Like Wild Animals

…the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.

All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.

And the first job each morning consists in shoving them all back;
in listening to that other voice,
taking that other point of view,
letting that other, larger, stronger life come flowing in.

And so on, all day.
~C.S. Lewis
from Mere Christianity

When I feel my faith wavering and doubts begin to overwhelm,
it takes determination to keep those wild animals at bay;
they leap and snarl and roar with hungry expectation and entitlement,
yet I seek only prayerful calm and quiet.

Rather than throw myself recklessly to the lions and tigers,
feeding their relentless appetites,
I step back, take a deep breath,
and watch them purr as they nap.

photo by Tomomi Gibson

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A Peaceable Kingdom

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
~Ranier Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.
~Anonymous Irish monk from “Pangur Bán”
, translated by Seamus Heaney

Cally, our first adopted calico cat, was quite elderly and fading fast. Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water. We had lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months previously, and now Cally, not much younger,  was not going to last much longer. She still got up to eat and potty, and still licked her front paws clean, but couldn’t manage much else.  Her frame was thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she had been deaf for some time and her eyes were rheumy.  She spent her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure.  One evening she allowed me to bring her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, as I wouldn’t be surprised to find her permanently curled up there the next morning.  Her time was soon to come.

Cally was one of a litter raised in the mid-90’s by good friends, the VanderHaaks, on their acreage a few miles from here. When they had to make a move to a city on the east coast, their Cally and an orange colored kitty were in need of a new home. On arrival, the orange cat immediately ran into the woods, only rarely to be spotted at a distance for a few months and then completely disappeared, possibly a victim of the local coyote pack.  Cally strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory.  She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens, our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats. In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance. There was no one who would dare to question her authority.

We knew Cally was unusual from the start. Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit). Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap. They were best pals. Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).

Our free range rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship.  He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing,  muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it. They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.

One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail. As usual,  Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go. The rooster, however, was very startled to see me,  almost embarrassed.  He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.

No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again. The reader will have to just take it on faith.

After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our new corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude.  He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally. They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.

So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together.  We can learn something from the peaceable kingdom right outside our front door,  a harbinger of what is possible for the rest of us.  Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons and too many inflexible opinions, it is possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.

Our special Cally made it happen here on earth. Up in heaven, I suspect she has met up with Tango, and one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap on the other side.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them.
Isaiah 11:6

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, The Met

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Where the Field Ends and the Cat Begins

It takes a peculiar vision to be able to detect
Precisely where

The field grasses brushed by blowing
Stars and the odor of spring
In the breath of sweet clover buds
And the star-mingled calls of the toads

In the threading grasses and the paws
Of the clover brushing through the field
Of stars and the star-shaped crickets
In the ears of the sweet grasses
And the tail of the night flicking
Through the calls of the clover and the spring
Stars slinking past the eyes of midnight
And the hour of the field mouse passing
Through the claws of the stars and the brushing
Haunches of the weeds and starry grasses
Threading through the eyes of the mouse
And the buds of the stars calling
With the sweet breath of the field

End
And the cat begins.
~Pattiann Rogers “Finding the Cat in a Spring Field at Midnight”

The knock on the door seemed urgent: – “did we know we have an injured cat?” –
the pest control serviceman was spraying the perimeter of our house for carpenter ants and saw our young calico farm cat crawling along the ground in the bushes, unable to use her hind legs.

I grabbed my jacket and a towel to wrap her in, preparing for a quick trip to the vet clinic, but she had vanished by the time I got outside. I searched for an hour in all the likely places Nala typically hangs out but she was no where. I kept an eye out for her every day, calling her, but I never saw her or heard her distinctive voice.

Nine days later, she was on the front porch, thin and weak and hungry, meowing for a meal. She was walking but with still-weakened hind legs and two healing wounds on either side of her lower spine. Something very traumatic had certainly happened, but she had survived, using up several of her nine lives.

As I inspected the wounds, I began to surmise what may have happened:
We have nesting bald eagles who spend time in the high trees around our farm house, watching for wild rabbits or other small prey. This cat is smallish, with plenty of white fur to be easily seen in the tall grass with sharp eagle vision. I suspect she was picked up by eagle talons as a tempting meal, pierced on either side of her spine to carry her away up to a treetop, but feisty as she is, she would have been more trouble than she was worth, so dropped from a significant height, causing a spinal cord contusion and temporary lower leg paralysis.

Little Nala has since recovered completely except for the bald patch scars on either side of her spine. She is a noisy communicator, insistent and bold. I think her loud voice and attitude saved her from becoming a raptor’s lunch.

Not many more lives to go, dear feisty Nala. Spend them well.

photo by Nate Gibson

A book of beauty in words and photography available to order here:

Starting the Day

My father taught me how to eat breakfast
those mornings when it was my turn to help
him milk the cows. I loved rising up from

the darkness and coming quietly down
the stairs while the others were still sleeping.
I’d take a bowl from the cupboard, a spoon

from the drawer, and slip into the pantry
where he was already eating spoonfuls
of cornflakes covered with mashed strawberries

from our own strawberry fields forever.
Didn’t talk much—except to mention how
good the strawberries tasted or the way

those clouds hung over the hay barn roof.
Simple—that’s how we started up the day.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Breakfast” from First Words, Red Dragonfly.

By the time I was four years old, my family owned several Guernsey and Jersey dairy cows who my father milked by hand twice a day. My mother pasteurized the milk on our wood stove and we grew up drinking the best milk on earth, as well as enjoying home-made butter and ice cream.

One of my fondest memories is getting up early with my dad, before he needed to be at school teaching FFA agriculture students (Future Farmers of America). I would eat breakfast with him and then walk out into the foggy fall mornings with our dog to bring in the cows for milking. He would boost me up on top of a very bony-backed chestnut and white patchwork cow while he washed her udder and set to work milking.

I would sometimes sing songs from up there on my perch and my dad would whistle since he didn’t sing.

I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the milk squirting into the stainless steel bucket – the high-pitched metallic whoosh initially and then a more gurgling low wet sound as the bucket filled up. I can see my dad’s capped forehead resting against the flank of the cow as he leaned into the muscular work of squeezing the udder teats, each in turn. I can hear the cow’s chewing her breakfast of alfalfa and grain as I balanced on her prominent spine feeling her smooth hair over her ribs. The barn cats circulated around us, mewing, attracted by the warm milky fragrance in the air.

Those were preciously simple starts to the day for me and my father, whose thoughts he didn’t articulate nor I could ever quite discern. But I did know I wasn’t only his daughter on mornings like that – I was one of his future farmers of America he dedicated his life to teaching.

Dad, even without you saying much, those were mornings when my every sense was awakened. I’ve never forgotten that- the best start to the day.

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The Feeling of Being Watched

We must have known,
Even as we reached
Down to touch them
Where we’d found them
 
Shut-eyed and trembling
Under a straw bale
In the haymow, that
She would move them
 
That night under cover
Of darkness, and that
By finding them
We were making certain
 
We wouldn’t see them again
Until we saw them
Crouching under the pickup
Like sullen teens, having gone
 
As wild by then as they’d gone
Still in her mouth that night
She made a decision
Any mother might make
 
Upon guessing the intentions
Of the state: to go and to
Go now, taking everything
You love between your teeth.
~Austin Smith “Cat Moving Kittens”

I’ve never known a farm cat who doesn’t hold something back in their loyalty to their human. They are never “all in” like a dog who lavishes love without thought or hesitation.

Cats live at a bit of a remove here, particularly if they grew up without being regularly handled and cuddled.

I don’t mind our barn cats’ autonomy and self-sufficiency as they need those characteristics when they live independently outside rather than as part of furniture in the house with us. They must view the rest of the world with some suspicion and caution, viewing things from afar with their keen eyes rather than leaping in without thinking.

As I go about my day on the farm, moving from shed to barn to garage to house, I have the distinct feeling of being watched. The reality is — they could run this place on their own if they needed to — and they do.

photo by Nate Gibson

A Rub Behind the Ears

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her dog house
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.


Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.


If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
~Billy Collins, from “Dharma” from Sailing Alone Around the Room

We all should know, at least once in our lives, the complete and total enthusiastic and worshipful devotion that comes without hesitation from a dog. No other living creature grants us this: not a spouse, certainly not our children, never a cat or a horse, but dogs worship the ground we walk on.

It doesn’t take long when living with one or two dogs, to realize they are only human too – with insatiable appetites for independent defiance as they follow their noses rather than respond promptly to a call and whistle.

I love them anyway, even though they are wholly misinformed about my apparent divinity on earth.

In my view, our farm dogs exist solely so I can rub behind their divinely designed corgi ears.
Is that not reason enough?

After the Family Broke

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We’d go to the living room;
anticipating that she’d be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She’d be on the roof,
she’d be in a nearby tree.
She’d be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can’t get her out of my mind.

~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray

Our pets are witness to the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one comes to pick them up and stroke their fur. They sit silently waiting.

They know when things aren’t right at home.

Sometimes a barn cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home and that’s what they know and that’s where they stay.

When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, measuring the amount of spilled love that was left over for them.

I can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We knew when we left the only home we knew, we would never truly feel at home again.

Kitten Who Lost Her Way

I sometimes think the PussyWillows grey
Are Angel Kittens who have lost their way,
And every Bulrush on the river bank
A Cat-Tail from some lovely Cat astray.
~Oliver Herford, from The Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten

Our little calico Nala has the bravado of a cat many times her size and age. She climbs the tallest trees, dangles over the house roof eaves to stare eyeball-to-eyeball with the birds picking at seeds in the feeders. She takes no guff from the dogs or from her bigger brother Simba.

One day last summer, a visitor to our farm knocked early in the morning on our front door to say our kitty was struggling to walk, dragging her hind legs behind her. I hurriedly dressed to go find her, thinking I needed to somehow gather her up in a blanket to take to the vet, but she was no where to be found. I looked everywhere in the bushes and the hidden-away spots I knew she enjoyed, but she had vanished. I put out bowls of food to entice her but no luck – after three days, I figured she had crawled away to die alone, as cats are wont to do. Even her brother didn’t seem to know where she had gone as I followed him on his farm excursions.

I tried to theorize what might had happened – had she fallen from a roof or tree and become paralyzed? Surely she could not survive such a devastating injury.

Nine days later, long after I assumed she had died of her injuries or starvation, she appeared on the front porch when I opened the door. She was thin, weak, with her hind legs moving and holding up her weight. She was hungry and extremely vocal and not just a little perturbed that there was an empty cat food bowl on the porch.

On closer inspection, she had healing wounds along either side of her spine, matching closely with what I assume were eagle talon marks that had grasped her, if only briefly, as a raptor tried to carry her away. I suspect, feisty as she was, she fought her predator so fiercely that she was dropped from a bit of a height, bruising her spine. For an eagle, in this land of plenty of prey, dining on a calico is never worth such aggravation and hassle.

What a cat – now minus at least one, if not more lives. Only eight to go.

She is indeed resurrected; completely healed up, her spine is working fine and the only marks left on her back are white patches of new hair growth over her former wounds.

We thought she was lost forever, but she had not lost her way back to us, only way-laid for a bit. Our angel kitten is now resident on the front porch and back to her farm life climbing trees and torturing little birds.

Beware any big raptor who tries to take her on.

Cat and Mouse

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

~Marge Piercy from “The Cat’s Song”

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

~ from “Pangur Bán” by a 9th century Irish monk

I’m still groggy every morning when I step out my front door onto the porch to make my way down a  gravel driveway to get the newspaper. More often than not, it is still quite dark out at 5:15 AM.  More often than not, my slippered foot lands on something a little crunchy and a little squishy and a lot icky on the welcome mat in front of my door.

The front porch cat — as opposed to the back porch cat, the garden shed cat, the hay barn cat, the horse barn cat and the 3 feral stray cats — predator that he is, leaves behind certain remnants of his prey’s….uh, body parts.  Mousey body parts or birdie body parts.  I assume, from the consistency of this little carnivore compost pile, these are unappealing to the kitty, so become the “leavings”, so to speak,  of the kill. Typically, it is a little mouse head, complete with little beady eyes, or a little bird head, complete with little beak, and something that looks suspiciously green and bulbous, like a gall bladder.  I don’t think heads or gall bladders are on my preferred delicacy list either. And they are certainly not on my list of things I like to wear on the bottom of my slipper.  Yet I do and I have.

I’m perplexed by this habit cats have of leaving behind the stuff they don’t want on the welcome mat, even the occasional whole shrew or field mouse, seemingly untouched by claw or incisor, but yet dead as a doornail on the doormat. 

Some cat owners naively think their cats are presenting them with “gifts” –kind of a sacrificial offering to the human god that feeds them.  Nonsense.  This is the universal trash heap for cats and a testimony to their utter disdain for humans.   Leave for the human the unappetizing and truly grotesque…

In my daily walk through life, I too have my share of things from my own hunting expeditions that I unceremoniously dump into a compost pail: things I don’t want, don’t need, can’t use, or abandon when I only want the palatable so the rest can rot.  Apple cores, peach pits, corn husks, banana peels, orange rinds…none have the gross-out characteristics of a tiny gall bladder but I can at least comfort myself with the knowledge they won’t end up on the bottom of anyone’s slipper.

photo by Nate Gibson

Falling Toward Each Other

We are waiting for snow
the way we might wait
for permission
to breathe again.

For only the snow
will release us, only the snow
will be a letting go, a blind falling
towards the body of earth
and towards each other.
~Linda Pastan from “Interlude”

I wish one
could press snowflakes
in a book
like flowers.
~James Schuyler from “February 13, 1975”

I wait with bated breath, wondrous at today’s snowfall, to see the landscape transformed. Each snowflake falls alone, settling in together in communal effort. And each is created as a singular masterpiece itself.

We, the created, are like each snowflake. Together we change the world, sometimes for better, too often for worse. But each of us have come from heaven uniquely designed and purposed, preciously preserved for eternity through God’s loving sacrifice.

Without Him, we melt between the pages of history.

photo by Alexay Kljatov, pbs.org
photo by Alexay Kljatov, pbs.org