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

Equinox

The equinox is the period when the day and night seem be the same length.  For just a moment, the earth tilts neither away from nor towards the sun.  This is a time of transition, of passage from one state to another. Many cultures celebrate major holidays during the spring and fall equinox.

Rituals are useful because they help to make us conscious of our place in time and space on the planet.  They help us to mark and process change,  which happens so quickly sometimes that we don’t notice it.

Today, for example, I took the dogs through Hartwood acres, as I did just three days ago, and even though we were walking the same paths, the world seemed to have changed.

Last Sunday the forest and fields were fully and radiantly in bloom.  White snakeroot blossomed in patches of sunlight under the trees, and last year’s leaves were slowly disintegrating into a ruffled, brown carpet.  The woods were still vibrant, green and pulsating with summer. That day we walked in dappled, open forest for an hour or so, when the dogs caught the scent of some deer and began to strain against the leash.  Instead of reining them in, I raced up the hills with them, just as eagerly, with spontaneous, unrecognizable power, and then came to a sudden, blissful stop.

The deer, fleeing, had led us, panting, out into the most glorious goldenrod meadow that rolled and undulated before us.  It was wildly yellow, interspersed with purple aster, thick and heavily fragrant.  It buzzed loudly with bees gathering pollen on both sides of the path.  Bits of straw and ochre petals stuck to my clothes and the dogs’ fur as we pushed through.  Monarch butterflies scattered.  Across the golden ocean a thousand squadrons of dragonflies were zooming, diving and whirling, just like the hawks and the buzzards circling above us.  All of nature was intensely, enthusiastically, wildly alive.

Just three days later, the first red and yellow leaves were falling to the forest floor. The canopy was still verdant, still filled with yellow-green light, but it was as though the trees had sighed all together and shaken their hair out for the last time.  They  were now sending their energy to their roots, not to their branches and tendrils.  There seemed to be fewer grasshoppers.  Flotsam floated carelessly down to the path, which was muddier than it had been, messier, muckier, denser.  A moth fluttered into my face and brushed soft cobweb wings against my cheek.

I came out into the clearing expectantly, looking for that golden, wild fertility of a few days before.  The fields were still yellow, but not as brilliant, even though the sun shone as brightly as it had before. Bright plumes ostentatiously waved at the sky, but many of the flower heads had begun to brown and nod in the breeze.  The bees were still gathering, buzzing and burrowing into the petals, and the dragonflies whizzed, as before. Yet the season of decaying, decomposing, withering, wilting, leaning, and breaking down had begun in earnest.

It had happened just like that, in a matter of days. Plants and trees loosened and flung their seeds into the air; squirrels, chipmunks, and groundhogs stuffed themselves with nuts and shoots; and everywhere everything was sliding into rot or sleep.  Yet the very moment with which all of nature prepared itself for death was also the moment of new life in motion, copulation, fertilization, and regeneration.

My mother died during this season.  She was 55.  My father suffered a nearly fatal stroke just a few years later, and fell into a dark depression for 15 more years.  I am thinking about my friend Philip, who is my age. He makes a living as a sculptor.  Just a few days after Hurricane Irene filled his studio with mud, Philip suffered two strokes that left him paralyzed.  The prognosis for him is hopeful, as it is for my friend and sister MJ, who has recovered from Stage 4 ovarian cancer.  None of us knows how long we will enjoy what we have right now, this minute, in our lives.

Treasure your health, your ability to walk, to see, to sing.  What you have now is greater and more valuable than you probably know.

Edgy

So for three days now I’ve been rewriting the introduction and it is not going well.  I have written I think one paragraph that I like.  And I honestly do not know what else should go into it.  Enough introduction.  I am so heartily sick of writing the introduction.

The sun starts to hit the table where I work, in my brother’s kitchen, at about 3 pm, glaring off the screen and making it pretty uncomfortable to work.  I took a long break and drove up into the Grand Mesa National Forest, which you can only access by miles of dirt road.   Pretty awesome.  The road starts out through a valley bordered by a rim of rock that runs along the hills, winding through ranches with airplane-sized watering tractors, and long bunches of cedar and scrubby brush, and then heads upward so steeply that even my brother’s enormous truck slipped on the gravel at times.  I hadn’t put it into 4-wheel drive yet, trying to save gas.   After about 10 miles the ranches dropped out and there was just open sagebrush sea and scrub, and up ahead in the far hills a forest of gold.  And then I was in the aspen, all apricot shimmer and white trunks, and nearly hit a very black cow and its calf.   On I drove over a road that got markedly worse, so bad that I had to slow down and roll over the rocks and valleys at 1 mile an hour.

I reached Bailey’s Reservoir at about 4.  It is really just a lake nestled into the skirt of a small and barren valley.  Beautiful, but dark.  The sky was overcast, threatening to rain.  There was one bright yellow aspen against the black-green firs.  The ground was rust brown, mottled with cow-pies.  Little breeze.   I was away from the road, away from the truck, and tucked back into the woods, just the way I like to be.  Not a sound except for one weird cry that could have been a coyote or a crazy human. I guess it spooked me, because I didn’t want to stay there.  Maybe it was too quiet, deafeningly silent, after that.  There was no breeze, and I was too far away from the cows to hear them.  I regretted I had not brought the dogs.  It was so quiet that my brain started to make up sounds–to hear the buzz of the highway, or cars, or other kinds of urban noise.  These phantoms passed away.  An airplane thundered pass and it took a long time for the sound to fade.  But then it did, and all was silent again

I drove further down into the valley and headed back home.  Then I began to feel irritated with my cowardice, turned around, and headed back up to the lake.  But I couldn’t stay there.

I turned around again and drove downhill about a mile, across a rugged washboard road, got out, propped an easel against a rock, sat, and looked.  I could see way down across the Grand Mesa and out towards the West Elk Mountains and the flat land where Highway 92 runs from Hotchkiss to Delta.  I was way up on 3100 Road.

Even though I enjoyed the softness of the aspen trees that had already shed their leaves feathering up against the evergreens, and the broad swathes of gold behind them, and the valley spilling out below me; even though I was happily straddling a granite boulder like a horse, I couldn’t simply sit and be.  Too edgy.  I needed to move, get back, reach home before dark, before the rain.  Plus in this spot I could hear the cattle lowing, and they annoyed me.

They annoyed me more on the way back down, because they all seemed to have decided to go somewhere on the road at the same time.  Dinner?  There must have been thirty or forty of them, all told, on the way back.  All different colors, browns and tans, creams, and russets and blacks, bulls and cows and calves.  They frequently stopped right in the middle of the road, turned their enormous bodies sideways and stared at the headlights.  When I finally got through them all, and drove a little further down the mountain, I saw one pure white young cow grazing among the aspen.

I also saw hawks, and chipmunks, and deer.  I think they were deer.  Could have been elk.  One froze by the roadside, so I stopped and looked into her eyes until she decided I was no threat and moved on.  She had enormous ears.

Once I had a dream that three animals came to me, and when I awakened I fancied that they were my spirit animals, or totems.  They were an owl, a jackal, and a doe.  I saw the face of the doe this afternoon.

I’m making soup with last night’s creamed corn (I made it from fresh cobs), tomatoes that come from my brother’s garden here, caramelized onions and carrots, and sweet potato.  The broth is water-based. Since I’ve sworn off all processed foods I couldn’t use a cube, so I took a chicken breast out of the freezer and popped it in to the slow-cooker.  I made this before I left for my drive.  When I got back the chicken was tender enough and cool enough to shred with my fingers.  I poured another cup or so of water and about half a cup of wine into the broth, and it has been simmering for the past 40 minutes or so. I will have to let you know how it turned out.

Being alone in Colorado

2 October 2010

My mother died on this day 30 years ago.

Being alone in Colorado during the day.

When I’m in Pittsburgh I’m immersed in noise.  City noise–boom boxes and explosive car radios, trash trucks, jack hammers, car alarms, planes, helicopters,  that incredibly irritating back-up sound that goes Beep, Beep, Beep, insanely, driving you insane; trucks driving or idling, for no apparent reason,  buses, motorcycles, leaf blowers, people walking down the street who converse by shouting at one another from either side of the road.  In the 19th century the steam engine was thought to be a kind of devil, roaring through the world and practically tearing people’s ears off.  But it seems to me that the devils of the 20th and early 21st centuries are machines powered by gasoline.

When I “relax” I turn on the television, usually quite loud so that I can hear it over the noise in my neighborhood, and when I go “out” to “relax” and have a drink, I go into a bar where there is usually a television blaring or music drowning out the silence that city people have apparently no ability to deal with.  And speaking of bars.  It’s annoying enough that there is a television to deal with, but what I don’t understand is why the t.v. always has to be tuned to golf or baseball or football?  Why can’t it be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Six Feet Under or Battlestar Galactica?  Let it be CNN or even that republican machine, Fox News.  Are city bars only populated by sports fans?

But here, where I am now, I hear virtually nothing but the sound of my own breathing, the dogs, three of them, following me here and there, their panting, the cat meowing to be let in the door that he knows he doesn’t usually go through, the wind, if there is any, the very rare car passing by.  If I want to hear something, I can play something on my computer, through itunes.  There’s a t.v. here but nothing on.  Nothing means: nothing I care to watch or listen to. And the radio isn’t much better.  Colorado stations seem to feature NPR most hours of the week, but so much of that programming seems to have to do with authors excessively pleased with themselves, who really don’t have that much to say, in fact.  Or that idiotic program, Car Talk, with the brothers whose laughter is so obviously forced it grates.  They don’t laugh because they’re amused, but rather because they’re uncomfortable.  Or so it sounds.  Why would anyone want to listen to the sound of forced, uncomfortable laughter, when one could listen to silence in one’s car or house?

But how rare is it to “hear” silence, to be able to think for one’s self, in quietude?  We live in cacophony and wonder why it is that we are continually getting sick from “stress.”

I’m not lonely.  There are three dogs here–Bear, Blackjack, and Kea, in order of importance.  Bear is a good friend, even though he begs too much.  Blackjack snores in his sleep and I find the sound comforting.  Kea is always way more excited to see me that I think she will be.

I love being able to do exactly what I feel like doing.  I can walk, dance, cook, and drink. I drink as much wine as I feel like drinking.  I’ve been cooking a lot and finding that I have lost my taste for meat.  It is good to be alone; to be with myself for an extended period of time, in the quiet, without a schedule, without quantification, just being.  I go to be around 8:30 and get up at 5 or 6.  I live as I want to.  It is wonderful.

Being alone in Colorado at night.

I had to go to Hotchkiss this afternoon and didn’t turn back until after dark.   Halfway home I stopped along the road, turned off the engine and the lights, and got out to look at the sky.  A dog at a nearby farm was barking but it fell silent.  So many stars.   It had been a long time since I had seen the Milky Way.

It’s hard to comprehend how we could be “in there” when, from earth, it looks as though it is “up” or “out there.”   And when I remember that it is not a water-cloud, but a star-cloud, and that the opacity of “out there” is more or less how our “over here” looks to the beings on that side of the galaxy, it’s harder to grasp.

Is it like the relationship between Self and Other?  We dismiss or underestimate or simply forget about or try to kill the Other because it is other, because we can’t stand the difference in the color of their skin, or the way they eat, or walk, or express affection, or believe, or vote, or fish.  What we’re missing out on when we allow these differences between to divide us is that we are not “here” and “there” but, rather, together, bound up in the same web, the same world.  There’s a German word for this, mitsein.  It means “being with”  So, it is possible to say, in German, not only “ich bin,” I am, which is a pretty powerful thing to say, actually.  But it is  also possible to say “ich bin mit,” I am with.

As I got back on the road I thought about how insignificant I was, in my tiny little car, soft flesh clothed in an exoskeloton driving along on a capillary.  So often I think of myself as the center of the universe, a “me” an individual, isolated sun, and that what I am doing is of infinite importance, and must come before all other things.  The sky above seemed so vast, so much greater than this personal scenario, this whole world. But then I thought about the complexity beneath the tires on the road, and beneath and beside the road, all the birds and skunks and snakes and lizards and toads, and the insects that they eat, and the hives and burrows that the creatures build,  and the thread-like paths that ants leave, and the smaller ones, the mites, the tiny larvae, all busily going about and around And then I thought about smaller things that you can only see under microscopes, and all the organisms that make up dirt, in which the plants grow.  So I felt better.

And when I got home the three dogs were so happy to see me they danced. Blackjack ran around the yard with his enormous teddy bear in his mouth, and Kea wagged her whole back body at me, and Bear was love-dumb as always.  I laughed at them and said, “Hello, Friends!”