Posts from the ‘Inspiration’ Category
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.
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.
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.
The Remedy for Love
May 14, 2013
May 15th is a great day to make a donation to honor someone you love. It is Give Big Day, sponsored by the Seattle Foundation, when contributions to over 1400 organizations will be “stretched” through a matching pool. I am making a donation to Purrfect Pals in memory of a very special cat. Please join me by giving what you can in celebration of someone who has made a difference in your life:
“There is no remedy for love but to love more.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Along with the joy of living with animals comes the inevitable heartbreak of losing them. Our companions never live long enough, no matter how well we care for them. And when they leave, there is a huge hole in our lives. Sometimes it takes a long time to heal.
A year ago today, I said goodbye to Possum, a gray cat who had been with me through the steep ups and downs of our fifteen years together. I have loved many cats in my life, and like a good parent, I should not admit to having a favorite. But I did, and getting over this loss remains an unfolding process. I still reach for him in the early morning, and remember with a sharp pang that he is no longer here.
Poss was rescued by Friends of Campus Cats near the Mary Gates building at the University of Washington when he was just a few days old. Sharon and Diana, the stalwarts of Campus Cats, managed to trap, spay/neuter, and release hundreds of cats at the U, but Possum’s mother eluded them until shortly after he and his siblings were born. Three of them were strong and healthy, but Poss came close to dying several times. He could not shake a tenacious case of coccidiosis, and by the time he was 4 months old, he had spent a frightening number of nights getting fluids at an emergency clinic.
People who have worked with animals know that ones who are gravely ill often develop an ethereal sweetness, and despite their weakness, are completely present. Possum was like that. I fell in love with him while I was volunteering with Campus Cats. I didn’t intend to fall for a kitten with such limited chances, but how do we choose who captures our hearts?
And how can we predict who will survive, despite the odds? By the time he was 6 months old, Possum was stronger. Two months later, his devoted caregivers allowed me to adopt him. I set up a room for him, and planned a thoughtful introduction to the other resident cats, one of whom could be a terrible bully. In the middle of our first night together, I heard Poss crying. When I opened the door to check on him, he slipped past me, ran right to the orange menace, and immediately disarmed him with a surprise head rub. There was never an issue between the two of them, and over time, my gray boy proved to be quite the diplomat, always befriending new cats and facilitating easy introductions.
Possum was a gentle observer, quiet, and sometimes goofy as he did mid-air back flips in pursuit of raffia. He was also the most arboreal cat I’ve known, leaping from the floor to the tops of doors where he perched for hours watching the world below him. I thought about writing and illustrating a picture book that would begin with the line, “My cat Possum thinks he is a lemur.” It would portray him as the many animals he was: prairie dog, greyhound, bushtit, and in his later ground-bound life, turtle and toad. The last illustration would explain why he was named Possum: as a puny kitten, he squeezed between his much larger siblings at the bowl, with only his long , skinny tail visible. His rescuers thought he looked like his namesake.
That little runt grew into a gorgeous cat, long and lithe, with a velvet coat and almost comically small ears. A veterinarian once asked me if he knew how handsome he was. I responded that no, he was quite unaware. She said that he was lucky because self-conscious beauty in any being could be a burden.
Possum and I lived through many losses together, and each of them brought me to a deeper understanding of unqualified love. I could be a sobbing mess, and he never left my side. He was a cheerful morning animal, and I started every day cuddling with him, rubbing his belly as he purred deeply. I miss those moments the most.
Early last spring, something was clearly wrong. Exams and blood work could not explain Possum’s increasing weakness and confusion. When we realized he had suddenly gone blind, we suspected a brain tumor, but chose not to put him through extensive diagnostic testing. It all happened so fast, and when he could no longer hold up his head, we decided it was time to schedule euthanasia.
I have said goodbye to more cats than I can count, and it is never, ever easy. Before they die, I think of those cats who have gone before, and I ask them to help the others cross over. Before Possum died, I could not even conjure the images of his predecessors. Their world on the other side of mine was silent, closed. I felt empty, and somewhat panicked. I needed their help to ease this transition for Possum, and for myself.
The night before our scheduled appointment, I slept on the couch to be closer to Poss in his basket. He did not even seem to know I was there. Just before dawn, in the liminal space between dreaming and waking, I sensed a large feline presence next to me. It was a tiger, a healthy young male. I asked him for help, and he responded that if I could hold Possum close to me while I followed him into the darkness, he would make sure my gray cat passed safely. When I finally woke in the light of mid-May, I lifted Possum into my arms, and we began our last few hours together. I assured him that he would be alright, and I almost believed it.
I can’t deny that it was a rough passage. My gentle cat, unable to move when I carried him out of our house, surged with energy and fought until his big heart was finally still. A friend suggested to me that it was tiger energy, that he had begun his journey into the unknown with a roar. A few months later, I began a series of portraits with the image of a Bengal tiger. Then, I created Possum, and finally the two of them together, Poss glancing over his shoulder at me one last time. It is the strongest artwork I have ever done. It was the beginning of my own passage into a new chapter of life.
A year later, I have vivid images of not one, but two cats to remind me to be both gentle and strong, and to love fiercely. And I think of my favorite Thoreau quote. It is a homeopathic remedy: treat love lost by loving even more.
Shortly after Possum died, I sent a donation to Friends of Campus Cats to thank them for bringing the best cat ever into my life. Today, I am making a contribution to Purrfect Pals. I am paying forward in gratitude for a cat I have not yet met who will fill my life with joy. I will never replace Possum, but there is too much love in this heart not to share it.
March 27, 2013
It is time for a confession: I am a bad birder. I don’t mean “bad” as it equals good, because I don’t even aspire to be a good birder with a life list long enough to encircle the globe. This may come as a surprise to friends and students who know my complete devotion to our avian kin, but even Roger Tory Peterson shared my distress over the “good” birders who trample nests of common species to get a glimpse of a rare one. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Peterson a year before his death, and he rued the day he was first called the Father of Birding. He told me his goal was get people to slow down and look at birds, even the most familiar, rather than frantically making checkmarks in the field guides he had written.
To me, the gift of watching birds is presence, both the ineffable, intense being of the bird itself, and what happens inside me. I am quiet, focused, as alive as the glorious feathered creature breathing the same air. It makes no difference if the bird is common. One time when I was taking a bird biology class, I spent a cold afternoon hypnotized by a Black-capped Chickadee prying apart a pine cone. Everyone else rushed to check an earlier reported sighting of a Tufted Puffin on the water, and later expressed bitter disappointment at having braved a blustery winter walk to the beach for nothing. My experience with a common bird kept me warm the rest of the season.
But I must admit that less usual observations can be a special reward, and owls in particular have sent me searching. In some cultures, owl sightings are considered auspicious, and in others, they foretell disaster. Being in close proximity of efficient predators who fly silently through the liminal space between dusk and dawn, between life and death, I understand both interpretations. It is equally eerie and thrilling to come upon a nearly hidden owl, watching the world with eyes as large and luminous as planets. I have felt my heart suddenly stop, and then restart with pounding recognition as I adjusted to the owl’s gaze just a few feet away.
When you share that moment with another human being, it is a powerful bonding experience. A few years ago, my partner and I were fortunate to witness Barred Owl parents teach their young to fly. The first night we saw them, the still night was broken only by our occasional whispers, and the owls’ highly pitched, metallic-sounding calls to each other. A few nights later, we stood under the watchful eyes of the parents who allowed us within a few yards of their fledglings, until other people arrived with flashlights and loud voices. The owls disappeared back into the darkness, and we were caught in a disorienting beam of light. We wondered if the folks who spotted us recorded “2 old witch birds” on their life lists.
One of my fondest memories of an owl sighting is from childhood. My mother, terrified of birds since her own childhood, woke me late one winter night to look outside. The nearly full moon lit the back fence where a Snowy Owl perched. For once, she was unafraid, and the wordless hour we spent together was one of the best we ever shared. The bird returned the following night, and it was my turn to wake my mother to come watch again. Shortly before her death, we spoke of the experience as clearly as we had years before.
During the last 2 winters, there have been irruptions of Snowy Owls who venture into Seattle to find food. My feelings about this remain divided. It is a rare treat to know that they are close to us, but many of them are young birds who arrive in poor shape and face the real possibility of starving during their first winter. Their visitation is poignant.
Late last year, I received a commission to do a collage of a Snowy Owl. My hope was to see one before I started to layer bits of paper into distinctive feather patterns. All season, I dutifully checked every time I heard our resident crows join in mobs, but the disturbance always involved other birds of prey, and a raven or two, an equally unlikely sighting in our suburban city. And while I kept vigil, I looked at pictures of a Snowy standing on a nearby beach, and yet another perched on the roof of a neighborhood less than 6 miles away. Even a trip to the Skagit Valley, where a friend reported seeing 2 owls just a few days before, yielded countless swans and geese, harriers and eagles, but no Snowies.
When the time came, I retreated into my imagination to start the collage. Somehow, in the hustle of the last month, I found a quiet and necessary place in my studio for the owl to roost. It was a young owl, with lots of barring, and in good health. This bird stood still and posed in my mind’s eye so I could capture the gaze that makes hearts stop, and then race. I needed an avian sense of suspended time – of presence – even more than I realized. I finished the collage on a rare day off, and was thrilled to see a vibrant young Snowy Owl look back at me from the drafting table. At that moment, I thanked my mother for waking me on a frosty night long ago. I may not be a good birder, but I do know how to be present to life around me.