My Little Corner of the Universe

I know I’ve already shared about my love for gardening and the joy it brings me.  It is in full bloom right now and this is the time of year I marvel at the tenacity of my little plants.  They come back in force about now and remind me that timidity and shyness are not a part of my garden’s vocabulary.  I am busy cutting back, thinning out, and trying to keep them from overrunning their bounds.  It is a job I enjoy, simply from the abundance of it. 

While out whacking back the lemon balm (did you know you can use it in cooking?  I found about a hundred recipes for things with lemon balm in it) I was thinking about how we let things fill in the cracks when we aren’t looking.  These things are bad habits, negative thoughts, or just plain dead air in our brains.  I thought about the need to pull out some of the overgrowth all weekend, but it was Sunday evening before I really got to it.  And by doing it, I recreated the pathway and gave some shape to the garden – sure, the lemon balm was pretty, but it was essentially masking the beauty of what was meant to be there.  By taking it away, I created the necessary negative space to see the plan.  That is how life gets, all too often, by my account.  It is in the cutting back that we see what is needed.

During my work, I was listening to some high pitched birds making a racket overhead.  I had thought about putting on my iPod while I was working, but then remembered that part of what I love about gardening is being there, in the moment.  If I put on my iPod, I lose that.  Plus, I sing along loudly and people give me funny looks.  So I was out there, listening.  And when I looked to see what all the fuss was about, I saw that we had some juvenile Pileated woodpeckers nesting in the broad leaf maple tree above me.   They were learning to forage on their own and were quite fun to watch.  I love the full grown birds and was very happy to see that our little corner of the universe was playing host to a nest.  That meant it had been chosen and was special. 

Today, after a long day at work and getting my youngest to and from Tuba lessons (ironically, very near my office….) we were heading to the door when there was a ruckus just by the entry path.  Our dog was barking, crows were squawking, and I looked back to see a barred owl on the ground in the garden.  He (she?) flapped and flew unsteadily up to the first branch of the nearest fir tree.  From there, I could see the fluff still under his feathers and knew he was a young one.  I shooed the dog inside and then went out to see what I could see.  The owl was now by the path to the woods, once again on the ground. I walked over to it and it looked me up and down.  Surmising there was no threat, it regarded me in a way that was at once wise and curious.  I talked to it, assuring I meant no harm and asking if he (she?) was OK.  I left it there, heading to get my camera.  It was in a cedar tree when I got back and I took a few furtive pictures.  It flew off shortly after, and I have to assume all was well.

Finding that kind of wildlife just outside my door makes me very happy.  As the steward of this small corner of the planet, I feel good knowing that life is continuing and that my garden is a gracious and supportive home to so many.  We have taken the time to certify our yard as a wildlife refuge and days like this make me think we have really been successful.  I can’t control much, but at least my little corner of the universe is doing just fine.  It gives me a lot of satisfaction to achieve balance in one aspect of my life.

Free Will

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(I must preface this with I am not a cat lady. Although this piece may make you nod your head and say “suuure….”, I really am a normal pet owning, pet loving person.  Not a cat lady.)

Will Feral came into my life almost 2 years ago.  He was a feral kitten, brought home by my daughter.  Wild as a baby raccoon and about as friendly, she left him in her room.  When I got home, she did the “Mommy, I found a kitten” routine.  Finding him in her room was a major feat – he’d hidden himself under her dresser and wanted to stay there.  Scratches, hissing and one bite later, he was placed in a large dog crate with litter, food, water, and a warm blanket.  He became a part of my life, inch by inch, working his way into my heart – this small gray ball of hissing fluff who wanted nothing to do with me.

Within days, my daughter left for college.  Will was still living in the crate, glaring at me whenever I came into the room.  Gradually, he came to trust me more.  Hissing less, he now let me pick him up (using heavy leather work gloves), wrap him in a towel and pet him.  I would talk to him and tell him he was safe.  In time, he began to purr.  All I’d read about socializing feral kittens said that purring was the turning point.  I texted my daughter “We have achieved purrage” and let Will know how pleased I was that he hated me less.

By the second month with us, Will lived in and out of the crate.  He’d hide behind and under things when I came into the room.  Sometimes, all I would see of him was his gray tail disappearing behind a chair or under the bed.  I would talk to him while I cleaned his litter box and refreshed his food and water. He would sometimes watch me cautiously, but mostly he stayed hidden.  He was wary, always keeping quiet.  It was how he lived outside and what had kept him alive.  He resisted my attempts to get him to play.  He was all about survival.

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Whenever I could, I would take the time to search him out, pick him up and hold him on my lap.  The gloves and the towel gave way to bare hands.  He would take food from my hand now and while he still hid and hissed, I could see his opinion of me had changed.  Finding him became a game and when I’d pick him up, it was by the scruff of his neck, like his mother would have done.  He relaxed then and seemed to know I meant him no harm.

At the same time he was learning to trust me, I was being tended to as well.  Will came into my life shortly after my dad died and while I was separated from my husband.  Holding this feisty, fearful kitten was therapeutic for me.  He helped me through some very hard times then and some yet to come. The times I spent holding him, telling him he was OK, petting him and caring for him gave me a lot of comfort.  It soothed my battered spirit in many ways, some of which I couldn’t even put a name to.  Will and I were helping each other.

One day in late November, after almost 3 months of living with us, I walked by the door to his room and heard him meowing.  He never meowed.  He hissed and spit, but meowing drew attention to him and he was not OK with that.  I opened the door and he was sitting there and began talking to me.  From that day on, he talked a lot.  Slowly, he began to have the run of the house.  I would carry him downstairs with me and we’d hang out together on the couch.  He explored the length of it, but never wanted to get off.  It was as if the floor was made of hot lava and he couldn’t walk on it.  The tide was turning, however, and within another month he was coming and going on his own.

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I was his person.  He claimed my room as his own.  He left his litter box and food in the other room, but he claimed a spot at the end of my bed and that was his turf.  When he needed to hide, it was under my bed.  When I came home and he could hear me, he would come to the top of the stairs and start meowing at me to come see him.  He was insistent.  Once I came up, he’d hop on his blanket and ask for a belly rub.  These were full body experiences for him – he would flop back and let me pet him until his eyes rolled back in his head.  He lived for those rubs.  Sometimes if I stopped too soon, he would try to grab my hand as I was leaving to let me know he’d been shortchanged.Image

The transformation was complete.  He was now a real house cat and lived a great life with regular food and love provided.  His green eyes matched the walls in my bedroom, and he liked nothing better than when I got in to bed than curl up on my legs to make sure I didn’t try to leave again.  Sleeping, I would feel him curled up behind my knees and felt comforted knowing he was right there.  We became quite a pair.

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One point I forgot to mention:  at no time did I want or expect to keep this kitten.  He was the third cat in our house, all of which were adopted by my daughter and her tender heart.  I had grudgingly said yes to cat #2 (but mommy, he needs a home – he’ll go to a shelter if we can’t take him!) and knew that 2 was the limit.  Will was meant to live with us only until he was able to be adopted by one of her friends who she was SURE would take him.  For the first year, Will was called “the cat that doesn’t really live here”.  It was a temporary living arrangement.

Then in mid-September of last year, when he’d lived with us for about a year, he somehow got outside.  He was gone overnight and I spent the next day frantically looking around for him, to no avail.  At dusk, I put up pictures with our number on them to let our neighbors know to look out for him.  About an hour later, he appeared on our deck and though still skittish, he came to me as I sat there waiting for him.  I scooped him up and he launched from my arms as I came inside.  He flew upstairs to his safe spot in an instant.  His purring and meowing let me know he was as glad as I was that he was home.  From that point on, he really lived here.  I knew in my heart that I didn’t want him to be anywhere else.

Feral cats can revert quickly if they are allowed back outside.  My reading told me that his brain would be triggered to the fight / flight mode almost immediately and that once they were in that mode, it would be as if they were never socialized.  I felt that Willie had chosen us over the wild and that he knew this was a better deal.  What’s not to love about regular meals, friends to play with, and belly rubs?  Not to mention, he hung out on a comfy blanket and had his own silk pillow sham to lounge on.  He had it pretty good.  He chose home.

Not long ago, it dawned on me that Will was the first kitten I’d raised since I was a teenager.  We’ve had a couple cats since then, but they were my children’s kittens and they weren’t as bonded to me.  Will was my cat through and through.  He liked my daughter (after all, she was his savior) and learned to like my husband.  He was cautious around just about everyone else.  He would spook at a new voice and retreated to his haven under the bed at the slightest provocation.  I’m sure some people just thought he was a figment of my imagination.  He was a ghost cat to many.

The interesting thing is, both Willie and I had to undergo a transformation to find each other.  He had to learn to trust me and accept that I meant him no harm.  I had to allow myself to care about him and let his love break through my barriers.  I sure as heck didn’t think I needed that.  But it turns out, I did.  He melted my heart in a way that gave me great comfort.  There have been times when he seeks me out when I’m sitting alone and snuggles up in a way that tells me I’m not going anywhere soon.  And the comfort of allowing myself that time to just be was enormous.  He took away some of the pain of losing so much from my life in so short a time.  He truly gave me a sense of peace.

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I lost my mother and then my sister this past year, both of whom met Will and saw him transform.  My mom watched him learn to navigate the couch when he was with me.  I explained he wasn’t ready to walk on the floor down here and she said that I “had strange pets”.  That was her last ever visit to my house and thinking of her comment always makes me smile.  My sister heard a lot about Will during our phone calls.  One time when I was really worn out, I told her I just needed to go home and relax.  She told me to get home curl up with the little guy who makes you so happy – and she was right.  Now, I hear her voice in my head often when I am spending some quality cat-enforced meditation time.

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The other day, the sliding door was open and only the screen was between the cats and outside.  One of the older cats used her claws and opened it.  All three cats went outside.  The other two go in and out all the time with no problem.  Will was the only one that was a true indoor cat.  I thought he’d come home like he did last time, but it’s been 6 days now and I don’t think he wants to.  There have been sightings of him at night, but he won’t come for food or offers of belly rubs.  He is indifferent to the calls we have made and the treats we entice him with.

I haven’t really seen him at all. He has become a ghost cat to me.  Last night, I put out some canned cat food hoping he would come to it and maybe I could capture him.  As I walked out on the deck, I saw two eyes glowing at me from over by the fence.  I grabbed the flashlight and carried the food over there.  He (if it really was him) was long gone by then.  I looked around, over, under and inside things, but no Will.  He doesn’t want to be found.

It feels like he’s telling me he doesn’t need me anymore – like he’s ready to choose his life in the wild over being comfortable at home – as if his life was missing something.  I get that, I really do.  He’s a grown male (neutered) cat and maybe he’s looking for adventure.  Maybe the call of the wild really was too much to resist.  Or maybe that part of his heart that opened up and learned to trust has closed as he slipped back into survival mode.  I don’t know.  All I know is that I worry about him, and I miss him.  I wanted him to choose me again.

But the lesson here is that I have to let go.  I need to accept that he’s going to exercise his free will to live as he wants.  If he does come home someday, I will be grateful.  I am sad that he is gone.  Every time I look out on the deck or in the back yard, I hope to see him there.  I continue to leave him food at night and leave the deck light on, just in case.  I go out several times a day to call for him.  I haven’t put up signs or pictures, because the odds of someone actually seeing him are low.  He knows that in order to survive, he hides until dark.  Then, and only then, is it safe enough to emerge.

I’m resisting this life lesson because I have grown to love him more than I expected to.  He was something that went right when so many things in my life were going wrong.  He was a lifeline for me when I felt overwhelmed.  He was the one that kept me company when I slept alone in my bedroom for almost a year.  I know it’s ridiculous to feel such sadness at losing him.  It is almost as though it has reactivated some of the pain from that period and my heart hurts.

I will get through this – that much I know.  I wish him well out in the world and hope that at some point down the road, he’ll remember that his life here was good and maybe, just maybe, he will decide to come back.  Until then, I will miss his chattering conversations with me, his warm, soft belly, and most of all, his loving acceptance of me at my best or worst.  You’re free, Will.  I hope in letting you go you somehow find your way back to me.

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UPDATE:  Will Feral has returned  home.  After almost 3 weeks in the woods, he finally showed himself to me on Monday evening about 6:30.  I was out looking again for him as we hadn’t seen any sign of him for days.  I was anxious and trying not to think about what I might find.  I was back in the in the greenbelt near a clearing and he was walking across it.  I called to him and he kept heading away from me, but toward the house.  He began talking to me then.  I circled back, trying not to spook him and then went to get some food.  I saw he was still by the last tree on the edge of the wood that borders our yard.  I put the food behind that tree and he came to it.  After eating a bit while I talked to him, I was able to pet  him.  Once I’d done that for a while, I picked him up by the scruff of his neck as I used to do when he was a kitten and brought him inside.  He was very skittish and acted feral again – hiding and hissing.  After a day and a half, he is very much back to his old ways – loving and happy.  He is extremely thin and looks like a shadow of his former self, but he is home and we are all happy for it.  Well done, Will.

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Rebuilding

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On the banks of the slough near our house, there are almost always great blue herons around.  They like to fish in the shallows and they are a frequent sight overhead as they fly to and from their feeding grounds.  I have always loved seeing them overhead as they pass by.  There is something both elegant and primeval about their look and they are a startlingly large bird.  That they can sustain flight is truly a marvel of avian design and engineering.

My daughter identifies with these birds and sees them as her power animal, a guardian of sorts.  When my dad died, she said they reminded her of him.  Then mom died, and as herons are often together in pairs, it feels like they are watching over us.  Since herons are birds that mate for life, that seems appropriate.  Now, when I see two flying overhead, I say hello and send up a quick prayer for my parents.  They have become totems for me, too.

Over the past few months, there has been some interesting activity in the trees by the slough.  For the first time in all the years I have been walking out there, the great blue herons are building nests in trees that are very central to the park.  I have counted seven nests in these trees and have seen about 14 birds perched in the branches.  This has caused quite a few people to stand, stare upward and comment on what is going on above us.  Quite a few people, like me, have been snapping pictures.  It is making bird-watchers of a lot of us and has given me a lot of joy.  It feels like a rebirth is underway.

As I drove away yesterday, I thought of the parallels between the year that has passed and the importance of rebuilding.  Seeing these fragile nests clinging to slim branches makes me nervous for the eggs that will eventually inhabit them.  They seem so flimsy a strong wind could blow them away.  The herons are still adding sticks to them each day, so they must want to secure them, too.  I know that I can’t help them do it – I can only be an observer and my worrying about them is pointless.  They are the experts and they will do what they know works, following patterns in their DNA that was long ago imprinted.  They rebuild their nests each year and they are bringing forth the next generation.  They are doing so in the face of stacked odds – predators, illness, lack of food, and worst of all, siblicide.  If one chick becomes larger and more dominant, it “nudges” the others out of the nest and has all the parental attention to itself.  That ensures its survival – but is not so great for the others.

My own rebuilding continues to make me stronger.  Day by day, I feel myself reclaiming what is important to me and being able to stand up more solidly.  My new normal is becoming more than just an expression; it is how I feel and what I have to work with.  I still think of calling mom, dad, or Jan regularly.  Other times, I’m surprised that I haven’t thought of them being gone in a while – and I feel bad for not feeling bad.  Mostly, I am feeling good about making my way forward and finding out how I need to be without them.  It is a daily adventure, but one that isn’t as painful as 12 months ago, 6 months ago, or even a few days ago.

I was in a group recently at work and someone mentioned they’d heard I’d had a rough year, so I told them that I’d lost 3 important people from my family over a span of 17 months.  This time, instead of the usual sympathetic comments or words of understanding, someone actually said “Oh – you think that’s bad, my dad just disappeared one day.”  And I almost started laughing.  Since when did grief become a competitive sport?  All I could do was rein in my urge to say “WTF?” and channel my sympathetic ear, asking him what had happened.  Turns out it was years ago, but it must still be a source of pain for him.  I walked away, shaking my head at how people can be, but knew I was making progress.  My pain is there, but it has had a chance to be acknowledged, shared, and respected.  In doing so, I don’t need to use it to one up anyone.  I would truly hope for no one to have to experience a series of loss like I have.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

I am hopeful that each visit to the slough will show me that this new heron colony is thriving and they are successful in launching this season’s new chicks.  I admire them for their boldness and wish them well in their efforts.  I will be watching.

Turn, Turn, Turn

“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn, a mosaic of them all.” –  Stanley Horowitz

Spring comes early here in the Northwest.  Our growing season, despite being so far north, is really long.  The warm air that comes in off the Pacific Ocean makes our winters much more temperate than many people realize.  One of my favorite things to do on a warmish day in February is to wander around the garden to see what is starting to come up.  I am usually doing some winter clean up, cutting things back and letting the new growth see the sun.  This past week, we had one of those days and I was able to see new life starting all around me.  You just have to look for it.  Some are blatant, like a bright red rhododendron bloom, and some are subtle, like the buds swelling on the red currant trees. 

In the past, spring was my very favorite season.  I am finding that I enjoy the hazy days of fall more and more.  Spring is full of crazy activity and lush life sprouting everywhere you look – it’s like a riotous teenager wearing bright clothes; fall is more sedate and sophisticated.  The colors are more reserved, with golds and reds taking over from pink, purple, and yellow. I love spring, but I relate to fall.  Maybe it’s the stage of life I am in, but the slower pace appeals to me. 

The part of spring that touches me most (and I realize we are not there yet, but it is beginning…) is that feeling of rebirth and renewal.  I need that in my life right now as I complete the cycle that follows loss.  Seeing the world become new again and feeling the potential that dormant plants emit gives me a much needed injection of hope. I watch the new growth like a mother hen, protective of my new babies and encouraging them along their path toward maturity. A cold snap could hit them hard, but I expect that they will survive. 

My yard has been a work in progress for the past 17 years.  I moved to this house and brought a few things from my old garden along, things I couldn’t bear to part with.  I have heirloom plants – those that were given to me by friends and family.  I had to bring along cuttings of the violets that once bloomed in my grandmother’s garden and the forsythia that was in my Aunt Betty’s.  These are plants that connect me to my own roots and I love having them here.  Most plants I have acquired or cultivated because I know they are hardy and will thrive with minimal care.  I know myself well enough to know that although I love my plants, I rule by benign neglect and they have to be able to survive in spite of me.  Through careful process of elimination, I have accomplished a very low maintenance garden. 

My hands will be in the dirt soon, planting, rearranging and shaping things for the rest of the growing season.  Dirt under my nails reminds me of my mom, my love of flowers connects me with Jan, and my dad simply enjoyed sitting outside looking at it all. I am able to let my mind wander while I work and I reminisce about springs past or times shared.  I am my most content in this state.  One time, while searching for some insight, I went to see a woman to have my horoscope read.  She told me that whenever I felt I was lost or needed to be calm, I should go put my hands in the earth and I would feel at peace.  I’ve remembered that these past 20 years and realize she was right.  I am connected best in my garden to my place here on earth and taking care of my little plot gives me great joy. 

So here’s to the coming spring and all the seasons as they line up to pass by.  I will appreciate each one in its turn, finding my place among the plants and trees in my garden and keeping my eye on what’s coming next in the growing cycle.  Aunt Betty’s forsythia is about to bloom and that means spring is on its way.  To everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.  Let it ever be so.