By any other name

This year for Mother’s Day, I did something I’ve never done before: I bought myself flowers. J and I don’t have children, but I spend a lot of time tending our animals, so when I was doing this week’s grocery shopping, I picked up a mixed bouquet for myself, from the pets. I’m not a mother, I decided, but I spend a lot of time and energy on the kinds of things that mothers do, a wide swath of my life devoted to feeding, cleaning, tending, and errand-running.

Gracie peekaboo. #catsofinstagram #graciethecat

Several weeks ago, one of my students asked me point-blank: am I childless by choice, or was I unable to have children? Normally, this might seem to be an impertinent question, but this particular group of students and I have read and discussed texts about a wide range of sensitive topics, and we’ve built a rapport.

“Choice,” I answered, and she nodded. I explained that I’d always known that I didn’t want kids: when adults told me I’d acquire maternal instincts when I was older, or when my biological clock went off, I inwardly disagreed, and I was right. Some people have always known they are gay, and I’ve always known that I wasn’t cut out to be a mother. It’s a vocation I was never called to.

All ears. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

It’s difficult, of course, for a woman to openly admit she doesn’t want children: women were put on this earth, some would argue, to have and tend to children. Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, a Korean woman who lived there with her two children was horrified to learn that my then-husband and I didn’t have kids of our own. “A woman needs children to experience the universe,” she declared, but she relented when she learned I was in graduate school studying to become a professor. “Oh, you’re a teacher,” she exclaimed with an air of relief. “You will experience the universe through your students!”

Cuddle buddies. #catsofinstagram #gumbothecat #ninathecat

I’m not sure a woman needs children, students, or even pets to experience the universe: I think being alive and awake and aware is enough. But perhaps some people (men and women alike) need occasional reminders that a universe exists outside themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to raise children, but I do know that tending animals constantly reminds me that I am but one tiny creature on an enormous planet of need, and my well-being is intrinsically connected with that of my fellow creatures. Perhaps that is a lesson we all can take from mothers and Mother’s Day.

Today’s photos show a handful of our pets: Gracie playing peekaboo under a loveseat, Cassie looking alert, and Gumbo and Nina sitting side by side.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Every time I pass through our dining room, I see it: a rugged and irregular brick-sized rock, slightly oblong in shape with jutting angles and edges, that we keep on a shelf along with other knickknacks. Years ago, when he first moved into the house we now share, J found this rock in what is now our backyard dog-pen, half buried in the acidic, pine-needled soil. J unearthed, cleaned, and then brought into the house this otherwise ordinary field stone—a rock among rocks—because of what was prominently written upon it in white paint: “Sylvia Fish, Died October 1949.” This curious artifact is now displayed on our dining room bookshelf, in a sheltered spot where the dogs won’t soil it and we humans can frequently see it: a tombstone among tchotchkes.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It’s eerie to think of the ground we walk upon as being potentially haunted—our backyard a burial ground—but what footstep of earth isn’t overshadowed with grief? Wherever we live, others have lived before—there’s no escaping the inevitability of history—and wherever others have lived, others have suffered, too. What kind of innocence, ignorance, or naivety would insist that one’s own heartaches are the first to have transpired in this house, this neighborhood, this earth or universe? It’s a simple empirical fact—one supported by ample evidence—that whatever basic human emotions I experience today have been experienced countless times by others. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that most certainly applies to love, heartache, gratitude, and loss.

What was once a beloved pet’s final resting place is now a pen where our two dogs run, sniff, and relieve themselves. This fenced area is a bare, weed-studded patch of soft soil fringed with tall pine trees: nothing special. Several years ago, it was the enclosed nursery for at least one nest of cottontail rabbits, each one of three babies finding their individual way into our beagle’s mouth before J was able to tell her to drop it; it is also a space where our Labrador retriever regularly bounds after birds and squirrels. We occasionally hear great-horned and screech owls calling from this unkempt border of our backyard—predators presumably passing through on their way to larger, lonelier patches of pines—and in the morning when I watch our birdfeeder, I occasionally see a red-tailed hawk zoom through, looking for careless squirrels.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

If this humble corner of an otherwise unremarkable suburban yard harbors the graves of the dearly departed, what else lurks without our knowledge in our backyards or under our feet? Are even our own yards a mystery, the Great Questions camping without invitation right outside our door?

I find myself wondering not about Sylvia Fish herself but the nameless child who loved her enough to insist upon a proper burial. Sylvia Fish died in October, 1949: more than sixty years ago. Sylvia Fish has long since disappeared, her flesh and fins transmogrified into silt and soil, and the unknown child who named and then mourned Sylvia is herself old now, too. Who was this child who loved then mourned a goldfish some sixty years ago, and does she have any recollection now of what may have been her first initiation in the human fellowship of grief? Is there anyone who remembers and still grieves over Sylvia, or was her life as cheap and insignificant as the price tag on a goldfish tank would suggest?

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Goldfish are not long-lived creatures, but we give them to children, thereby inuring them to loss. Giving a child a goldfish is like giving a child a balloon, a soap-bubble, or something similarly short-lived: it is a guarantee of heartbreak. One of my most vivid memories of childhood involves me crying in my parents’ front yard after a helium balloon my father had tied to my wrist came loose and floated away, leaving me nothing but a limp string. If a child can love even an inanimate object with all her heart, why give that child a thing that is guaranteed to float away? Why not give her a more durable plaything: when asked by a child for bread—something perishable and prone to staleness—why not give instead a stone that will endure beyond even her recollection?

There is something in our human nature that clings desperately to things that are both fragile and ephemeral. This is the cause of human suffering, but it is also the seed of human compassion. Imagine a world where we fully recognized the impermanence of all created things and responded accordingly, refusing to become attached to creatures who will invariably grow old, sicken, and die. This would be a world where we didn’t fall in love, didn’t cherish children, didn’t adopt pets, and didn’t acquire souvenirs with mere sentimental value. This would be a world where children didn’t name their goldfish and teddy bears, and a world where adults didn’t name their cars. It would be, in other words, an unthinkable place: a place entirely unlike our own world because it lacked both sorrow and joy.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

We give our children goldfish not despite their short life spans but because of them. Taking care of a goldfish teaches a child responsibility, and grieving a goldfish teaches a child compassion. As goes Sylvia, so goes the whole mortal world. Watching a news report focused on war, pestilence, or natural disaster, we see so many Sylvias, each one hastening toward her inevitable end. Our first experience of loss is an essential rite of passage, an initiation into the human race. If you can grieve a goldfish, then you’ve learned what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be part of the larger sentient family.

On a peg by our back door, J has collected the collars of cats we have lost to old age: first Boomer, then Tony, then after him Shadow. Upstairs in a drawer, I have Reggie’s collar carefully tucked away with his leash, a curling wisp of fur still clinging to his dog-tags. Keeping the collars of dead pets is both a sentimental act and a quintessential kind of clinging, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Does a creature who is fondly remembered ever truly die? Does some part of a beloved pet rise again when you revisit their mementos, and does some aspect of Sylvia Fish swim on whenever I see her stone and subsequently remember her, a testament to a world where we care for and mourn even the most insignificant creatures?

Today’s photos of goldfish come from the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which J and I visited last March.

Crocus close-up

It’s more than a bit ironic that this weekend’s Photo Friday theme was “Cleanliness,” as I spent the weekend tending (and cleaning up after) three dogs and eight cats while J is overseas on business this week.

Crocus with shadow

Tending (and cleaning up after) such a menagerie means you spend approximately an hour and a half doing pet tasks every morning: the dogs have to go out, various food and water dishes have to be refilled, five litter-boxes have to be cleaned, and three cats and a dog need their respective medications. In the evening, there’s another hour or so of tasks: again the dogs go out, food dishes get refilled, and various medications are administered. Folks with one or two pets might be able to let some of these daily tasks slide, but if you have a houseful of pets and don’t want to appear on the next episode of Hoarders, you really have to keep on top of your chores.

After spending this weekend doing the chores J typically does every day, I’ve realized how much like living in a Zen Center his routine is. If you live in a Zen Center, you spend about an hour and a half practicing first thing in the morning: first there are prostrations, then there is sitting meditation, then there is chanting. In the evening, there’s another hour or so of practice: again you chant, and again you sit. During the two and a half years I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, this practice regimen quickly became routine: instead of fighting the schedule or complaining about how much time I “had to” spend meditating, I learned simply to show up for practice.

Crocus trio

This weekend felt like a return to old times…except instead of getting out of bed at 5:00 am to do prostrations followed by meditation, I got up at 7:30 to let the first of three dogs out, followed by litter-box cleaning. When you have a dozen pets relying upon you for food, water, and medicine, you can’t take the day off because you don’t really feel like cleaning litter-boxes today. Like meditation, the tasks of litter-box cleaning and pet-bowl refilling are mindlessly repetitive: while doing them, you have ample opportunity to leave your mind alone, and this provides a welcome break from the intellectual rigors of work and other concerns.

When you spend a weekend at home with three dogs and eight cats, there comes a time each afternoon when your chores are temporarily done and all the animals are resting. At quiet moments like this, the satisfaction you feel walking around a house of sleeping, contented pets feels a bit like the the surge of contentment you feel on a Zen retreat when, after dinner and a hot shower, you walk uphill to evening practice believing with all your heart that nothing in the world could be more blissful than the plain gravel path underfoot. When I first met J, I felt no need to teach him meditation, for even though he doesn’t practice Zen, I could tell J has his own practice regimen, the ritual of daily pet-tasks serving to ground him in a way that my Zen practice grounds me. Some folks refer to Zen practice as “just sitting,” and after having spent a weekend retreating with a houseful of animals, I feel confident that “just pet-sitting” works toward the same end.