Archive for December, 2013

I am the Cat

December 27, 2013

How is it that, as a self-identified cat person, I write so much more often about dogs? True, over the years I’ve shared my home with more dogs than cats, undoubtedly because dogs more easily work out a pack status and accommodate to numbers. For every three dogs, I’ve offered food and shelter to at most one cat. The only time I can recall offering housing to two cats at once, the dominant cat (Natasha) had recently been a mother, her kittens just weaned and off to new homes.

Shifting possessions in a rented storage unit, I heard a frantic mewling coming from behind the building. Huddled under an accumulation of dead leaves blown against the metal siding, was a tiny black handful of fur with a wide open mouth, loudly proclaiming its presence. Chantilly Lace quieted as soon as I picked her up. She dug around against my chest until she found my generously-sized inside jacket pocket, then nestled her way into it and went to sleep.

My chores completed, I returned home uncertain how to introduce Chantilly to Natasha and to the dogs living with me. Isha, a lanky Lab cross, had recently finished her stint as a kitten sitter. She amazed me with her willingness to let Natasha’s brood line up and nurse on her dry tits. Once the last kitten began eating solid food, Isha resumed her role as junior dog in the pack that went daily into nearby fields, to chase rabbits and warn off coyotes. She did not seem disposed to play mother substitute once more. Driftwood (Golden/Collie cross) and Khan (another black Lab cross) showed the normal doggy disdain for felines. No help there.

Not knowing the outcome, I set Chantilly down on the couch between me and Natasha, and waited. My timing must have been perfect; post natal hormones pushed Natasha to wash Chantilly, whose grateful purring response reinforced a bond. The two cats became familiars. I never afterwards saw one without the other. Their preferred sleeping positions were snuggled head to tail (69 position) and belly to belly, Natasha’s grey tiger stripes accented by Chantilly’s glossy black tail, a fur boa draped across Natasha’s neck.

In more recent times, I’ve watched my horses tend to each other’s needs by standing side by side, head to tail, nibbling bugs off hind quarters and those hard-to-reach places that need a scratch or – in the case of the cats – a good wash. Natasha, several years older, nonetheless outlived Chantilly. Alone after years of partnership, Natasha became noticeably more affectionate with me. She would fall asleep against my thigh when I sat reading. Gradually waking from a nap, she was apt to begin licking my leg, her left over habit of grooming Chantilly before and after sleep.

Natasha’s long life ended with a tumor on her jaw that eventually precluded eating. She survived on determination and wet food thinned to drinkable consistency, until the day she climbed onto my lap, looked me over thoroughly, licked my hand and meowed an unmistakable request to be eased on to her next incarnation.

A goodly number of years – and quite a few short-lived cat visitors – later, I was gifted to share space with Haiku, a ginger tom whose disposition was a charming balance of feistiness and affection. He enjoyed the several dogs (a Bouvier, another Lab, a Scottie and my first Shih Tzu) and was not averse to sleeping beside one, or tussling for a bone with another. Indeed, his personality was so like that of Daisy, my departed beagle, that I sometimes wondered if he wasn’t her reincarnated essence.

Handsome Haiku

Handsome Haiku

Haiku was a hunter – solo but also in company with whichever dog felt like going after a rabbit or dove. He would stalk prey, flushing it toward the waiting dog, then join whichever canine (usually the Lab) in pouncing on the heedless rabbit, or jumping into the air to snap at the dove. Together the pair were successful a surprising number of times. Haiku usually left the carcass to his canine teammate – his was indeed the thrill of the chase, more than the achievement of a goal.

Late in his life, Haiku became a test subject for an anti-cancer treatment being developed by a chemist friend of mine, in partnership with a research biologist from Arizona. Haiku grew a tumor on his foreleg which resisted surgical removal, growing back quickly and so deeply that the only further surgery possible would have been an amputation. The anti-cancer medication had, at that point, primarily been tested on mice. Calculating an equivalent dosage for a cat, my friend and I started Haiku on a weekly series of injections to which the tumor responded by softening and growing at a markedly slower rate. My vet followed the experiment with interest – and helped me ease Haiku onward when his system began to shut down as a result of the combined stress of the cancer and older age. He made his mark, not just in my life, but via his test data which went into the pool of information being used in further development of the anti-cancer treatment. A noble contribution from a noble creature.

Miss Socks

Miss Socks

The three most recent cats in my household have been Socks, Limerick and Noelle, all rescues, the first two of whom lived with us for relatively short periods of time. Socks took up with my Bouvier, both of them older and sedate, enjoying sleeping together in the sun. Like a long-married couple, they died only a short time apart. Limerick arrived – and left – by moonlight, spending only a few months with us.

Limerick in the Light

Limerick in the Light

Noelle, now five years old, was a Christmas gift, rescued as a kitten by a neighbor and presented to me “as holiday company.” For an animal born wild, she took to indoor life with alacrity, claiming the utility room as her home and only going out if I carry her to a perch high up under the carport. She hangs out in the rafters, fussing at the dogs and demanding to be transported back to her indoor residence, yet requiring persistent persuasion to come down within my reach. Once back indoors, she hides from just about everyone who has reason to enter the room (she dislikes the noise of the washing machine but hums along with the dryer). Her favorite places to perch are wrapped around the vent pipe for the hot water heater, or atop a box in the room’s south facing window. She has also made herself a hidey hole under a low shelf and it is there she retreats with a flash of tail, if a stranger enters the room.

Noelle

Noelle

Noelle is a talker – but only to me and one aide, who works with my housemate on Sundays. She is affectionate with the two of us, but avoids other people, even those who would lavish affection on her. I don’t know why – she’s not had any negative experience of people in all the years she’s lived with me. Her inscrutable cat reasoning, I guess.

I recently received a cute, animated set of pictures from a friend, illustrating the stereotypical difference between dogs and cats – the dogs generally bouncing in excited response, the cats indifferent to whatever is offered them by their people. What my several cats have taught me is that differences between and within species are more nuanced, closely mirroring the differences between humans.

Or perhaps, what I observe is merely the truism that our pets become mirrors of ourselves? In which case, I guess I defy classification, being sometimes aloof, sometimes affectionate, generally independent, usually friendly, occasionally on guard, rarely wary, never mean, often changeable, my bad moods short-lived. I like to play, love to cuddle, enjoy affection but still, when all is said and done and now that I am in the latter years of my life, I am Kipling’s “cat, who walks by himself.” So be it. Amen.

Not a Christian

December 21, 2013

“I am not a Christian.” A simple, declarative sentence.
My housemate’s aide asked why we do not yet have a tree up, and I answered, “I am not a Christian.”

Why is this the first time I’ve made that statement so openly? In the past, I’ve evaded. “We don’t make a fuss over the holiday, since it’s just the two of us.” Or, “I wasn’t raised to celebrate Christmas.”

It’s true, I wasn’t. My culturally but not religiously Jewish upbringing included commemoration of holidays as a remembrance of history rather than as spiritual practice. I’m old enough to have attended public schools that started the day with both the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. For all of my first 6 years in school, I would silently add “Cross that last line out, God” when the teacher ended the prayer “In Jesus name.” Later, at convocations, graduations, other public events in pre-politically-correct times, I didn’t bother with the amendment. Other people could pray as they wished, and assume what they wished about me.

While I lived in Vietnam, in order to participate in a choir, I practiced with the group at a non-denominational Protestant church. My mother did not let me perform with them on Sundays, however. I lit incense at a temple with our Chinese housekeeper, and watched the elaborate funeral parades of some of Saigon’s wealthiest families. The first time I encountered the concept of reincarnation, I knew it to be truth, resolving as it did so many of my questions and doubts.

One of Many

One of Many

In college I took several courses in comparative religion, and sat in silence with the Quakers, drawn both by their lack of ritual and their commitment to social action. The practice of seeing “that of God in every man” enabled me to feel part of a larger whole, in contrast to my life’s lessons of being an outsider. I diligently sought, in the silence, to discern “God’s will for me” and to listen to the “still small voice” giving direction to my life.

I’ve rarely had – or perhaps only rarely remembered having – dreams. The few vivid ones that have occurred have always been crystal clear as to their meaning, and prophetic. My access to inner answers has been simpler, more direct than dream interpretation. If I frame a question before going to sleep, I awake with the answer. If I frame a question before participating in Quaker Meeting, I leave the meditation having received – either from within myself or from a spoken message – a sense of direction. I never conceive of this instruction as God speaking directly to me. Rather, I remember my grandfather’s answer to a question about why one should do right. “Because you know it is the right thing to do.”

I have followed my inner instruction because I know it to be right for me. Living and working these past twenty years amid practicing Christians, primarily Catholics, I’ve kept my views to myself in order not to offend, in order not to disturb their settled beliefs. I’ve been respectful of our differences, not feeling any need to explicate those differences.

For more than twenty years I have been student of MasterPath – a spiritual teaching, an instruction in how to find “one’s way back home” to realization of one’s true nature as Soul. Practitioners number now in the tens of thousands, come from many countries and a wide variety of faith – or no faith – backgrounds. What we have in common is the desire to know our Divine purpose – to know and be our true selves, to manifest wisdom unadulterated by considerations of body, emotions and mind.

Different religions use terms like man’s purest essence, Buddha nature, the Soul self, Christ consciousness to describe the state of pure consciousness to which my Path leads me. Many religions ascribe the capacity to manifest that pure consciousness only to the founder(s) of the religion, as something outside oneself, to be worshiped and admired, but not to be attained.

Regrettably many religions are now adulterated by ego interpretations of what it means to act “as a ______” (fill in the blank with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jew, Buddhist, Taoist, etc.) so that instead of manifesting the beauty and truth of their faith, they demonstrate violence, intolerance, exclusion and dominance all in the name of religious purity. It should not surprise anyone that atheists point to the history of war waged in the name of religion as proof that belief in God has a negative influence on humanity.

Religious history has little to do with why I reached my seventh decade before stating plainly, “I am not a Christian.” Or maybe it does? Maybe the intolerance of differences reflected in all those wars waged in the name of religion has seeped into my being, quietly persuading me to not make an issue of my difference from my neighbors?

No, I think it has taken me this long to be truly comfortable with who I am and what I know to be Truth; to achieve a genuine indifference to reputation and how others perceive me; to feel certain in my knowledge of my Inner Being. In other words it has taken me this long simply to Be, and hence to be free to speak my own truth. I need not weight myself down with a responsibility not to offend others. If they are discomforted by me, so be it. In a far from cartoonish and Popeye’d way, I am what I am.

In the words of a blessing spoken at the start of a lovely Ba Gua exercise called Swimming Dragon, “I am health, I am beauty, I have enough.” It is enough, that I AM.

Choosing an Attitude

December 14, 2013

One of the elements of my new job that was most appealing – working from home – is also revealing itself to be a challenge in ways I did not experience the last time I had a similar employment. Just a few changes in external circumstances are making a significant difference in how I relate to my obligations.

The first time I worked from home was more than 20 years ago, when I had just moved to Sapello. I lived alone, and was hired to manage and build up the clientele of a home health agency. I enjoyed being able to spread my work over the seven day week, scheduling my leisure activities intermittently with travel to clients’ homes and with the inevitable administrative work required. While I was never “off duty”, I did have a lot of choice about what I did when. I was flexibly able to fit my personal obligations and desires around work demands, rarely feeling pressured because there seemed to be enough time for everything.

Eventually the agency grew to the point that we established an office, and I became subject to a more consistent and common work schedule. I left briefly, for personal reasons, and spent eighteen months self-employed. I completed several contracts and saw clients privately for counselling sessions. When I returned to the agency, again as its branch manager, I was subject to the standard “8-5 in the office” schedule, to which I adhered for fourteen years. Eighteen months of semi-retirement and job search brought me to my present full time, salaried and home-based position.

I do not now live alone. I share my very small house with my disabled former husband, for whom I am guardian and with whom I remain friends. His health is slowly and steadily declining. A sequence of aides come to the house, to help him during the day and to see that he gets supper. The schedule is meant to assure his safety when I am away. In consequence, there are several different people added to our small space, to whom I must accommodate when I am at home. While I am, mostly, relieved of responsibility for my housemate’s care, I do have to step in, unpredictably, when an aide is unavailable. And I am responsible to assure that the schedule of services is established and maintained.

Over time, our home has become divided into “my” room, which is also the living room that contains the day bed where I sleep, and the rest of the space – sleeping area for my housemate, dining area with the table covered with items he uses for his craft projects, kitchen and bath which we share. While I was still employed at the agency, the aides were scheduled during my work hours. In the eighteen months since, I find my necessary privacy and quiet time at night, often writing (as at this moment) or reading. My housemate watches TV with earphones on, allowing me valued silence for contemplation and creation.

Embarked on my new job, I have been away from home for extended periods of orientation and training. Shortly, I expect to be scheduled for long, busy days traveling to clients’ homes, interspersed with long and demanding days at home entering information into the complex computer systems my employer has been training us to use. I’ve had just a few weeks at home, to set up my “office” and establish those systems as functional in my rural, no-cell-service area. The systems are only partially in place so far. I do not yet have a land-based work phone, and I continue to uncover wide areas from within which I have no connection to the Internet. For clients who live in those areas, I will have to take notes and then enter data later at night, after I get back home.

My office is now in a corner of the dining area where my housemate – and his aide – spend most of the day. I’m having to learn to shut out their conversation in order to concentrate on the tasks that come to me by computer. On a recent visit to a building in Albuquerque newly occupied by some of the staff of my company, I walked through a huge room of employees in cubicles, thinking how grateful I am not to be similarly situated. I only have to shut off two voices, not hundreds.

I’m realizing that one of the serious sources of stress over the last years of my former employment came from the lack of doors on offices in the various buildings that agency occupied. As a manager, I relied on knowing (hearing) what was going on throughout the office. As a person, my need for silence around me, for auditory privacy, was consistently challenged. Personal validation and social support, also important to well-being, came from co-workers and from those engaged in the various volunteer activities I’ve pursued. For recuperation, reflection, and privacy I could count on quiet at home.

Changes in my housemate’s health, including recent medical emergencies disrupting my work day plans, new aides requiring instruction that he does not provide, and the expectation from my present employer that I be available on an 8-5 Monday to Friday schedule, have combined to eliminate my control over how and when I do what needs to be done. As a result, work is not staying in balance. It is seeping into my sleep time, rousing me at 5 am to try yet another way to solve a computer problem that proves not to be solvable by me. I begin to feel encroached upon by lack of quiet personal time – and by the necessity of at least temporarily giving up almost all of my volunteer activities.

During a recent two nights alone at home, while my housemate was in hospital, I was jolted to realize that many years have elapsed since the last time I had this space to myself for more than two hours! There is already so much activity filling the house, can I actually bring work here too, without losing the last bits of “me” space?

+++++

Yes, I recognize my issue is a matter of mental attitude. My spiritual Path teaches that “the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.” Private, quiet, contemplative space for myself will exist wherever I am, if I make it a priority – and “set my mind”  (no, actually not my mind, but my attention) to assuring it occurs.

I may not be able to go strictly by the clock, dividing work time from private time, especially while I’m still learning how to accomplish work tasks in an efficient manner. I cannot force my work computer to move through its paces more quickly. I cannot fix my situation of intermittent Internet connectivity, which disrupts the intended work flow process and requires me to “do double work” entering data already recorded on paper.

On a Recent Misty Morning

On a Recent Misty Morning

I can teach myself not to be frustrated by the computer’s slowness, and I can line up tasks to do during the waits (like creating a  card file of important numbers and contacts). I can “take time to smell the roses” or, in this winter season watch the birds. I can revel in my ability to look up from my computer to see snow dappled fields inviting to deer, doves perched in a row on the fence beside the feeder, a squirrel gorging himself on seeds, and little birds on the ground waiting to collect what the doves and the squirrel shove over the side of the dish.

Yum!

Yum!

I may need to extend work hours into the evenings and weekends – but I can still define times when I turn off all electronics and soak up the natural sounds of wind, dogs chasing rabbits, birds arguing over priority at their feeder, and snow dripping from the eaves.

Serenity surrounds me. I need only put myself within it. I am blessed.

When It’s Time

December 8, 2013
I Dare You...

I Dare You…

This isn’t the topic I expected to post this weekend. Not because of the passing of Nelson Mandela, but for an even more personal passing that raises almost identical emotions.

+++++

I demonstrated to push my college to rid itself of all investments that supported the South African government during apartheid. I’m proud to say Swarthmore College was one of the early institutions to manifest its (Quaker) values by participating in the economic boycott which the pundits are crediting with bringing an end to the apartheid system.

I rejoiced when it became clear that Nelson Mandela’s emphasis on equality and democracy, and commitment to reconciliation as the path forward, would be carried out with a simultaneous delight in the small pleasures of life. I’ve followed Mandela as I have the Dalai Lama, listening (by reading) to their speeches and appreciating how well they each translate values into action in ways I try to embody in my own life. My venue, as my status, is so much less than that of these two men I admire. Only others can assess to what extent I manifest any similar virtues.

I do attest that my Shih Tzu, named Shian Shung in respect of his status as a Master and Teacher, has shown the Mandela and Dalai Lama traits of persistence, consistency, dedication, joy in living, playfulness, affection, tolerance and respect for the equality of all. I could not know, when I cuddled him for a bit of extra “affection time” this past Monday, that I would never again do so. I cleaned and treated his eye, hugged him, received several doggy kisses in return, and watched him run out to catch up with his mates, chasing a rabbit into the pasture.

Blowing Kisses

Blowing Kisses

I loaded the car for my week of job training away from home and, as I headed down the drive, looked back to see my four dogs sitting on the deck, watching me go. That is my final image of Shian Shung – a furry white bundle of loving energy standing out against the blackness of the other dogs.

+++++

Today everything outside the windows is white. It snowed while I was away, and is snowing again now. Somewhere hidden within the cold wet white, is the body of what was a vibrant, lively personality cloaked in the white fur of a Shih Tzu. Apparently he was hit by a car mid-week. A visitor reports noticing a white dog lying beside the road Wednesday night. Shian Shung has not been seen since Wednesday morning; no body was found near the highway on Thursday. Most likely it was moved, or covered over, by snow plows clearing the road from the storm that day.

In his three short years, Shian Shung endured two traumatic health challenges and lived with a persistent eye irritation that required daily treatment. He was little more than a year old when he ingested meat some neighbor had set out, filled with rat poison. His gums were almost colorless when I got him to the vet. Daily injections with Vitamin K saved his life. He bounced back. He had one surgery to his right eyelid, intended to eliminate irritation to the cornea. It was only partially successful – I still had to clean and treat the eye daily. A follow-up surgery ended abruptly when Shian Shung flat-lined on the operating table. The vet and his assistant performed CPR, intubated him, worked on him for more than half an hour. He survived – again.

Within a week he was running and playing and teasing his pals, warning me of intruders with his assertive bark, tolerating steroid shots to reduce the inflammation to his eye, and lavishing me with his affection and abundant joie de vivre.

Over the 40 years I’ve lived in rural New Mexico, I’ve shared my home with a very large number of dogs and cats. Inevitably, a few stand out… Natasha, Driftwood, Daisy, Haiku, Rowena, Mei Ling and now Shian Shung. Daisy (a beagle/basset cross) extended her life after a serious illness, for just long enough to see me through the loss of my father, before she moved on to join him.

Handsome Haiku

Handsome Haiku

Haiku and Natasha (tiger-striped cats, one ginger the other grey) each taught me how to recognize the difference between choosing to live with sickness and being ready to depart. Rowena (a Scottie) and Mei Ling (another Shih Tzu) offered generous  love while also requiring respect for their independence. Each chose her moment of passing, in ways I could not avoid recognizing and respecting.

Miss Independence x 2

Miss Independence x 2

Various cultures articulate a tradition of animal guides and companions for the spirit world; I’m certain they “have it right”. A cat (my totem) will undoubtedly inform me, and accompany me, when it is my time. For now, I accustom myself to life here without the active presence of Shian Shung, as I adjust to a world now lacking the physical presence of Nelson Mandela.

+++++

We are most fortunate when we find good role models or wise teachers, to help us on our paths through life. I’m blessed to have my spiritual teacher, on MasterPath, still present in the physical, as is the Dalai Lama. Two other role models, one proximate (Shian Shung) and one more distant (Mandela), have shown me how to live fully and well despite imprisonment and life threatening trauma. Both will continue to function as guides, now in my memory.

I wonder – is Shian Shung frolicking at Mandela’s feet as they move to their next stage of being?


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