Just a quick howdy-do from the little amphibian who visited me in the garden the other day. Sometimes it really does take very little to brighten the dullest, most common chores or the least exotic occasion. A little hopper leaps into view, and my heart leaps to follow.
Let me never be so craven as to be hubristic, crass,
Boastful as my cousin Raven, who (though he’s a silly ass)
Calls himself the Wise, the Clever, poses as a sage and wit—
I should hope that I would never be so wildly full of it—
All my fellows know my talents and my intellect and skill
Well enough that, on the balance, bragging would be overkill.
I prefer a steady diet of humility and style,
Being modest, cool, and quiet, and yet brilliant all the while.
Nah! Just kidding! I’m as happy as ol’ Raven is to brag;
I’m as boisterous a chappie, yelling out from crag to crag,
Tree to tree, tunnel to tower; I’ll announce my greatness, too;
Any reason, any hour, tell you I’m better than you!
Don’t assume because I’m smaller I’m less dazzling or less proud—
I’ll be glad to give a holler, shout my excellence out loud!
The marvels and beauties of the natural world are inevitably balanced by equally intense harshness: death weighs against life, grief against joy, and unease against sanguinity. Angst steals peace. And life continues for all of those who grieve the loss of the dead and dying. We mourn, and we weep rivers of tears.
What do animals do? They suffer all of the losses that humans do, but are denied the relief, the respite of tears. Driving a country roadside at dusk, my husband and I spotted a fox pacing the length of a meadow, back and forth, back and forth, nose in the grasses, intent. A quarter-mile up the road, we saw on the other side a small heap of red-brown fur. It was very small. It was very still. The mother fox was searching for her kit, and when she eventually found it, her hunt would end sorrowfully. We stayed quiet in sadness for her.
What would she do? Sit silent watch? Yip, bark, whine? Surely, after a time, she would return to her den, her other kits; would they, too, feel the loss? It was clear from her search that the mother fox would go to great lengths to protect or find her young, and I can only imagine, from my perspective, that it would be with whatever is the fox’s form of emotion that she would seek, find, and suffer the death of her young. But she would have no tears for it. As much as I dread the causes of them, I am grateful for tears.
For, like the rising flood behind a dam, they signal an immense pressure and an enormity of feeling pent up inside us and growing in heaviness and strength until they are released. When we humans ‘let go’ of a dead loved one or comrade, it is not that we forget or no longer care; it’s that we are able to somehow vent the pressure of the intense, unbearable sorrow and suffering felt at the immediate loss. Tears are a benison in this, the floodgate opened in the bursting dam to permit some physical release of that intensity of sorrow, letting it abate enough to become manageable once more. When I weep, whether for an unknown fox’s kit or for my own lost loves, the river of my tears carries away with it some of my misery and leaves behind a kind of quiet that is washed of grief and open for peace.
The steadily clear, cloudless skies of a still very warm October day in north Texas lend themselves mostly to seeing the world as a series of crisp cutouts, light and shadow unmitigated by much subtlety. But after spending the last six years living here, I have found an interesting fine-textured, mellow character that offers much of the softening effect the light might seem to steal from the scenery. It comes in those rare times, like yesterday afternoon, when my spousal-person and I have the time and leisure to wander slowly and savor those things that are uniquely alluring about this still somewhat alien terrain.
Instead of the flat and unchanging brown I had somehow come to expect from Texas when I was still a foreigner to it all, sitting up in the very northwest corner of the country and imagining I was moving to dry, unmitigated plains, this part of the state is actually a softly rolling zone, a puffy quilt as opposed to a hospital-corners flat sheet. There are little ravines and arroyos tucked into it, sliding slopes of no great height but enough curvaceous amplitude to give a sense of motion and variation. There are no natural lakes around here, but a good number of created ones, and Ray Roberts Lake is a massive reservoir with thousands of acres of state park land along its shores. The farther inland oak-and-pine forested walking paths are currently closed because of flooding, an exceedingly rare thing in this region but brought on by last winter and spring’s astonishing rain performance. So even if it weren’t for the possibility that there’d be more mosquitos in the shady walk (thanks a bunch, West Nile virus), sticking to the breezier open areas of the lakeside was more promising.
As we drove out toward the lake, I was reminded of how the tall native grasses’ and wildflowers’ color and texture, height, and movement hide the sharp edges of the landscape; how the rolling terrain lulls me; how vast stretches of these, stands of trees between ranchland pastures and open plains, and the broad blue dome of the sky all become blurs of comfortable sameness. All things gain or lose specificity of detail with our relative nearness or distance, whether physical or mental.
As we’d drive nearer to a change in the topography or flora, or a lasso of vultures would tighten in the sky overhead, the edges and distinctions becoming more defined again, our eyes and minds would shift back to notice details. As we passed through these, we would relax once more into that easeful somnolence of a Sunday afternoon’s outing and see only large patches of color, texture, movement. A leafy copse at the edge of one of the area’s sweeping ranches first looks like a dark and fuzzy blend of earthy greens and browns, then gradually coalesces into trees and grasses, then proves to be shading a small group of magnificent longhorns who graze steadily, undisturbed by the larger or smaller picture.
I am reminded once more of how small a part of any picture I am, yet how free to be a moving, changing, unique point of interest within it if and as I choose. All of us are both at once: concrete and distinct, yet subsumed in the greater whole as mere specks, little dots of disappearing solidarity within the hazy afternoon of history. I am content.
You would think, given my secret-superhero nickname of Miss Kitty (as in Miss Kitty’s Fabulous Emporium of Magical Thinking), that I would be the very epitome, the avatar, of the Crazy Cat Lady. Crazy, yes; I’m happy to admit to that achievement. But I’ve never owned, been owned by, or lived for any length of time with, a cat. Let alone multiple cats. I really like cats. They seem to like me, too. But I’ve never had the space, time, cash, and commitment required to be a good housemate for cats, so they have remained as exotic as their wild and king-of-the-jungle cousins all are to me.
Right now, though, I am one of a cadre of stepmothers to the next door duo. I get a great kick out of anthropomorphizing and observing them, not to mention, being fawned over when I am granted that privilege. Sophia, half the size of her housemate Jackson, is twice the social character. She almost invariably greets me (or any other visitor to the house, as far as I can tell) right at the front door with a cat-style howdy-do and the perfectly evident expectation that she will be thoroughly admired and, very probably, will soon allow the appropriately worshipful visitor to pet her at least a little. Jackson would rather maintain his air of gentlemanly reserve and either disappear at the very sound of movement in the house or repair to a shadowy corner under some furniture, from whence he can observe and assess the goings-on and the potential dangers of the visiting party. He is large and fit enough to hold his own in an encounter, but would rather keep his savoir-faire intact with a proper feline aloofness and fine manners than to be so crass as to interact with anyone he didn’t himself invite for a visit.
But their human companion’s lengthy absence brings about gradual, inevitable variations on their routines, and adds many layers to the interactions with us substitute companions.
Let’s be right up front about the least appealing of the interactions, which of course is the cleaning and maintenance of the Feline Facilities, a.k.a. the litter box. While we all process our food into waste products that must be disposed of properly, I will readily admit that fecal cleanup duty (She said DOODY!) is a factor in my choice not to have cat companions in my home full-time, just as it plays, however infinitesimal, a part in why I opted not to have children. Assuming I was ever physiologically capable of the latter. I would be fairly happy if excrement played as little a part in my physical life as I want it to in my emotional and metaphorical existence. I do, however, consider that any creatures existing at my mercy as much as house cats do deserve cleanliness and fresh air and the like, so I doody-fully manage the litter box contents.
Then I can enjoy the pleasanter aspects of cat companionship with a clear conscience.
Sophia, as Social Director of the household activities, oversees my subsequent ceremonial washing of the hands, cleaning and refilling the water dish, and topping up the food bowl. She will make herself more closely available for intermittent petting by placing her royal magnificence between me and any houseplants I attempt to water or mail I put in the basket, but is content to let me fill water and food dishes without intervention, lest I get behind in those more important tasks. I am careful, meanwhile, to wash hands not only after the litter box endeavors but also after handling food, wiping a little spot of post-wet-food spit-up from the floor, or clipping a dead leaf off of the houseplants; this serves both to keep me from contaminating anything the Kids eat or play with and to scent my hands with something that seems more familiar and less off-putting to Jackson.
Because, though he is reticent and even shy at times, Jackson is also secretly interested in having a social life. He just prefers it to be at his own more leisurely pace and with a small degree of built-in comfort. He came out of his shadowy corner to inspect my perimeter and check my vitals, even on my first visit as Assistant Cat Admirer. But I had to earn the privilege first. I ignored him, politely. After my ablutions with his hu-mom’s soap, I sat in the middle of the living room floor, quietly looking out the window. Sophia made a beeline for me and wreathed herself sinuously around my parked personage, magnanimously letting me scratch her behind the ears and stroke her silky pelt, and giving me tender little love-nips whenever I strayed from the intended spot for too long. Jackson, I could feel through my back, sat back and observed.
Once I’d stayed lounging on the floor long enough to assure him of my low-key intentions, Jackson gave a couple of interrogatory meows, paced over to my back, rubbed himself up against my spine in a testing-while-marking sort of embrace, and made a slow circuit of my cross-legged figure. When he paused in front of me, I didn’t even offer a hand, not just yet. I gave him that little How-ya-doin’ nod that I see cats give each other, and the slow blink that told him I wasn’t just baiting him for a pounce. After a couple more loops and meow announcements, he stopped long enough for a head bunt and a hand check. I was admitted to the club.
Every day since, Sophia has remained the primary greeter, supervisor, and fearless leader of the operation, though only a couple of times being quite energetic enough to attempt to squirt by me through an open door. I suspect her of liking the capture and return to indoor attention just as much as she likes the quick sprint and leap, but I’ll let her think that I don’t know it. I know they both have their little exercise sessions when left to their own devices, if nothing else because various small objects move from place to place overnight and the living room area rug is always repositioned and has new hills and valleys in it in the morning. But they both like to keep a fairly leisurely pace and attitude while I’m around. Sometimes, one or both will consent to a brushing, along with the required massage and stroking—yesterday, Jackson completely forgot his sang-froid and insisted on a vigorous combing and petting session for about five minutes before strolling back to the shade.
Tomorrow? Who knows. I may find that they have forgotten to hide the evidence of an all-neighborhood-all-night catnip party. But I’ll bet that they’ll still maintain their air of calm self-assurance in my service and admiration. And that’s quite all right with me.
What happens when I go for a quick grocery trip at dusk, mainly to get a handful of bananas to keep our household well-breakfasted the next day? Usually, just bananas. You know, go in and get a handful of them, hop in the car, and zip home.
But not on a night like this (last night). Sure, I go in, I find the bananas, and—as usual—I find a few other things that I’d forgotten were on my list from the last shopping expedition, and I head out to the parking lot. But as I’m walking to the car, there’s a huge wave of action overhead: the grackles are coming in to roost in the trees all over the lot. It’s like a cartoon version of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds‘. Daphne Du Maurier never imagined it like this; flocks and crowds of scrawny, scruffy, long-tailed grackles chattering, nattering, whistling, and whirring as they flit from power lines to parking lot, from tree to tree. Nobody’s running and screaming, and no birds are diving at anybody, but the action is lively and just a little loopy. This time of year, especially, it’s quite the show.
So I load the groceries into the back of the car, throw my purse onto the front seat, and grab my little camera, because the surreal silliness simply grabs me and makes me feel weirdly, cheerfully glad that we ran out of bananas at just this time. I hang around taking snapshots and a little video, where despite the breeziness of the evening I think you get a hint of what it was like to stand in that cackling cacophony, and then I hop into the banana-mobile and drive home, keeping the windows down so I can hear the grackles for a very long way and listen as they segue into cicada and cricket songs before I pull into the driveway at home.
Is it the brightness of the moon? The changing of seasons (subtle as that is around here)? A convention? I’m not sure, not at all. But I’m glad I stumbled into it. The song will ring in my ears for a while. You never know what might happen on a night like this.