Yesterday morning, I walked across the narrow beach into the ocean, dipping my toes into the cold Maine waters until, scared and hesitant, I dropped in and swam like crazy to warm up until the sea carried me with ease.
This morning, I walked to my front porch, put my feet up, and stared into the Osage Orange tree and other things in my view, like my car that got strangely covered with bird poop while I was away. I let the chartreuse padded rocker (found years ago in a small-town Kansas thrift store) carry me into quiet.
In between, there were airports, a very strong cup of iced coffee, a narrow plane seat 30,000 feet off the earth with a view of the Jersey island (Long Beach Island) where I fretted as a teen, and surrealist naps between the captain’s garbled announcements. There was the ride to the Portland Jetway with an old friend/ Goddard student who shared the moving, drastic, and ultimate healing story of losing his home to a fire. There was a lobster roll and very salty potato chips at one airport, and a Philly pretzel at the other. There was the baggage carousel with finally Jerry’s suitcase to grab, the luggage left to me by my dearly-departed friend who still travels with me. There was Ken late at night and the beautiful and car-fumed air of the home airport, then the ride where as usual, I alternated between talking at high speed and staring into the blur of familiar highway sites. Then there was the house waiting for me, complete with cat vomit in the entry way, a very happy dog, my beautiful sons, a clean kitchen counter, and a whole lot of mail.
Balanced precariously on the ledge of these merging views, I recover from close to two weeks away and all the beauty and exhaustion that filled that time. I run to the garden in the morning in my nightgown to graze on tomatoes and consider what to plant for a fall garden. I nap deeply for hours, then find out it was just 10 minutes. I plant a big dinner while watching the many hummingbirds from this porch, then decide yogurt and fruit is best.
The view behind, the view ahead, and the view now hangs mysteriously together when I see a fast orange butterfly reminding me that just yesterday how a bunch of us in the ocean pointed up and laughed when we saw a black butterfly. Motion links us.
This weekend, my daughter Natalie will graduate from her yoga teaching training at Your Yoga in Minneapolis, a fine yoga center and school, six years after she first fell for yoga. When I visited with her in June, I found this post I wrote for a non-defunct yoga magazine, and in honor of her upcoming graduation, I share her first immersion into the land of yoga:
A Teenager In The Land of Yoga: 2011
Within the last year, my 18-year-old daughter—who I’d been inviting to come to yoga class with me for years—finally said yes. With a little trepidation for how much she might later make fun of chanting “Hare Krishna” or doing some intensive Pranayama, I drove us to Gopi’s yoga studio in the country where, surrounded by oxen, peacocks and kittens, I somewhat-regularly attend Monday night yoga class. We kicked off our shoes, walked upstairs to the yoga studio and set up mats and blankets.
Living with a pact of teenagers and young adults, I’m so attuned to life in the den of sarcasm that it’s hard to me to imagine reactions from my children that don’t include rolling of the eyes and shaking of the head along with that tell-tail sigh that leads into “Ma….om,” said in two syllables to emphasize how little I know. Which is true, but you don’t want to let onto a bunch of teens that the older you get, the less you actually know about anything anymore, so what little illusion of authority you think you have will be altogether blasted away. Given this, I had to wonder how Natalie would react, especially given the long stretch of chanting in the beginning, how Gopi led us in massaging our own feet, the long and deep forays into sun salutation, the quiet exploration of a mudra with our fingers doing their little gymnastics, and the instructions to imagine the lotus at the center of our hearts, “ever fragrant, ever fresh.” I could see the flatulence jokes on the hoof.
After the 90-minute class, ending with a long corpse pose, we sat up, said “Namaste,” visited a little, and then headed downstairs to shoes, kittens outside longing for affection, and the car. “What did you think?” I asked Natalie as she fastened her seat belt.
“Those kittens are so cute.”
“Yeah, they are, but what did you think about the yoga?”
“I loved it.”
“All of it? Even the chanting and massage?”
“I loved everything about it. It’s the most relaxed I’ve been in months. I’m going to rearrange my work schedule so I can go with you every Monday night.”
Since then, she’s gone off to college, but whenever she’s back home, one of the first questions is when Gopi is teaching the next yoga class. Although she’s not so interested in doing yoga with me at our house, she’s now taking back to college with us an armful of yoga DVDs and a list of local classes to check out. Turns out that sometimes you can lead a horse to water and get her to drink….or in the case of my daughter, lead a teenager—who would otherwise be watching music videos, chatting on Facebook or making a pizza—to yoga where she can and will come home to herself.
Around the time I wrote this, I was dipping my toes in, then leaping into the refreshing vistas of asanas, yamas, niyamas, and other parts of yoga Eight-Fold Path. Six years later, Natalie is wandering that land in everything from crow to corpse post. In between, she’s been sharing her growing love for yoga with others through seeking the clearest words and gestures to teach yoga in the right curve of each moment, both in her yoga teacher training, and in the classes she leads in her living room.
When I first fell in love with yoga, I was in for one of the biggest surprises of my life. Over the years since cancer and some gut calling sent me to the mat, I’ve continued to fall in love all over again with yoga, breath by firey breath, and stretch by heart-opening stretch. Seeing how much yoga gives this young woman, and how much she’s giving others already with her whole being, my wonder is multiplied by joy and contentment. Congratulations, Natalie, and may you continue to walk, sit, stand, and reach in the land of yoga.
27 years ago today, I was in labor at the with my first child at Topeka’s Birth and Women’s Health Center. It was wicked hot. The waves of contractions had been knocking me down for many hours since my water broke at Liberty Hall in the middle of a nightmare-ish film about the Bubonic Plague. A lot was going out the window quickly, foremost the plans I had about how childbirth would be a challenge I could manage, the birth would be quick, and the baby would be born healthy.
27 years ago tomorrow, I was in a nearby hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, my fabulous midwife and doctor from the birth center having recommended this and now wrapping their arms around our family along with other great supporters. Our newborn, Daniel — who tends to not take the easy route in life for most things — inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out and was born unresponsive to things like breathing on his own quickly enough. Ken and I were standing by his incubator, our hands through the openings so he could hold our fingers with his small fists. He was full-term, strong and relatively healthy, but we wouldn’t get to bring him home until July 14, Bastille Day. As it turned out, it was the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, and public radio played many renditions of the Marseillaise (click here for musical accompaniment to this post). The whole day, we kept telling him, “You’re free!”
He was free, and we were beginning our long fall and rise to freedom from whatever we thought becoming a parent was, a lifelong unfolding of how deep, hard, rewarding, joyful and heartbreaking love is, and how little control we have over just about anything but watering the garden, doing the dishes, and making a strong cup of tea.
Now that we have three 20-something children, the surprises continue, sometimes picking up speed, and sometimes lulling us into the notion that humans have real ground their feet. I mean, we do have the real ground of the earth, but when it comes to thinking we always know best where to step next, not so much. Becoming a mom has immersed me in a kaleidoscope of intensives, from learning about various physical ailments from epilepsy to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, to studying the nuances of SAT applications, healing modalities off the beaten path, car insurance policies, best inexpensive motels without bedbugs and with pools, and IEPs (Individual Educational Plans). We’ve tutored our kids (and ourselves) on how to balance a checkbook, what not to say to your boss, where to find the best yard sales, how to facilitate a meeting, and why great movies, kickass enchiladas, and dark chocolate matter, especially when the chips are down and the stress is up.
We’ve collected irreplaceable stories together, like what could go wrong after driving in mountains for seven hours, then eating too much before getting into a flimsy tent during a thunderstorm. We’ve driven, flown and taken the train all over the country to see relatives, attend funerals or weddings, and try to relax at the Grand Canyon or in the Rockies when our kids would rather fight over the remote control for the hotel room TV. We’ve also had thousands of long talks, including a good many Jewish versions of “come to Jesus” talks (as they call them in the Midwest) about grades, honesty, chores, habits, crushes, friendship, and the screwed up world we’re leaving to them, broken with ecological devastation, racist killings, war-torn countries driving immigrants to risk dying on flimsy rafts, and widespread trauma.
It’s exhausting and overwhelming, glorious and dismal at times. There’s no end to this job as my friends with kids in their 40s and 50s remind me. There’s no end to the piercing hope and desperate prayers for each child to find his or her own best way. Luckily, there’s no end to the love, and the capacity I didn’t know I had to begin again, especially when it comes to edging out another inch of forgiveness for all of us.
So on this birthday of starting my climb, fall, and long walk through a great many parenting parking lots and prairies, I want to celebrate freedom, folly, and wish my oldest son a sweet birthday. Nope, being a parent is not what I thought it would be. It’s vaster and better and, like this day that turned from cold thunderstorms to hot clear skies, always in motion.
There they were for the last two nights: a dozen or more fireflies stitching their green light across the bedroom, rising toward the danger of the ceiling fan, spinning out in iridescence before gaining enough traction in the air to fly right again, or simply landing on top of our blankets or in my open purse.
“How did they get here? Is there a door open?” Ken asked on Sunday night, propelling me to walk the dark house where all the doors and windows were closed, but lightning bugs hovered over the living room couch and the bathtub. When we looked out the window, we saw thousands of their kin, lifting and lighting over the cucumbers, ornamenting the back deck, and rushing around their mosh pit of the field. It’s a banner year for fireflies, and we could only guess that they moseyed on in without noticing they were leaving behind the larger atmosphere for the smaller one.
We talked about airlifting them to the safety of the fields, but it’s hard to catch and carry a firefly without injuring him or her, and besides, the light show was too entertaining. Although Ken unfortunately rolled over on one, for the most part, they seemed to be doing what fireflies do: call out to each other with light and speed, and wait for the return call. They also did things I never imagined, like four of them lining up precisely from the floor beginning at the end of our bed down the short hall to the beginning of the bathroom. “It’s a landing strip to direct me to the bathroom,” I told Ken.
Last night we shut the lights to find them still turning on and off, winking at the fireflies on the other side of the window, and still grappling with the forces of good and evil emanating from the ceiling fan. Today, the Zen calendar spoke to their light. Tonight we hope the fireflies will return to speak to each other while we snore and dream.
Just now, the wind picked itself up and gusted up to 40 mph after the very still, humid and over-the-top hot day of Charles’ death. No rain, no storm, no big wind expected, but as I write this, in the dark on the porch, the sky flashes all directions in dark purple and curls of lightning, a lone cricket sings his song, and the wind is moving some of the furniture just a little. Thunder rumbles to the west, some young trees go horizontal, and I know this force of nature has a name: Charles.
Charles was one of the first Lawrencians I ever met, in about 1981 when I was a member of the Kansas City Sufi community, where Charles and his wife Khabira would sometimes visit. I was dazzled by Charles’ exuberance about Dances of Universal Peace and, as I learned over the years, most things. It’s an understatement to say he’s one of the most enthusiastic people on the planet, embracing many paths and many communities. Charles was a Jew, a Sufi, a Shaker, a Quaker, a Buddhist, and likely felt kinship with many other spiritual traditions. He dealt in Volkswagen repair, real estate transactions and management, mentoring men, and lots more. A father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was especially excited about his family, and he bowed with his hands together at heart center whenever he saw us as if we were each his favorite human.
Charles died this morning at our local hospital after years of cancer and months of an especially difficult end. I was going to visit him in the afternoon with Ken, but because of a mix-up regarding differing news of his condition, I went over earlier to find Khabira and the lovely hospice people sitting quietly. I plopped myself on the stool next to Charles, and asked how he was doing. “Oh, did you not know?” Khabira asked. When she told me, I burst out crying, shocked that a long-time-coming death could actually come.
Sitting by Charles, I was struck by what I’ve experienced at other deaths, including my father’s: how death seems strangely ordinary. Dying? Not so much, and especially not in Charles’ case after weeks of intense pain, love, holding on, letting go, and the combination of uncertainty, morphine and cancer that spins everything into a vortex. But death, this fresh and close-up, as many remarked over the day, is so surrealistic. How could someone alive be dead when life titters on its meanderings, noise and heat all around us?
The time in the hospital was infused with peace and sadness, forms to fill out, calls to make, and puzzling over what of our collective vehicles was the best way to get Charles from hospital to home where the family was doing its own home-grown funeral direction. We settled on a van even though seats had to be removed, and soon, some of us were carrying Charles into his office, a separate building behind his home. We had a cardboard insta-coffin to fold together after deciding to put the “handle with extreme care” side on the inside so that tomorrow, friends and family can decorate the outside with messages and images of love and goodbye.
In little time, off the cuff and steering by the heart, we made a ceremony of washing the body, moving Charles into the cardboard coffin, and with lots of hard work and engineering (and a pair of scissors), getting him into a beautiful robe he’s worn for many religious occasions. Ken and one of the hospice people lifted his head and shoulders enough for me to wrap his Tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl he had for years and that Jews are customarily buried in, around him. I even wound one of the fringes of the tallis around his finger, a sign of active prayer. Throughout the work of our hands, we sang one of my Charles’ favorite Sufi songs — “Listen, Listen, Listen to My Heart Song,” read some blessings for the body and four directions, burned sage, sprinkled holy water and rose petals on him, and learned how to activate bags of dry ice. The whole thing was simple, spontaneous, necessary and tender.
Now Charles the Storm envelopes us, breaking the heat wave for this moment with cool wind and sweet rain. “I’ve never seen a storm on radar like this one,” Ken says right now as he sits beside me in the dark.
“What is this storm like?” I ask.
“Indescribable. It’s like there’s a mega storm with a huge center, just west of here spinning off all these thunderstorms.”
We look at radar, and see a wheel of weather, sending change many directions at once. Not an ordinary storm but a force of nature, like Charles: original, life-giving, exuberant, and full of magic. All around, there’s lightning bugs and lightning, wave and particle, a big fireworks display across the clouds in the shapes of fast-moving rivers or tree branchings, and in the fields, thousands of small lanterns blinking on and off like heartbeats. Dance in peace, dear friend.
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!
It’s past midnight, and I’m sitting in my dark bedroom lit by this computer screen and the moon-brightened clouds moving across the dark windows. I’m thinking about this swirl of death and dying around us all the time, and sometimes, much more so, like this spring. Since mid-March health crises, my mother-in-law, who has been on hospice for months before then, has been fading away. A week ago, I helped officiate a memorial service for my sweet friend and student John, who died at 70 from cancer while writing astonishing poetry about life and death. Meanwhile, our dear friend Charles is transitioning from being lovingly present in a gonzo kind of way (advanced cancer and/or pain meds) to sleeping much of the time. And today I took Forest to see Barry, a delightful man in a fragile comatose state, so Forest could say goodbye after working as a farm hand at Barry and Barb’s place.
It’s a strange time. It’s a beautiful time. I keep the phone close, know certain conversations may be the last (or the last in friend’s or family’s bodily form), and check Facebook, email, and my own gut inklings. I hold Charles’ hand and put my other hand gently on his chest for a minute, look into my mother-in-law’s eyes and bring her a cookie, and think how much I don’t want them to die.
Because dying is such hard work, I sing old Hebrew prayers, Sufi chants, Quaker songs for those around me in fear and pain, slips and pieces of sound that have carried me through many times. While I’m not obsessing over stupid shit to distract myself from this these endings, I sing the songs in my head right before sleep to aim myself toward more of what matters and away from my anxious heart.
Sometimes I handle it gracefully, listening and offering help. Sometimes I’m far more of a basket case than I had imagined, ready to take great insult at tiny mishaps as if my shiny, thick fur of resilience has been shaved off, but then again, I figure that many of us are roaming bundles of nerves at any given time. Sometimes I read books and articles about dying, trying to get a handle on the smooth vessel without a handle, searching for some easy answer in this pressurized time.
At my best, I look at and learn from what’s here: reality is startlingly beautiful and strange. “What do you love best about this life?” I asked Charles recently in a very surrealistic, funny, and joyful interview for the obituary I plan to write for him. “You!” he answered quickly with shining eyes that told me he was so in the moment and so alive in love that he would say this to everyone right now, and he would mean it.
What do I love best about this life right now? I pause, return to the roving moon through the ridges of clouds and trees. “This,” I hear across the horizon of my life, deathwatch or not, all of this tender time when I can put my yearning for solid answers and dates on the shelf and see how even dying is beyond my small ideas about it.
Every year the same calling comes to me (like last year — see here): stop everything I’m doing when the magnolias start opening their huge boat heart, and don’t go back to the workaday world until sometime past lilac season a month later. Yet every year, there’s also the wild build-up in March and full-on everything of April that pulls me many directions at once, this year from far western Kansas to upstate New York. This is largely thanks to the tyranny and blessing of poetry month, and the wonderful opportunities to share, read, write and discover the poetic power of language with many groups in many places. Meanwhile, the world is shaking its swag down every street and along every field.
So one must stop for 20 minutes here or an hour there to walk, look, take photos on one’s iphone, never being able to get enough of looking up trees to see the juxtaposition of sky and blossom. This year, the blossoms seem crazily multiplied and outrageously early, at least by two to four weeks in many cases: magnolias (now largely finished except for north-facing beauties), cherry blossoms, the ornamental barlett pear trees all naturalists love to hate, delicate peach and apple blossoms, forsythia, those springy tulips, and closer to the ground, my sweet but stunted hyacinths.
Some surprise me, like the trio of peace trees (see photo of me holding some of their blooms in my hand) that grew out of the compost pile, sported a few flowers last night, and now are a sweetheart orchard rocking bundles of pinkness. There’s also the white balls of the sweetest smelling blossoms I know coming to life just beside where we park our cars.
Some of the trees, bushes and flowers I visit are old friends, like this magnolia-raining set of trees flanking the side of Central Junior High, annual winner of Caryn’s magnolia proliferation award. Over the years, I’ve eked out routes through various neighborhood to catch beauty after beauty, and each year seems more dazzling than the last, maybe because it is, or maybe because as I age, my heart and senses do too, getting more sensitive and receptive to what life, despite all else, keeps giving us.
For the last 11 days, my family’s life has been wrapped around the last phase of my mother-in-law’s life, first in the hospital, and then, hospital bed in tow, in her home, back on the land where Alice was born over 92 years ago. In complete harmony with our emotions and her physical state, the weather has been unduly wild, even by Kansas standards.
I’ve been in this place before when my father died, but I wasn’t living next door to the center of that universe, and of course, there’s that familiar ache that links me to other losses that happened far too slowly or quickly, stopping my breath and breaking my heart. I also know well how grief is preemptive and mysterious, manifesting in forgetting words like “garage,” not knowing what to order for lunch or waking up at 3 a.m. determined to re-organize the closet. But having visited this country doesn’t mean I know shit about how to navigate it, where I parked my car, or what to say or do next. My body reflects my psyche: sudden nose bleeds for the first time in my life, a cold to add insult to injury, and all I want to eat is bacon and cookies punctuated by iced coffee. It’s hard to sleep, it’s hard to wake up, and I’m not even doing the heavy lifting of long days and nights caring for Alice that my wonderful sisters-in-law and husband are shouldering.
At the same time, this place is endlessly beautiful. I’ve had many insightful conversations with Alice about how her mother taught her to climb a tree (make sure one foot is anchored well before climbing higher), what happens after death (“I don’t know having never done it before”), what to eat first and next (dessert), what matters most in life (loving your family), and if she’s afraid (“No.”). The wind blows so hard, a 50 mph gust that shook all the windows and made the walls tremble. It suddenly rains heavier-than-usual drops in a fury. The sun reached out its long and loving arms. Alice smiles and nods her head before falling back to sleep. None of us have any idea how her life will end or, more to our consternation, when, and what we should do to plan for everything in the best possible way because this is a family of worker bees who strive to give all they can.
Meanwhile Ken and I take a long moon-lit walk in the fields with one of his sister, or I speak to another of his sisters in the laundry room, or one of Alice’s long-time friends has a soulful chat with me by the mailbox, or someone brings a whole meal, but we mostly focus on the dessert. I alternate across a panoramic of prayer, panic, confusion, exhaustion, and making plans for something somewhere someday. I drive to the store with the dog, and on the way home, we both enjoy several Ricola cough drops, a favorite for both hound and woman, then come home thinking all is calm only to get another call that springs all the humans in the house to our feet and out to door until the near-crisis is averted, and it’s time to feed the cats.
One of my close friends is also on death watch with her mom, and we text about making bumper stickers that say, “Death Watch: No Rules” or “Death Watch: Take Your Hands Off the Dial.” Such times make me cognizant of the weighty mystery that beats in all our hearts, and pulses through how we see what and who is right there, loving us and letting us love them. The sunsets are glorious, the first moths of spring cling to the lit window, and the chimes on the porch do their thing like all of life, just being what it is and doing what it does.
The little girls each pressed a velvet-like bunny into their chests, the girls’ chins nuzzling the sleep bunnys’ heads. A little boy let a large yellow snake wrap around his torso, the snake’s head balancing on the boy’s elbow. A woman rocked a ferret to sleep in her arms. A toddler stood amazed as the turquoise parakeet stepped onto his fingers.
This was the Pet World re-opening eight months after a devastating fire killed many a reptile, all the fish, a kitten, and many other manner of those with claws, fins, and paws last May. Within a few days, our community — composed of many like me who had spent hours in Pet World with their kids or when they were just having a bad day and needed to hold something furry — wrapped around the store that had wrapped around our animal selves. We held a vigil full of concerned children hugging the owners, employees holding each other and weeping, and lots of strollers, wheelchairs and walkers holding candles and making more noise than you’d expect at a vigil. But that’s just it: this was a vigil for a place not just of animals but of our own animal selves. I just read over my post from that time, and I repeat here a quote from Sherry Emerson, co-owner of Pet World with her husband Tim:
Tim can never forget how he felt as a child when he and his young friends were refused entry to their local pet store and not allowed to hold the animals. He knows that the total separation of humans and animals will ultimately lead to the disconnection of humans and nature. We truly believe in our mission.
That mission is a healing balm in action, bringing us back together with the more-than-human species we’re part of, even if it’s happening in a store that sells dog food, crickets to take home and feed your pet tree frogs, and fish tanks. When I brought Shay the dog to Pet World on Saturday for the opening, I was so happy by what I saw — dozens of human animals and other animals getting to know each other in laughter, delight, even bliss — that I went back on Sunday, this time taking Ken with me. Unlike Shay (who was respectful and extremely interested in everything and everyone in the store), Ken got to hold a bunny and a dove, and also pet a gecko and snake in between watching the new younger tortoises and the giant, ancient ones adored with arms that looked like medieval body armor.
The children filling the stores, along with their parents, grandparents, friends, and occasionally big or little dogs were experiencing more than an indoor petting zoo. I saw many Pet World employees showing kids of all ages how to let a bird come onto their fingers, where to put their hands when holding a guinea pig, or how to properly pet a tired lizard. One woman who worked there got on her knees to show a bunny to a newborn, both rabbit and kids having the same sized face.
I’m all for watching and being with animals in the wild without disturbing them too much, but there’s something also essential in touching animals, and through touching, finding who we are as humans and as animals. Feeling the pads of the gecko’s feet on our palms, the claws of parakeet wrapped around our fingers, the beating heart of a rabbit or kitten or hamster against our own hearts connects us to the real magic in this world.