life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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We are each on our own path

I was meant to be a helper. The times I feel most alive and present, I am doing something that to help make the world a happier, more beautiful place. Since I was a child, I have been drawn to help creatures beyond the human realm. Bless my parents for opening our home to all kinds of animals, including the rabbit whose owner couldn’t keep it anymore, fish, gerbils, etc. I recently scooped up a magpie who had been attacked by other magpies and carried him to the forest to give him a chance to recover in a quiet spot.

I don’t know if I would call myself an animal whisperer, but I am drawn to help and there are many animals who either chosen to cross paths with my own or have at least humored me in my attempts to assist them. When I lived in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state, I rescued all kinds of animals: a racing pigeon with a broken wing, baby mice whose mom had been eaten or killed in a trap, birds that had flown into windows, the list goes on. A young squirrel sought me out when I was living in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. I really wanted to bring him home, but he was young and healthy, a state that would not last if I introduced him to my two cats. [As an aside, my husband tells me I am part squirrel because I seem to create little nests of things. He refers to my collection of earplugs and Kleenex underneath my pillow on our bed as my squirrel cache. I recently scooped up a magpie who had been attacked by other magpies and carried him to the forest to give him a chance to recover in a quiet spot.My mom has also informed me that when I was baby, she would have to stick her finger in my mouth and do a sweep in my cheeks for hidden grapes and other items that I apparently stashed there, perhaps for a midnight snack? I can only wonder.]

My desire to help creatures in need is not completely selfless. I experience great benefit from this act. My heart practically bursts open from the love that comes pouring out. I feel alive and present. I think I also benefit from feeling needed by another being.

There is so much suffering in the world, and I often feel helpless to make a difference. On our recent visit to Rome, I witnessed animals in need of medical attention and food, but I knew that I could not help them all. When I bemoan my inability to save all creatures, my husband tells me that each animal is on its own path. We can help them along their way, but we cannot make their own choices for them. I have come to believe that this may indeed be true. We cannot know what goes on for each being, so I do my best to help keep them help them as I am able and as much as they will allow me in to their hidden lives.

The greatest gift I have ever received came in the form of a wolf dog named Okami. My husband and I adopted him from a rescue near our home in Prescott, Arizona. He was with us for only a very short while, but he imprinted deeply and permanently on my heart. We were inseparable. We went everywhere together. He followed me and became my shadow. My husband described him as a wise, Zen creature. Perhaps, he had experienced great suffering or trauma in his short life before our paths crossed. We couldn’t know, but his gentle, grounded demeanor was the most soothing influence on my own anxiety-riddled spirit, second only to my husband.

Okami shared five months of his life with us and then I made the difficult decision to put him down. He had been struggling for a month while our vet tried to figure out what was causing him to waste away. It wasn’t until I researched his symptoms online and suggested a tick-borne disease that we were able to determine the culprit. The vet admitted that testing for tick-borne disease was one of the first round of testing he normally did, but he had forgotten. The test came out positive, and we began treating Okami right away, but it was too late.

For a month, I had provided around the clock care for my beloved wolf dog. Even that fateful afternoon when I brought him to the vet because he could hardly stand up I would not have believed I would be leaving without him. When the vet assistant came to the exam room to tell me he was having difficulty breathing even with an oxygen machine to help him, I made the decision to put him down.

I left with his body in a box and the emptiest feeling my heart has ever known. Without Okami to care for, I felt adrift. I convinced my husband to let me bring home a baby husky the woman from the same rescue had told me about. I needed to be needed again. Our baby husky was full of joy and life, and she made me laugh every day. But she didn’t need me. When we made the decision to move to Brussels less than a year later, my parents generously offered to look after her while we were overseas. It occurred to me that her presence in our life may also have been meant to be only temporary. She helped my heart to heal in absence of Okami, and now she was going to my parents to do the same. We sent her to my parents not 48 hours after they had put their own dog down. They had been heartbroken, and my dad had sent me texts that read: Without Kota, there is no need to leave the house.

We were a little worried about sending them another dog so soon after the loss of their beloved Labrador, but it quickly became clear that Naih the bundle of husky joy was just what they needed. She gave my dad a reason to continue his walks through the woods. She gave my mom a grand puppy, which helped alleviate some of my own guilt at not having provided her with the human kind.

We miss her every day and hope to be reunited in the future, but we sense that her purpose in this life is to bring joy to as many creatures as possible. She is able to do this with my parents very well. In the short time she has been with them, she has helped a young boy overcome his fear of dogs and gained many friends—human and canine—at every dog park she visits. My husband and I joke that one day we will receive a letter from her, thanking us for giving her a home for the first year of her life and kindly requesting to stay with my parents forever more, where she has free reign of a 2400 square foot house, a huge yard, daily walks and visits to dogs parks, a canine best friend who lives around the corner, my mom to bring home toys and treats for her, my dad to wind around her little princess paw, and better healthcare than many people living in the United States and around the world will ever receive.

The spirit of the wolf continues to haunt my heart, and every time I go for a walk in the woods near our home I make a silent (and sometimes not so silent) wish that I will find a baby wolf who will fill the void in my heart and become my constant companion and shadow.

This afternoon when my husband and I went for a walk through the woods, we happened upon a young cat. It became clear that this cat needed help. Its collar had become wrapped around its neck and front leg, so much so that the fur had been rubbed off completely. As we approached, the cat mewed but moved farther away from us and underneath a fence. My husband and I went in different directions to try to get nearer to him.

I found a spot where I could manage to climb over the fence, and I moved toward the cat very slowly, stopping periodically to crouch down, whisper, and rub my fingers together in an attempt to cajole it closer.

Amazingly, kitten did come closer. We did this back and forth dance until he was nuzzling into my hand and legs while I say cross-legged.

Can you take off your shirt and toss it over the fence to me? I asked my husband. My own tank top would not be enough to try to wrap around the cat in order to carry it without being scratched.

If I throw it, he will run away, my husband said.

It’s ok; he will come back. I felt sure that he would. He needed help.

Kitten did run away, but he did come back. We danced a little more until I was able to wrap him up in the t-shirt and draw him into my chest. I whispered and comforted him until he settled into me. I thought I would try to hand him off to my husband so I could get over the fence, but I was afraid he would escape, so my husband held the fence down while I sidled and slip over the top. Apart from my leggings getting temporarily caught on a loose fence end, I made it over with relative ease. Kitten stayed calm for most of the walk except for some panic at the large road crossing between the forest and our quiet corner of Boitsfort.

Once inside our house, my husband cut the collar off and closed the doors between the foyer and the front door. I sat with kitten while he went through two bowls of food. I didn’t try to pry the collar off because I wasn’t sure if it was embedded in his skin, but it eventually fell off of its own accord. Free from the collar, he was much happier. He purred while he ate and let me clean his wounds with a soapy washcloth and wet wipes. He even let me cover the wounds with Neosporin.

My husband came in to say hello, but kitten was not so sure about him. Our other cats were very curious, so we let kitten out for a chaperoned meet and greet. It was clear that kitten did not want to stay inside. He immediately went for the large glass doors that led to our terrace. It was only a few more minutes before he discovered the open kitchen window that my husband had opened to air out the house from the awful stench his collar had carried. I yelled out, No! and went running out the front door in an effort to scare him back into the house, but he was gone.

My husband had walked around the corner to see if this cat might fit the description of a poster we had seen on several windows and light posts around the neighborhood. He did meet the description, but he was also no longer in our care. We walked over to the house where he had once lived and spoke with the owner. She was over the moon that he was still alive. We all walked around the neighborhood, looking for him, but to no avail. Kitten was gone.

Back home, I felt the return of the void. We had been so close, and the lack of resolution was woefully uncomfortable.

I had been texting my dad questions about how to care for the cat in its current condition and then shared my remorse when he escaped. He responded, an animal used to the outdoors would probably not want to live inside. Don’t feel bad. You enabled to continue doing what it loves.

My husband echoed my father’s words. You gave him a real chance to live, my husband told me in a reassuring voice. With the collar, he might have made it maybe three more weeks, but he would have died.

I know, but I’m worried that his wound will get infected. And he was so skinny. He needs to eat so much more food, I said.

When I started to cry, my husband wrapped his arms around me. I told him how I hadn’t felt needed since Okami had died and that I thought this was my wish for a wolf puppy come true.

I thought he would be my wolf cat, I sobbed into my husband’s chest.

You gave him a miracle; you gave him the ultimate wish to be free from a bonded trap that was killing him. His ultimate wish was not to be released from a trap only to be put into a larger cage, a house where he would live indoors.

I took a deep breath in and let out a slow exhale. I think you are right, I said. Maybe, he didn’t want to go back to live with that woman. He was meant to be a wild and free spirit. I hope he will be ok out there.

Even though I know kitten is now somewhere out there, roaming free, I left a bowl of food and an almost empty can of tuna in the windowsill, just in case.

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It’s all for the best

It can be challenging to translate jokes and slang from one language to another. Sarcasm can be especially tricky. For example, in a recent post about first impressions of Rome, I made a comparison that was what I would call “tongue in cheek” (i.e., a bit facetious and not entirely serious) comparing driving in Rome with driving in Boston as a result of so many Italian immigrants settling in Boston so many years ago.

 

When my husband and I met an Italian friend and her partner for dinner on our last night in Rome, she asked me about it, and I tried to explain that it was really a joke and not meant as a criticism of this city that now holds a very special place in my heart. We also had a long conversation about a phrase that my husband and I use quite often to help ease the stress from challenges we have been experiencing this year.

 

My husband has told me many stories about his grandpa Earl, who used to say, “It’s all for the best” when something perhaps less than enticing came to pass in one’s life.

 

We talked about this phrase and how it would be used for both present and future in the English language but mostly in response to something happening that runs counter to our hoped for outcomes for the plans we make in life.

 

For example, I have said to my husband many times, What if my house doesn’t sell this summer? To which he has responded, It’s all for the best.

 

It is really all for the best? Perhaps, not, but the phrase denotes a kind of glass half full mentality. Would it be more pleasant for my house to sell? Of course. Is it the end of the world if it doesn’t? I suppose not, and my husband assures me that at some point it will come to pass, it is only a matter of time.

 

I know from experience that most of my life plans have to come to pass in very different (often wildly different) variations than I could have anticipated. I think I would generally agree that the way my life has unfolded in reality fits with Grandpa Earl’s philosophy, even if it takes close to a decade at times to see the benefit.

 

For some experiences in my life, I think the glass is not necessarily half empty or half full. It just has water in it. There is not necessarily any meaning to derive, unless perhaps the meaning for my house in Alaska is that it is better to rent than to own, which at this point I would tend to agree with.

 

Our friends tried to find an accurate translation for this phrase, but we never did find one that offered the same overall meaning. I think this is reasonable, especially considering how very different Italian and English are and that the cultures and experiences of each individual are different. I asked my husband about his Grandpa Earl’s life and how this phrase might have come to be, but he wasn’t sure. Regardless, it is a meaningful way to keep someone alive in spirit. I wish I could have met Grandpa Earl. I would certainly ask him about this phrase.

 

Speaking of phrases and their meanings, at the airport in Rome yesterday I noticed a man wearing a t-shirt that I found fairly alarming and more than a little offensive. We were waiting in line to prepare for boarding when I saw a relatively short man with a serious beard sporting an olive green t-shirt with the words KILL ALL PIGEONS in capital letter and the image of a pigeon nestled between them.

 

The capital letters alone were fairly shocking, and the message was one that cut straight to my creature-loving heart (not to mention that I was travel weary and exhausted from the extreme heat and humidity). Only a few days before, I had shared my admiration for the city pigeon (aka, the Rock Pigeon, formerly known as Rock Dove for birders). I had been talking with a colleague my husband had met at the conference he was attending at John Cabot University. The conference was titled Beyond Humanism, and presenters shared ideas about transhumanism, posthumanism, and the state of the Human Enhancement Debate (my husband’s topic of choice) in the ever-changing relationship between humans and technology.

 

It was the first night of the conference, and I had joined my husband and his colleagues for a pizza dinner. He had already presented on the panel with two other men, who were also from Belgium. We all chatted together for the entire evening, which was lovely. When I noticed a lizard on the wall, I exclaimed in delight, disrupting the conversation and shifting the subject matter to the rights of other beings.

 

My husband’s colleague, who was seated to my left, admitted that he had seen the lizard earlier on the floor between our seats but had decided not to say anything because he couldn’t remember the English word for lizard. I suggested that the next time he could just point because I would always be to witness a creature of any kind. We then began talking about animals and the different creatures we had seen in the river Tiber, the state of pollution in the river, which apparently is the repository for household waste even today in Rome. He told me how in one city (I can’t remember if it was Brussels or in France) there were so many pigeons that the police decided to shoot many of them. A man thought it was wasteful to just kill them without eating them so he ate one, and he got very sick. My husband’s colleague said something about all of the horrible things that must be inside of city pigeons, and I began my own so soliloquy on my love and admiration for these creatures.

 

They’re able to survive such incredible odds, I had shared with my husband’s colleague. Just that afternoon, I had witnessed a pigeon with one knobby foot, hobbling around and another with thread or something wrapped around one foot (this can lead cause them to lose their toes if the thread gets wound so tight it cuts off circulation). I would’ve loved to of free the pigeon’s foot, but I would have had to get closer to it, and this was likely not going to happen.

 

Pigeons are so amazing, I continued and then spoke of how people in the United States refer to them as “rats with wings,” much to my dismay. I think it’s because people don’t want to see the beings on the edge that are struggling to survive. For me, this is no different than turning a blind eye to homeless people.

Ah, my husband’s colleague had responded. So you must be the post humanist who believes in the rights of animals, people, and machines.

Well, I pondered, I’m not sure about the rights of machines, but I think I can find sentience in almost anything. Trees, plants, animals. Why not machines?

 

Back to the airport, now that you know where I stand with regard to pigeons, you can imagine my horror at seeing such a blatantly violent t-shirt.

 

Watch him sit right next to me on the plane, I whispered to my husband.

 

Well, he didn’t sit directly next to me on the plane, but he was sitting in the aisle seat in the row opposite us, which was close enough in my estimation. When we landed and I was standing right next to him, waiting to disembark from the plane, I grappled with whether or not to say anything to him. It was one of those moments where I knew if I didn’t say anything I would always wonder what would inspire a person to wear such an awful article of clothing.

 

So I asked, first in English and then in French (when he didn’t respond), You don’t like pigeons?

 

To which he responded (in French), Not particularly, no.

 

Why? Did you have a bad experience with pigeons?

 

No, I just don’t like them. I don’t like gulls either.

 

Do you have a t-shirt against gulls as well? I asked.

 

No, but if they made one I would certainly buy it.

 

Ah, well, I am going to create a t-shirt that saves, Save the pigeons and gulls, I said.

 

He laughed at this, andI went to share my theory of how amazing pigeons are for being able to survive in such horrible living conditions.

 

He replied that he thought pigeons were dirty and plague-riddled and therefore not worthy of living.

 

Well, it is not their choice to live this way, I replied, and that they are able to survive is incredible. I find them to be extraordinary! This comment elicited a laugh and a smile from the woman who had been sitting next to me and was now standing in the aisle beside us.

 

He seemed to consider this but was unrelenting in his distaste for pigeons and gulls.

 

To each person, their preference, I said, but I love pigeons and all birds. We ended the discussion on a positive note, each wishing the other a pleasant evening and continuation of travel.

 

I had wanted to say that there were many people who lived in similarly awful conditions as pigeons and who it was easy to judge, though I am certain it was not their choice or specific desire to wind up living on the street, but I can’t always figure out how to form these phrases in French at the opportune moment so I didn’t say anything. On the bus ride from the plane to the terminal, I figured out how I could say this, but at this point I wanted to focus my attention on getting home as quickly as possible.

 

 

As the bus sped its way to the terminal, I thought about pigeons and other birds that people despise like gulls and starlings. I tried to imagine despising them as well, but I could not find any room in my heart for hatred. Now, if I could only find this way to love all people unconditionally, I would be farther along on my path to enlightenment. I am not there yet, though.

 

I think what I found so shocking about the shirt was the wearers ease with taking the life of another being. I suppose that being a kind of human version of the Lorax, I would find this disturbing, whereas the wearer thought of it as a kind of joke. I did not find it funny at all, however. I found it to be gravely serious and also indicative of a propensity for humankind to place itself at the top of the proverbial food chain and with the right to determine the fate of other lesser species and systems, which are really only on this planet for us to consume and use as we will. In my opinion, his shirt could have had the same words but replaced pigeon with homeless people, Jews, Muslims, etc. and communicated a similar sentiment, but I am not sure he would have been able to see the connection.

 

I think what it comes down to is choice and perspective. When I was growing up, the father of one of my childhood friends in our town was a member of a committee whose sole purpose was to find ways to get rid of the Canada Geese that were “polluting” the beach at a local lake, thereby “ruining” it for the people who wishes to enjoy it. I don’t think there was much admittance for the fact that humans had created the perfect habitat for them, so there was no longer any need for them to migrate. I also don’t think the members of the committee considered that the lake had been home to Canada Geese and many of species of birds and animals long before the arrival of humans or that these creatures had as much of a right to spend time on its shores as we did.

 

No. Sadly, the geese were just a problem to be solved. As a child, I didn’t really question the perspective of the committee or even the matter of its existence. Since paying closer attention to the lives of other species, however, my own perspective has shifted to embrace the rights of all beings to a sustainable, thriving existence. Knowing that this shift is possible, I know that there is hope for humankind. I just wish this shift could happen for more people, particularly those in places of power, who could just as easily wield their influence toward a healthier, happier planet as they do toward the opposite extreme.

In Rome, I witnessed both ends of the spectrum with regard to the human dynamic and treatment of other animals. The saddest moment for me was bearing witness to a dog that was lying in full sun on one of the walkways bordering the River Tiber. The dog was chained to the wall on a short lead, and while there were bowls with both food and water, I could see the large swath or red, raw skin around the dogs neck.

 

Can I take him? I had texted my husband.

 

My husband had responded, There seems to be more animal suffering the closer to the equator you get as well. Nepal and Mexico come to mind.

 

I had walked across the bridge, stopping periodically to watch the poor creature. At one point, I was not even certain it was alive until I saw one of its ears flick at what must have been an insect.

 

When I reached the other side, I looked across and saw a tent city under the bridge with dogs in similar states of neglect (at least the others were in the shade). Overcome by emotion and a feeling of helplessness to put an end to the suffering of another being, I began sobbing, tears streaming down my face. I am sure my exhausting from the heat of Rome in July didn’t help. I gave in completely to the intense sadness welling up from within, and I wept all the way to the university to meet my husband for lunch.

 

My husband consoled me by talking about the Buddhist approach to the suffering of the world and how it can be an opportunity to work on ourselves. He told me that while he knew it was a more difficult path to walk, my sensitive heart was something that he deeply loved about me.

 

I got you a present, I had told him after I had finally stopped weeping.

 

Does it have four legs, he had asked, laughing.

 

Yes, but it fits in my bag, though there are definitely four-leggeds here that I could have fit into my bag.

 

I periodically inform/remind my husband that I wanted a wolf dog ( I had not so secretly been hoping that perhaps I might just come across one in need of a home as I wandered the streets of Rome during our visit to the ancient city).

 

Life is long, my husband always responded, and I would harumph at him.

 

A few days after the incident with the dog by the river, we were walking to meet friends for dinner at a restaurant in a neighborhood near our hotel. Walking by the river, we had passed a woman who was placing tins of food down for several stray cats.

 

Grazie, I had said to her as we passed by, and she had said something in Italian. As she left the cats to their meal, I heard her say to them, A domani (Until tomorrow). My heart filled with such joy to witness this interaction between human and cat. In the wake of a world filled with suffering, this small moment might appear inconsequential; however, to me it is gestures like this that provide hope for the world.

 

I think there must be an appreciation and even affection among Romans for those creatures beyond human beings for their own history claims its origins from the brothers Romulus and Remus, who suckled at the teat of a wolf at the tenuous beginnings of their own lives.

In Rome, I had witnessed many pigeons posing for the camera by sitting atop the many beautiful fountains located around every corner of the city. People were more than happy to take their photos, reminding me that not all people wish to see them dead.

 

When I do see mistreatment of animals, I try my best not to place judgment but simply to bear witness to what I see and to send love to those creatures so evidently in need, but it is not easy. I know that each being is on its own path and there is often not very much I can do to create ease for its journey, so I try to send love from my own heart to those beings and to help them as I am able. I could easily have chosen the path of a street animal in another life. Perhaps, it is part of the reason why I feel such endearment toward other creatures inhabiting this life path.

 

I know that I cannot save every creature or fix the suffering of the world. However, I can and will continue to pick up trash, carry still living abused creatures to a safer, quieter place, and remove those who have suffered a less pleasant fate from the street to a more peaceful resting place.

 

I’m not sure that putting an end to all of the pigeons would encompass Grandpa Earl’s phrase.

 

I say, Vive les pigeons!

 

Long live the resilient pigeon!

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