Peer Gynt (2006-2013) Greatest Cat in the World

Peer Gynt,

My amazing cat, Peer Gynt, died last week.  I called him my boyfriend because he was the first being who came here and stayed, and only after much upset and dissatisfaction on both sides.  He was big and orange and stripy, like a mini-tiger, and fat, and lazy, and lazier and fatter every year.   He complained loudly when he wanted attention, or when breakfast wasn’t served promptly enough.  Sometimes he even pawed at my bedroom door.  He convinced people in the neighborhood that he needed food with his piteous meowing.  They call me up and say, “I found your cat.  He seems really hungry…”  even though he was a bruiser and had plenty to eat at home and, to boot, wore a tag that said “In-outdoor cat.  Do not feed.”

He was an alley cat, the mayor of the neighborhood, everybody’s cat, really.  My neighbor, Lisa, called him “Pussy L’Orange” and loved him, I thought, much better than I did.  She let him sit on her lap and get his cat hair all over her clothing.  My dear friend Tim, who lives down the alley, held Peer for hours and hours a day, letting him sleep on his chest.  He was a protector, a guardian, a friend.  I called him the sleep guru because it he lulled everyone he curled up against into dreamland.  And now he is sleeping in my back yard.  He was not afraid of dogs.  When we brought a 5 month-old Siberian Husky, a reputed cat-killer, into his home, he calmly stared her down and made it clear that he was in charge.  He held his ground when we brought in another, goofy, Husky Puppy, who grew to be 70 pounds.  Peer kept them both in line.  Some people called him a dog-cat, or cat-dog, because he often behaved more like a dog than a cat.

Peer Gynt standing watch over Freya and Baldr

My friend Tim helped me lower him into the grave, wrapped in a lovely old cotton blanket my parents brought back from Wyoming.  It seemed fitting, as Peer was a Western Cat, a fighter, a lover.

The funeral was lovely.  Some of the kids from the neighborhood, who knew and loved him, came over.  Each of us said what we loved about him and then cast a flower into his grave.  Then I read from Christopher Smart‘s Jubilate Agno, which one of the kids actually knew about.  Smart wrote what must be the greatest poem on a cat while confined for lunacy in Bedlam Asylum between 1759 and 1763.

1     For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
2     For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.

19   For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
20   For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
21   For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
22   For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
23   For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
24   For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
25   For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
26   For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
27   For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.

Peer with his friend, Anitra

I loved my cat, Peer Gynt.

I send him to his grave with lines from Ibsen.  This is the lullaby that Solveig, who has loved him forever, sings to him at the end of the play:

Sleep thou, dearest boy of mine!

I will cradle thee, I will watch thee —

The boy has been sitting on his mother’s lap.

They two have been playing all the life-day long.

The boy has been resting at his mother’s breast

all the life-day long. God’s blessing on my joy!

The boy has been lying close in to my heart

all the life-day long. He is weary now.

Sleep thou, dearest boy of mine!

I will cradle thee, I will watch thee.

Peer on my bed

The Place that Grants all Wishes

I wrote these words in my journal when I was at Boudhanath, in Kathmandu:

Here is the Buddha himself magnificently before me, strong, rounded, ample, powerful.  They say that this place, more than any other place in all the world, is where wishes are heard and answered.

What are my wishes:

1.  I wish to heal.  Heal the mother in me who feels wounded.

2. I wish for true companionship.

3. I wish that my son will find his way, his strength, his chai, his chi, his life-force, and know his inner beauty.

The first wish is nearly granted.  I am a good mother if hardly conventional.  I have done my best.  This wish is the one I came to Nepal to plead.  It requires a sacrifice.  I would like to stay here to explore further sides of myself in the world, accomplish something that feels like an accomplishment.  But it is time to return.  The journey must be completed for the wish to come true. This is what the spirit of the place, Boudha, tells me.  It called to me and I came.  There was much to learn.  Have I learned what I came here to learn? Here is what I found out:

That I love my son.

That I have a great desire to take care of him and to be with him.

That, although he can care for himself, I want very much, very much, to spend more time with him.

He has confessed that I drive him crazy, that he doesn’t always like me!  This makes me laugh.  Bravo! I am shouting.  Hooray for you to be able to tell your mother this!

I like Boudha.  I could spend a long time here.  It is a good place.  I like the people circumambulating the stupa, an anarchic procession they call chora or kora.  I liked riding my bicycle here.

I have been watching a man doing his puja, his prostrations, for over an hour.  He is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and he is bald.  He has wrapped his prayer beads around his wrists.  He stands, raises his beads with both hands to the top of his head, then to his third eye, and then to his chest.  He kneels, hands sliding up the wooden prayer board, lays himself out and pushes himself back up, swings his hands above his head, touches his third eye, his chest, and down to the board.  His hands slide up to support his body in plank, and then brace to push him back up again.  He has repeated this movement twenty or thirty times while I have been describing it.  He looks older, maybe 60. A woman in a pink kurta sits indolently on the board next to him, where a dog is sleeping in the shade.

I am looking up at the Buddha’s stern, blue eyes and this is what they say to me:

“The connection was never lost, never broken, only tested.”

“But,” I complain, “there were gaps, missing slats on the bridge between us!”

The Buddha says,

“It is whole.  All is well.  The bond, the bridge, is sturdy.  Trust it across wide distances and deep canyons.  You will never break it.”

The sky is so beautiful tonight.  Bright clouds are puffing out behind the dark mountain and the golden roofs of the gompas.  Bells are ringing, dogs are barking, and the tourist stores are broadcasting “om mane peme hum.”  Prayer flags are swaying gently in the wind. My heart is full of love.

Before Leaving for Pokhara

7 July 2011

I’ve been pretty sick for the past few days with a cold, an affliction that has beset many people in Pepsi-Cola.  The Nepalis blame the rain.  I blame the pollution, but who cares?  I haven’t had much energy and my spirits have flagged.  Lying around in bed, trying in vain to sleep while serenaded by carpenters cutting wood on electric saws, blacksmiths pounding metal rods, construction workers banging hammers, and, today, a brass band that struck up a cacophonous beat every 20 minutes or so, depressed me.  I’ve had too much time to think about the breakup with Tim and have dwelled unhealthily on my weaknesses, failures, shortcomings, and losses.   I started to get hold of myself when I realized that I was pre-menstrual and exhausted.  What I needed was a a good, solid rest.

I took a nap and then meditated for about 30 minutes.  What a relief it was to drop into stillness, into the what-is-ness of my life right now, right here and to stop fighting, stop resisting, stop expecting, and, best of all, stop finding fault with myself.  It struck me that I was wasting time.  There is no running away from the grief that I feel for what I have lost.  I am riding that wave.  But I can’t let it overwhelm me.   I am so incredibly lucky, after all.  Not only have I the opportunity to get to know truly unusual and generous human beings such as Kat and her best friend, Maria,  I am also here with my son, my only child.  I came here to Nepal in order to do something extraordinary with him.  I have spent much of the past ten years mourning my distance from him, and here he is now, a young, intelligent, and engaging adult.  We are bonding with one another but also with some of the same people during our travels.  We will only be here for another four weeks.  Every moment with this man, this man whom I love more than any man in the world, is a gift.

I took a harrowing cab-ride with Kat and a driver who seemed to delight in roaring directly toward pedestrians and stopping half an inch from their legs.  He veered into oncoming traffic two-thirds of the way into town.  Kat and I have both adopted the same strategy for managing our fear during these journeys.  We talk briskly to one another and keep our eyes off the road ahead.   We were meeting the group at a restaurant in Thamel, but Brendan and the crew had not yet arrived.  My heart ached for him and swelled when he came swinging into view.   I often worry about how I’ll do when he goes back to the States.

We all go to Pokhara tomorrow morning.  The gang—Brendan, Joost, Peter, Angela, Maria, and maybe also Sophia–will meet at 6 am downstairs before heading together into Kathmandu for the “tourist bus,” a lot more expensive and allegedly more comfortable vehicle than the notoriously overcrowded and filthy regular busses.  No farmer is likely to hop on board and deposit ten to fifteen half-dead chickens on my feet.  Still the road itself is terrifyingly narrow, busy, and likely to be rained out in places.  I am not looking forward to it.  But I am happy to be going with good friends, my friends who are also Brendan’s friends.  It will be heaven to escape Pepsi-Cola and the Kathmandu Valley for a few days.   We all need the break.

Danse Macabre: Mourning My Mother

So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.