Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Magnets, Magazines and Gentleness

I have a special place in my heart for the cheesy and sentimental, and on my refrigerator I have one of those "quotable" magnets -- the kind that make hipsters and self-styled artsy-types cringe.

Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. - Max Ehrmann

When I open the door to refill my water bottle or take out the half-and-half when I make coffee, I read it and I smile, and I try to heed its advice.

Make choices, but do not be hasty, it says to me. Trees don't grow overnight. Neither must I.

I don't know if I've recounted this story before, but I was on the subway in Cambridge once - the red line to Harvard Square - when a kid came up to me. He was maybe 16, and obviously stoned. His eyes were red, but he looked at me with a suddenly alert compassion.

"What happened to you," he asked, looking up at my forehead.

I told him.

He exhaled, mumbled something, and said to me,"You better spend the rest of your life taking it easy."

When I have told that story to people, they bristled. "Don't let that make you think you can be lazy."

At those times, I would stammer that of course not. I was a hard worker. I was responsible. I was what I was supposed to be. I follow the rules. Yes, sir. Why people in my life have been so convinced that on the inside I'm somehow deeply lazy is a topic for another day, but what I should have said was more akin to "fuck off."

Because I think I finally understand what that boy was telling me. Be gentle with yourself.

When people ask what I'm going to do next, I tell them I am freelancing. And I am. I will. I fully intend to make it happen. But then they ask how its going, and really. I've been back in the country for three weeks and lost my pet to cancer. I'm not exactly trying to pitch anyone right now. I'm mostly trying to feel like this life I've thrust myself into is in some way my own.

Which I confess involves a lot of sitting around looking at the spines of books, half-reading New York Times columns and watching episodes of Criminal Minds. I make stacks of things I intend to read. Herodotus. Henry Miller. The new Oprah magazine. I wonder for the thousandth time if Netflix is worth it. I make protein shakes with berries because I can't be bothered to think about actually making food. I wonder how the hell I'm supposed to figure out what to charge people for taking pictures of their kids or their weddings. I wonder if I have any idea what I'm doing.

Today I came across an article in that Oprah magazine by Anne Lamott, a writer whose book "Bird by Bird" -- about life and writing -- was a staple in grad school feature writing. Her article was about finding out who you really are... and it somehow reminded me of that gentleness I had decided to show myself to choose deliberately, without panic.

"I can't tell you what your next action will be, but mine involved a full stop. I had to stop living unconsciously, as if I had all the time in the world. The love and good and the wild and the peace and creation that are you will reveal themselves, but it is harder when they have to catch up to you in roadrunner mode. So one day I did stop. I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights," Lamott writes.

I smiled at her words. I've had bosses sigh with exasperation as I've gone shoe shopping while on deadline. When I've flipped through photographs, stared off into space, gone walking around Newburyport and come back with a 42oz. Diet Coke because I didn't have my story nailed down in my head yet -- I'd done all the work except the writing, but the writing -- the figuring out of structure, tone, cadence, nuance... Those things happen when you're not thinking about writing. Some other part of the brain shifts through the information and then poof.

It's time to begin. Thankfully, when on deadline, you can make yourself move faster, but for me it has always involved that seeming waste of time...

So here I sit, on a cool autumn afternoon, listening to the Decemberists. I have vacuumed my apartment. I have done some laundry. I have made lists in my head of all of the things I need to organize, to throw away, to create. And I will do those things. Even a cup of coffee can't be forced into being before its done brewing.

And I will write that damned book I have had in my head all this time, so maybe someday I will get to sit and read my own words in Oprah magazine talking about how sometimes stepping forward means stepping away.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Harold (??? - Oct. 15, 2009)

I remember the day I brought him home from the ASPCA shelter on E. 92nd St. in Manhattan, way back in September 2004. I had moved to New York in August, and then I went on vacation in Turkey -- boat trip again -- and when I came back, I was going to get a cat.

So, I poked around on the Interwebs, looking at who was available at the shelter. I thought this orange cat Felix looked like a good choice. He was playful, from his description, frisky... But then I went to the shelter. I filled out the forms. Julie came with me, so my dad was my character reference... who reassured them everything was fine even though at the time I worried I was allergic to cats (I am not).

I walked through the shelter, meeting all the little ones in their cages. Then I went into the "Diva Room," which had scratching posts, lounging pads and a tiered area where the cats could sprawl, all with a window out onto 92nd St.

That's where I found Harold.

He was skinny. Mangy. His hair was matted and greasy. He had a stuffy nose, a scrawny face and the moment his bright green eyes met mine, I fell in love. He began purring as I scratched his head. He did his little head-butt thing, moving my hand to where he wanted it.

He wasn't the cleanest cat, nor was he the prettiest. But I can express it no other way than to say that he picked me. I went to see the rest of the cats, and when the volunteer asked who I liked, I said Harold... She was surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah. I'll take him..."

And so we finished the paperwork and they put him in a cardboard carrier. Julie and I walked him home down First Avenue. I had gotten litter, a box and some food the day before. I was ready.

I carried him up to my fifth-floor walk-up and put down the box. I opened its flaps and he jumped out. The cat book said to let them meet their space slowly -- I figured my entire 320 square-foot apartment was probably small enough to warrant giving him free reign.

He walked from end to end, jumped on my bed, and found the brown cat bed I had put on the windowsill. He turned around in it once. Looked at me. Lay down. Closed his eyes. He was home.

And he was happy there. Sleeping in bed with me, his butt always touching my back... at minimum. As long as he was touching me, he was happy. I could fall asleep with my hand resting on him, or he could be nuzzled against me from behind. That's all he ever asked of me. To sleep by my side.

We moved to Brooklyn. We had some roommates who loved him and gave him good head scratches. They were won over by his persistent affection and his oddly old-man savoir faire. He had style, that kitten.

We moved to our own place, and he took to it immediately. Our home. Mine and the beast. Because when you live with an animal, you really don't live alone. You share your space, your time and your heart with another living, breathing creature who depends on you and who loves you. And who you grow to love like he's your family. Because he is. Because the sun rises and sets in his world when you walk into the room. And because no matter what's wrong, when you scratch his head and he purrs, reassuring you that he's there... you know you'll be okay.

And most of the time you just hang out. I pet him. I brush him. He taps my mouth to let me know he's hungry. He swings around to roll over, but still wants to be touching my back with his... I woke up one night on my side, with a man pressed against my front and Harold stretched out, pressed against my back. He was having none of this intruder stealing me away. I just smiled and felt loved.

And today, after what must have been a long, long sickness, which only alarmed me in the past few weeks, Harold passed away.

The vet did an autopsy on him this evening and found out he had very advanced liver cancer -- incurable and un-survivable. A tumor had burst and he was bleeding internally. It probably all happened in the 15 minute panic between his first alarmed meows and me taking his limp, struggling body and running through the rain to the vet's office five blocks away. I saw him and I knew he was dying.

He was tired all day. But he purred when I pet him. I sat right next to him all morning. I slept next to him on the sofa all week. I was trying to love him better. But you can't beat cancer when it really takes hold. We all know that.

When I got him in 2004, the ASPCA thought Harold was about 5. So, I told the vet he was around 9. They told me he was at least 12. So, much older... had lived much longer before I got him than I had known. But I did what I could to make his last years happy years. And, for better or for worse, I haven't really had any work to do this week, so I spent the chilly gray days sitting here on the sofa with Harold. Reading, watching movies, petting him. Trying to make him comfortable, I thought, as he recovered from an infection.

I believed, until yesterday, he was getting better. And today, his tiny body finally gave up its fight. The vet was shocked that a cat with that much cancer was still alive... but he was alive, alert and purring this morning. So I know he had a happy life here with me.

The vet left me the nicest message. He is a good man. He kept telling me not to blame myself. And I don't. I can't. Animals, like people, die. It's the dark, cold truth that comes with being alive. But... oh God... what I wouldn't do to actually feel his warm little furry body in my arms, all tense because he hated being picked up, and just nuzzle his cheek and tell him I love him... Just one more time. The little sounds he made that let me know he felt safe and happy.

But I can't. I just wiped his stray hairs from my keyboard. They're all over my home. I put his litter box, his brown cat bed, other things too into the trash tonight. The scratching post he never scratched (it was where I was to dump the cat nip so he could rub his face in it...) The post is still in the corner. I had to keep something. But I had to make it one thing. There will be enough I stumble on to break my heart in the coming days and weeks.

So, I toast with the very expensive special-occasion wine I opened tonight in honor of Harold. Because he existed, was wonderful and I loved him.