Once we saw the postcard, we couldn’t un-see it. Seven buffalo coming on Tuesday — “Please make all necessary arrangements” — rung through our minds all weekend. Yup, we figured buffalo wouldn’t actually arrive, but this little message is one of those whimsical delights of a lifetime. It had no return address, and postmarked in Kansas City meant it could have come from Lawrence or from Kansas City. It was also worded so bureaucratically that whoever sent it is surely a great life artist.
While the buffalo didn’t arrive, getting to share the news on Facebook, not nearly as exciting as getting a small herd, did have it rewards. “Sadley, but not unexpectedly,” I told people, the buffalo didn’t come. “Call Amazon,” my mother wrote, Others suggested I contact Fedex or UPS, and Dan cautioned that the buffalo couldn’t stay in boxes for long in the sun. There were lots of cow patty puns, Bob posted a photo of a historic Brewster Buffalo plane, Cathy shared an image of buffalo walking down the road, and Robin wrote, “How incredibly disappointing for us all.” Laura shared Pete Seeger singing “I’m Going To Mail Myself To You,” and people wondered if we were just ill-prepared or if they showed up somewhere else. I also found several other people who received the same postcard.
My favorite comment of all was Nancy’s — “hey are there! Just very, very well camouflaged!” — because I know this is true. If time is just a human construct, and past lives are actually having simultaneously in other dimensions, then the fields around our house are likely teaming with buffalo at the same time all we detect is chiggers and ticks. Thinking of who was here before us also got me thinking about what it would take to graze buffalo here again although it would take way more than between now and Tuesday to get ready. In the meantime, I’m just a bit sad to not be in what Kathryn called “the critter of the month club,” but very happy to have enjoyed the imagined buffalo with my real community.
There’s white fur on the bathroom mirror, bath curtain rod, and bedroom windows from Calicoco, the feral cat I stupidly thought I could catch and keep. For three months, this beautiful and seemingly tame calico kitty has been hanging out at our place: sleeping on the deck or on top of the kayaks while blinking at our indoor cats, who blink back without a fuss. She got along well with Shay the Dog, who treated her like any of the other feline-Americans of the house, and I spent a lot of time talking to her. “Calicoco,” I would call out in a high-pitched voice, “We are your forever home!” Then I would put out food and water for her, each day getting a little closer although she required an eight-foot perimeter with humans.
After a big storm the other day, when we found Calicoco outside our bedroom window cowering, Ken and I decided today we would set up the live trap, then take this supposedly sweet and pitiful kitty to the vet to get her shots and make sure she was healthy before making her our new cat. A few hours later, I set out the trap on our driveway, sat on the screened-in porch, watched and waited. Calicoco circled it continuously but she seemed too smart to actually get inside the cage with the food, surely knowing it would trap her. After a few hours, I had to leave, so I told Forest to check on her.
Of course, she got caught in the trap 10 minutes after I left, and Forest reported she immediately started ramming her pretty face against the cage to the point that she was bleeding. I told him to put the cage in the bathroom, and let her out, then close the door until she could chill. The plan was then for him to wrap her in a towel, put her in the cat carrier, and meet me at the vet.
Sitting at the Wa with Kelley while finishing our bento boxes, Forest called, and we both listened to him trying to catch her. It sounded like a Roadrunner cartoon without the beeping: lots of crashes and bangs. He took a breather, tried again, and the sounds we heard were even more outrageous (think mega squirrel on steroids). So I drove back home to help catch the kitty myself, figuring that if my over-6-foot-tall, strong, young son couldn’t get her into the carrier, surely it would be a piece of cake for me.
When I locked myself in the bathroom with sweet Calicoco, I experienced the most wild animal encounter of my life up close and personal. This cat doesn’t just jump — she flies! She could leap from the top of the bath curtain rod to the molding over the door, front paws extended, in a flash, then boomarang window to floor to sink to bathtub in about two seconds. Trying to throw a towel over a feral cat is also a very bad idea indeed, and it results in a barrage of crashing and breaking glass. Within a minute, the floor was covered with blue and pink glass, cat food, blood, and fur.
What to do, what to do, what to do? Forest and I talked earnestly about letting her back out into the wild, but with cuts on her face that could get infected, we decided to try to get her to the vet instead first. So I opened the door to the bedroom, where Forest, a box, and several towels waited, and we backed up to watch the fireworks. She repeatedly body-slammed herself into every window, trying to break out, and she might have succeeded. But then she leapt down between the bed and the wall, just her adorable feet sticking up, and this was when I did something brave and idiotic: I grabbed her feet, praying she didn’t swing around and kill me, and flung her into a towel and box. Forest and I threw ourselves on top of the box, taping the hell out of it, then carefully carried that box to the car.
Now the ethical (and financial) quandary deepened. If we took her to the vet and spent big $ to sedate and treat her, it would just be to let her out in the wild again. Then again, it was our fault she was injured. Ken and Daniel were concerned about her effect on the bird population, and given that this cat flies, so was I. If we took her to the humane society, we feared they would kill her. For the next hour, Forest and I drove around with a feral cat in a box, calling various friends, talking with Ken repeatedly, then puzzling it out with each other.
In the end, we drove to the humane society to see if they would truly send her to the wild cat rainbow bridge, and it turned out they turn wild critters like her into barn cats by way of shots, neutering, and flea treatment. We spent a lot of time talking with staff there about when and if they would kill her — they might if she’s not adopted, and it’s apparent she’s suffering too much. “It’s torture for a feral cat to be in a kennel,” one of the very wise women who worked there told us. “We have to think about what’s best for the cat, not what we want.”
Forest and I wanted Calicoco to live, but we also realized she couldn’t live with us. Turns out Denise and Courtney, who brought us an abandoned kitty years ago (Sidney Iowa Goldberg, found in a parking lot on their home from where they married in Iowa), need a barn cat. So we’re working with them to give Calicoco a real forever home, one with a heap of goats, some big-ass pigs, and humans who will know enough not to put a feral cat in the bathroom. In the meantime, I look at the top of the kayaks, so lonely now without a beautiful and fierce flying ninja cat sunning herself on top of them.
As a kid, I dreaded the stretch between New Jersey and New York City when our family station wagon would descend into the underworld, otherwise known as the Holland Tunnel, to cross through the dark waters of the Hudson River. Since then, every mid-December, I feel like I’m transported to the way-back seats of that station wagon to watch the lights of the tunnel sweep over us at regular intervals, all the time praying we make it back to the open air and neon swirls of what’s on the other side.
Part of it has to do with the truncated length of each day, only about 9 and a half hours long near the winter Solstice, but a bigger factor is the quality of darkness. When it gets dark, it gets really dark: a black charcoal darkness that makes driving home past sunset feel like I’m back in that tunnel, especially when I’m beyond the reach of street lights, and the inky clouds wrap tight around those on earth.
This year, the nights seem longer because the son of dear friends, someone we had watched grow from boy to man, died suddenly. I look into the big blanket of gray, frigid air with sadness in my heart — for the sorrow of a beautiful man’s life cut short, and for the seasons of pain my friends and their family are inhabiting. The anniversary of another big loss approaches in a few days, and despite the warmth and lights of winter holidays, I often experience December as having a particularly hard underside.
December has a way of reminding us of what despair echoes within and around us, but it also calls us to see anew in the dark. I think of how David Abram, in his writings, teachings, and in conversation with us, talks about “the good darkness.” In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he writes:
The story [of the sun’s journey] follows a kind of perceptual logic very different from the abstract logic we learned at school. It attends closely to the sensuous play of the world, allowing the unfolding pattern of that display to carry us into a place of dark wonder.
In this time of more night than day, there’s exactly “the unfolding pattern” and the subsequent “dark wonder” now visible not just because of what this darkness reveals, but what it conceals, which for me encompasses a lot of bright and shiny distractions. These long nights make it easier to see in the dark, and to see how much our lives are patterned by forces and sources far more vast than our thoughts and habits of thinking.
It turns out this darkness isn’t really a tunnel, but a time to wander through the open and mysterious space on the other side of whatever we’re tunneling through in our lives. It’s also this: a call to learn more about the art and necessity of slowing down, and although I’m a slow learner, I’m looking toward how I can hang out more with what is in between cooking something hot to eat, sleeping more than usual, and right now, watching the dark cedars wave hello or goodbye against the darkening sky.
It’s hard to look at the news or social media without feeling like we’ve failed as a species. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, the bees — essential for the pollination that feeds the world — are endangered, and a presidential candidate not only brags about sexual assault but calls his accusers names, all the time unleashing America’s underside of horrendous sexism, racism, xenophobia and other social illnesses. Below the splay of horrifying headlines, I’m tuned into the stories of beloved friends and family, some of whom are struggling mightily with depression, debt, grief, and other ailments of our time and propensities of being human. Having had an on-and-off-again cold and some nightmares lately, I’ve dipped into the pot of despair at my most local level too.
As I turn away from the news of collapsing politics and ecology, I also see this: the sky to the west is filling with clouds, the wind is tossing around the heads of the big, leafy trees, and the last tomatoes have ripened on the vine. The moon, rising over the field last night, lit the tips of the grasses silver. Ten hours later, the horizon shines golden white. As Charles Bukowski says in one of my favorite poems, “The Laughing Heart” (watch this great little film here!):
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
Add to that one of our favorite Leonard Cohen (and all-time-ever) choruses from his song, “Anthem,”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
So during this season of some very real despair and enduring danger all around us, I’m looking at this moment, another time of great beauty and promise, toward what light I can find, letting it penetrate the cracks I carry in my hope and heart.
A bunch of hummingbirds is called a charm, a delight and an adornment, and for the last few months, I’ve been blessed to have my view delighted and adorned by a charm of hummingbirds. At this time of September, it’s a teenage charm with the ‘rents having gone south already for their tropical vacation, and the kids, some of whom are still hanging out at my place, partying at the sugar-water hanging kegs like there’s no tomorrow.
After a usual summer of a few Ruby-throated hummingbirds hanging out at the edge of woods and near the feeders, right around early September, they seem to multiply overnight on their way south to winter in southern Mexico and northern Panama. My friend Pam, who sat quietly on our front porch with me yesterday to immerse herself n the buzz-chirp-rush of the birds, told me that the full-grown birds take off first, leaving behind the teens, who are old enough to be on their own without causing too much of a ruckus, and happy as the day is long and the feeders are full.
While the ways of the teen are somewhat mysterious in humans, when it comes to hummingbirds, that mystery deepens because of all we don’t know about them. According to some sites I perused, hummingbirds are too little (weighing about 3 grams, smaller for the teens) to carry radio transmitters, and of course, these birds are difficult to catch, handle, and band, let alone recover the banded ones. It also sounds like we just don’t know a lot about their fall migration, except they are very much creatures of habit, returning to the same feeders around the same time each spring, and the males — the ones with the beautiful ruby-colored throats — don’t linger long after mating. What we do know is hummingbirds beat their wings 53 times a second, they weigh between 0.1 and 0.2 an oz., their hearts beat the fastest of all beings — 1260 beats per minute, they can migrate about 1,500 miles in a season, and they make an outrageous amount of song and sound.
As I write this, these tiny, feisty miracles race-buzz by, then suspend themselves mid-air to stare at me, the dog, the cats — who stare back in amazement but are smart enough not to even try to get closer — before shooting off to the feeder. Sometimes there are a dozen or more zipping diagonally past each other from power line to feeder to high branch on the Osage Orange tree back around. Sometimes they squeak long dialogues before vanishing into the woods with a flash. Each swirl and angle of their flight, each call and wild rush of their wings charms all of us living this porch (and beyond) life.
Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”
Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.
Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.
Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.
Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:
My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”
the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.
The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch
shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.
The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped
my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.
The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity
in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes
of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath
of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.
All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,
afraid at the start, but about to do something
to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back
of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,
an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger
before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.
The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles
coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed
of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed
by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering
willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,
at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine
in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled
through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal
carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.
For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!
As an obsessive fix-it bee with a minor in thinking other people’s and organization’s problems are my emergencies, I have a hard time figuring out what’s mine and what’s not mine. Take a hot bath when I’m stressed? Mine. Write my young adult kid’s research paper? Absolutely not mine. But then there’s the middle ground where all gets blurry. Yup, it seems reasonable to proof-read one of my kid’s essays or help promote projects for organizations I’m involved in, but when crisis shows its sunburned face, I can easily forget myself.
In the past week, because I was on a mini vacation (when the shit always seems to especially hit the fan), I kept bumping into my overly-inflated sense of responsibility and, even more to the point, false sense of control. I’d answer the phone or open an email, and voila! I was off to the races about how to address the crisis at hand. It didn’t help that some of those nearest and dearest to me were calling in real crisis, asking for advice, which did seem like mine to give. But beyond the advice, those burdens weren’t mine to carry and resolve. Coming home, I ran into more messes that needed clean-up, and the distinct refrains in my mind, “Not mine” and “Step away from the mess.”
Years of being the only one still at work at 1 a.m. to fix a collective hiccup when everyone else is putting their feet up and watching Netflix has taught me something along with recent run-ins with people like me who are far more controlled by this tendency. Such encounters show me the damage of over-responsibility. Burnt-out people tend to be bitter, anxious, and not so pleasant to share enchiladas with. Most of all, I’ve been trained by my body which has a global-sized talent for getting sick when I run myself into the ground. A sinus infection for six weeks? A strange case of vertigo? A foot injury that makes it hard for me to move forward without hobbling? This body can pull the breaks on over-functioning on a dime, and in the long run, I’m grateful.
Yesterday, fed up with my habitually pushed buttons, I took to the garden. Thanks to our friend Jim building us two beautiful raised beds that needed dirt, and dirt that needed to be moved, I had the perfect diversion away from what’s not mine. I shoveled for half an hour in the morning and another half hour in the evening, interspersed with bouts of weeding and raking. There’s nothing like gardening to get clear on just about everything in life, especially all that’s beyond our understanding. Being a full-body experience, especially the shoveling part, it works on me like yoga (which I also did yesterday): it’s hard and encompassing enough that I can’t think about solutions for problems that belong to others.
The more dirt I moved and smoothed, the more I came back to the real work that belongs to me. Covered in dirt, tired and sweating, I walked to the house afterwards at dusk, ready to wash off all that wasn’t mine. Soon, I start planting what’s mine in the process and harvest, waving at the worms along the way, showering off the chiggers looking for a new home, and remembering more of who I am and am not.