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Widening the Circle

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“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.”  
-Albert Einstein
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.

Finn in the sun

Finn

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.

Valentine and Jasper

Valentine and Jasper

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.

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Max and Sam

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.”
-Elizabeth Johnson
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.”
-Isabel Allende

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There but for the Grace: Thoughts about Meteor Showers, and the Loss of Two Beautiful Men

August 16, 2014

pieceablekingdom

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 Perseids 2to 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.

Jack and Parry, looking into the night sky.  From the Fisher King.

Jack and Percy, looking into the night sky. From the Fisher King.