The menagerie


Welcome home, Frankie

J and I have said goodbye to three cats this year–Scooby in March, Louie in May, and Snowflake in September–and during this same time, we’ve adopted three new cats. It might seem insensitive or even crass to replace pets in this fashion, as if animal souls were interchangeable, but this isn’t how J and I see it. We know more than anyone that each animal has its own unique personality that can’t be swapped out like replacement parts, but for each pet that dies, a place opens up. In a home accustomed to caring for eight cats, it seems heartless or even cruel to keep our heart shut against any newcomers, each passing pet freeing up a place in the lifeboat that is our house.

Nina in all her fluffy glory

Our new pets aren’t replacements for our old pets; instead, they are their legacy. I suppose when a grieving family donates their loved one’s organs to a needy recipient, they feel a similar sort of comfort: another life can be saved because of the one we’ve let go. When Scooby died, we needed a roommate for Groucho, who was isolated his own part of the house because he couldn’t get along with Snowflake; when Louie died, we adopted Bobbi because Snowflake had taught us we can indeed take care of a diabetic cat. When Snowflake died, we adopted Frankie because Bobbi taught us that we can handle (and even give insulin injections to) a cat who would rather scratch than be petted, and who else but an experienced hand could handle that? With each pet we adopt, care for, then ultimately lose, we stretch our understanding of what we can handle, the limits of human patience being infinitely expandable.

Regal

Nina was toothless and scrawny when we adopted her, Bobbi had diabetes and no tail, and Frankie comes to us with one eye and the chance that she still has cancer. Looking at a shelter full of pets, J and I invariably are drawn to the ones with the saddest stories: who other than a family with lots of experience with veterinary and behavioral issues would have hearts huge enough for such a challenge?

Frankie says relax

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there are times when I see our dead pets living in the bodies of their replacements: not a transmigration of souls, exactly, but a kind of transmogrification. Now that she’s overcome her initial shyness, Nina sometimes rushes toward me for petting when I enter the room, just as Scooby did, and if I squint my eyes just right, I can see Louie’s ginger and white fur beneath Bobbi’s black blotches. Mere days after we’d brought skittish little Frankie home with dire warnings about her antisocial temperament, she ventured timidly into my lap, gingerly stepping onto my thighs and then settling herself down to be petted, just as Snowflake did. What better way to commemorate the lives we’ve lost not with replacements but with proteges–a legacy of love passed from one generation to another?

Scooby and Groucho

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.

Ready to spring

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.

So much for being finicky

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.

Scooby keeps warm

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.

Scooby closeup

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.

Sunbathing

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.

Afternoon birdwatching

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?

Rain slicked

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.

Skull

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.

Wall at Central Square

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.

Wall at Cenral Square

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.

The Wall at Central Square

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.

ZEN

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.

No comp

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.

After dark

“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.

Cassie cuddles her chew toy

As I write these words, it’s a gray and rainy morning, and I have a spare 15 minutes before I need to shower, dress, and head to campus. The dog lies on her bed chewing her favorite bone, focusing all her attention on it as she does every morning after breakfast, as if all the world depended upon her ability to chew a simple toy.

Cassie relaxing

My classes are prepped and my bag is packed, and my journal sits on the dresser on the other side of the room, mostly neglected these past few weeks while I’ve been sick. Soon enough–tomorrow, or the next day, or the next–I’ll return to it and the simple ritual of writing four longhand pages every morning, but for now, I leave both my journal where it sits and the dog where she lies, choosing to type these words with my fingertips on my tablet, just a bit of verbal doodling before the serious work of the day begins.

This is my Day Seventeen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Scooby and Groucho

Today is Veteran’s Day, so I have a rare weekday off. My ideal schedule would be to teach on campus a couple days a week while spending the other days working from home, grading and prepping for classes, but at the moment I teach somewhere five days a week. This means I direly miss the grading days I used to have when I had a lighter teaching schedule: days when I could sleep in, catch up with housework, and grade papers in a leisurely fashion, never changing out of sweatpants if I didn’t feel like it.

Snowflake lounges

Although I’ve done it for several semesters now, teaching five days a week still feels alien to me. Folks who work nine-to-five jobs have to show up for work five days a week, but they get their weekends off and aren’t necessarily required to give presentations every day. (Indeed, the number of weekday Facebook posts shared by my nine-to-five friends suggests they have quite a bit of downtime while sitting in their office cubes.) Perhaps because I’m a closet introvert, teaching five days a week is tiring: a constant drain. It feels like I constantly have to stay “on” as I perform in front of a class, without enough time to regenerate my game face.

Rocco in window

Truth be told, I didn’t become an English major because I wanted to spend lots of time standing in front of classrooms of often-indifferent undergraduates talking about commas and apostrophes; I became an English major because I like to spend time alone reading and writing. At this point of the semester, I feel starved for unstructured quiet time, even if all I’m doing with that time is grading papers. Grading, after all, is where I meet my students’ work individually, and it’s where I feel like I can make the most difference, apart from the group dynamic of the classroom. In the classroom, it’s a constant effort to keep my students entertained, awake, and engaged. The real work in a writing class, however, happens in the quiet space between an individual student and her or his writing, and that’s what you encounter when you read your students’ work.

Groucho

So this morning I slept in, and I’ve been spending the day grading papers in sweatpants, catching up with housework, and otherwise enjoying a day when I don’t have to stand in front of a classroom and talk. It feels like something I’ve been sorely missing.

This is my Day Eleven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Lounge time

When you’re recovering from illness, you would do well to follow the model of a typical house cat, which spends the majority of the day sleeping, eating, napping, grooming, stretching, resting, and occasionally playing, followed by more stints of sleeping, eating, napping, grooming, stretching, and resting.

That’s Crash in the front and Bunny in the back. This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Blissful, and it’s also my Day Seven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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