and not even an effective treatment, especially for the wet form. It can affect one kitten in a litter, or it can kill all of them. And it moves fast. When we finally had enough test results to confirm the virus, Jake’s stomach was large enough to impair his mobility, and he was very tired. We were told that he was not in pain at that point, and we opted to try a round of steroids to help make him more comfortable.
Even through brief moments of denial, we knew what was coming, and were determined to do what was best for Jaguar Jake. And that included reminding him of how much he was loved. The day I took him in for the first test, he was separated from his brother. As I later wrote to Shelly, “I talked to J the whole way, telling him his story again, and reassuring him of how much he is loved by us, and by you. I reminded him of everything he has already overcome, and what a big, strong heart he has. On the way home, acknowledging through tears that things didn’t look good, I thanked him for being such a brave boy.”
And brave he was, until one night shortly after the last test when everything changed quickly. The signs we had been warned to watch for manifested at once. He stopped eating and was started to experience respiratory problems. Most telling to us was that he seemed frightened, and would no longer let us, or his brother, close to comfort him. We tried to reach two veterinarians who do euthanasia at home, but neither was available the next day. By morning, it was clear he was in pain, and we did not want to wait. Our regular vet saw us at the start of her shift.
Remember I want to tell a story of love, and that is what this is. Having adopted “famous” kittens, we were in a unique situation. From the beginning, we knew that the Jungle Kittens had touched the hearts of thousands of people from all over the world. After another one of those crucial pre-adoption discussions, we agreed to start a Facebook page so that fans could keep up with the last 2 Jungles to be adopted. It was a joy to post updates with pictures of Jaguar and Siberia unpacking their tiny suitcases, as Shelly would say. They settled in quickly and happily, and were so used to having their pictures taken that the new paparazzi in their lives were not unduly annoying.
The day we got Jaguar Jake’s diagnosis, we asked Shelly to notify the other Jungle adopters before we told their extended family online. Writing that post was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Every keystroke felt like an electrical shock jolting my otherwise numb body. How could this possibly be happening?
Within minutes, we started to receive messages from hundreds of heartbroken people, all expressing collective disbelief, and offering support. In his remaining days, Jake was in everyone’s hearts and thoughts. And on the terrible morning of April 11th, as we held our sweet, gentle boy for the last time, we in turn were held by friends we know well, and people we have never met, but who loved this kitten as if he were their own.
Oh my precious, oh my love, when they come to take me,
I will hold you from above.
I don’t know why we’re here, and I don’t know how,
But I’m here with you now, I am here with you now.
Because you were born to make this right.
Because you were born to change this life.
Because you were born to chase the light.
Because you were born.
That love has always included Siberia, and when people write about him now, they ask about his health, and how he is adjusting to life without his brother. FIP is unpredictable and casts a long shadow. All we know is that at the moment, Sibs is strong, healthy, and growing. It is likely that our older cats were exposed when they were younger and developed resistance. Only time will tell. Living with this uncertainty is a lesson in staying as present as possible. Getting too far ahead of ourselves and drifting to worst case scenarios does nothing for any of us, but it is a difficult trap to avoid. We are learning that staying open is a moment-to-moment decision.
As to how Siberia is adjusting, we can say that he has a resilient spirit. During the last weeks of his life, Jaguar Jake did not have the energy or strength to play. His brother began adapting then, seeking other outlets for bursts of kitten enthusiasm, and returning to Jake to cuddle and nap. The first 24 hours without Jake were wrenching as Siberia searched every corner of the house. We rearranged our work schedules during the next week so one of us would be home with him, and we have continued to provide him with plenty of opportunities to play. He now has a full array of interactive toys, and he makes his changing preferences very clear.
While he had his brother, Siberia did not need us as much as he does now. Day by day, he is getting closer to us. We got him a “bucky” to cuddle with at night, but he no longer is interested. We often wake up with him sleeping close, and he happily greets us when we return to the house. And day by day, we fall more in love with him. Sometimes, I am seized with fear of losing him too, or of never being certain enough about his FIP status to be able to adopt another young friend for him. But I am getting better about calling myself back from the brink with a reminder to love him more each moment. That is all any of us really has in life.
Over the years, I have made many quilts for cats, my own, and others. I generally can tune into the cat, and quickly intuit the right colors and design. Before we traveled to Canada to adopt Jaguar and Siberia, I started three different quilts for them. I just couldn’t settle on one – nothing felt quite right. As adoption time approached, I chose a very simple pattern to make from warm flannels. The boys loved it, but now, I am called back to finish one especially for Siberia. It is a star quilt, made from fabrics in dark brown, gray, and purple, and bordered with a band of interlocking pieces. Both Jaguar and Siberia have been stars in their own right. Now Jaguar shines brightly in another constellation, and he will as long as we all remember him, and know that his is a story about love.
It Takes a Village
January 1, 2014
There can be no vulnerability without risk. There can be no community without vulnerability. There can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community. M. Scott Peck
Because this first blog post of 2014 has a happy ending, we might as well begin it with “Once upon a time.” So, here goes.
Once upon a time, in a land not far south of Seattle, there was a handsome young cat named Gabriel. Actually, no one knew his given name at the time he was first seen feeding with a group of feral cats behind an office building. No one knew how he had suddenly come to be there, but the kind women who fed him did know that he was not feral, and that something was wrong with his back legs. Terribly wrong, in fact, because Gabriel could barely move without pulling himself with his front legs.
As it happened, the women who fed Gabriel knew an animal- loving man in the office building who agreed to take the injured tabby to his animal-loving daughter. Enter Gabriel’s fairy godmother, a woman who has spent much of her life rescuing and caring for cats. She took one look at this beautiful brown tabby and bestowed on him a name with dignity, hope, and wings. Gabriel would need all three for the adventure he was about to begin.
Initial x-rays revealed bad breaks and dislocation in Gabriel’s both legs. The veterinarian believed surgery could work, but the cost was well beyond the means of his rescuers. His godmother refused to resign herself to the worst. She had fallen in love with this fellow, seen the spark in his eyes, and knew there was a way to help him if she told his story. Word spread, and within a few days, Purrfect Pals agreed to take Gabriel and provide the care he needed.
By the time Gabriel arrived at the shelter in Arlington, he had many concerned followers. A fund was set up in his name, and donations from all over the world helped pay for his surgery. After a long and involved procedure, the orthopedic surgeon noted he had never seen anything quite like Gabriel’s injuries. Whatever happened had caused this young cat unthinkable pain. His will to survive was essential to his recovery.
Back at Purrfect Pals, Gabriel amazed his caregivers. He healed quickly, used his back legs eagerly, and was soon ready for a forever home. His adopters, a physical therapist and a nurse, had been following his story, knowing they had the unique skills to help him fully recover. Gabriel now has a loving family, and an opportunity to make up for a lost kittenhood. His humans believe he is actually younger than first estimated, and his cat and dog siblings often wish he were less rambunctious. Gabriel tears around the house with boundless energy, stopping for an occasional cuddle before he dashes up the stairs to oversee his kingdom.
With the help of many caring people, this story unfolded quickly. Gabriel was found at the end of June 2013, and was in his new home a month later. I got to assist with his transport to Purrfect Pals, and his godmother and I watched with wonder as he intrepidly explored the shelter office despite his impaired mobility. I knew he had to be part of the 13 Cats Project, and started to design a quilt of bright, energetic colors for him to rest on during his recovery. But before I could even start stitching, Gabriel was well on his way. His “healing” quilt is now a place for him to rest between his many adventures.
Gabriel got a second chance because so many people were willing to take risks on his behalf. A fairytale ending was never guaranteed, but then, it never is. It truly takes a village of fairy godmothers, skilled veterinarians, willing adopters, and a shelter where every cat matters.
As the New Year beckons with promise, we all have a chance to make a difference. Please welcome 2014 with a donation to an animal shelter in your area. I plan to share part of my first paycheck of the year with Purrfect Pals, in honor of Gabriel, and all of the cats who can look forward to their happily-ever-after beginnings in the months ahead.
Petting the Tiger
September 27, 2013
“God created the cat so man would know what it was like to pet the tiger.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson
The show for which I have been madly creating work opens on October 8th at the Gallery at Town Center, in Lake Forest Park, Washington. The last pieces are now at the framer, and I have a quiet, in-between moment to reflect on this wonderful, intense process.
In Missing Lynx, my first blog post about preparing for a show, I talked about muses. Every time I have created a body of work, an animal has come forward and offered to work with me. The lynx I created arrived first, leaving fresh tracks in the snow, and has since watched from the living room mantle, welcoming every animal who followed in the last several weeks. There are bigger cats, and many birds, and finally, two small felines, bookends of this amazingly creative work cycle that began a year ago, inspired by a group of kittens and their very special mother.
And so, I come full circle. I did not grow up with cats, did not live with one until I was twenty, and I have always felt as if I had to make up for lost time. A fascination became a passion, one that continues to guide my life’s adventure. Even when I worked at a shelter, I craved even more interaction with cats. I got home, spent time with my resident felines, and then went for long walks to commune with neighboring cats of the night. They were my outdoor inspiration, each one a reminder of Leonardo daVinci’s observation, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
A Canada Lynx may be the muse for my current work, but Felis catus, the small masterpieces who share my house and my computer screen, are my daily muses. Last year, I fell for a Kitten Cam family, fostered by Purrfect Pals volunteer John Bartlett. John sets up a camera in his kitten room so viewers can watch little ones from the time they are born until they are old enough for adoption. A whole community revolves around that camera, an extended family of ailurophiles from around the world. Tune in any time day or night, and you will find folks chatting about kitten antics, their own pets, what they had for dinner. It goes deeper, into friendships off line, shared dreams and hopes, support during times of hardship and loss. And perhaps the greatest gift of all: no one has to make excuses for being a cat person.
Last year, the Scientist Kittens captured my imagination, and got me back into the studio to do their portrait. On September 29, 2012, Einstein, Tesla, Darwin, and Newton were adopted into their forever homes. Marie, their mother, spent some time recovering her health at Purrfect Pals, and then found the best home imaginable in late November. Their human families keep fans up to date with regular Facebook posts.
Since then, several families have grown up on the Kitten Cam and found their humans. Tomorrow, the Looney fosters will get their turn. Penelope, Taz, Marvin, Sylvester, and mama Hazel have legions of followers who will watch anxiously for updates until every one of them has been adopted.
As I chose the subjects for my last show pieces, I thought gratefully of 2 of my most recent muses: Ellie Marie, Scientist mother; and Hazel, soon to be freed from the duties of motherhood to experience her own, playful kittenhood. These lovely ladies have captured many hearts, my own included. So, to both of you, thank you for inspiring me, for refueling my passion to work on behalf of your species.
I will be honored to have work at The Gallery at Town Center from October 8 through November 16. A percentage of the sale of Ellie Marie’s and Hazel’s portraits will be donated to Purrfect Pals.
One on One
September 9, 2013
As I mentioned in my last post, I am preparing for a show at The Gallery at Town Center in October. This is quite a journey, one that is leading me to search through long-forgotten files, both literal and figurative. Not forgotten, however, are animals I wrote about decades ago. The dates I transcribe shock me – how could those events have unfolded so long ago? But I remember details clearly, and they seem as relevant today as they did then.
This is an article I wrote for Cornell University’s magazine Living Bird Quarterly (now known as Living Bird), published in the Winter 1990 issue. It was republished in the Interspecies Newsletter in 1992, and included in the anthology The Soul Unearthed in 1996. The reasons I have chosen to portray a Double-crested Cormorant for this upcoming show are clear. Ever since a fated Christmas years ago, cormorants have represented resilience to me. I once started a futuristic short story by describing one in flight:
“You have asked me to tell you about my life up to now. So I have to start by telling you about the last time I saw a cormorant. It was eleven years ago, give or take a few days, and I was crossing the Ship Canal Bridge on my way to work. The clouds over Lake Washington were thick when suddenly a great black bird broke through. I know you are too young to have ever seen cormorants, but they were one of my favorite birds. I always looked for them when I was near the water and wondered how they survived as long as they did. They couldn’t really stay dry and were improbable, awkward flyers, every one of them. This one seemed especially shaky. He had to work hard to clear the bridge, like an unsteady black arrow wavering on a crooked path until he finally made it over to Lake Union and disappeared, taking part of me with him.”
One on One, Living Bird Quarterly
What I remember most is the smell. Even now, one whiff of Dawn detergent and I am no longer standing at the kitchen sink but in a large gymnasium filled with frightened animals. I have volunteered to care for birds after three major oil spills off the coast of Washington. And while I am a veteran of sorts, I have no idea who discovered the multipurpose utility of Dawn. I do know it is the best solvent to remove oil from feathers and fur. Pumped by the gallon, this pungent blue liquid is vital to the rescue efforts. It can also trigger memories.
My recollections of the most recent Washington spill had just begun to fade when the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska. At first, I tried to ignore details of the disaster presented by the media, but I was haunted by a familiar scene. I could imagine the rows of oil-soaked birds held in paper bags and boxes, could almost hear the steam rising from the soapy washtubs. From my own experience, I knew what volunteers in Alaska were doing for the injured animals, but I could not fathom the scope of their efforts.
On a larger scale, Prince William Sound on Good Friday looked much like stretches of the Washington coast after four Christmas week spills during the last five years. Different circumstances, different amounts of oil, but the same picture of once pristine environments now stained beyond recognition.
These were certainly not the images that first led me to work with birds. I began as an artist, trained in visual composition and steeped in a love of nature. For years, my work was abstract, the birds and other animals implied but obscure. Dissatisfied, I perceived what was missing and began to fill in the gaps with practical experience by working for Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. I learned about birds by preparing their food and cleaning their enclosures. I read everything I could about birds, absorbing facts and experiences, and eventually translating them visually.
But it wasn’t until I worked at an emergency oil spill clinic that I stopped observing animals at a distance. Surrounded by injured birds, I could not separate myself from their vulnerability. I was sickened by the oil on their feathers, evidence of human insensitivity to the environment. At the same time, I was heartened by the humane concern of my fellow volunteers. Once state agencies or local wildlife rehabilitation experts set up a clinic, it was primarily the volunteers who kept it afloat by donating supplies and energy. Most volunteers hear about the accident on news broadcasts and decide to help for a few hours, days, or weeks. Many arrive without animal handling skills, but all come with a commitment to learn and do whatever is necessary.
Looking back at three clinics, I recall different lessons from each. My first, in a gymnasium 39 miles north of Seattle, seemed like an adventure, a chance to practice what I had learned as a keeper’s aide in the waterfowl unit in the zoo. Because I had pertinent training, or thought I did, the coordinator asked me to force feed a group of buffleheads and goldeneyes. They were small birds, I had small hands, so it seemed logical.
Logical maybe, but immediately I realized how unprepared I was to pick up a wild creature. I reminded myself that no one, not even veterinarians or professional trainers, instinctively knows how to handle wild animals. These skills are learned. After a few hesitant attempts, I grabbed a bufflehead, pried open its beak, and pushed a dab of moistened food down its throat with my little finger. I worked to perfect my technique, trying to move quickly without further stressing the bewildered birds. To this day, I smile at the memory of my contact with dozens of tiny duck tongues.
In contrast to the pleasant memories of that first spill, my recollections of the most recent one are colored by desperation. Two days before Christmas 1988, a tugboat rammed a tanker new Gray’s Harbor, southwest of Seattle. Oil soon spread south to Oregon and north to British Columbia. Officials initially underestimated the gravity of the worst accident in Washington history and were reluctant to enlist aid. First asking for help from experienced volunteers only, the Washington Department of Ecology later acknowledged its gratitude to less experienced people who traveled from as far away as California and Canada.
By the time the first wave of volunteers arrived, three critical days had passed. Inadequate supplies of hot water at a temporary clinic hampered washing efforts. Some of the rarer birds, such as a rhinoceros auklet and a few loons, were washed immediately after recovery from the beach; but hundreds of common murres, pigeon guillemots, western grebes, and various scoters at in oil for nearly a week. As they anxiously preened, they swallowed the toxic oil coating from their feathers. Each day without a bath lessened their already slim chances of survival.
I joined other volunteers in an effort to keep the unwashed birds fed and hydrated until we could move to better facilities. Exhausted after my first day at the clinic, I checked into the motel, tried to rest, and awoke abruptly. I looked around the room and thought I saw shadows of murres and guillemots on the floor. They broke in dark waves against the bed, vanishing every time I reached out. I forced myself to go back to sleep, and then dreamed about a small white-winged scoter I had held during the day. Unlike the other birds, she was quiet. I stared at the soiled feathers on her back and sheltered her head with my hand. As I rocked slowly, her heartbeat weakened, and I repeated, “I am sorry, I’m so sorry.” For weeks afterward, I fought to rid myself of this nightmare and often awoke in tears.
Time has passed. The dreams have faded, but not the scars on my hands. These commemorate the feisty energy of the murres and my often unsuccessful attempts to catch them without getting caught first. Jousting with one after another, I learned to respect their tenacity. Even weak birds could be formidable. During my final days at Grays Harbor, I overheard a coordinator instructing new recruits in the art of handling western grebes. He believed the longer-necked, sharply-beaked species to be the most dangerous and difficult to control. “Just be grateful we don’t have any cormorants,” he concluded. “They are the worst.”
Before dawn on Christmas 1985, I took a ferry from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula and signed the volunteer roster at a gymnasium in Port Angeles, where a spill had just occurred. All morning I prepared birds to be washed. Before the first rinse, each one received preliminary veterinary care: antibiotic injections, protective salve for its eyes, and a careful beak swabbing to remove residual oil from its mouth. Then the tedious scrubbing process began, with volunteers carrying birds back and forth from sudsy washtubs to the showers until every feather rinsed clean.
Volunteers at emergency spill clinics are generally divided into two groups: feeders who worked with cleaned birds, and washer show are confined to the locker rooms. The people with the oiliest clothes work with the dirtiest birds and pass them onto cleaner volunteers as the washing process progresses. At Port Angeles, I started with dirty birds; by noon, sticky oil had chewed holes through my rubberized overalls. Here was proof of the corrosive properties of petrochemicals. While I could not see its long term effect inside the birds at the clinic, I knew the oil on their feathers was deadly. Unwashed, these creatures were helpless. They could not fly, could not float, could not stay warm.
I, at least, could take off my useless overalls. Once I had peeled to a cleaner layer, the washroom coordinator handed me a double-crested cormorant that had been washed and generally de-oiled. My task was specific: to clean each feather on its head with a water-pik. For hours, I sat on a folding chair with the bird balanced between my legs, and the Pik humming on a table next to us. With one hand, I supported the cormorant’s neck. With the other hand, I focused the water and combed across the feathers in short, methodical strokes.
I began the process cautiously, watching the bird while it in turn noted my every move. Earlier, a veterinary assistant had closed its sharp beak so the bird could not bite or spear its handlers. But when my charge began to blow bubbles through its elongated nostrils, I removed the band. The cormorant instantly relaxed, and seemed more curious than dangerous.
At once, I realized this was an extraordinary opportunity. I had handled captive birds at the zoo, and wild ones at other clinics, but had never examined one so closely. I had relied on mounted specimens and photographs for details. I had filled my head with facts and could, for example, recite the range of avian body temperature. But until that day, the figures remained abstract. As I sensed the cormorant’s damp heat radiating through my clothes, I experienced warm-bloodedness in a new way. The bird and I exchanged body heat everywhere we touched. I could feel impressions of webbed feet on my legs and feather marks all along the inside of my arms.
Unlike others around us, this bird appeared healthy and unafraid. As it looked around the room, the cormorant seemed to watch the day
unfold as a spectacle rather than a trauma. It was calm and seemed willing to cooperate, which enabled me to consider every feather tract I cleaned. The more I contemplated the depth of its blackness, the more detail I perceived. Points of turquoise outlined pale green eyes. Burnt orange skin marked the bird’s throat in colorful, featherless contrast. Against my skin, its snaky neck and armored feet felt reptilian. I could even feel its small, flexible gular pouch.
Many to every distraction – watching other people, even checking the clock. But as I worked with the cormorant, I became oblivious to the hectic activity around us. I shut out the noise so I could concentrate on my task, and it seemed as if the bird and I were the only beings in the room. Outside, a few miles down the beach, state ecologists surveyed the oil slick and assessed its impact on a large population of overwintering birds. None of us could reverse the damage, but I knew that by working on the problem at its most elemental level, I had found a way to make amends with a single bird.
I first understood my natural affinity for animals as a child, and at an early age, I promised to work on their behalf. But my role as a defender was much clearer before I reached adulthood, before I was invested in a web of technology. At one time, I could not imagine doing anything to harm another creature. Now, as I try to minimize my own negative impact on the environment, I often feel defeated by the complexity of our time. It is a challenge to remember the clarity and conviction of my childhood pledge.
My experience in Port Angeles reminded me of my earliest attachment to animals. For five hours, I enjoyed the company of another being and now I almost regretted ending our time together. Reluctantly, I finished and lowered the cormorant into a pool with the other birds. This was the final test: if it could float, its feathers were oil free. Success. The bird swam off and the washroom volunteers cheered. The cormorant looked strong, and after it regained energy and its natural oils, other volunteers would release it on a clean shoreline miles from where it had been found.
But release was weeks away, and I realized I would never know what happened to the bird. The mortality rate of animals rescued from oil spills is depressingly high. Even if they outlive capture and cleaning, many later succumb to lethal doses of ingested oil. And of those released, few remain capable of reproduction. I knew the statistics, but I did not dwell on them when I left the clinic. I still like to think that the cormorant is alive, a survivor. If a bird can be said to express a will to live, this one seemed to do so.
It is the hope of saving even a few animals that motivates volunteers at an oil spill clinic. Confronted by death, we work hard to preserve life. We do what we can, and in the process, are changed. Like other volunteers, I have returned home with a stronger commitment to conservation and a new appreciation of life. In the end, I realize that my efforts with the birds have helped me more than I could ever hope to help the birds.
August 30, 2013
From the introduction to Dream Animals, a book written by James Hillman with paintings by Margot McLean:
James Hillman: Are you saying that studying animals, knowing about them, even feeling for them isn’t enough? We have to imagine them. Get into them as imaginal beings, into them as images . . .
Margot McLean: What I’m saying is I believe a little anthropomorphizing is necessary. For me to be inside means entering the animal’s body and trying to see the world from there. It simply does not make sense to separate ourselves from the animal world when there are far too many concrete similarities.
I am hard at work preparing for a show opening at The Gallery at Town Center on October 8. Putting together a body of work is always a compelling experience for artists, a creative process with its own agenda. With little more than a month before the show opens, I do not have time to over-think anything, and figure that after invoking my muse, I should follow her prompts, even if they seem random and arrive at 3 a.m. If I resist, I work against her, myself, and all the animals asking for form.
So, while I keep up with my day job, I allow my subconscious self to be overtaken by the images passing through me. With equal amounts of focus and fortune, some of them make it to sketch stage, and then into a paper collage, and finally into a frame, ready to hang on a gallery wall.
But I can’t really surrender until an animal steps forward as a mentor. As I prepared for a significant show in 2002, the first one to show up was a nighthawk who flew into my lap during a strange and wonderful dream. To this day, I remember how happy I was collaborating with that bird as it emerged on my drafting table, and then stayed to supervise the rest of the work I created for the show. I couldn’t sell the piece when the time came, but was happy to hang it with a Not for Sale tag as it oversaw the exhibit.
This time, long before I sent out a request for a mentor, I let the theme of October’s show move through a few iterations. My intention is to pay homage to animals with whom I have a deep connection, ones I have actually, physically worked with. At first, the title “Indicator Species” surfaced and stuck around for a while. When I read about another animal going extinct, my thoughts about the future run dark. While every loss is critical, there are some species I cannot bear to live without in this world. They are my personal indicator species. Tigers gone? I’m not far behind if that happens. How could I exist without knowing they still roamed free somewhere besides my imagination?
My next working title was “Familiars,” until I considered the implications of the word. It suggests an exchange of sorts, and probably not a very equal one as I ask animals to do something for me. Over time, they have done more than enough. I am alive because of their generosity, and that is not an exaggeration. Now I want to give back, no strings attached, except for the inspiration to make the art. And then the big Aha! The animals themselves are the muses who wake me up at night and tell me what they want to happen. “Muses” it is.
And into this awareness strolls a Canada Lynx, my main muse for this collection of portraits. While I worked at Woodland Park Zoo many moons ago, we received a pair of lynx from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Manitoba. Shy animals to begin with, these two were nearly invisible at the back of an enclosure that did not serve their needs. Before we could make changes, we needed to know how they were using the space, and what stressed them. That meant observing them when they were most active: before dawn, without human activity on the grounds.
For two months, I arrived at the zoo every morning before 5 a.m. I perched silently on the back of a bench, binoculars in hand, to watch Pierre and Dominique, as we named them, interact with the enclosure. In time, I knew what we could do to make life in captivity better for them. Most of the changes were easy – moving a marking log to the front so they could claim a corner, putting a small shrub in the back so they had more privacy when eating, changing the placement of their den door so it opened out of public view. With each modification, the lynx relaxed a little more. They eventually moved into their new space.
And I fell completely in love with these ghost-like cats. Of course, they sensed me in the early morning, but got more comfortable as the weeks unfolded. During my regular shift in the feline unit, Pierre and Dominique allowed me into their enclosure to clean, and sat quietly watching. In their presence, I moved slowly, consciously, gratefully. Time was suspended, and nothing else existed for me but two beautiful, silent, intense beings.
Seeing my increasing devotion to the lynx, Helen Freeman, then Curator of Education at the Zoo and founder of the International Snow Leopard Trust, encouraged me to get involved in their protection. Years of trapping and dwindling habitat has forced these cats to the brink of extinction in many places. I volunteered with Defenders of Wildlife to help get Canada Lynx listed as a threatened species in states with remnant populations, and it was after the conference in DC that I began to perceive other ways of bringing attention to their plight.
On the way home from the conference, I sketched on the plane, faint images of cats in the wild, still visible, but retreating deeper into their disappearing habitats. The idea was there, but my artistic skills were not. They are now. I started the work that is currently on my drafting table a long time ago. In the intervening years, the cats I imagined seemed real enough to speak, and they challenged me to learn my medium well enough to create portraits, to make their gaze so convincing that no one could ignore them.
Of all the animals I have worked with, Canada Lynx are not the flashiest, but they are the ones I have missed the most. Or maybe what I long for is the sense of peace I felt in their presence. Life so often feels loud and out of control, and I am left exhausted. I cannot create from that place, and I certainly cannot hear the whispers of my muses. As soon as I slowed down to focus on this show, Pierre and Dominique brushed quietly against me. They offered to see me through this process, to be my muses. I will soon get to the big, sexy cats, but for now, I am grateful to have my work seen through the keen eyes of Canada Lynx.
James Hillman: . . . some theories say that we got our words from the sounds of animals. So, I like to think that the right words say something to the animals, too.
Margot McLean: That’s nice, a message to the animals. Hmmm . . .
James Hillman: In part, I am trying to tell them something: a message about how they register in the human imagination, in our lore and fantasy, in our symbol systems, even what our zoology says about them. Like a report to them about how they are perceived. . . Our civilized mind makes a terrible mistake by contrasting “real” animals and animal “images,” as if the one standing in the zoo and the one you meet in a dream are two different beasts altogether.