Category Archives: cats

Love’s Fullest Potential

As you may have guessed from my lack of updates, this year has been very challenging. It has felt like a whirlwind. I’m still not sure I’ve had time yet to properly absorb Min’s loss, and the year has just marched right on. I don’t know where the time has gone.

In February, I had my right CMC thumb joint replaced, in a procedure called CMC arthoplasty. As joint surgeries go, this one was relatively simple and the recovery period was relatively painless and easy.

Emily (grey) cuddling with Snowcrash

Emily (grey) cuddling with Snowcrash

In March, I adopted Emily from Chesapeake Cats and Dogs, who had been there for nearly 5 years… with reason. That reason: she was (and still is) very, very shy and scared of most people. I chose to work with her 3 years ago and gained her trust, but even after living with us for 8 months, she’s still wary of my husband. And she came with unexpected health issues: she ended up needing most of her teeth pulled due to severe gum inflammation that was autoimmune in origin and was just diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease last week. By the summer, another joint of mine was dying; my right ankle was no longer functional, and I became unable to drive and was only able to walk by seriously limping and leaning on walls/furniture whenever possible.
Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

Also in the summer, Kosette, our 17 year old cat with multiple health issues, suddenly changed. Come August, she no longer was acting like “our” Kosette. Uneven pupils prompted a vet appointment where the worst was confirmed: a brain tumor. On August 6th, we put her down, to prevent her from suffering from the increasing anxiety and confusion that were surely to come. My ankle replacement and bonus toe/metatarsal surgery scheduled for August 27th, we decided to adopt Ethel (again from Chesapeake Cats and Dogs) earlier than we would have otherwise.
Ethel enjoying a sunbeam, home at last.

Ethel enjoying a sunbeam, home at last.

Only 10 days or so after losing Kosette, we brought Ethel home. And just over a week later, I had ankle replacement (and bonus toe/metatarsal) surgery… which was by far the hardest joint surgery I’ve had, in terms of pain after and the recovery period. One month non-weight-bearing on my right foot when my left hip was due to be replaced in 2011 and is not capable of bearing any extra weight and my left wrist had been replaced in 2008 and couldn’t bear more than 10 pounds. I’m still not sure how I got through that month, but I did. And now the end is in sight with this surgery. I’m doing Physical Therapy; I can walk almost normally; I can drive. I’ve yet to start seriously belly dancing again, but I’m hoping to get back to that sometime this week. In addition, I’m a member of the board of directors at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs, and we’ve had a lot of struggles this year.

And that’s the summary of my life since losing Min this January.

Is it any wonder I feel adrift sometimes? That sometimes I still see Min or Kosette out of the corner of my eye? That I still feel like my mornings and days are too empty because I’m not spending ten minutes or more of every waking hour at home feeding (or attempting to feed) Kosette? That I wonder if I even had time to process losing my right ankle, to properly grieve the loss of a joint the way I’ve needed to in the past prior to joint surgeries?

To wonder where this year has gone. It feels like I just took a breath, and suddenly it’s almost Thanksgiving.

I have no regrets about anything that has happened this year. I just wish this year had happened over the course of 2 or 3 instead of just one. This has been one of the hardest years of my life thus far. But has it been a bad year?

No. Losing Min and losing Kosette were part of loving them. When I love a cat, I know that one day, that cat will die. And I make a choice every time that I will love this cat as much as I can for as long as I can and I will not hold back any love or affection out of fear of future pain. In a way, those final weeks approaching the end of a cat’s life have a sacred beauty all their own. The love fulfills its potential in those weeks. Do I love this cat enough to truly put their needs before my own? Is my love strong enough to let the cat go? I learn what my love is truly capable of in that moment, when my vet asks, “Are you sure? Are you ready?”, and I nod or say yes even as my whole being is screaming NO.

And then, I choose to love again. Because how could I not?

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under cats, compassion, daily life, death, grief, health, impermanence, love, pain, physical pain

“Nothing is what we thought”: A reflection on grief

Today’s slogan is, “Nothing is what we thought”. I love this quote by Pema Chodron because it has so many different meanings. First, it can mean that things are not the way we thought they were, that our perception of things is wrong. Second, it can mean that we are thinking nothing, that our mind is empty. And third, it can mean that our thoughts are nothing, that they are insubstantial and fleeting.

When this quote comes up in her book, it is the first meaning that she is referring to, and it is that meaning that I want to ponder in this post. A few months ago, I was feeling awfully smug about my ability to handle whatever life could throw at me. I felt that I was comfortable with the way grief affects me and I had a set idea of the losses that I expected to occur in the next couple years. Kosette, our 17-year-old cat with kidney failure, hyperthyroidism, and high blood pressure, would die within the next year or two. Then, five or so years later, our 12-year-old cat Min would die. That was how it was supposed to be. But life makes a mockery of our expectations, and nothing is as I thought.

220709_originalWhen we came home after being away for Christmas, Min had stopped eating. Over the next two weeks, we took her to the vet many times, searching for the cause of her anorexia, expecting it would be something fixable. It wasn’t. It was intestinal lymphoma, meaning that even if she were force-fed, the food had nowhere to go. She stopped purring, was barely drinking, stopped urinating and defecating, and spent a lot of time each day hiding.

On January 13, my husband and I made the decision to put Min to sleep. There was nothing else we could do to end her suffering. There were things we could do to prolong her life, but nothing we could do to actually make her better.

It was a shock. And I learned that grief is not predictable, that life is not predictable. Life doesn’t care about your expectations. All you can do—all I can do—is love as much as you can, because, as cliché as this is, you just never know. And so I start 2014 not feeling smug at all, but feeling vulnerable. And raw. And uncertain.

Because nothing is what we thought, and that’s just the way things are.

6 Comments

Filed under belief, buddhism, cats, daily life, death, ego, grief, impermanence, slogans

“That of God”: Letting Go of Fear

Most of the time I spend at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs is spent interacting not with people, but with cats. My main function is what’s called “socializing”; that is, I give cats attention—pet them, pick them up, hold them, and so on. The goal of this is often said to be making the cats more adoptable. And I do hope that my interactions with the cats ends up with them being more adoptable.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do, exactly. My goal, what is behind how I interact with the cats, is to let the cats grow into who they truly are. What this means in particular for many cats is that I try to encourage them to be comfortable enough around people that they enjoy affection instead of fear it. This depends on trust and respect. The cat has to learn to trust me (and hopefully once they learn to trust me, they’ll extend that idea to other people), and to get the cat to trust me, I have to respect its limits. Respecting a cat’s limits doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do something that pushes its limits (otherwise a shy cat would never learn to be petted, for example), but that when I do push its limits, I’m aware that that’s what I’m doing and I let the cat dictate how long this uncomfortable interaction continues. And when the cat has learned that he or she can trust me, then the transformation begins: she or he starts relaxing into interactions instead of tensing. Purring happens. Greeting me when I walk into the adoption center begins to happen.

Ultimately, it’s about teaching the cat how not to be afraid. I don’t believe there are any “mean” cats; I believe that when cats aren’t afraid, they’re loving and affectionate. But this isn’t a natural state for cats when they interact with people. It’s something they have to learn or be taught. And the older the cat is when this learning begins, the more fear there is to overcome.

In short, what I’m doing is seeing and answering “that of God” in these cats. And they appreciate it.

And I’ve been thinking that this is how I’d like to interact with people, too; to interact with other people in such a way that they know they have nothing to fear from me, so they can become who they truly are. Because people, like cats, aren’t born learning how to interact with people. It’s something we have to learn. And sometimes that process of learning gets tainted with fear and we forget who we are, at our core.

We’re like cats, I think: when we’re afraid, we lash out. And when we’re with someone who knows us—truly knows us—we blossom. Can we learn to see each other how God sees us? Can I learn how to answer “that of God” in people as well as cats?

I hope so.

1 Comment

Filed under cats, daily life, God, inspirations, love, practice, quakerism, speak and listen with love, that of God

Agape: What I Forgot about My “Center”

It’s very ironic, and somewhat sad, that in my entire post about my “center”—the feline rescue I volunteer at—I forgot to mention one thing, the most important thing about my time there.

Love.

And it’s appropriate to focus on this during Lent, even though as a Quaker I’m not “supposed” to celebrate Lent. But I do, because I was raised Catholic, and because Lent is a season to remind me to challenge myself spiritually. Am I truly living up to Jesus’s example? How could I be doing more? Or do I need to be doing less?

Jesus is well-known for talking about a specific kind of love, “agape”, which is translated in so many different ways, but usually understood to mean loving those who perhaps are not worthy. I like to think of agape love as loving someone regardless of the idea of worth.

And this is one of the most fundamental aspects of my time at the feline rescue: loving ALL the cats there. Regardless of how young, old, cute, well-behaved, cuddly, affectionate, aggressive, healthy, ill…

All the cats there deserve love. And learning how to love regardless of any idea of “worth” is one of the best gifts I receive from my time at my Center.

Leave a comment

Filed under catholicism, cats, daily life, Jesus, love

My Center

We Quakers talk a lot about “finding our center”, “centering down”, etc. Ask a dozen Quakers what we mean by the term “center”, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers, though many of the answers would likely mention God, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, “that of God”…

But when I talk about the “center”, I’m talking about a real place. A place I go to at least twice a week and more if I can manage it. A place where I find joy, and love, and peace. A place where I know I’m needed and know without a doubt that this is where I’m called to be.

And that “center” isn’t my Quaker Meeting or my meditation group. That “center” is an adoption center at a local no-kill and cage-free feline (and canine) rescue called Chesapeake Cats and Dogs. I began volunteering at CCAD 4 years ago. My role was to help socialize the cats, and it’s a role I take seriously. If a cat is shy or skittish, I try to work with the cat, to help the cat understand that people aren’t a threat and that human affection is a good thing. But I also try to make sure that I find the time every time I’m there to pet every cat that needs it most.

And here comes the first challenge: in an adoption center that at times has housed over 60 cats at one time, how do I prioritize? How do I make sure that when I’m petting one cat, I’m not distracted by the dozens of other cats I want to find time for?

In short, how do I truly be present with each cat?

It’s just mindfulness meditation, in a different form. When I’m petting one cat, I’m just petting that one cat. I’m aware of the subtle body movements that indicate if I need to change my petting technique. I’m aware of the cat’s condition: has he or she lost weight? does he or she have any fleas or ticks? is he or she congested? What does the cat’s purr sound like? Are they any behavior changes, for better or worse, that I can notice? Are there other cats approaching that may make this cat feel defensive? And the only way I can answer these questions is by being with the cat, in the moment. And when I fail to stay in the moment, the cat always notices and reminds me to return to it.

There are always cats I don’t get to. When I leave, I make a mental note to make those cats a priority my next visit.

But there are also always cats I particularly look forward to. In a real way, some of these cats have become friends to me. Figuro, Snicker, Ethel, and Emily are the cats I’m most attached to. All of them have been at the center for more than a year; all of them except Ethel have been at the center for as long as I’ve been volunteering there. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I absolutely adore and love these cats.

Which brings me to the next challenge: how do I love and adore these cats without holding back any affection, but also without becoming attached? After all, I can’t adopt them all.

When I first began volunteering at the center, I would cry whenever a cat I’d grown to love would get adopted. It’s hard developing a relationship with an animal and then having to say goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see the cat again. I knew that this was our goal, that we wanted the cats to be adopted and never returned to the center, but it struck me as a loss each time. I asked the office manager, Debbie, how she dealt with this, knowing that she loves those cats even more than I do. She said something like, “It gets easier with time. There are some you’ll always miss and the goodbyes are always hard, but it gets easier.”

And it has. Slowly I’ve become able to feel joy when a cat is adopted instead of sorrow. Slowly I’ve learned how to love without attachment, but without holding back either. It’s not about me and what I’d like. It’s about what’s best for the cat.

And this brings me to the third challenge: how to cope with the death of a cat or kitten.

This doesn’t happen often (and certainly not for lack of care or veterinary treatment), but it does happen. It’s par for the course for any rescue, whether the rescue is a no-kill or not. Some cats and kittens we try to rescue will have health problems. And some of those health problems won’t be curable or even treatable. And sometimes, a kitten just wastes away and no one knows why.

There is no answer to this challenge. Only the opportunity to practice and to remember that nothing is solid and every one dies. All I can do is be sure that when I’m with each cat or kitten, I’m giving them my all: all my love, all my attention. Because there’s no guarantee with any of them that they’ll be there the next time I come in. Maybe they’ll be adopted before then, or maybe I’ve already noticed that this cat or kitten is going downhill and may no longer be alive when I next come in.

The answer to this challenge is in the answers to the other two. All I can do is all that I can do. There is nothing else.

My center may not be overtly religious or spiritual, but it’s a good teacher. When I forget to be mindful or become too attached or my ego starts parading about how important it is, these cats bring me back to center. They remind me of what’s important and what isn’t. They show me what real love looks like. They fill me with joy, happiness, love, and sometimes sorrow, despair, and sadness.

But through it all, I always return to my center. Because it’s where I’m meant to be.

2 Comments

Filed under cats, compassion, daily life, death, ego, emptiness, gratitude, impermanence, inspirations, love, mindfulness, practice

Death… and Life

JB—the being that I mentioned in an earlier post who’s dying—is wonderfully still alive and not suffering.

I am so grateful for this extra time.

Some days after I wrote that post, I realized something important that sounds simple but isn’t always. I’d noticed that I’d been irritable for a while, snapping at people I normally wouldn’t snap at, feeling like I just couldn’t settle in my own skin. Meditating during this period was incredibly challenging. I often would give up before my cell phone alarm would go off, often just minutes before, convinced that I hadn’t really set the alarm. I got angry at one of my cats and while I didn’t harm her in any way, she was nervous around me. I made snide comments to my undeserving husband and snapped at my sister who was only calling me to chat.

I wasn’t okay with being this way. I felt it was wrong: I’ve experienced losing those I love before; that means I should be over it; It shouldn’t bother me, I should just accept it as part of life.

But that day, as I was thinking about the impending death of this being I love and the anxiety I was having surrounding that, I suddenly realized that it was okay to be upset. No, I shouldn’t take that anxiety out on others: but once I accepted that how I was feeling wasn’t wrong or bad or somehow a failing, I felt enormous relief. What I was feeling wasn’t right or wrong, bad or good. It just was.

And, unexpectedly, the anxiety got better after that realization.

Today, I am grateful for all this extra time I’ve had with JB. It’s so much more than I hoped for. It’s so much more than anyone expected.

I know JB will die, likely sooner rather than later. But the true miracle is that JB has lived at all. Life is itself a miracle, one which I’ve taken for granted in the past. Death reminds me to stop, pay attention, and wonder at the uniqueness of each life.

Leave a comment

Filed under cats, daily life, death, emptying, gratitude, inspirations, peace

Death: A Slogan Post

Today’s slogan is:

For one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.

(Rumi)

I’m having trouble with this one today. It’s funny… a few months ago, I read a Buddhist book called “No Death, No Fear” by Thich Nhat Hanh. While reading the book, I was feeling kind of smug, the way I sometimes do when I’m reading spiritual books and think “I got this. I’ve accomplished this; I understand it; let’s move on.” (Yeah, I may appear modest, but in my mind? No, I am IT. I am AWESOME. I GOT THIS.) I felt that I really understood already how I view death and that I’d become comfortable with it and accepted it as just a necessary part of life.

Of course, at the time, it had been a while since I’d been faced with death and lost a loved one. (I think you can see where this post is heading…)

Earlier this week, I found out some bad news about a being I care very deeply for, a young being, too young. She’s possibly dying, but no one really knows for sure because there’s no definitive test for the thing she’s suspected of having.

That smugness is laughable now. I’ve been crying. I’ve been sad. I’ve been angry. I’ve felt this whole thing is completely unfair. I’ve felt powerless. I’ve felt despair.

I am trying to see the beauty: that I got the chance to know her, that she is still living.

But comfortable and accepting of her death (which, after all, would have been coming at some point…)? No, I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable at all with this.

I want to be able to end this post with some sort of meaning, but I think that’s at the heart of this discomfort and pain: that perhaps there is no meaning at all to be found in what’s happening. Perhaps it just IS.

All I can do is be there for her now, for as long as I can.

And I can try to remember this horrible feeling of despair, of powerlessness, when I start feeling smug the next time, especially when I start giving in to my ego and believing that I am somehow better than those OTHER people who get upset when someone they love is dying.

Because life, after all, is rooted in impermanence. And there are no guarantees, despite the term “life expectancy”.

Leave a comment

Filed under cats, death, ego, emptiness, impermanence, slogans

Open: A Slogan Post

In postmeditation, be a child of illusion.

Reading this always gives me images of illusionists or magicians, but Pema Chodron’s explanation seems a lot more likely to me:

Realize that everything is actually pliable, open, and workable.

This is a slogan about panic, really. What to do when you feel smothered, overwhelmed, helpless? Realize that everything is actually pliable, open, and workable. I wish I had remembered this slogan last night, as our cats kept us awake until 2 AM and I was despairing of perhaps EVER being able to sleep again… This would have been good to remember then.

Leave a comment

Filed under cats, daily life, slogans

The Prodigal… Cat?

Last night, as my thoughts were wandering as they usually do right before I fall asleep, I started thinking about my favorite memory of Sugar. We used to lock her up at night in Rob’s office (with food/water dishes, two beds and a padded office chair, and two litter boxes), so we could get some sleep. Most mornings at 5 AM, she’d start announcing quite loudly (she was a Siamese, after all) about how she was tired of being locked up and wanted attention. Some mornings, I’d give in and go to her. And when I did that, I’d open the door and she’d be there literally beaming at me, rubbing her whole body against my legs, and nearly jumping into my arms. I’d pick her up, she’d wrap her forelegs around my neck to “hug” me, and then nuzzle under my chin with such force that I’d have to bend my neck up. She was overjoyed at seeing me again, after only being apart from me for 5, maybe 6, hours.

I started thinking, “I wonder if God’s that happy when we come back to Him after being away? How wonderful would it be if God overflowed with joy when we came back to Him, even if we were only gone for a few hours.”

And then I remembered a story in the Gospels that I’ve had explained to me dozens of times in Mass or CCD (Catholic Sunday School) or in books, blogs, etc.

In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a man with two sons. One son is faithful, always does what he’s supposed to, and isn’t the focus of the story. The other son leaves his father’s home, squanders his inheritance, realizes he’s been a fool, and returns home, begging for forgiveness and asking to be treated like a hired hand and not a son. The father is so happy to see the son he thought lost to him that he throws an enormous party to celebrate his son’s return. (To read the actual Bible verses, click here.)

So: Yes, God does overflow with joy when we come back to him. And the image of God being like Sugar, so abundant with love and joy at seeing me again after such a short absence, is one that makes me smile. And it also gives me a new understanding of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Most of the times, I’ve heard it explained that the Prodigal Son parable is about how God will always forgive us after we’ve sinned if we only come back to Him and ask forgiveness. I always thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be better just not to sin in the first place and be like the faithful son?” But now I understand that parable in a different light. It’s not just about sinning and forgiveness, it’s about moving toward and away from God.

Most of us couldn’t bear to be completely saturated in God’s presence. I know I couldn’t bear it. We need a break, a time to enjoy being human and our current, personal, selfish experience. And, frankly, I think that’s okay, because we’re not God, we’re people. We’re people that can commune with God, that are part of God, but we are not God. So it makes sense to me that we would need a break from communing with the Divine once in a while.

But when we’re done taking a break, and want to go back to being with God, imagine how wondrous it’d be if He were ecstatic we’d returned, no matter how long we’d been gone. If we’re only gone for 5 minutes and then come back, it’s cause for celebration. And if we’re gone for even longer and come back, it’s time to throw a party.

Being shown God through the love of a cat. Will wonders never cease.

1 Comment

Filed under cats, daily life, faith, God, gratitude, images, inspirations, Jesus, love, sacraments, Sugar, the bible

Groundless

During Meeting for Worship, I offered up to God the following prayer:

Lord, I feel like I’m a fish out of water, flopping around on the shore. Please help me flop back towards your Living Waters instead of further inland.

That is pretty much how I feel right now. I feel very groundless and very uncomfortable. The Pema Chodron books I’ve read over the past couple of months encourage this feeling, encourage getting comfortable with groundlessness and uncertainty instead of fleeing from it with distractions or by making a storyline out of life. I’ve tried hard to keep that in mind these last couple of days.

But this also seems contrary to my Christian instincts of reaching towards God as my center, and I worry that theism and Buddhism cannot coexist. I’ve found such inspiration to be a kinder, more compassionate person from the Buddhist books I’ve been reading; but what if those practices contradict my belief in God?

Bodhichitta is a Buddhist term for “the awakened heart of loving-kindness and compassion… openness, ultimate truth, our true nature…” It’s beginning to remind me a lot of what Quakers call “that of God”. The goal of Mahayana Buddhism, or one of them at least, is for every person to become united with their inner bodhichitta. This reminds me a lot of one of the goals of praying and/or worshipping in the manner of Friends: for each person to be able to connect to God. But I worry that I am imposing my Christian and Quaker beliefs onto something that should stand on its own. Perhaps by trying to merge the two (three?) faiths, I am doing a disservice to both.

This worries me, and I don’t have clarity yet about it. What I do know is that reading books about Buddhism, especially those written by Pema Chodron and her guru Choygam Trungpa, have inspired me to be a more compassionate, more friendly person in ways that reading Christian or Quaker books haven’t. Jesus showed me the way, but it feels like the stones on the path of my life are Buddhist more than Christian. Maybe the ground underneath is Christian and the borders are Quaker? Maybe I’m taking that metaphor too seriously.

Sugar, my 16 year old Siamese cat who I’ve known since she was a day old, is dying. She might not die in the next month, or even the next year, but she is dying. And it sounds almost silly to say that, because really we’re all dying… but she is acutely dying in a way that everyone else that I know and love aren’t. The hardest part for me isn’t giving her biweekly subcutaneous fluid IVs. The hardest part is trying to get her to eat. Every hour or so, I offer her food. And I watch her lick it a few times. Then, she turns around, and I put the food in front of her again. And she licks it a couple more times. We repeat this process until she starts cleaning herself. All this takes about 15-20 minutes, and she eats maybe a tablespoon worth. (She has kidney disease and will be progressively getting worse for the remainder of her life, however long or short that may be.)

I am trying to focus on the fact that she’s still alive. I am trying to enjoy her company and shower her with as much love as she’s shown me. But when I am truly honest with myself, what scares me the most isn’t her impending death. What scares me the most is that I’m not sure I’m strong enough to watch her go through this. (I’m starting to think that adults stop having pets and start having kids because they’re tired of watching the ones they love die.) I’m not sure I’m strong enough to do what I’ve been doing for the last 10 days every day for the rest of her life. But I love her, and failing her like that isn’t an option.

She reminded me last Thursday, when I was shoving food in her face repeatedly, that what she needs most now isn’t food, but love. She nuzzled up against me and started purring. She is teaching me patience and reminding me of the importance of love.

There’s no easy way out of this.

1 Comment

Filed under buddhism, cats, compassion, daily life, different faiths, God, grief, help, Jesus, love, quakerism, struggling with faith, Sugar