Jan 18, 2016
Yesterday morning, we put Bunny the cat to sleep. Earlier this month, after losing an alarming amount of weight, Bunny was diagnosed with kidney failure and spent a few days in the veterinary critical care unit, where our main goal was to get her healthy enough to come home. At home, we plied Bunny with food and an abundance of petting, committed to making her final days as comfortable and love-filled as possible.
This is, we’ve learned, how old cats often die. There’s the initial diagnosis, and veterinary care can extend their life long enough you can intentionally shower then with attention, making a conscious decision to (literally) love them to death. But inevitably, the disease wins: the disease always wins. You write the final chapter of a pet’s life knowing how the story ends but nevertheless fighting for every additional page, intent on cramming as much love and mercy as possible into a too-short narrative.
Bunny is the fifth cat we’ve lost since last March, the litany of grief counting out like rosary beads: Scooby, Louie, Snowflake, Groucho, Bunny. Grief doesn’t get any easier with repetition, but it does grow more familiar: an unwelcome but well-known guest who keeps returning. Although Scooby died suddenly, we euthanized the others after long, debilitating illnesses that afforded ample opportunity for anticipatory grieving. When you euthanize a pet after a long illness, you experience a dizzying array of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, you’re relieved your pet is no longer suffering; on the other, you’re stunned when an all-consuming struggle ends so suddenly, with no more need for the constant care and concern you’d lavished on this small, suffering creature.
Ever since Bunny came home from the critical care unit, she and I had settled upon a new routine. In the middle of the night, after I’d taken Melony the beagle out and in, I’d spend a half hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Bunny nestled in my lap. At first, the goal of these vigils was to coax Bunny into eating: before getting down to the serious business of petting, I’d plop Bunny in front of a bowl of fresh food and watch her eat. Her final few nights, however, Bunny showed no interest in food or even water, so I’d gather her into my lap and clean her mucus-clogged eyes with a paper towel soaked in warm water. With one hand, I’d pet Bunny, who always loved to be cuddled, and with the other, I’d turn the pages of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, which seemed an appropriate choice of reading material while tending a dying animal.
I lost a lot of sleep these past few weeks sitting up with Bunny this way; last night, with no Bunny to fret over, I crawled right back into bed after taking Melony out. But I don’t regret the hours I spent petting Bunny in my lap while I read, wept, and prayed for just a little while longer. For the past few weeks, these midnight vigils spent cross-legged in my kitchen were my spiritual practice, the time I took to contemplate face-to-face the inevitable predicaments of old age, sickness, and death.
Bunny was 17 years old when she died, and she had been remarkably healthy during that time: as so often happens with old pets and old people alike, Bunny was healthy until she wasn’t. And until the very end, Bunny retained her essential sweetness, finding the energy to climb into my lap as soon as I’d settled on the floor, wanting nothing more than to be petted even when so many other physical discomforts threatened to overcome her.
During these late-night vigils, presumably influenced by Anne Lamott and her stories of spiritual seeking, I came to a heart-felt conclusion. God isn’t, I think, a bearded man on a throne but a being who sits cross-legged in the heavens, weeping and praying over the small, suffering world she holds tenderly in her lap.
Jan 11, 2016
My twelve-year blogiversary was several weeks ago: it’s been twelve years and a couple of weeks since I posted my first blog post on December 27, 2003. Each year, I usually use the occasion of my blogiversary to review my favorite posts from the previous year, but this time around I want to reflect on a broader theme: what have I learned from a dozen years of blogging?
The deepest and most lasting lesson I’ve taken from twelve years of blogging, I think, is that it’s always good to be writing. Sometimes on a doubting day I second-guess the time I spend on my blog: surely there must better, more lucrative, or more prestigious projects I could devote myself to. But when I consider how I actually work—how and where my Muse strikes, the kind of things that interest me, and the way I spend my days—I realize blogging nicely matches my creative proclivities. I like writing about an assortment of little things, and I like the way both journals and blogs focus on a ragtag selection of loose ends. Given the challenge to write a Big Book about Something Profound, I clam up, but given the opportunity to share whatever little something comes to mind, I always, eventually, find something to say.
Truth be told, if I weren’t blogging, I probably wouldn’t be writing much. It’s easy to assume that if you didn’t spend a little bit of time every now and then writing about whatever random stuff interests you, you’d suddenly have ample opportunity to focus on sustained profundity, but I think the opposite is just as true. If I ever were to write a Big Book about Something Profound, it would be exactly because I’d flexed my noticing on the scales and arpeggios of daily writing. Henry David Thoreau didn’t write the books that made his reputation despite the fact that he kept a journal; instead, Thoreau’s journal is where his books were born. As much as I enjoy and have come to rely upon my daily journal pages, I also enjoy the accountability and immediate feedback that writing in front of an online audience provides.
Blogging is an ephemeral form—a genre that focuses on the minute details of passing days—and as such can sometimes seem not to count for much: at the end of twelve years, what do I have to show for the time I’ve spent? But I’m not sure a lasting legacy is the best way to judge a writer’s (or any other mortal human’s) real worth. After a dozen years, an architect might point to a building erected, but what does a chef have to show for her devoted labor? Does cooking nourishing meals—each one consumed with grateful gusto down to the last crumb—count for nothing simply because the leftovers do not last?
If I write something fulfilling and tasty today, I still need to write something tomorrow and the next day and the next: a blogger’s work, like a woman’s, is never done. But some of life’s greatest joys are ephemeral, every dance begging another just as every kiss commands its consequent. Just because something doesn’t last and thus must be repeated doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. To the contrary, the impermanent and the ephemeral push us to live in the moment, spending with abandon whatever we have NOW and trusting that in the future, more will be provided.
What I have to show for the past twelve years of blogging is nothing more than a determination to keep blogging for another dozen, the practice of almost-daily writing being its own reward. Whenever I teach the basics of meditation, I note the special temporal nature of the breath: unlike thoughts, which can wander into the past or future, the breath brings us back to the present exactly because it can happen nowhere else. Try as we might, we can’t recover today the breath we lost yesterday, and there’s no way to stockpile today’s breath for tomorrow. The only place you can breathe is right here, right now.
A blog is like a fog of breath on a mirror: yesterday’s brilliant utterance cannot make up for today’s sudden silence. If you want to stay alive, you have to keep breathing, and if you want to keep blogging, you have to keep writing. There is no resting on your laurels in this business: as a blogger, you’re only as good as your last post just as a body is only as alive as its most recent breath.
Jan 3, 2016
I spent most of the day yesterday curled on a friend’s couch, writing. A (not her real initial) and I used to go to a writers’ conference every autumn, but after a few years we decided we’d get more out of taking a day just to write rather than listening to people talking about writing. Toward that end, yesterday we spent the day having our own writers’ retreat at A’s apartment.
Sometimes you just need to take a day to do whatever it is you wish you had more time to do. Before I could break away to spend most of my Saturday writing, I had to tackle my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, cleaning dishes and litter boxes, taking out the trash and recycling, and feeding and medicating one of the cats. By doing these things, I bought myself the rest of the day—a luxurious chunk of time between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm—to focus on writing without interruption before returning home to my usual obligations.
I used to have this luxury every day: that is, I used to be single. I used to live alone in my apartment in Keene, and the only living soul I was beholden to was Reggie, whose needs at the time were simple: a walk, a bowl of kibble, and a couple bathroom breaks. But now I have a husband and a houseful of pets, and life is complicated. Being married and surrounded by furry creatures is wonderful and bears its own satisfactions, but sometimes I long for the simplicity of my single days.
This is the value of a retreat. Retreats are like a vacation or a game of make-believe: instead of casting off your attachments to move to a monastery and become a monk, you take a day to role-play. You step outside your life and its obligations, at least for a little while, and you live a life that once was or still could be yours, but isn’t.
It’s remarkable how quiet even a thickly settled neighborhood can be when you yourself are quiet and not chasing after anything. My apartment in Keene was in a similar neighborhood as A’s—close to downtown, but affording solitude if you didn’t have business with the cars that occasionally approached and then passed. There is great tranquility to be found even close at hand when you simply stop, settle into your seat, and sip your tea, reminding yourself you have nowhere to go and nothing to do.
When you’re a wife, any place you don’t have to clean feels like a luxury resort, even if you’re simply sitting on someone else’s couch. After J and I were married but I was still teaching and living three days a week in Keene, I’d sometimes try to explain my arrangement to others. Their responses were amazingly predictable, with married women invariably looking at me with a wistful expression: “Oh, you have a place of your own!” J and I make a conscious effort to give one another space—we often and without a hint of irony insist that the secret to a happy marriage lies in having separate bathrooms—but even given such space, every married person I encountered (particularly the women) craved the solitude they imagined I had.
Solitude is, after all, an elixir: the simple act of stopping one’s usual mad dash of accomplishment serves to staunch a pernicious kind of bleeding. I love to write, in part, because it requires this kind of stopping—this kind of plug-pulling—this kind of turning inward. We are like deer who chase after grass, Kabir said, when the richness of musk lies within.
Solitude is not, in other words, a place: you needn’t go far—or anywhere at all—looking for it. All you need is a quiet couch and a cup of tea—or, if your mind is quiet, just the tea will do. Solitude, again, is not a place: you needn’t journey to monastery or mountaintop to find it. Instead, solitude is a decision to consciously turn away: a closed door, a silenced phone, a firm resolve to let one solid day pass without alarm or interruption.
This is why solitaries such as Henry David Thoreau and May Sarton, neither of whom was a proper hermit, are so widely misunderstood. You can, it turns out, live a solitary life in a house at the heart of town or in a cabin within walking distance of company, solitude being defined by inner rather than outer measures. Given the friends and commitments we all as social creatures have, can you occasionally and with full-hearted conviction say, “No, right now I need to be alone”?
Solitude blossoms when you say that single word “No.” Can you find the wherewithal and resolve to say “No” to the world—“No” to commitments—“No” to the obligations of caretaking, if only for a while? This commitment to say No needn’t be lifelong, but it needs to be wholehearted while it lasts: for this next solitary session, whether it last two years at Walden or a day on a friend’s couch, I resolve to ignore the world outside and look deeply at the world within.
This is often more difficult for women than for men, given how women are conditioned to be caretakers, but even women can find the resolve to kill the Angel of the House, as Virginia Woolf described it. The house will not collapse, the pets will not die, and my marriage will not fail if I take a single uninterrupted day to write.
It isn’t, ultimately, our external obligations that keep us from the task at hand: they are simply our excuses. For once you do close the door and silence the phone, there is that great existential fear: given a day to devote to nothing but your writing, what if you should find nothing to say?
Solitude is scary if you’ve become alienated from yourself, but when you’re on comfortable speaking terms with your own mind, you never are alone. Turning within, you discover yourself to be a remarkably interesting and insightful person with plenty of say and share, your inner world an untapped well.
Solitude, after all, is both fertile and fecund—a dark, deep, and mossy recess studded with gems. Your self is boring and inane only when you’re too busy, too hurried, or too harried to explore it properly. Given the time and opportunity to become acquainted with your own inner self, you’ll find an infinite font of secret wisdom there.
But this makes it sound mystic and aloof–a far-off, magical state–when what I’m talking about is much more mundane: a quiet couch and a cup of tea on a coffee table stacked with magazines. Nothing magical—nothing you couldn’t attain for yourself—if you simply said “No” to other obligations.