Mar 31, 2015
Last week, one of our cats died suddenly. Scooby was the youngest and healthiest of our eight cats, and he’d shown no outward signs of sickness. Last Monday afternoon, when I left to take Groucho, one of our other cats, to the Angell Animal Medical Center for his monthly oncology check, Scooby seemed fine, but a few hours later, J found Scooby yowling, gasping for breath, and slobbering profusely in a hiding spot under the bed.
J immediately rushed Scooby to Angell: we must have passed one another on the road, with me bringing Groucho home as J took Scooby on what would be his final car ride. Scooby’s symptoms suggested sudden heart failure, but he didn’t respond to any of the treatments the emergency vets tried. J left Scooby in the intensive care unit at Angell, where we’ve taken so many other pets in the past. Later that night, after both J and I were home, the emergency vet called with the news: Scooby was gone.
During the years we’ve been together, J and I have lost six pets: our cats Boomer, Tony, Shadow, and now Scooby, and our dogs Reggie and MAD. Except for Scooby, all our pets were old and in obvious decline when they died: Boomer and Shadow died at home after long illnesses, and we chose to euthanize Tony, Reggie, and MAD. When an old or sickly pet dies, you’re stunned but not shocked: a long decline provides ample opportunities for anticipatory grieving, and when your pet finally passes, your shock is mingled with relief. After a long and exhausting decline, death is ultimately easy: just stop struggling and let yourself go.
What was shocking about Scooby’s death, however, was its irony: in a household full of elderly pets, why was it Scooby who died? Groucho has cancer, Snowflake has diabetes, Crash has an overactive thyroid gland, and Louie has a chronic heart condition: so how is it that Scooby, our youngest and healthiest cat, just up and died? Scooby was energetic and outgoing: when I entered the bedroom he used to share with Groucho, he’d often run toward me, dog-like, to see if I had food. When I’d kneel to clean his and Groucho’s litter box, Scooby would perch on the bedside table, batting and tugging mouthfuls of my hair.
Now that it’s been just over a week since we lost Scooby, I know not to look for him when I enter his old bedroom: Groucho now shares a room with Louie, who prefers to play hide-and-seek. When I clean Groucho’s and Louie’s litter box, there’s nobody on the bedside table to paw at my hair, and when I sit on the loveseat to wait for the newly-scrubbed floor to dry, it’s no longer Scooby who climbs on my empty lap. The shocking thing about a sudden death is the unsettling absence it leaves behind.
Mar 30, 2015
When I pulled into the faculty parking lot at Curry College this morning, I wasn’t surprised to see a male hairy woodpecker clinging to a nearby tree, as last week I’d seen the holes he’d hammered. Sometimes birds reveal themselves directly, and other times they reveal themselves by what they leave behind.
This particular hairy woodpecker wasn’t shy, continuing to cling to his tree while I rolled down my car window and took a picture from the driver seat, using my car as an impromptu bird-blind. (I can tell this fellow is a male by the red spot on the back of his head, and I can tell he’s a hairy rather than downy woodpecker because his bill is as long as his head is wide: a downy’s bill isn’t nearly as long.)
Only after I’d gotten out of my car did the woodpecker startle and fly, scolding me with emphatic call-notes: “Peeeek! Peeeek!” Now that I know who’s been drilling the trees by the faculty parking lot at Curry College, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for him and his mate.
Mar 20, 2015
Our cats are indoor cats, so they spend a lot of time watching the weather from inside. Whoever designed our house must have had cats in mind, as many of the radiators are topped with broad wooden shelves that make perfect perches for both basking and bird-watching.
Yesterday was a good day to be an indoor cat as it was cold and sunny: perfect for sunbathing in a warm and sheltered spot. I spent the day prepping classes and grading, so like an indoor cat I spent most of the day inside looking out. When you stay inside on a cold and sunny day, you can trick yourself into thinking it’s warmer than it is, summer right around the corner rather than frozen in its tracks.
I sometimes wonder what the cats make of the snow piles that impede their window views in winter and then gradually recede in spring. Can the cats sense the cold through the glass, or is even their imagined sense of the world outside climate controlled?
Mar 16, 2015
Temperatures stayed above freezing for much of last week, so the snow pack is gradually shrinking, with patches of bare ground appearing on the edges. We saw these brave perennials starting to sprout from a sheltered spot alongside a building in Waltham yesterday…but in our yard here in Newton, the snow is still knee-deep, with an additional inch or two of fresh snow (enough for Boston to break its record for the snowiest season on record) falling last night.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since it will be weeks, at least, until most of us see tulips or daffodils blooming in our still-buried gardens, some folks are taking matters in their own hands, sticking cut or even artificial flowers in the snow banks in front of their houses: a welcome spot of color. When you can’t enjoy the real thing, a reasonable facsimile will have to do.
Mar 14, 2015
Every morning, I follow the same basic routine: a daily liturgy that involves taking the beagle out and in, loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash and recyclables, cleaning the kitchen litter box, and filling various food and water bowls. It takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes to do these mundane chores, and I do them every day: weekdays, weekends, days when I feel like it, and days when I don’t.
Because I’ve repeated this same set of chores so many times, I’ve streamlined the process. I don’t do these tasks willy-nilly; instead, I do them in the same order every day, one task following the next like a wheel rolling into a well-worn track. Because my body knows exactly what it needs to do, I don’t have to think about what comes next: I don’t have to think about anything at all. When I set my feet on the floor, they know where to take me.
I’ve come to see my morning routine as its own kind of meditation. When I lived in the Zen Center, I had a different sort of morning routine that involved bowing, chanting, and sitting rather than dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling. When the Zen Center wake-up bell rang, you stumbled out of bed and into the Dharma room, and practice happened whether you were properly awake or not. Because you’d bowed, chanted, and sat so many times before, your body knew how to complete these actions whether or not your mind really “wanted” to.
To many, this might sound like the epitome of mindless practice: you just go through the motions whether you feel like it or not, as mindless as any automaton. We live in a culture of emotion that believes the heart is the highest authority, so it’s downright criminal (or worse, hypocritical) to do something when your “heart isn’t in it.” But Zen isn’t a way of the heart; it lives even deeper in the body, down in the rooted tangle of the gut. Anyone who’s lived in a Zen Center knows that following a mindless routine is the way to mindfulness: because you don’t have anything to do but show up, your mind is free to pay attention without equivocation.
C.S. Lewis famously argued that the routine monotony of liturgy is what makes it a transcendent experience. Only when your body and mind are trained by the predictable repetition of a church service is your spirit free to commune:
Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it “works” best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
When I’m immersed in the routine of dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling, my mind feels free and unfettered, free to wander where it will. An entirely ordinary but profoundly satisfying kind of peace arises when you don’t have to wonder what comes next: you just do your job. In the evening, I repeat a routine that complements my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, emptying the dogs’ water bowls, and mopping the floor. There are moments when I’m leading the beagle to or from the dog pen when I wonder whether I was a farmer in a past life, the simple routine of animal husbandry—food and water in, waste out—feeling both familiar and reassuring.
I’m currently reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a nonfiction narrative about the pastoral joys of goat-tending and cheese-making. I’ve never tended goats or made cheese, but what Kessler says about his experience of goat-milking sounds so akin to my experience tending a menagerie of pets, I suspect only the details of our respective practices differ:
Maybe it’s just the routine, the same objects in the same place (the wipes, the teat dip, the feed bucket, the scoop). The smallest change upsets the balance; the repetition builds a kind of faith (milk stand, hoof trimmers, hay knife, stool). Rote is the nature of prayer. Incantation is repetition. Saying and doing the same thing over and over until entranced. Ritualizing the same physical motion with your body as Yogis do. My movements here on this milk stand are a kind of davening, a morning prayer with goat.
“Rote is the nature of prayer”: this is a line I could live and die by, a mantra truer to my lived experience than any creed. Every day, the goats need to be milked; every day, the dishes need to be washed, the litter boxes need to be cleaned, and the water bowls need to be filled. Your life isn’t what happens before and after you’ve done your chores; instead, your chores are your life. Only after these tasks have become routine can you settle into the comfortable monotony that is prayer.
Mar 12, 2015
Inch by inch, we’re reclaiming our yard from winter’s occupation. Yesterday a desk-sized slab of ice slid off our roof, taking part of the gutter with it; the day before that, an avalanche of roof-snow tore a cable from its mooring on the side of our house. Considering the damage many of our neighbors and colleagues have suffered–collapsed drywall ceilings, peeling paint, and warped kitchen cabinets, all from roof leaks caused by ice dams–J and I have gotten off easy, with only a bit of indoor dripping and seeping.
Yesterday J and I walked to lunch, and shoveled sidewalks were bare…but those sidewalks that hadn’t been shoveled were treacherous, with alternating patches of ankle-twisting snowdrifts and slippery-as-sin ice patches slicked with snow melt. The most reliable place for pedestrians to walk is still (unfortunately) the street, turning a simple lunchtime walk into a game of chicken with passing motorists.
In the afternoon, I drove to Lexington to stock up on office supplies, and the town center was well-shoveled, with wide, clear sidewalks. It was sunny and mild, with temperatures in the mid-50s, and anyone who didn’t need to be inside was outside, walking. After so many weeks of snowstorms and cabin fever, it felt like an unheard luxury simply to walk outside, reclaiming the cleared sidewalks as our own.
The top photo shows our formerly-buried patio table and chairs emerging from the melting snow, and the second is the last photo I took of the overhanging roof-glacier that hung over our back door before it fell.
Mar 9, 2015
The forecast calls for daytime highs in the 40s all this week, which means we’re beginning to see buried things surfacing out of the snow. It will be weeks before we see our lawn, but the top of our backyard birdbath has emerged, and in a nearby parking lot I saw the edge of a shopping cart peeking out of a head-high snow pile: the last place, presumably, a snowplow had pushed it.
People often talk about how pretty snow is, and that’s true when it’s fresh-fallen and white. These days, however, the salt-blanched roads are lined with exhaust-blackened snowdrifts that have hardened and eroded into irregularly jagged shapes, more like sedimentary stone than anything akin to water. Like swords from a stone, all manner of random things are surfacing from beneath the snow: plow-battered pallets, smashed trash cans, and broken and uprooted park benches.
Spring is coming, the warmer temperatures and lengthening days suggest…but first we have to weather an awkward adolescence where the snow is ugly and ice-bottomed puddles are more treacherous than ice or snow alone. On Saturday, I ventured to Home Depot in search of ice melt, and everyone else in the store seemed to have the same idea, stockpiling what we hope is our last stash of the stuff. On the drive home, there was a mild traffic jam as a queue of cars at a popular car-wash snaked into the street: as reliable a sign of spring as any other.
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