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The Mystery of Grace

November 25, 2014

pieceablekingdom

Siberia and alpaca ball

 

For Siberia

 

 

 

I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.  Anne Lamott

November 17th: it is a chilly, clear afternoon, unusual for November in the Pacific Northwest. I am fortunate to be home in my studio after a weekend at work, and am piecing bits of paper into a portrait of dark Maine Coon cat. Many of my commissions are memorials, and today, I am glad to work with this beautiful cat who is still alive and well.

In my office, the laptop is tuned to the Tiny Kittens livestream, as foster mom Shelly speaks quietly to Dorothy, a soon-to-be mama cat beginning labor. From my studio next door, I cannot make out Shelly’s words, but her tone soothes me as well. Even at a distance, the experience feels intimate. This sweet cat makes her birthing nest in my soul.

In the living room, our beloved Siberia is resting in the sun. A year ago, Shelly gently coaxed him back to health from pneumonia. He was determined to survive, and with her help, he did. But now, with characteristic courage, he has embarked on his own journey to rejoin his brother. Feline Infectious Peritonitis, an incurable monster of a virus, claimed Jaguar Jake in April, and has now come for Sibs. Once again in this year of loss, our hearts are shattering.

Through tears, I do my best to focus on the paper cat in front of me, and I take frequent breaks, drifting back to the computer to see if Dorothy is any closer to having her kittens, and then to the couch to make sure Siberia is warm and comfortable. This last time, I notice that he has let his friend Sam sleep next to him. We adopted Sam in June, and he and Sibs bonded immediately. We were sure the two of them would have many happy, healthy years together. But fate has made other plans, and Sam is as confused and sad as we are.

On my way back to the studio, I remember something I wrote years ago while doing wildlife rehabilitation: Midwifery and hospice work are two aspects of the same work, both labors of love and life.

 

I am all the ages I’ve ever been. Ann Lamott

In the middle ground between birth and death, there is, with any luck, the chance to get older and wiser. In a few days, I turn sixty, an incomprehensible thought to me. As a teenager, I had a premonition of death at forty three. At forty four, that sped ahead to fifty eight. With a sigh of relief, I gave up my career as an oddsmaker last year.

Constance & Cherry (6.8.09) for Classes

Seniors Making Art Class, Greenwood Senior Center

Fortunately, I have never been afraid of aging. For sixteen years, I taught with Seniors Making Art, an organization started by Dale Chihuly to get working artists into retirement and care facilities. Always an inspiration to me, many of my students explored their creativity for the first time in their long lives, and they always celebrated when they mastered a new technique. Others already knew about expressing themselves artistically, and they generously shared their knowledge and enthusiasm. How could anyone fear age when surrounded by so much creative joy?

During that time, I did discover one important fact about aging. The elders who were most resilient and engaged with life were the ones who had always had a passion, who loved one thing or another with all their hearts, even if the rest of the world considered them to be eccentric. They were happy in their eccentricity, and many of them were still in service to others. Mythologist Michael Meade explains:

In old traditions those who acted as elders were considered to have one foot in daily life and the other foot in the otherworld. Elders acted as a bridge between the visible world and the unseen realms of spirit and soul . . . The old word for having a foot in each world is weird. The original sense of weird involved both fate and destiny. Becoming weird enough to be wise requires that a person learn to accommodate the strange way they are shaped within and aimed at the world.

Elders are supposed to be weird, not simply “weirdos,” but strange and unusual in meaningful ways. Elders are supposed to be more in touch with the otherworld, but not out of touch with the struggles in this world. Elders have one foot firmly in the ground of survival and another in the realm of great imagination. This double-minded stance serves to help the living community and even helps the species survive.

So here I am, about to celebrate a big birthday after some of the most wrenching months I can remember. This last year has broken my heart, and escorted me fully and irrevocably into the wyrd, the land of fate and destiny, where I may not have control, but I do have choices.

And I choose, without apology, to be an artist, a writer, and an apprentice to all of the cats I have loved and lost, the ones who are my mentors now, and the ones who will teach me even more about love in the future.

 

Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises.  Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

In this fifty ninth year, the one I didn’t expect to experience, I have cried and laughed and loved more than ever. My partner and I found each other’s outstretched hands in the darkest moments as we lost members of our family, human and feline. We planted seeds in the spring, pulled weeds through the summer, harvested until the first frost, and prepared a space under tall trees memorialize our cats. I start a new decade knowing that I am loved and accepted. I could never ask for a better gift.

Jaguar Jake

Jaguar Jake

In this year, I fell in love with two amazing kittens. Jaguar Jake embodied devotion, and showed me that it is not just alright, but essential, to need someone to love without hesitation. He was with us for just two months, but his short life was full of joy and companionship. Read his story here.

 

Blackberry

Blackberry

In the spring, less than a month after Jaguar Jake died, we lost our intrepid Blackberry cat. She taught me about letting go of the past, about healing and trust. She was feral, seriously injured, and terrified the day we trapped her.  For nearly a year, she hid from us and hissed when we got close, and then one day, she surprised herself, and us, by jumping onto my lap. Even as she succumbed to old injuries and age, she remained the most affectionate cat in our household. I will always miss waking up with her cuddled close and purring under the covers. I will forever be grateful for her willingness to take a chance with us. More of her story is here.

Ani

Ani

This autumn, Ani, the grand dame of our home, took her last breath at the venerable age of twenty two. As she aged, Ani lost her hearing, but never her sense of adventure. As her legs got stiff, she stopped chasing her tail and took up residence on the couch, where she welcomed our company with huge purrs emanating from her tiny body. My partner observed that as Ani’s world shrank, she expanded to fill new boundaries. Our little torbie had an expansive and cheerful spirit that will live forever in our hearts. Thank you, little one, for reminding me to take delight in life, even as my legs stiffen.

And then, at the end of this fifty ninth year, just a month before the beginning of a new decade, sweet Siberia was diagnosed with FIP. How would we ever be able to go through this again?

Years ago, a wise counselor shared her views about grief and aging. She told me that loss is cumulative, and that as we get older, the inevitable losses compound, one on top of the other. As we watched helplessly as Siberia began his process of dying, I felt the weight of all the other beings who have passed before him. With so much loss this year, that weight feels unbearable.

But, as my therapist also pointed out, we keep growing and never circle around to the exact same spot. Instead, our lives spiral outward and upward, and each time we come back to a familiar experience, we understand it from a slightly different perspective.

November 24: After a difficult weekend, Siberia has let us know his time is near. The vet is coming tomorrow morning. These hours are excruciating. We know this is the right thing to do, and at the same time, we do not want to let go. Home with him, aware of the clock, I have no choice but to surrender to grief, and to words.

Losing Siberia is the most painful experience of this fateful year. As I watched him on the Tinhykittens cam last year, he reminded me of another courageous gray cat, my beloved Possum who died a few years ago. I feel as if I am losing both of them twice. I know more than ever how losses compound, how they release grief from the dark places I try to forget.

Siberia and Sam watching birds together

Siberia and Sam watching birds together

But Sibs has not let me forget anything. We lost Jaguar so quickly we went through the process in a state of shock. But Siberia has stayed longer, and has not allowed us any emotional shortcuts around grief.  Instead, we have been grateful for the gift of another day with him. He will live in the present as long as he can. He mourned for his brother, and then welcomed Sam into his life. He started to get sick, but he never stopped wanting to live. I will miss the intensity of his gaze, his presence to everything around him. He has been our watch-cat, keeping an eye on the birds in the backyard, and sounding the alarm when a neighbor cat challenges him outside the window. Even today, weak as he is, he remains alert, paying attention to Sam and Finn.   I promised not to soak his fur in my tears, but as night falls, the last we will all spend together, I may not be able to honor that commitment.

In the last few weeks, I have worked from home as much as possible, just to be near Siberia. Most of the time, he has not want to be touched, so we have given him space, filling it with love and attentiveness. For a few hours last week, we were able to be closer. A client-turned- friend crocheted cozy blankets for Siberia and Sam, and the first night I spread one across my lap, Sibs climbed on, kneaded, and purred. I have created special quilts for countless cats, stitching each with intention. To have that gift reciprocated, and to feel Sibs receive it so fully, has touched me deeply.

Another new friend I met through this worldwide community of cat lovers made me a pair of earrings when Jaguar Jake died. She artfully wove beads together with black and silver strands to symbolize the connection between Jaguar and Siberia. I will wear them tomorrow as Sibs leaves us to join his brother. In those beautiful earrings is the embrace of everyone who watched the Jungle kittens grow, shared our joy on the day we adopted them, and our grief when we released them.

You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp. Anne Lamott

I used to dance a lot, but I did not get on the dance floor much in my fifties. I miss the feeling of freedom that comes through music and movement, and am eager to experience it again soon. But it will be different in my sixties. There is that limp, after all. There is also the gift of letting my heart break over and over, and in the process, finding my deepest passion renewed.

One night in September after Sibs started to get sick, I sat with him in the dark and made an offer to the universe. I whispered, “If you will make sure Siberia does not have FIP, I will start taking better care of myself. I want to grow old with him, and I want to do everything I can to help other cats.” This didn’t work out the way I envisioned, but I have kept my part of the bargain. Maybe the universe has as well, and I will indeed live a long and healthy life in service to the beings I love, guided by undying love for this little gray cat. Grace is indeed a mystery. Thank you, dearest Siberia, for helping me find parts of myself I thought I had lost. Loving you has changed my life.

Brotherly love, with gratitude to Shelly Roche

Jaguar and Siberia, with gratitude to Shelly Roche

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because You Were Born

May 4, 2014

pieceablekingdom

For Jaguar Jake

You were born into a strange world.
Like a candle, you were meant to share the fire.
I don’t know where we come from, and I don’t know where we go.
But my arms were made to hold you, so I will never let you go.

This and subsequent verses from “You Were Born” by Craig Minewa, Cloud Cult

 

I want to tell you about Jaguar Jake. And about love. I do not want to talk about loss, but that is part of this story. Mostly, though, it is about love.

In the last few years, I have written enough about kittens to have developed some immunity to their charms. Along with so many fans of sundry kitten cameras, I’ve fallen in love over and over again, flirted madly with idea of adoption, and have in the end been grateful for a sensible partner who was correct when she told me the time was not right.

In late 2013, we were both convinced that the time was indeed right, and that the pair of kittens who captured our attention and hearts would do just fine together in our household. This was not a decision made lightly. There were many discussions, as there should be. We had to think not only of them, but of our other feline residents, all older rescues with special needs of one kind or another.   When it came time to submit our application, we were ready.

Jaguar Jake and his brother Siberia were born in a wooded area near an office park close to Vancouver, B.C. in early September 2013. They were rescued by a kind gentleman who found them and 8 other tiny, sickly kittens, and took them to the Langley Animal Protection Society. They came from an extended litter, with at least 2 mothers and an unknown number of fathers, all feral. It was touch and go for quite a while as these tiny survivors faced every imaginable challenge, from malnutrition and parasites to respiratory infections and a rare form of ringworm.

Jungle Kittens , picture by Shelly Roche

Jungle Kittens
Picture by Shelly Roche

The only reason they made it was the care they got from LAPS, and two women in particular. Their foster mother Shelly Roche took care of them day and night, and shared the process with hundreds of Livestream viewers who watched her medicate and bathe, cuddle and comfort on camera. Shelly named each kitten after a wild cat, no doubt intending to imbue them with the courage and vitality of their namesakes. Of course, she and a cadre of faithful volunteers came up with a full litany of nicknames. Bobcat became Bobbles; Lynx, with his wily ways, is still the Lynxstigator; our Siberia is certainly the only gray tiger known as Sibby Sibs while his fierce brother Jaguar took on the moniker of Jaggy Jags, and later in our household revealed himself to be the perfect Jake.

While we all marveled at Shelly’s devotion and determination – and did I say love? – we were awed by a veterinarian who went way beyond the call of duty to help these kittens survive otherwise unbeatable odds. Dr. Renee Ferguson was on hand whenever her considerable skills were needed, and we will always be grateful to her for saving Siberia at her own home on a frightening dark night when he could have succumbed to pneumonia.  I did say love, right? Dr. F did not want to neuter Sibs until his lungs were completely clear, even if that meant that he couldn’t be adopted until he was nearly 5 months old. We waited patiently, and were delighted to see pictures of the good doctor’s happy dance in early January when Sibs was finally declared snip-able. At that moment, we started to plan the drive north to pick up our boys.

Brotherly love, with gratitude to Shelly Roche

Brotherly love, with gratitude to Shelly Roche

And now the true love story. 8 of the Jungle kittens are tabbies, as exotically marked as their namesakes. Jaguar and Siberia were the only “solids” in the lot, with subtle stripes and spots showing through their respective dark brown and gray coats. In this group of uncertain parentage, these guys were obviously brothers.   Perhaps because of that, perhaps because of Siberia’s serious illness, they were also the most bonded in the group. Shelly insisted they be adopted together, and did her very best not to separate them for even short periods. The day Sibs was neutered, Jaguar went along to be with him. The day we brought them across the border, they nearly fused in a corner of the carrier. In a rare moment when they explored their new home separately, Siberia ended up behind a closed door, and Jake came to tell us immediately.

Love your mother, yeah she’s a good one.
She’ll build you armor; keep you warm as a hen.
The stars may fall and the rains may pour,
But I will love you evermore.
BecauseYou were born to make this right.
You were born to chase the light.

In the weeks before our trip to Canada, we transformed my sewing room into a kitten kingdom. We furnished perches with beds, installed a tall climbing tree, and stocked up on every toy that looked interesting.   The kittens spent the first week in there, and during our frequent visits, we started to get to know them.   Despite their closeness, they were two very different characters. Jaguar Jake interacted with us most and cuddled when we held him, while Siberia was much more interested in exploring beyond the door. He was the first to escape, and walked right up to our Finn cat, tail in the air, completely self-confident. When Jake met Finn, he looked surprised, and let out the fiercest little hiss. We all laughed, and even Finn seemed amused in his own way.

Boy and the Bubble

Jaguar Jake hunting bubbles

Jake’s greatest delight was in stealing feather toys and running off with them. We cached some toys-in-waiting on the bottom shelf of the linen closet, and one day when we left the door ajar, the kittens discovered them. Jake grabbed a da-bird feather replacement, still on its card, and trotted proudly down the hallway. For the next several hours, he hid his prize under different pieces of furniture, always keeping tabs on it, and growling quietly if we approached. His fierceness made us laugh, because underneath the bravado was the dearest little guy, a complete goofball with a sense of humor who was very happy to be with his brother, and with us.

To make sure the kittens could eat their fill without pressure from the adult cats, we fed them in their room. It was quite a parade down the hallway from the kitchen, with Jake in the lead, peeping all the way, and Siberia halting progress by stopping in front of us to yell that we weren’t moving fast enough. Sibs started developing an adult cat voice quickly, and he uses it often enough to earn the title of Town Crier. His brother, in the meantime, stayed very much a sweet kitten, with the softest fur and the gentlest disposition we have ever had the privilege of experiencing.

With a little distance, we can now point to moments when we knew something was off with Jaguar. From the beginning, we noted that he was smaller than his brother.   He ate well, and we assumed he would start catching up soon. Instead, he fell further behind, and seemed increasingly less energetic. Imminent growth spurt, we’d say. But that never happened, and as we observed changes in the shape of his stomach, my own tied itself in knots. On our first visit to the veterinarian, I finally blurted out the question that was waking me up at night: could he possibly have Feline Infectious Peritonitis?  I was assured that he looked too healthy and didn’t have any overt symptoms. Still, I couldn’t shake the sense that we would soon be hearing the words every cat lover dreads.

FIP is a cruel disease, impossible to detect without symptoms, and difficult to diagnose even as it becomes more obvious. At this point, there is no cure, and not even an effective treatment, especially for the wet form. It can affect one kitten in a litter, or it can kill all of them. And it moves fast. When we finally had enough test results to confirm the virus, Jake’s stomach was large enough to impair his mobility, and he was very tired. We were told that he was not in pain at that point, and we opted to try a round of steroids to help make him more comfortable.

Even through brief moments of denial, we knew what was coming, and were determined to do what was best for Jaguar Jake. And that included reminding him of how much he was loved. The day I took him in for the first test, he was separated from his brother. As I later wrote to Shelly, “I talked to J the whole way, telling him his story again, and reassuring him of how much he is loved by us, and by you. I reminded him of everything he has already overcome, and what a big, strong heart he has. On the way home, acknowledging through tears that things didn’t look good, I thanked him for being such a brave boy.”

And brave he was, until one night shortly after the last test when everything changed quickly. The signs we had been warned to watch for manifested at once. He stopped eating and was started to experience respiratory problems. Most telling to us was that he seemed frightened, and would no longer let us, or his brother, close to comfort him. We tried to reach two veterinarians who do euthanasia at home, but neither was available the next day. By morning, it was clear he was in pain, and we did not want to wait. Our regular vet saw us at the start of her shift.

Remember I want to tell a story of love, and that is what this is. Having adopted “famous” kittens, we were in a unique situation. From the beginning, we knew that the Jungle Kittens had touched the hearts of thousands of people from all over the world. After another one of those crucial pre-adoption discussions, we agreed to start a Facebook page so that fans could keep up with the last 2 Jungles to be adopted. It was a joy to post updates with pictures of Jaguar and Siberia unpacking their tiny suitcases, as Shelly would say. They settled in quickly and happily, and were so used to having their pictures taken that the new paparazzi in their lives were not unduly annoying.

The day we got Jaguar Jake’s diagnosis, we asked Shelly to notify the other Jungle adopters before we told their extended family online. Writing that post was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Every keystroke felt like an electrical shock jolting my otherwise numb body. How could this possibly be happening?

Within minutes, we started to receive messages from hundreds of heartbroken people, all expressing collective disbelief, and offering support. In his remaining days, Jake was in everyone’s hearts and thoughts. And on the terrible morning of April 11th, as we held our sweet, gentle boy for the last time, we in turn were held by friends we know well, and people we have never met, but who loved this kitten as if he were their own.

Oh my precious, oh my love, when they come to take me,
I will hold you from above.
I don’t know why we’re here, and I don’t know how,
But I’m here with you now, I am here with you now.
Because you were born to make this right.
Because you were born to change this life.
Because you were born to chase the light.
Because you were born.

That love has always included Siberia, and when people write about him now, they ask about his health, and how he is adjusting to life without his brother. FIP is unpredictable and casts a long shadow. All we know is that at the moment, Sibs is strong, healthy, and growing. It is likely that our older cats were exposed when they were younger and developed resistance. Only time will tell. Living with this uncertainty is a lesson in staying as present as possible. Getting too far ahead of ourselves and drifting to worst case scenarios does nothing for any of us, but it is a difficult trap to avoid. We are learning that staying open is a moment-to-moment decision.

Sibs and baby 2As to how Siberia is adjusting, we can say that he has a resilient spirit. During the last weeks of his life, Jaguar Jake did not have the energy or strength to play.  His brother began adapting then, seeking other outlets for bursts of kitten enthusiasm, and returning to Jake to cuddle and nap. The first 24 hours without Jake were wrenching as Siberia searched every corner of the house. We rearranged our work schedules during the next week so one of us would be home with him, and we have continued to provide him with plenty of opportunities to play. He now has a full array of interactive toys, and he makes his changing preferences very clear.

While he had his brother, Siberia did not need us as much as he does now. Day by day, he is getting closer to us. We got him a “bucky” to cuddle with at night, but he no longer is interested. We often wake up with him sleeping close, and he happily greets us when we return to the house.  And day by day, we fall more in love with him. Sometimes, I am seized with fear of losing him too, or of never being certain enough about his FIP status to be able to adopt another young friend for him.   But I am getting better about calling myself back from the brink with a reminder to love him more each moment. That is all any of us really has in life.

Over the years, I have made many quilts for cats, my own, and others. I generally can tune into the cat, and quickly intuit the right colors and design. Before we traveled to Canada to adopt Jaguar and Siberia, I started three different quilts for them. I just couldn’t settle on one – nothing felt quite right. As adoption time approached, I chose a very simple pattern to make from warm flannels. The boys loved it, but now, I am called back to finish one especially for Siberia. It is a star quilt, made from fabrics in dark brown, gray, and purple, and bordered with a band of interlocking pieces.  Both Jaguar and Siberia have been stars in their own right. Now Jaguar shines brightly in another constellation, and he will as long as we all remember him, and know that his is a story about love.

Afternoon delight

Jaguar Jake and Siberia on their quilt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cougar Love

September 17, 2013

pieceablekingdom

This is another essay from my archives.  It is about an old cougar, a longtime muse, who is much on my mind as I prepare for a show at The Gallery at Town Center in October.   This story was first published in the Seattle Weekly on September 6, 1989.  It was later reprinted in the Fall 1990 issue of the Interspecies Newsletter.  Although I never saw Bonnie, the subject of this piece, anywhere other than her enclosures at the zoo, working on her portrait for the show reconnected me  with her unwavering spirit.  This collage honors her memory, and is an offering to the all cougars in the wild, in captivity, and in our collective imagination.

Cougar Love

When I was a child, I hated going to the zoo.  While my classmates breathlessly anticipated seasonal outings, I dreaded them.  More than once, I feigned a fever to avoid painful encounters with unhappily caged animals.

Considering this, my adult choices, first to volunteer, and then to work at a zoo, seem strange.  Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Woodland Park Zoo shortly after moving to Seattle seven years ago.  Intrigued by its shift to more humane enclosures and its evolving commitment to conservation, I sought ways to become involved.  Soon I was a keeper’s aide and docent-in-training; within a year, I was hired by the zoo’s education department as a summer programs manager.

Of all my memories from those years, none are as clear as my first adventure as a volunteer into the feline house.  A true cat aficionado, I floated like Alice in Wonderland through that inner sanctum, a hallowed hall with snow leopards, lions, and tigers on one side, ocelots, caracals, and sand cats on the other.

At first, I was attracted to the most exotic of the animals.  I joined the International Snow Leopard Trust and fell in with a circle of observers who brave winter weather each year to watch the great furred ones during breeding season.  At the time, it felt like love, very privileged love.

But remarkable as they were, the Snows stayed aloof.  I watched them, diligently recorded their movements, and walked away.  By then, I had cultivated a practical reverence for all the inhabitants of the feline house.  As I cleaned cages and distributed meals at feeding time, I kept my distance and went about my business in a state of awe.  Still, I dreamed of having more contact with the wild cats.

Cougar, Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi, 1990

Cougar, Pen and Ink, Constance Perenyi, 1990

And that is what I got, from an unlikely quarter.  One morning as I ambled past the cougar holding area, I was greeted by a deep, rumbling purr.  In disbelief, I recited feline classification: genus Panthera, the largest cats such as lions and tigers, roars but does not purr; genus Felis, cougar included, does indeed purr.  But why was this imposing creature purring at me?  Was this a trick?  Did she intend to deceive me, or worse yet, break my heart with false promises?

I soon learned the promises were real.  For months, I had scrubbed this enclosure and all but ignored its occupants.  The purring cougar and her two cage mates were, along with the likewise native lynx at the other end of the unit, the least glamorous, most inconspicuous cats in the house. All were old and overweight, relegated to a dismal corner of the building. They weren’t spotted, striped, or imported.  They were American and common through and through, the kind of cat who on occasion wanders into a suburban yard to eat a poodle.

From my youth in Colorado, I recalled a raft of disturbing cougar stories.  In rural areas, ranchers consider the big cats a nuisance.  Only recently, and grudgingly, have the bounties on them been lifted.  Today, trophy hunters pay large sums to fly into remote Southwestern sites where cougars have been treed by hounds.  One bullet, and the puma spends eternity in a paneled den.

These are the pockmarks of human interactions with co-predators.  And once again, the native gets shortchanged.  Americans know and care more about Bengal tigers than about our own large cats.  Felis concolor fades into the shadows at the zoo as it does in the wild.

But this one specimen demanded my full attention.  First it was the purr, and then an invitation to touch.  Before getting too friendly, I looked into her background and learned that she had arrived at the zoo in 1968 as a small cub.  She was named Bonnie, and hand-raised by keeper Gordy Swanberg in his home.

In time, Bonnie had her own cubs and became one of the first zoo cats to receive an experimental birth control implant.  These were the facts on file.  More important to me and to the others who knew her was one hand-written note in her records that understated, “Very friendly to people.”

As a zoological educator, I knew well the cardinal rule of zoo work: never anthropomorphize the animals, never interpret their behavior in human terms.  But inside the feline unit, I quietly but fervently believed Bonnie and I were becoming friends.  Sometimes I felt torn between these contradictory notions, but when I read The Ghost Walker by the distinguished naturalist R.D. Lawrence, I knew I kept good company.  As a preface to his field studies of cougars, Lawrence relates his encounters with one in London’s Regent Park Zoo.  His experiences mirrored mine almost exactly.

I knew Lawrence would understand my attraction to Bonnie as she enticed me closer to her enclosure.  Gingerly at first, but with growing confidence and familiarity as time went on, I spread my fingers through the narrow slots in the grating to rub her neck and ears.  She responded with eager purrs.

More than once, I imagined going into the enclosure with Bonnie.  But, as they should, such thoughts remained fantasies.  I never tested the limits, never presumed upon the safety I believed I would enjoy at close quarters.  Even though she responded to my voice and rolled flirtatiously on her back just out of reach, she was still a wild cat, and a large one.  Our relationship thrived despite the barriers.

From Wild Wild West, written and illustrated by Constance Perenyi, published by Sasquatch Books, 1994

From Wild Wild West, written and illustrated by Constance Perenyi, published by Sasquatch Books, 1994

For three years after I left employment at Woodland Park, I continued to visit Bonnie.  Ever the docent, I spent hours on the public side of her enclosure, telling zoo visitors about cougars.  What most people saw was an obese, matted, broken-down cat.  What I saw was an indomitable character, confined by years of crowds and cages, but still more at ease with humans than I am myself.  Spectator response to her varied from indifference, to jeers, to pity.  She certainly was not the defiant, screaming wildcat of legend, but her tolerance of the situation was not born out of resignation, either.  I think she simply made the best of it, with as much dignity and serenity as she could preserve.

Bonnie died in her sleep at the end of May.  The average life expectancy of a captive cougar is pegged at ten years.  She more than doubled that span, but her last year was one of increasing discomfort and fatigue.  When a keeper friend called to tell me of her death, I responded with an unexpected sigh of relief.  In my last visits, I wanted to shield Bonnie from the public’s probing, judging eye, to guarantee her the company of people who knew her condition and still respected her essential cougarness.

Bonnie was the last of a generation of hand-raised cats in the feline unit.  In her lifetime, zoos began to change, and so did theories of animal management.  The pandering bears of old rarely wave from their pits today; their generation of zoo animals, raised and schooled to a very different relationship with humans, has nearly passed.  The move is on to emulate nature.  Now we peer into man-made habitats and pretend to see wild and free animals at home on the range.

But none of this is natural.  By the time I left Woodland Park Zoo, I wondered if these improvements actually benefited captive animals or merely eased human consciences.  So I have come full circle, again feeling uncomfortable with the idea of captivity, but aware of how much I owe to barred cages.  Although I may never see cougars in the wild, I am now content to ask them to live in my imagination rather than in a state of suspended animation at a zoo.  I treasure my memories of Bonnie.  For animals like her, I wish the undisturbed solitude of high, rocky places, which is, after all, their birthright.  Try as we may, we can never duplicate that.

Cougar Portrait

Cougar Portrait, Paper Collage, Constance Perenyi, 2013

Kickstarter!

March 1, 2013

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Constance Pereyni Collage Artist

March 1: a little spring in the air, and some extra kick in my step.  I’ve been thinking for months about embarking on a Kickstarter Campaign.  I’ve been thinking for nearly two decades about the 13 Cats Project.  What better year to bring this project to life than in 2013?

In this auspicious year, I will create artwork for a book featuring 13 lucky felines, all rescued by Purrfect Pals, who find new, loving homes.  I will sew a quilt for each cat, create a portrait in paper collage, and compile the stories of 13 cats whose lives are changed by the care and generosity of people who open their hearts to them.

My devotion to fabric started long before I got a degree in art,  and although I made quilts for shows, I didn’t make one for a cat until much later.  The first recipient was a wildman manx named Bono, pictured in paper collage above.  He loved to nest in boxes of fabric, and was the ultimate sewing machine supervisor.  Once, when he was feeling poorly, I decided to make him a special quilt.  He immediately took to it, started feeling better, and soon after, all my cats got their own quilts.  Interestingly, they all knew which one was theirs, and rarely transgressed onto other quilted territory.

By the time I started working at a companion animal shelter, I’d made piles of quilts for felines of friends, family, and paying clients.  And then I started making them for special cats adopted from the shelter, too.  Almost two decades after leaving that job, I can’t remember how many dozens  I made in reality, and how many I created in my mind.  Often, the only way I could deal with euthanasia was to imagine wrapping each cat in a quilt before she passed.  Needless to say, I dried many of my own tears on the corners of those imaginary quilts.

I imagined a book about rescued cats and quilts not long after leaving my shelter job.  But, there were still some tears to cry and to healing to be done before I could envision the artwork.  I also had a lot to learn about making cats out of paper.  I’d already published 2 books for young readers, each filled with illustrations of wild animals.  My first cat illustrations were for small books published by the Wright Group.  They were a start, but I still had a long way to go.

In the last few years, I’ve finally gotten there.  I can make paper cats!  I still make quilts, and last fall, I realized it was time to think about the book again.  It was also time to connect with Purrfect Pals and have a different kind of experience with a shelter.  I see this book as a collaboration, and every person who supports the project is part of it.  This is an exciting step, and I will be honored to have friends, family, and other cat lovers take it together.

The Kickstarter Campaign goes through the month.  Please take a look here.  Thanks for embarking on this adventure with me!

Ellie Marie, rescued by Purrfect Pals, resting on her quilt in her new home

Ellie Marie, rescued by Purrfect Pals, at home on her quilt.

 

 

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” ANATOLE FRANCE

29

February 19, 2013

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Panthera tigris (Tiger), pieced handkerchief linen,cotton

Panthera tigris (Tiger), pieced handkerchief linen,cotton

Last week, a friend lured me into a memory game with questions about my life at a randomly chosen age.  I was assigned 29.  Astrologers know this fateful passage as the first Saturn return in people’s lives. It’s a make or break year, marked by many who didn’t get to 30, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain among them.  I obviously made it through to the other side, but this little game has stirred up all kinds of memories.  Here goes:

  • Where I lived: Seattle, Capitol Hill to be exact.
  • I drove: a red Volkswagen Rabbit.
  • My heart belonged to: I’m pleading the Fifth on this one, to protect the innocent, of which I wasn’t one.  Adventurous, maybe, but careless is probably more accurate.
  • I worked: in my studio and at Woodland Park Zoo, and how those places overlapped was the most interesting part of 29.

By then, I’d been in Seattle 3 years, and was successfully making my living as a wearable artist.  I sold my work in galleries all over the country, and although I wasn’t on the road to fame and fortune, I could pay bills and buy fabric.

I also had the freedom to pursue another passion.  Before I even set foot in the art museum in my new hometown, I was a regular at Woodland Park Zoo.  I volunteered, undertook docent training, and then was offered a paid position.  It was a magical experience.   Even though I was spending less time in my studio, and often showed up for fittings wearing my zoo uniform and rubber boots, I had new energy for design.

Up until then, my work was characterized by elegant, sharp angles pieced into garments and accessories.  It was, as gallery owners described it, “architectural.”  But the convergence of two influences changed the way I perceived the potential of fabric.  The first came out of the fashion houses in Tokyo.  Generous new shapes by designers Issey Miyake and Comme des Garcons captured my imagination at the exact same time my wearable clients asked for more movement in their clothing.

And then there were all those animals I worked with at the zoo.  I wanted to create fur and feathers out of fabric, and captured their texture and patterns with layers of torn edges.  I draped fabric to suggest wings, or gathered it to suggest volume.  One season, I was selected to show a collection of wearables inspired by big cats in a juried Designed to Wear event in Portland.  The following year, my 29th, I was invited back, and this time, the theme was birds.  I Magnin displayed the collection for another week, and I was thrilled to be noticed by more than one art critic.

Redwing Blackbird, satin and silk

Redwing Blackbird, satin and silk

It was the last time I participated in a big fashion show.  Shortly after, everything fell to pieces.   My personal life was in chaos.  I moved out of my studio, gave away bags of fabric, keeping only what fit into a small storage locker.  After spending Christmas day at an oil spill clinic, I realized my work with captive animals was finished.  With gratitude to every being who had enriched my life, I left the zoo.

I spent the next two years working in a law office downtown.  It was a sabbatical of sorts, away from everything that was important to me.  Eventually, I set up a new studio, and began volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation clinic.  Without hitting the “pause button,” I probably wouldn’t have found my way to a new artistic medium, or back to animals.  But still, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had stayed the course.

And that is a particularly interesting question to ponder as I hurtle towards my second Saturn return.  This one is about mastery and integration.  At the masterful age of 29 x 2:

  • I live in Shoreline, Washington.
  • I drive a 20 year old Toyota pick up truck.
  • My heart belongs to: Denice Taylor, and our animal family.
  • I work: as Executive Director at Third Place Commons.  I also have not one, but two studio spaces where I can create collages and sew.  I have just launched Pieceable Kingdom, and am starting to do volunteer work with rescued cats.

After all these years, life is still a work in progress, and I am both grateful and curious.  So, now it is your turn.  Care to share memories of a significant year in your life?

Welcome to Pieceable Kingdom!

February 2, 2013

pieceablekingdom

Ellie Marie & Her Quilt

Ellie Marie & Her Quilt

Welcome to the Pieceable Kingdom!  Today marks the launch of my new website, timed to coincide with Imbolc, or Candlemas.  In Celtic tradition, early February heralds the beginning of spring.  As darkness begins to give way to longer days, the first lambs are born, and snowdrops break through the frozen soil, intrepid and delicate symbols of renewed life.

This is a season of initiation, and for me, one of gratitude. Every new project deserves a caring midwife, and no one could have brought Pieceable Kingdom into the world with more creativity and patience than Christine Stoll.  Christine and I have been friends for more than a decade, and have supported each other through countless changes in our lives.  What joy it has been to watch my friend embrace her creativity.  What luck to have her design my website!

The last year has been one of reconnection for me, and I am grateful to Purrfect Pals for inspiring me to bring all I can to work on behalf of cats once again.  This wonderful organization is doing rescue work the right way, and I look forward to many collaborative projects.  I am especially appreciative of John Bartlett, foster dad to more than thirty litters of kittens, the most recent ones on the screen of computers around the world.  John’s generosity reminded me that every act of interspecies kindness ripples out in all directions.

And finally, I would like to thank a special cat.  When I first stumbled into the Critter Room last year, John was fostering the Scientist Family.  Every one of them captured my imagination, but none more than mother Marie (Curie).  Still very much a kitten herself, she was rescued from the street by a concerned couple, had 4 kittens, and raised them on camera until they were old enough to be put up for adoption.

Before it was her turn to be adopted, Marie went back to Purrfect Pals for some much-needed rest and recuperation.  As a way to wish her well, I made a quilt, which accompanied her a few months later into her forever home.  And what a perfect home she found.  Ellie Marie, as she is now known, has brought great happiness into the life of her new person, a lovely woman whose husband of 57 years had recently passed away.  This is what she says about Ellie Marie: “She is such a cuddle bug. She jumps up on my lap and rubs her face on mine and hums me all the secret cat songs she knows, and she knows a lot.

And this, my friends, is just the beginning of secret cat songs in the Pieceable Kingdom.  Thank you for listening to them with me.