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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Champions of the Undercat

February 10, 2015

pieceablekingdom

A bowl of Marvel. Photo courtesy of Shelly Roche.

A bowl of Marvel. Photo courtesy of Shelly Roche.

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.

Max, making him self at home on the day after his adoption.

Max, making him self at home on the day after his adoption.

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.

Wild thing MaxOur 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.

Super special, super cute Marvel. Photo courtesy of Shelly Roche.

Super special, super cute Marvel. Photo courtesy of Shelly Roche.

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.

My lucky day, captured by Undercat Champion Kim McFarland.

My lucky day, captured by Undercat Champion Kim McFarland.

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.

Marvel scores another point for undercats everywhere! Photo courtesy of Shelly Roche

Marvel scores another point for undercats everywhere! Photo courtesy of Shelly Roche.

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!