Category Archives: experiences

Not the sort to carry on

Porthos copy

After it ended, I saw the tragedy. It isn’t death, it’s loss. So let me tell you this story.

I had a marvelous round soft black cat that understood me, as is given to few, especially cross-species between human and feline. When my mother entered the mean stage of Hospice, when things come from a beloved mouth that were never meant to, I passed across the yard from her bedroom in the next house, into our place, and blind to all details, I walked one foot at a time into the bedroom. There on the bed a small black blot of a cat rolled over, fixed me with his pure green eyes and said “Oh, wow!”

It broke me out of a bad place. I bent over his black fur self and knew I had my ‘oh wow’ cat.

That was Porthos. He saw me through fraught times, miseries, nightmares of legal complications (that actually never matured, thank God,) family misunderstandings,  parent troubles, coping, coping, coping, and somehow I could whisper all into his dense plush and feel he absorbed how I felt. Understood, and cared that I cared. Feral from the start, he would let me hold him until it became too much, and with an apologetic purr he’d walk away,  look back, smiling a cat smile, torn by the demands of instinct and affection.

In a year of tending both parents, mother in Hospice at home, and father with multiple brain hemorrhages, I damaged my back catching my father or trying to, whenever he fell, (and he fell a lot.) When my back was hurting I’d get up five times in the night to go to the bathroom or walk about the house, trying to ease the pain with motion. There Porthos would be, my tugboat, bumping my ankle with his round black head in the dark, making sure I’d not get lost, that I’d find my way back to a bed that some nights felt more like a rack than comfort. 

Porthos never took time off. I couldn’t ease my way from under the covers without hearing the solid plop of his strong little body hitting the floor so he could guide me yet again between the bathroom and the bed, or from the main rooms for a limping walk, back to the bed again. I could slip out without my husband knowing, but Porthos, no.

He loved me and I, him, of that I have no doubt. But he also loved Daft Wee Willie Wilberforce. 

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A little orange tabby with golden eyes, WWW had more health problems than he had limbs. But from the first week, Porthos adored him. He would sit and look over little Willy with his features softened into adoration, a besotted lover gazing at his own golden kitten. However sick WWW might be, Porthos forgave the snarls and hisses, the siren growls and swats, the smell, and simply stepped aside so that Willy could eat the food from Porthos’ bowl, bent his black head to wash Willy’s defiant neck. They wrestled and chased and tussled over the years, and Porthos never hurt Willy, however hard Willie hit or bit him. I’d pass by their shared chair with a pause to stroke the smooth conmingled furs, gold and coal black. I found the thought passing in my head that if Willie died from one of his elaborate genetic complications, what would we do to comfort Porthos? But I had the wrong end of the problem.

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One shocking week one summer, and Porthos was gone, from a polycystic liver disorder, genetic in origin, previously undiagnosed. Some of us had called him fat— but I always corrected it to ‘burly’.  The night before he died, he surprised me by coming far up the bed and taking my hand in both his paws. We slept like that several hours, or at least I did, until my back made me get up and walk around. Porthos returned to a pile of soft things we’d arranged on the floor for him, but he didn’t guide me to and fro. When I settled  down again, it was on the floor by him, with my hand close to him, but he didn’t hold my hand again. I think he was too uncomfortable, though he purred a little. Those black morning hours passed slowly. 

When we came back from the vet’s  I curled up my ten-year-old black cat in a soft-lined basket and placed him on the bed for hours, so Willie could see and smell and understand that Porthos was dead. Willie came and washed Porthos’ ears. Then I buried my black blot cat by the studio door and splashed some champagne on the grave. Porthos loved champagne every time I’d given him a drop off the tip of my finger, pink tongue flicking avidly, his eyes slitted in pleasure at the taste.

About this same time our daughter headed off to grad school in Arizona. This may seem unconnected, but I’ll connect it later.

Willie seemed lost, disordered, after Porthos went. He purred anxiously, followed us about. We decided —a new cat. Kitsune, an older flame and snow shelter cat came to us. Then two kittens. None of them were the cat Willie wanted. Not acceptable housemates, much less anything more intimate. 

At Christmas our daughter returned. Willie greeted her with astonishing clear pleasure, his head lifted, his face happy as only cats’ faces can express happiness. You know how when you smile, your eyes narrow and uplift at the outside corners? Cats do that also. Willie moved with light anticipation, joy, his orange striped body eager. We hadn’t realized how depressed he was until we watched him dance about and jump blithely up into her lap, looking about as though expecting something. 

Perhaps three hours later, Willie crashed into a deeper despondency than ever. All we can imagine, and we admit it’s imagination, was that he associated our daughter’s departure with Porthos going, and thought her return meant Porthos’ return. When he found it wasn’t so, he fell back into his depression. However you look at it, whatever your interpretation, Willie-cat never rose again to that level of happiness, no matter what attentions we might provide.

Yesterday, September 20th, 2018, we had to let Willie go. The best guess is he had a cancer, causing cachexia and a myriad of other symptoms. The vet came to the house and Willie went to his final sleep upon my lap. We buried him by Porthos near the studio and I poured a salute of champagne to them both. 

I realized a few hours after the last shovelful of dirt, the full sense of tragedy. It isn’t that Willie died, it’s that he never recovered from his loss. Three years and a month after losing Porthos, now he’s gone. My dream is that he’s back with his gentle black beloved again, loved as no one but his Porthos ever could love him, tangling in wrestling joy with his black best beloved friend. Batting and rolling about in mock combat.

 Animals. Where after all, do we come from? What does it tell us that they may share with us deep strains of what we humans name as most noble and high? Affection, selflessness, love, loyalty. I keep hearing Phillip Phillips  singing “Gone, Gone, Gone…” I heard it when I was losing Porthos, and how clearly I heard it yesterday.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oozQ4yV__Vw    Not my usual music, but it fits these cat friends.                     

 Where do you suppose we should go from here, to become our best selves under this night sky? In a time of stress, public disloyalty and strife, of threat and domination praised as though it were righteousness, can we back off from our food bowls to let a younger weaker friend eat? Can we tend to a sick friend, even when he’s dirty and rude and stinks? Can we wait and love, even in absence being faithful? Give me reason to believe.

Porthos and www copy

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Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2018

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Feel like speed dating? The agents above will be at next week’s conference.

Here it comes again, ’round the corner of summer, and I’m wading through stories on my computer I hope my friends might like, or help me make better, pulling excerpts from a mystery novel that I want to test on critical minds, feeling nervous and definitely behind. Didn’t do my homework in time. Happens every year that I attend.

Last year was possibly the hardest, because I’d not been for nearly ten years, and I felt really out of step. Would anyone even remember me enough to share a drink? But it didn’t matter, I’ve written before, that at an event like this you go through a few days and it all slides back into place, the personal anxiety changes to pride that you are part of this larger effort, and you feel a joy in every person who has dared to come and share their work, expose their weaknesses as writers as well as their strengths. It’s never about me. It is always about us.

We come to learn and also to teach. If you attend, your job isn’t merely to have your stuff read so you can gain ideas about how to hone your own craft. You need to step up and offer your  ideas and insights about your fellow writers’ work. What worked for you, what didn’t and how might it be tweaked to communicate better, more powerfully, more clearly.

Sometimes the critique session is so crowded that the best gift you can give other writers is to listen carefully and jot down notes to hand over afterwards, because if you try to hold forth and explain all your reactions to their work out loud, you’ll hold up the process. An advantage of notes is also that if you write your critique, the writer gets to keep your commentary and think it over at leisure, maybe even when at home. When I’ve just read a piece of my own, my ears and nerves are jangling after, and it’s hard to hear every word offered in critique, however kind. And yes, writers and instructors, at least at this conference, are kind. The very definition of constructive criticism starts and ends with thoughtful honesty.

So, I’m planning to engage in a transforming experience, yet again, and my hopes are high. Six days of reading writing, talking, critique, jokes bad and good, laughter and tears. But not much sleep. I told you before about the pirate sessions…not much sleep.

Starts on Sunday in Santa Barbara. See you there?

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Another time

seven chanterelles

I grew up in a time when I could roam the woods by myself. I could grab a hat, and walk out our back door, not letting the screen slam or else my mother might remember that I should possibly be doing something else, like weeding, or picking beans. I hated picking string beans because of the squashy prickly bean beetle larvae that crawled over leaf stems and beans. They gave me the creeps because they looked as though they had neither tail nor head, just a translucent blob, the naked juiciness of them studded with a pattern of black spines. They would break against my fingers and I loathed the sap of their deaths on my hands.

Quickly walk along the tractor path that traced the base of the hill, so I’d be out of earshot of anyone remembering that I should be tutoring my younger sister, or perhaps vacuuming the living room. Or dusting— the job that never ended. Then, with a deep breath of freedom, across the mown slope barely in view of the house. Don’t look behind, or I might see someone waving me back home for any of those chores I was convinced could wait. Over the rise, almost running, with the sweat prickling down between my shoulder blades, and down past the brushy edge of woods that bordered corn fields green with eager breeze blown blades, taller than my head, the overcast glow of sky hot on my hat.

I always looked for other people. Looked for farmworkers, for wanderers, for the adolescent boy checking out possible hunting ground before the fall, despite the “No Hunting” signs my cousin had posted on this old Gowen land. Then I’d duck down a path into the woods, this path wide enough for a truck. Trucks had come this way, keeping it open. The farmworkers often parked down here where the slope of land deepened, seeking shade for lunch time.

six chanterelles

I knew that if I came across anyone else there, I should not let them know of my presence.. Soft footing around, I prided myself I’d always spot any intruder first, and never would they see me. Every so often, I’d take a pause, breathing through my mouth to listen. What did I fear? Nothing so clear; I simply knew I was safest alone, unknown, unnamed.

Now how many children have such freedom? To lose themselves in the woods and orchards of infinite mystery and promise, discovering animals, spying on insects, picking up a shed hawk feather or collecting a cluster of fresh chanterelles from the duff under the hemlocks? I took part of my education there in the shadows of trees, naming red oak and sugar maple, white pine and the startling silver and black of paper birch. What has replaced this for our children now?

single chanterelle

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Next, in Southern Coastal California

https://www.independent.com/news/2018/jan/09/mudslides-engulf-montecito-carpinteria-shut-down-f/

Last night I came awake to the sound of violent lashing rain coming in strong brief pulses. I lay and listened and considered all the work we had done last afternoon to put gullies into the orchard so that the runoff from up the road would settle deep into our heavy soil. Wondering if we had done enough.

The ground has felt like concrete, despite our continual adding of organics, our thick mulching and deep watering, so we are thirsty for rain in a way that feels more acute than it has ever been before. Consider this– we had none of our usual fall rains– even in a bad drought year we’ve always had a few inches in the fall. This year, we felt a sprinkling of drops but nothing measurable. The reservoirs were frighteningly bare, and the native vegetation, crisp.

Then, as the news has tracked, we had the Thomas Fire with all its tragic losses, and the heroic labors of firefighters. Such a dry land, that the fire often persisted in burning against the wind. How do you fight that? By hand, by shoveling dirt on every kindling patch, by the brutal courageous personal labor of good women and men on the front lines and extraordinary canny planning by the planners and strategists. We had a war here and our people rose to every call.

Now the rains came, late. Now they enact another price. The stripped land cannot hold when waterlogged on these steep slopes and in the canyons, and that’s why you read in today’s news of our massive landslides taking out yet more homes, killing people, and destroying roadways. I hear helicopters pulsing overhead as stranded, sometimes injured folk are air-lifted to safety, a few at a time.

The county sent out warnings, issued mandatory evacuation orders and voluntary evacuation warnings in different threatened zones. Many citizens last night chose to stay in place. Understandably sick of the disruption to their lives after weeks of fire evacuations, they didn’t want to leave yet again, especially if they lived in areas where a mere evacuation  warning had been issued, not an evacuation order. As I understand at this  time, these evacuation warning areas are where some fatalities took place last night.

For the record, I’m a chicken. Give me a voluntary evacuation warning, and I plan to be out of here. I think it’s fair saying that the county officials are no prophets, they can only estimate and guess how the natural disaster potential may be expressed, so I will err on the side of caution. Hey, even when we weren’t in the voluntary evacuation warning area for the Thomas Fire and it was still eight miles away from our place, I was packed to leave, the cat carriers were down, water bottles filled.

It’s worth thinking over what your personal limits and triggers are before the issue arrives. How would you feel?

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When the winds blow

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December 24, 2017 · 6:26 am

Thomas Fire, a week and counting

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 Nikolas_Abele_SBCo_hand_crew_2017 https://www.independent.com/news/2017/dec/11/fire-crews-fight-by-land-air-to-hold-thomas-fire/

We try to work inside these days, and our feet leave swirls in ash when we go out for the mail, while our protective masks set our spectacles askew. But we can stay home, so far, pat the cats, and feel better.

For those dark figures who stand against the fires when I would flee, I send my gratitude, nearly as deep as my fear. I could not do what you do. Thank you is a flimsy sentiment against what you put on the line by an act of will.

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Smoke

We are in heavy smoke on the South Coast, the sun left us before noon to disappear behind a great blanket of ruddy gray from the Thomas Fire. White falls like snowflakes, except we’re breathing the ashes of other people’s dreams. We aren’t in  danger but I can do nothing without turning on the lights and the occasional sky light is rosy orange. Surreal. Weirdly cold. I should be writing an apocalyptic novel but it’s hard to concentrate, so I am doing massive Christmas cookie baking for my neighbors.

Ray Ford Noozhawk photo Dec 5 Faria Beach
So we are lying low and waiting. I think we are in fine shape but because I am a paranoid person, I have all our cat carriers out and all the valuable documents packed up in bins! My husband kind of smiled at me, but I pointed out that if another closer fire broke out, the firefighters are already over-extended.
Grateful that the winds have quieted!
Time for some super chocolate three-way fudge cookies.

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Filed under blog, experiences, natural history, wildfire