I’m grateful today for MOHS surgery, and for Dr. Weber at Mountain West Dermatology who has performed several of these procedures to remove skin cancer from my face and head. Too much sun when I was a child and even our parents were ignorant of the consequences. I’ve lost count of how many MOHS’s I’ve had in the past 25 year. I’m grateful that my terror level has dropped from 10+ before the first one to <1 for this latest iteration. For one thing, Dr. Weber’s precision cuts on me have all resulted in minimal to invisible scarring, and he’s just a super nice guy. Everyone at the office is kind and compassionate.
What anxiety I did have about it revolved around the weather–would it be snowing? would my car get out my driveway? –and around little Wren, who’s not been separated from me for more than four hours since she arrived six months ago. I’m so grateful for friends and community who rallied around, one prepared to blade the driveway if needed (it wasn’t); GB and the Super eager to drive me up to GJ and run some errands of their own while I waited in limbo between cuts; and Rocky’s mom eager to babysit Wren for the day. Beyond that, lots of love and encouragement sent my way before, during and after, including a baked goody at my doorstep. Who could ask for more? Oh, and there was that one Ativan I popped right before setting off this morning, that helped lower the anxiety immensely.
The first cut was done by about 10:30 am, but the tissue has to go off to pathology to determine if they got clean margins. They did! First cut! But it took three hours to find that out, and then the time-consuming plastics-style suturing, and layers of bandaging. When it was all done it was way past lunchtime, so the Super asked what I wanted, and steered us to the best chocolate milkshake, which I enjoyed with a side of cheddar poppers and fry sauce. They each ordered their faves, and we sat in the Sonic corral and enjoyed our meals. I’m so grateful for friends who aren’t old enough to be my parents, but are old enough to care for me like a little sister. There was something so nostalgic about him asking what I wanted to eat, then making it happen. I felt so very cared for. My heart runneth over for them, and for everyone who contributed to making what could have been a grueling day into a joyful day: including my own mindfulness practice.
I’m grateful to be all tucked in at home before dark with a cozy fire going. Little Wren seemed to have a fun day at doggie-day-care with her buddy Rocky and the camp counselor. She was too excited to see me to tell me all the details of everything they did, but I know there were some naps, some treats, some snow-watching. I look forward to hearing a full report from the counselor tomorrow. I’m grateful for a safe and happy place to be able to leave her should I need to in the future, a place where she’ll be loved and pampered, and won’t come back to me with some new neurosis. Such a feeling of peace, contentment, gratitude, and love will carry me off to a deep sleep tonight.
This week in sunflowers… and other yellow things. Diverse native bees, including the sunflower bee (Svastra, I think: the males have unusually long antennae) are buzzing and feeding in the sunflowers, and a few goldfinches have come for seeds but fly too fast from me when I come out with the camera. Grasshoppers continue to maraud every living plant, including the gladioli, giving me a window into a bud.
Dahlias are suffering worse than glads from grasshopper predation, though these later blooms are in better shape than those in early summer; enough flower left to provide for this bumblebee. Bumblebees are so complicated, with any one species having so much variety in parts and patterns, queens and workers and males all different sizes with different color sternites, tergites, and corbicular fringes, variable leg part sizes and cheek ratios… It would take more time and focus than I have now to even try to learn them. We have about 13 species in this part of Colorado. But I can’t even remember that many. One, two, or possibly three more species below, on Prince’s Plume, mullein, and Rocky Mountain beeplant respectively.
Meanwhile, the fernbush, Chamaebateria, has also been blooming, attracting more flies than bees, and a few butterflies as well, including this Painted Lady.
But who will this adorable, soft creature turn into one day? I rescued it from porch sweepings, and dropped it into some leaf litter, but not before examining it on my breakfast plate. Its antennae surprised me, popping out when I scared it, then sucking back into the top of its round face. Here, they’re halfway back in, after shooting straight out in alarm.
Dragonfly perched on a radish seedpod.
Those horrible thunks against the window… I heard one on the west kitchen window last week and saw the body drop. Dashed outside, around the Foresteria loosing masses of purple berries to the ground, beyond the woodpile, and tiptoed through the mess of palettes, hoses, wire cages, and empty pots to find this young yellow warbler out cold on the ground. I carried him around to the south side of the house looking for a good shady perch, and set him in a sturdy crook in the apricot tree. Brought the cats inside and left him there for awhile. When I went back he had flown, so that was one good deed for that day.
Then, just this afternoon, another smack into the east window. Outside, a tiny hummingbird facedown in a geranium pot. Its beak was a little askew. In my hand it was weightless, but its minuscule heart pounded. Cats secured inside, I set the hummingbird in a shoebox in the shade, putting a twig under its barely perceptible toes, and set a small bowl of water in front of it as it wobbled on its perch. I shut the lid for awhile, then checked, and tipped the water bowl so it could reach without moving. It flicked its threadlike tongue into the water. I dumped the water and filled the bowl with nectar, and it drank again from the tipped bowl.
I shut the lid for another ten minutes; checked again, tipped again, left again. The fact that it was still alive encouraged me, though I was distressed it didn’t fly right off. Half an hour later I returned and opened the lid, tipped the bowl for another drink. I left the lid open and checked again in another half hour, dismayed to see the bird still there. But as I moved toward the bowl, the little bird cocked its little pea-head then zipped out of the box, up and out of sight! Sometimes all they need is a safe space for long enough to get their head on straight.
Not long after that, I caught a goldfinch in the sunflowers.
Ojo cuddling in simpler times, before he started using up his nine lives.
Seven to go. That I know of. But who can know what life-threatening predicaments they get into when they’re out of sight in the wild world? Near-misses with fox, coyote, owl; nasty things they eat and throw up that you don’t see; how many of their nine lives they may have lost that you never knew about.
Election day was stressful enough, but add to that that Ojo cat was fine one hour and the next curled up tight and trembling in pain. As I watched with growing dismay the turning of the planetary tide, I also worried for my little cat’s life.
That crisis was diagnosed as constipation. The vet felt hard feces. Maybe there was another lump even then that she couldn’t feel for the fecal mass. Two days of extra powdered psyllium husk and double doses of laxatone and he was pooping like a champ again and back to running up trees at full speed. Whew! Something went right that week.
You try your best to protect them. You get all their shots on time, you feed them well and monitor the output, you bring them in before dark so they stand a better chance of surviving wild predators. I didn’t let these kittens outside for their first eight months: first one thing and then another made it seem prudent.
Then you go and accidentally leave out an innocuous-seeming pill, and his life is at stake. Last Friday in an awful deja vu Ojo seemed fine first thing in the morning, then became listless, wouldn’t eat, didn’t follow me around talking as usual. I’d better make sure it’s just constipation again, I thought, and took him to Doc that afternoon.
Doc palpated his belly and looked at me gravely. The buzzing started in my head when he said “…Leiomyosarcoma…could have been aggravated by that Advil.” He felt a golfball-size tumor in Ojo’s intestine. The next thing I heard was “blah blah blah exploratory surgery.” He stood there waiting for me to say something. “Now?” I choked out. “Tonight. A week can make a big difference. This is an aggressive cancer, it likes to move around. We’ve got to try to stop it from spreading.”
And so I left my little black cat in a steel cage that afternoon. I drove home without him, thinking A cat is a hole in your heart where you pour money. Also, I kept this in perspective. He is just a kitty; all over the world at this same moment, there are families hearing similar news or worse about their mother or their child. All over the world there are millions of other sentient being suffering atrocities at the hands of humans in their insatiable greed: orangutans slaughtered in the wake of expanding palm oil plantations, human refugees fleeing despots and civil wars, and hate crimes on the rise in our own great country.
So I held my own sadness together until I got home, and then I cried about as hard for an hour as I did the whole day long a week earlier. I find I can have hope in small things, though, and settled myself down more quickly than after my dark day of despair when the election numbness wore off. Doc called later that evening to tell me the tumor was out, he’d resected a small section of bowel, and Ojo was doing well.
My friends held me in their own ways during a nerve-wracking weekend. Diane offered me tickets to the classical concert at the Blue Sage that night for a brilliant performance of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, which I shared with Cynthia, who drove there and back with her heated seats on high, a ridiculously sublime comfort to my fretting soul.
And lest she get jealous of all the attention I’m paying her brother, here is a token photo of Topaz on a typical perch, like any good female cat, looking down on the rest of us.
Doc let me visit Ojo Saturday morning before starting his day full of surgeries and was optimistic, though the cat, to be frank, looked pathetic. Michael picked me up in town and let me play with his kitty while my car was in the shop. Cyn gave up her ticket that night for Brahms and Chopin, and Ellie offered me a seat in the second row (how the fingers flew over the keyboard! how the music moved me). Philip loaned me his car when the key finally refused to turn in my ignition. So much to be grateful for.
I missed him so much the past two nights. He puts me to sleep and wakes me up nuzzling his wet little nose and kneading his velvet paws into the arm I drape around him. When I went to visit Ojo this morning, Doc let me bring him home.
“I think he’ll do better there,” he said. “He just sits here looking around like What’s the plan?”
A week ago on FaceTime, I showed Amy Ojo through the window, pawing to get inside. I told her how much it had cost to get him through his Advil-induced kidney failure. “I’d keep that cat inside the house and locked in a box,” she laughed. Well, Amy, this one’s for you:
He only needs to stay in Badger’s crate for a couple of days, I hope, before he can have the run of the house again. He needs to eat incremental small amounts to keep his digestive system moving, but not too much to stress the stitched up bowel.
“Time will give me answers that nothing else can,” said Doc, when I asked him how we’d know if the cancer has spread. Yes, it always does. Time will give us answers to this, and to the many and much bigger questions that loom over us now. In the meantime, all we can do is love who we love, be grateful for the good in our lives, let the joy and the sorrow rise in and move through us, and offer compassion to those we meet of any species who are suffering.
I am not innately optimistic. I’m deeply terrified about the future of the planet. I’ve taken a media fast since last Thursday.
But this morning I am calm. Seven sandhill cranes flew overhead while I sat under the golden-leafed apricot tree, watching a pair of leaves dangle from a filament. They’ve been hanging there for two days despite breezes that lift one or two leaves from the tree every few minutes. The sandhills flew low, and circled seven times just beyond my fence, before continuing on south.
More sandhills fly over now, their ancient grekking call lonesome in the blue primeval sky. May they live on long after our species declines. The beauty in every moment in this place pierces me. The fragility of life on earth shudders through me with every breath. Some mornings are like this.
I start and end my days these days with meditation. It’s been a long time coming, this regular practice. Years of I don’t know how, or This can’t be right, or worse than interior criticisms, the expectations of the few groups I’ve tried through the years. I met a wonderful teacher five years ago, or remet her, and now meditate with her every weekday morning for half an hour through a phone group called Telesangha. Before bed, and sometimes before morning meditation, I meditate with the Insight Timer, a free app on my phone that has not only a timer, but a community, and nearly 3,000 available guided meditations.
From chanting and music to Metta and Zen, from Germany, Australia, and Japan, there are meditations to suit every mood of every person. I’ve tried dozens in the past month, some effectively putting me to sleep at night, and some appropriately energizing me for the day. This morning I struck gold.
Sometimes I bail out early, if the music is jarring, or the method incompatible. I tried one a few weeks ago that turned out to be a visualization (not a meditation) leading me to a white sand beach; that much was fine. Then a boat appeared on the shore, and the sweet lady’s voice led me into the boat, which left the shore (Where’s my paddle?!) and carried me to a deserted island (How will I get back?!) then led me into a path through the jungle (What venomous snakes lurk beneath the leaves? What predators in the trees?) to a clear blue pool. Ahhh. There is a ladder down into the pool. (Really? A ladder?). By this time I am clearly not relaxing, but I am amused at my reaction to this well-intentioned fantasy, and so I meditate on that. Finally she leaves me alone to soak in the pool for a few moments of silence. I do begin to fall into a calm awareness. But suddenly she is there, taking me up one rung of the ladder after another at an excruciatingly slow pace. I am back in the boat and rowing fast for home before she even has me out of the pool. I’ve made up my own oars. I won’t do that one again!
But this morning. I listened to it first last night, and fell almost instantly asleep with the utterly soothing voice of former Buddhist monk Stephan Pende Wormland. Even more did I need “Rest in Natural Peace” this morning, one day before the election that will determine the course of our country one way or the other, and ultimately could determine (or maybe just accelerate) the fate of our beautiful, vulnerable planet. So I listened to it again.
“Beyond your thoughts is a space containing nothing…” Past the point where I drifted off last night, I was jolted by an epiphany when he said, “The next thought you are going to have, where will it come from? Look.” In that moment, he allowed me to access the stillness below thought, beneath everything. I will listen to this one again and again.
And while other friends joke about moving to Iceland or New Zealand if we end up living in a Trumpscape, I will pack my bags and my animals into the Mothership and drive to the Bay of Fundy, from whence I will take a ferry straight to Copenhagen.
Apricot leaves fade through chartreuse to bright yellow, gild the tree and fall from the top down, gilding ground. Everywhere I look I see an Andy Goldsworthy project with these leaves. Dare I take the time to play? Dare I? Yes, I do.
Cottonwood leaves in the backyard canyon have all gone to ground now, and autumn fades through November toward winter. My gratitude knows no bounds.
In Black Canyon of the Gunnison National park a few weeks ago, I walked with friends to Exclamation Point on one of National Geographic’s “10 Best Easy Hikes with Big Rewards.” Others are in Italy, Nepal, Ireland, New Zealand… this one is twelve miles from home.
This cactus, happening now in my sunroom…
…and this, an orchid which explodes with fragrance at certain times of day, catching me off guard as I pass.
In deep white winter, I can’t live without all these geraniums with blooms of various hues, named after the friends who gave them to me: Cynthia, Mary, David, Deborah, Diane… and Virginia, the one I brought back from there twelve years ago. And that sweet black cat, who is FINE, after all that.
A few years ago I was pulled over on I-70 by a Colorado state trooper just inside the state line from Utah. I’d been visiting back east, and didn’t think twice about saying that when he asked where I’d been. “Coming home from Virginia,” I said. What? Oh. Well, I sometimes go around the mountains instead of over them when there’s snow on the passes.
He asked for license, registration, proof of insurance. I handed him my license and got worried when I couldn’t find registration or insurance in my purse. The Mothership was up to date on both, but it was winter and I hadn’t yet stuck the year on the license plate because of snow, mud, and inherent laziness. That’s why he stopped me. A routine traffic stop.
“I’ll have to look in the glove compartment,” I told him, and he nodded. “I have a gun in there,” I said.
Can you see where I’m going with this? I was a white woman and he was a laid-back Colorado state trooper on a virtually empty interstate through the desert, instead of I a black man in a city, any city, and he a frightened urban cop.
“Nice and slow,” he said, or something less cliché. I put the holstered pistol on the seat where he could see it and rifled through the papers, and still no proof of either. He took my license back to his car, ascertained that I was insured and registered, and cautioned me to be sure and put those proofs in the glove box as soon as I got home. I gave thanks.
I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said about the shooting of Philando Castile during a “routine traffic stop.” My heart breaks for him, his family, his community, for all the innocents shot these past days, these past years, by cops who lack the training, skill, wisdom, compassion or decency to make the right call in so many complicated, fraught situations. And my heart breaks for the police officers shot in Dallas, in Grand Junction, Denver, Pittsburgh, in Any City, USA. Not to mention how I feel about Orlando, Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and other mass shootings and random snipings by lunatics.
I fear the escalation of violent reaction (or reactive violence) in our culture, in our world. From routine traffic stops gone horribly awry to all the wars raging across the planet, our human violence is out of control. The fear and despair that settled over me on 9/11, as I watched Manhattan in chaos on TV and the Pentagon smoking from my parents’ patio, has only been buried by years of living in this peaceful valley, it has not been dispelled. The certainty on that Tuesday morning that I’d witnessed the first volley of World War III has not dimmed in the least. We are in it.
And the reactive violence that spawned and spurs this globally now spreads like contagion through the streets of our cities, foreboding some weird kind of civil war. Fear, rage, and the uncontrolled grasping that underlies them are not cultural traits, they are human traits. I hope, though “hope is slender and for fools,” that we as a species can put the brakes on this entropic crash, but it is sure hard to believe that the powers of love and simple human decency can turn this spiral upside down.
Though daily I am grateful for my many blessings, for life, water, flowers, bees, trees, dogs, and kittens, for shelter, beauty, music, love, community, I don’t really know how to live in this world. All the good food and all the good friends can’t put my heart together again.
Sunrise this lengthening-day morning brought a beautiful view full of new snow. Last night as it still fell, Tom our UPS man called to say he’d left a package at the top of the driveway. I tried to push the Honda through but only made it about fifteen feet before backing up to my dry parking spot and waiting til morning. Once the sun was up and the air had warmed a bit, I bundled my snot-nosed coughing self up warmly and strapped on snowshoes to go get the package. I knew what it was, and it was essential.
Topaz, whose new nickname is Toto, ate so much cat food at one time yesterday that she threw up and had to take a nap.
Why doesn’t the grocery store sell kitten chow in the big bags? I can get it so much cheaper in a 14-pound bag from Amazon, and usually it’s delivered right to the door. If Tom had only come a few hours sooner he could have made it down the driveway! As it happened, I didn’t want him to even try. Christmas week and he was already hours late. Driving must have been harrowing for him all day. The cat food Deborah had donated to tide us over must be far more tasty than the kitten chow; the kittens ate two cups in one day between them, twice as much as usual, and were mewling for more. I had to get them back on track, and I didn’t want any more puking.
So I headed up the driveway. The snow was just deep enough to make it slow with boots alone and tedious with snowshoes, so I kicked those off just beyond the first gate. Just past the skunk culvert where the fence begins I considered turning back, just waiting awhile, in case Cynthia decided to make tracks with her Subaru or Fred came to plow. But I continued: it was so beautiful out, the kittens needed their proper food, and I knew this would be the dogs’ only chance today for a walk; also, I don’t like to presume when or if my kindest of neighbors will come with his tractor and plow.
Ojo protecting his first ever snowball.
Fred and Mary’s cat, Benito, the runt of the litter now bigger than any of them, and still with the bluest eyes, perched atop their fridge the other day.
I love being snowed in. There’s a peace that doesn’t come any other time. Silent snow, secret snow. True solitude. I am cocooned in the warmth of my house with all the potential of the day ahead. My creative juices can flow, wander from one project to another, without external distraction. No one will come. Keeping essential paths shoveled takes time and energy, but gets me outside occasionally to appreciate the beauty of the place I have chosen to live. Shovel slowly, stop often, breathe deeply and look around. I become more grounded in this place when I can’t get out.
Away from here for a month I was a mess. I didn’t recognize myself, in constant fight, flight, or freeze. I realized sometime before I headed home that this journey was a crucial bardo: I had either to recommit whole-heartedly to the challenging rural life I have chosen, or I had to come up with a big change of plan. I haven’t decided which yet, but in the two weeks I’ve been home, the fear and anxiety have receded, leaving a calm gratitude in their place.
In that moment this morning when I considered turning back, I realized there was no hurry. Enjoy. This is the life I chose, these the burdens and the pleasures. The physical exertions that make living here hard seem nothing now compared to the mental anguish I suffer in or near a city. The hike up the driveway and back took almost an hour, pausing now and then to enjoy the view, sunlight slanting through white clouds southeast, a dark shelf of weather in the western sky, Grand Mesa sparkling to the north, unbroken white fields; juniper boughs heavy with puffs of snow, slipping off in shimmering showers, sometimes saddling Stellar with white as he runs beneath the trees. Nine-year-old Raven bouncing through the snow like a puppy, racing, scooting, kicking up powder. I carried the 14-pound bag of kitten chow in a tote over my shoulder, switching shoulders and pole hand often. Just as I reached the door and dropped the snowshoes, the tote bag, the pole, I heard the tell-tale putt-putt of Fred’s tractor in the distance.
I’ll pretend I’m still snowed in. I’ll sit by the woodstove and tend the small fire and read, write, sip hot tea. I’ll wallow in the gratitude I feel for the comfort and security of a community that supports me, through neighborly aide (of so many sorts) and convivial ritual, with friendship and love, in this spectacular place we have all chosen.
Solstice bonfire Sunday night at the Bad Dog Ranch. A beautifully constructed pyre that didn’t catch right away. Some called for gasoline; I’d have had to get in their way if they tried. All it needed was patience, a little TLC, and it took off magnificently.
Many of our winter rituals could happen anywhere, I suppose. Only here under wide-open skies could the season’s turning be marked with a fire like this one. We all stood looking up and marveled during those magical moments when sparks were shooting up through down-coming snowflakes. Up, down, hot, cold, light, dark. Altogether, life.
Tenderly tended, the fire slowly died in the bottom of the snow-filled stock pond. Our boots were covered in slick grey mud by the end of the evening, our bellies full of nog and ham biscuits, our hearts bathed in light.
The ritual lunchtime rumcokes in classic insulated plastic glasses.
The Tuesday after the West Virginia Incident, I arrive at Auntie’s apartment just in time for a rumcoke. The only midday drink I allow myself is the ritual lunchtime rumcoke with Auntie (with a teaspoon of lime juice; yes, it’s a cuba libre but we call it rumcoke). It sets the pace for the remainder of the day, demarcates the functional morning from the restful afternoon. There will be no going out, no exertion, no stress for the rest of the day. And after that comes the welcome relief of the evening cocktail. We are even more relaxed. Still, it takes me a few days to let go of the jitters I carried with me the whole trip.
The third night she says, You’ve visibly relaxed since you started puzzling.
I realize she’s right. Since I turned my frantic mind to the first wooden jigsaw puzzle the afternoon before, its writhing thrashing threads have calmed noticeably with my deepening absorption in the second puzzle.
I found an aged cardboard box when I finally went through the last of the Colonel’s papers a few weeks before I left: small, sturdy, dirty ivory color, Pastime Puzzle in green on top, Parker Brothers address and logo. Inside the lid a label:
1931. Auntie and I puzzle over whose it might have been. The Colonel would have been twelve. Maybe it belonged to his mother, or one of the aunts. Or maybe it was a puzzle my father did when he was still a sweet smart little boy. The puzzle takes us all afternoon, just 80 pieces. It’s more complicated than it first appears.
I’m still jumpy when we finish it, and after letting it rest a few hours while we appreciate it some more, she puts it apart and back in the box, and I pull out a new Liberty puzzle from the cupboard where she’s had it waiting for my arrival. The first night I beat her twice at cribbage. We don’t get another chance to play once we start puzzling together. It’s a different kind of fun. Just being together, our minds on the same game, we are easy, happy.
Working the same puzzle again today, warmth of the woodstove at my back, insulating fog blurring snow-dusted junipers, fences, gates outside, sun-powered light overhead, again I feel the demons releasing my brain as I turn my mind to more details in the image: how the thin triangle of sidewalk adjoins the woman’s feet, there is a small piece of chimney down by her skirt, how the roof line meets trees on both sides of the chimney, how the roses grow, which way the light glows in the windows, how the pieces are delineated.
Many visual elements of this puzzle were outlined with a jig saw wielded by the man called 37. Each of these puzzles was individually cut by a person (with a number) with a jigsaw, probably an early electric one. This adds another perspective on this little random leftover creation. #37 looked closely at the shapes and colors, the structure of the image, and cut accordingly. This makes fitting many of the pieces even more challenging, the chimney and the woman in blue most obviously, but the second time around, when I’m halfway through and stymied, I see that much of the puzzle is cut this way, with distinct boundaries in the image (sidewalk to grass, roof to wall) cleanly sliced. Well, jiggily sliced. You can almost retrace #37’s steps with the saw: first he cut it in half… With this deeper understanding the second time around, I finish the puzzle in just over an hour.
So I’m home again, like the woman in blue at her cottage. Though my garden sleeps today under snow, the day I arrived home it looked as though I’d never left. The same few patches of snow on the ground, the same soft green things still green, partridge feather, lamb’s ears, powis castle sage, sagebrush, iris leaves. Wait, iris leaves still up and green in December? The deer in the yard. In the house, the kittens have been so well cared for that they hold no grudge at my return after my long absence. They look just a little askance at us for a few minutes before crawling up with me on the futon, prancing about, flopping down on the kitchen floor, waiting for their afternoon food. They are bigger, to be sure, a month older in a fast growing year, but still sleek and happy and full of wit. The houseplants, the orchids, all thrive.
Inside and out, the house seems the same. Elsewhere in the world, terrible changes continue in unsuspecting lives. I also am changed by the challenging journey I’ve just completed, but I’m not sure yet how. I left November seventh, not ready; perhaps it was an inauspicious day. With the Mothership now unloaded and most of my physical baggage stowed where it belongs, I continue to unpack my travels and travails, mulling over blessings and tribulations, fear, love, confidence, and mental stability, natural beauty and human nature. When these reflections overwhelm me, I’ll pull out one of my Liberty puzzles to untangle my mind.
Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.
The kittens have all gone to their new homes. It was a whirlwind adventure helping to raise them to three months. Fred and Mary were the best grandparents anyone could have been. It was a privilege and a delight to participate in their unexpected kitten bonanza. Over the course of their short lives they moved up one box, one room, one home at a time from their humble birth in an inverted wine box, to a bigger box, to a refrigerator box, to a storage room in the shop, to free run of the whole garage. Then a couple of weeks ago, Idaho and Spider went to live in first the tack room and now the whole barn at the Bad Dog Ranch; Stella and Blaze were whisked away to live even farther out past Crystal Creek with Pauline, who recently lost her old cat, and renamed these kittens Sugar and Spice; Sammy, née Oreo, now called Benito, stayed at Fred and Mary’s with his mama, once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over. But not before she went into heat not once but twice after the kittens reached six weeks old.
Fred called one morning while Mary was out of town. “Can cats go into heat while they’re still nursing?” he asked. “I think so,” I said, and turned to ask a friend who happened to know. Indeed they can! Patricia said she once fostered a cat who’d gone into heat when her kittens were ten days old! Fred recited the behaviors he was seeing: snappish to him for a couple of days, then frenzied (for what turned out to be a week) whenever she saw him, weaving around his feet yowling, rubbing her neck on his ankles or hands with her butt in the air, desperate to get outside; a big black tomcat was hanging around the yard except for a few times when a big orange tom with a white face like two of the kittens’ was hanging around the yard. With due diligence we kept her inside with her babies the whole time. She is now recovering well from the surgery. We have put an end to a long line of feral cats on Fruitland Mesa. And four families in the neighborhood have new adorable companion animals. The little all-black boy kitten Ojo, and Ajo, the sweetest girl of all, came to live with me. Things unfold in the most remarkable ways sometimes.
After deciding that morning they were born, after burying the little cold dead one, the eighth kitten, a black and white that surely would have been another boy, that I would not succumb to the temptation to take any kittens, I gradually began to reconsider. Gradually, as in, the next day. I weighed pros and cons for weeks, considering all imaginable angles. On my yes days and on my no days, I always maintained that I would not choose my kittens (if I got them) based on their looks, how cute or how stunning they were. I held off deciding until the whole community was impatient with me. After we celebrated their six-week birthday with champagne cupcakes and adult beverages, I concluded that I couldn’t take any. The next day I was very sad. So I reconsidered again. And again. And we finally settled on this plan: If I could successfully introduce them to Brat Farrar, my dear old diabetic cat, that little orange kitten that saved my soul once upon a time, and assimilate them into the household, I would take two kittens; If Brat would not accept them within one week, I’d return them next door and my good neighbors would find them another home.
And then things became acutely more clear: Doc said it was finally time for Brat Farrar to have some troublesome teeth removed. His blood sugar was good, he seemed strong and stable. I got cold feet, but then agreed to the procedure when I was informed that most kidney and heart failure in pet cats derives from bad teeth. On a Friday I dropped him off; the next Thursday he died. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe some better decisions could have been made. He came home from the surgery in shock and never recovered. With a scabbed mouth he ate a little, but by Sunday morning his vital force was leaving him. Monday afternoon a blood panel revealed multiple organ failure. “So, we’re saying goodbye?” I asked Doc. “Yes,” he said, leaning on his forearms on the exam table. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are,” I said, my voice catching, and I touched his solid shoulder. Some more words, and I took my sweet cat home. I kept him comfortable and witnessed his death with dignity. It was both grueling and peaceful. I came to terms with death in a new way.
All through that painful week I kept in mind that there were two little bundles of joy around the corner that would be mine at the end of this sadness, two new little lives to love and nurture. No one ever takes the place of a companion animal who dies; but in this world of ferals and strays, I’ve realized, there will always be another cat, another dog, a kitten or puppy coming my way, as long as I’m alive. The timing this time could not have been more perfect. As sad as I was I’m now happy.
Benito, who stayed at home with Mama (once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over).
Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.
Ojo, the other one who came to live with me.
Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.
Mama washing Stella.
Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.
While I am already enjoying and look forward to years ahead of me inhabiting life with the two new kittens, I’m still unpacking the shocking death of Brat Farrar. Reflections on all that the many facets of the little orange kitten, iCat, Ferrari, Brat Favre, Culvert Kitty, Puma, the complicated cat, brought to the past eleven years of life will continue to churn and settle for some time to come.
The good little traveler: Brat Farrar on his way home from Virginia with me in the Mothership, spring 2005, on the River Road from Moab.
A decade later, last April in the house that matched him. Rest in peace, little one, under the apricot tree.
Yes, things have been happening in the garden, and in the woods. Full on spring has sprung at last after a weird winter, way too warm and dry followed by a frustrating cold and wet spell. Growing things started too soon, stopped, held back, weren’t sure what to do next. But now things seem on track for summer.
The most beautiful thing I saw this week was the first purple asparagus spear poking up from the bed where I planted the crowns a couple of weeks ago.
European pasqueflowers continue to delight myself and visitors with their lush purple blossoms and airy seedheads. I observed in another bed that the seedheads fall outward after they grow so tall, and thereby make a ring of babies around the mother plant.
Gabrielle is a born naturalist, and every time she comes to help in the garden she finds a special creature, like this baby garter snake. Or maybe it’s a baby bull snake, I can’t remember, they look similar when they’re so small.
In the woods the wildflowers, which started so early like this Indian paintbrush are now more timely.
The skies have been crazy gorgeous with all this moisture hovering around.
And also crazy in an unsettling way like the other morning.
But the real story of the past few weeks is still the kittens. For the first week I visited twice a day with wet food for Heidi, and just to watch. They grow so fast! Since their proud grandparents returned home I’ve been going every other day to sit with Mary and coo and cuddle with the kittens. Before long, mama felt more comfortable with us handling them, and seemed to enjoy taking a short break from their pawing and suckling. Still, if one of them starts squeaking too loudly she comes running back from her food or her bath to take charge again.
Sitting with that little cat family, just watching them and hearing her purr purr purr, feels like I’m in an Oxytocin Factory. The love fills the air and washes over me. Once I decide it’s time to go home, I just can’t tear myself away. Eventually I leave, but I carry them with me, the feel of their velvet fur and their warm little wiggly bodies, and her consuming devotion to them, and her non-stop purr.
In the two and a half weeks since they were born they have changed so much. At first just a swimming swarm like they were in her womb, they have begun to differentiate into individuals with personalities. Starting at about nine days old their eyes began to open, and it took about four days til the last one peeked out. Then they started to wobble around on unsteady legs. Now some of them can almost stand up straight, and they’re swatting and smooching and playing with each other. Just yesterday the first of them started to react and turn their heads to look around, as if they’re really starting to see the rest of us for the first time. In a few fast weeks more, they’ll all be going off to new homes. I continue to insist that none of them, two in particular, will be coming to mine.
The two resident catahoulas in a gentle snow like that which fell off and on today.
Yesterday must have been bring your dog to town day. I saw at least a dozen dogs in cars while I was running errands in two towns, from a tiny white fluff ball to a fawn-colored great dane, with a range in between including an Australian shepherd and van with two Bernese mountain dogs. I myself had two catahoulas in the car with me.
When we set off this morning they both started barking and jumping back and forth as we started down the county road. On one side a construction crew was clearing junipers to straighten our landmark right-angle curve, and on the other side three border collies coursed the field. By the time I took the next curve a quarter mile on, I’d started yelling too, and decided it was a bad idea to bring the dogs with me. They don’t usually get that excited so soon on a trip in this direction. I couldn’t bear the thought of their frenzy all the way to town. I turned around to take them home.
People are sometimes put off by Stellar’s vocal exuberance…
…but putting up with his occasional barking is a small price to pay for the delight of his companionship.
They settled right down. I knew they wanted to go, and I wanted their company. My frustration changed direction, too, and I turned around again with a brainstorm. I’ve never run them on this road for fear of fast traffic, but I often do on others, the dead-end lane across the canyon, empty roads with good visibility across the country. It felt reckless but I took the chance. I could see far enough both directions to give them a good sprint, and I knew that would reset them for the rest of the trip.
I stopped and let them out between the road crew and the neighbors’ dogs, hit the gas, and looked in the rearview mirror. They took off after me, Raven snapping at Stellar as he raced for the car. They caught up and ran beside my window for awhile; around the curve I lost sight of them and slowed, then they pulled up on my right on the soft shoulder. A few more yards and I stopped to call them in. Stellar lay down on the back seat and Raven sat in front looking perfectly satisfied, and on we drove to town.
I was so glad I took them. I let them out again onthe track up to the shooting range in the ‘dobies, where Raven crisscrossed the hardpan scouting prairie dog holes and Stellar loped along in front of the car. In town I stopped by the bistro for a latté, then drove the few blocks to town park. There they ran in the grass while I drank my coffee under the beautiful giant trees, bare spring twigs whistling in the strong wind. And then I ran my errands for a couple of hours. Having them along turned a chore into a relaxed outing. I slowed down and enjoyed every step of the way.
Stellar calmly regards the world through The Mothership window.
When we travel across country in The Mothership we have a routine. We stop early and often to stretch our legs, and though they’re usually leashed, at least once a day I try to find a place they can run. Sometimes it’s a mile of empty dirt road, sometimes a fenced cemetery; sometimes on the parkways and backroads we travel there’s a pull-off with a long empty field. They’ve gotten used to this. It’s no wonder they get jumpy in the car.
I realized today that I’ve missed taking my dogs to town. I haven’t often taken this particular pair of dogs with me in the car, largely because of their shenanigans. Either one alone stays calm, but together they always start banging around and Stellar eventually starts barking. This began when he was a puppy and I was irrigating fields across the canyon every day. I’d load up the shovel and the dogs, head up the driveway, and turn south on the dirt road. Five minutes later I’d release them on the lane and they’d run after me until I parked, and then they’d fly through the fields as I walked to the water.
Stellar leaping over gated pipe while I irrigate the field.
I could always tell I was close when I saw their feet send water splashing. They’d take a long drink, Raven would lie down in the ditch, and then they’d play while I moved water. Within a few days of starting this routine, Stellar would stick his head out the window and start barking as soon as we made that left turn. He wouldn’t stop until the car did. Neighbors mentioned they always knew when we were on our way to the fields.
We haven’t irrigated in five years, but Stellar still barks any time we turn left. Stellar is the finest, sweetest, most agreeable dog ever on the whole planet; he has only this one annoying trait. Whether he’s happy to see a guest at the gate or go for a drive in the car, or he senses I am preparing to take them out in the woods, or Tom arrives in the UPS truck bearing a package and some dog cookies, Stellar simply cannot contain his excitement.
His barking subsides, usually fairly quickly, except in the car. (He can bark for eight miles straight in Virginia, from Auntie’s lane to the parking lot at the bay.) Over the years, rather than subject myself to the decibels, I guess I’ve adapted by only taking them with me when I need to, and not just for fun. But it was fun today, after I came up with the simple solution of running the bark out of him before, well, before embarking.
I have never let them run up or down the driveway because it is so often full of mule deer, and I knew the can of worms I’d be opening if I tried it even once. Also, for years there were emus in pens along the length of it, and I couldn’t risk that distraction. But now the last of the emus have gone. Maybe I’ll try them on the driveway next time it’s Take Your Dog to Town Day. Also, I plan to irrigate again this summer, so watch out, neighbors! The catahoula train is coming!
THE FLEETING WONDROUS LIFE OF STELLAR THE STAR DOG SO FAR
AN INCOMPLETE PICTOGRAPHY
The first day I met Stellar he was two weeks old.
Chris and Dave gave him to me but I had to wait a few weeks to pick him up.
When he was five weeks old we visited Dog World again, and stayed until he was old enough to come home with us. This is the first day Raven met her little brother. Literally. Same parents, different litters.
Little Stellar the Star Dog finds his new home in western Colorado quite different than his old home in Florida.
Different in so many ways! We arrived home in March 2008 and Stellar saw his first snow right about this time six years ago.
The pond was a surprising new experience.
The canyon a trifle perplexing at first.
He learned something new every day.
His big sister taught him how to dig.
And his grumpy uncle Mr. Brick taught him to hang out. Brick was nine when Stellar came to live with us, and died of cancer just seven months later.
Stellar grew almost as big as his sister…
…and then he grew bigger.
He mastered the canyon…
…and the art of being a polite houseguest.
He fell in with the wrong crowd. Oh, wait. That’s Pamela just sharing her beer with him.
He learned to fly.
He’s always made friends easily, no matter what their size…
…or their species.
He grew into a very handsome dog…
…who keeps an eye on everything.
He can make himself very small…
…or he can be very tall.
He’s happy when he’s awake…
…and when he’s sleeping.
Sometimes Stellar drools, but that’s okay. Another small price to pay for the pleasure.
And the past six years with Stellar? Fleeting. Priceless.