Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ode to an Old Soul

About twelve years ago we snatched a skittish calico cat from a premature end of life, she having outlived her grace period at the animal shelter that had received her from owners unknown. She had not been treated well by those owners. She learned to trust ever so slowly, but eventually became a beloved member of our family circle.

She slept on our bed at night; sometimes I would awaken to find ourselves nose to nose. She plunked herself down in the midst of our granddaughters' play, bemusedly tolerating their petting hands or allowing herself to be carried from place to place. She blended in with the bedspread, her calico colorings almost like a camouflage suit, allowing her to sleep undisturbed throughout much of the day.

Maggie was an old soul. Her eyes always seemed dark and brooding, as if a pool of understanding was rippling in there, just below the surface. I tend to stay up late at night, and Maggie would usually find her way into my library, jumping up onto my lap with a little guttural sound and pressing her forehead against my hand. Cats are often nocturnal, but Maggie's black mask made her seem even more like a creature of the night.

Yesterday, having noticed some irregularities in her breathing and other behaviors, we took her to the vet to get her fixed up. Little did we imagine that we would come home without our beloved Maggie. Details aren't needed here; suffice it to say that she was much sicker than we imagined and there was no turning back.

We had tears to cry. We had Ashley and Ayla to talk to once again about life and death--they had lost a family cat within the year. Amidst their own tears, they said some unbelievably sweet and sensitive things to us. Their parents lovingly led them through it, answering their questions as best they could, recognizing that we all have to live through the pain and we can't make it go away from them or us, as much as we might wish it could be so.

I don't know how to write about this without it coming out predictably sentimental and maudlin. Pets are deeply personal. I know she will be a ghost here in our house for months to come; I will see her where she usually is, even when she isn't there. I will hear her little yelp as she jumps up onto the bed when I'm turning in, but she won't be there, waiting for my head to lay on the pillow.

Her compatriot, a gray tabby named Snuggles, who arrived in our home from the same shelter on the same day as Maggie, is without her friend and we can't find the cat words to explain it to her. But she knows, as she pads along after us, meowing, lonely.

Here's the thing we know. Love cannot exist without pain. It's just the way it is. If you choose to risk love you are also choosing pain and loss. Today, we miss our friend and there is no doubt we are hurting.

But Maggie, you are worthy of every tear, and you are and always will be loved. You will forever be the Old Soul of our family's heart.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Embracing the Ebb and Flow of Life

Three seemingly unrelated things that tell us something about ourselves and our world...

First: I recently began to reread Alas, Babylon, a classic apocalyptic novel published in 1959. The author, Pat Frank, captured the worst fears of the Cold War by depicting life in a small Florida town that miraculously survived a nuclear holocaust that destroyed most of America.

I can't really explain what provoked me to pick up the book. I had a copy in my library for decades, but it apparently did not survive the occasional culling that goes on now and then. But it has been reissued and I had Amazon send one my way.

The first night I started to read the book, we had a tornado warning. For one hour, I read the novel with a storm siren howling in the distance, our ears tuned to the weather report, flashlights at hand, readying ourselves to hurry to a reinforced area in the center of our basement that serves as an emergency shelter. It was surreal. I didn't pick the book up again until the sun was shining.

Second: A couple of weeks ago, my brother-in-law died after a five-year battle with a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. The last ten days of his life were spent at a hospice house, his wife and daughters at his side. The vigil was healing in some ways and difficult in others. One cannot feel good about a life that was taken too young and with things yet to do.

But a few days later his church was filled with family and friends who came together to celebrate and learn from his life. We heard things we had never heard before, laughed aloud at stories that captured the beauty and uniqueness of his life, shed tears that had been welling up for a long time, and celebrated through song, story, and prayer the richness of his life. It was redemptive.

Third: A few weeks ago a series of remarkable events gave many of us reason to feel new hope for America. The Supreme Court upheld provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act that would have cost millions of Americans health care coverage had the outcome been different. Then came another ruling that declared same-sex marriage to be constitutional in all fifty states. While there are still deep divisions within the country on both issues, the Court reflected the changing cultural consensus and set in place a framework by which these issues can be processed.

At the same time, a tragic shooting spurred by racial hatred turned a historic African-American church into a house of forgiveness and reconciliation. In South Carolina and elsewhere, courageous leaders stood up to the forces of hate and led to the removal of a flag that was for many a symbol of slavery and racism. And in the midst of it all, President Obama delivered a stirring eulogy to the slain that artfully and sensitively captured that powerful transformational moment.

A friend wrote me and said, "It is a great week for America." I agreed and my heart soared with a sense of hope I had not felt for some time. I have been distressed by the direction of the country--the horrible electoral gridlock, the obscene influence of money in politics, and an increasing income inequality that threatens the well-being of our country. I wrote about my malaise earlier this year. So my pleasure at these landmark moments was palpable.

Then came Donald Trump, spewing words of racial hatred, imposing his megalomania on all who would listen, turning his delusions of grandeur into some kind of political platform. It was like he turned and spit into the fountain of goodwill that had been filled during a remarkable few weeks in the summer of 2015.

I had to pause and think about how we are shaped by the ebb and flow of our lives. Good times replace the bad, pain gives way to joy, moments of insight are blunted by stupors of thought. It is just the way it is. If we understand that, we can live in hope, aware that this too will pass.

And so it is that a scary apocalyptic novel can be better read in the full light of day. Pain over the loss of a beloved family member is salved in part by the awareness that we shared a slice of his life and we are better people for having done so. And we must remind ourselves that buffoons will come and go, particularly in politics. But they will not stand because voices of dignity, reason, and humanity will ultimately drown out the haters and quell the designs of those whose egos dwarf the country they would presume to lead.

In Missouri, we often say that if you don't like the weather just wait a bit and it will be completely different. And so it is in the ebb and flow of life. Tomorrow is always another day.