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

Let the Mind Take a Photograph

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening

In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.
~Ronald Stuart Thomas A Day in Autumn

Autumn farm chores are good for the weary heart.

When the stresses of the work world amass together and threaten to overwhelm, there is reassurance in the routine of putting on muck boots, gloves, jacket, then hearing the back door bang behind me as I head outside. Following the path to the barns with my trusty corgi boys in the lead, I open wide the doors to hear the welcoming nickers of five different Haflinger voices.

The routine:  loosening up the twine on the hay bales and opening each stall door to put a meal in front of each hungry horse, maneuvering the wheelbarrow to fork up accumulated manure, fill up the water bucket, pat a neck and go on to the next one. By the time I’m done, I am calmer, listening to the rhythmic chewing from five sets of molars. It is a welcome symphony of satisfaction for both the musicians and audience. My mind snaps a picture and records the song to pull out later when needed.

The horses are not in the least perturbed that I may face a challenging day. Like the dogs and cats, they show appreciation that I have come to do what I promised to do–I care for them, I protect them and moreover, I will always return.

Outside the barn, the chill wind blows gently through the bare tree branches with a wintry bite, reminding me who is not in control. I should drop the pretense. The stars, covered most nights by cloud cover, show themselves, glowing alongside the moon in a galactic sweep across the sky.  They exude the tranquility of an Ever-Presence over my bowed and humbled head. I am cared for and protected; He is always there and He will return.

Saving mental photographs of the extraordinary ordinariness of barn chores, I ready myself as autumn fades to winter.

Equilibrium is delivered to my heart, once and ever after, from a stable.

Catastrophic Thinking

(story from the Barnstorming archives)

Chores at our farm are rarely routine since our batch of four male kittens were born 6 months ago. They were delivered unceremoniously in the corner of one of the horse stalls by their young mother whose spontaneous adoption we accepted a mere four weeks before, not realizing we were accepting five kitties, not just one.

They were born under a Haflinger’s nose, and amazingly survived the ordeal and managed to stay safe until the next day when we came in to clean and discovered them nicely warmed near a nice fresh pile of poop. What a birthing spot this mama had chosen. Thankfully Haflingers are tolerant about sharing their space as long as you don’t ask for a share of their food too…

We moved them and mama to a safer spot in the barn, away from big Haflinger feet, and they thrived, getting more adventuresome by the week, until they are now in full adolescent glory, mock fighting with each other, scrambling up and down the hay bales, using the shavings as their personal litter box, doing rodent patrol, and most of all, strolling along the shelves that line the stalls, breathing in the Haflinger smell, and rubbing their fur up against Haflinger noses through the wire. They are best of friends with these ponies in the light of day, as after all they were born right in a Haflinger bed.

But at night it’s another story. Each evening as I come out to do chores after returning home from work, it is pitch dark and the Haflingers, out in their winter paddocks, must walk with me one by one back to their box stalls for the night. Only this is now far more of an adventure thanks to four cats who glory in stealth attacks in the dark, like mountain lions in the shadows, waiting for their prey to pass by.

These four rascals are two tabbies, one black and one gray, all four perfectly suited to be camouflaged in the northwest dim misty fall evenings along a barely lit pathway between paddocks and barn. They flatten themselves tight on the ground, just inches from where our feet will pass, and suddenly, they spring into the air as we approach, just looking for a reaction from either the horse or myself. It never fails to unnerve me, as I’m always anticipating and fearing the horse’s response to a surprise cat attack. Interestingly, the Haflingers, used to kitten antics all night long in the barn, are completely bored by the whole show, but when the tension from me as I tighten on the lead rope comes through to them, their head goes up and they sense there must be something to fear. Then the dancing on the lead rope begins, only because I’m the one with the fear transmitted like an electric current to the Haflinger. We do this four times along the path to the barn as four kittens lay in wait, one after another, just to torment me. By the end of bringing in eight horses, I’m done in by my own case of nerves.

You’d think I’d learn to stop fearing, and start laughing at these pranksters. They are hilarious in their hiding places, their attempts to “guard” the barn door from intruders, their occasional miscalculations that land them right in front of a hoof about to hit the ground. Why I haven’t had at least one squished kitten by now is beyond my comprehension. Yet they survive to torment me and delight me yet another night. I cuddle them after the horses are all put away, flopping them on their backs in my arms, and tickling their tummies and scolding them for their contribution to my increasingly gray hair.

I’m a slow learner. These are like so many of my little daily fears, which seem to hide, blended in to the surroundings of my daily life, ready to spring at me without warning, looking like much bigger scarier things than they really are. I’m a highly skilled catastrophizer in the best of circumstances, and if I have a kitten sized worry, it becomes a mountain lion sized melodrama in no time. Only because I allow it to become so.

Stepping back, taking a deep breath, if I learn to laugh at the small stuff, then it won’t become a “cat”astrophe, now will it? If I can grab those fears, turn them over on their back and tickle their tummies until they purr, then I’m the one enjoying a good time.

I’ll try that the next time I feel that old familiar sensation of “what if?” making my muscles tense and my step quicken. I just might tolerate that walk in the dark a little better, whether it is the scary plane flight, the worry over a loved one’s health, the state of the economy, where the next terrorist will strike, or the uncertainty of what tomorrow might bring.

I’ll know that behind that mountain lion is a soft loving purring fur ball, granting me relief from the mundane, for which I’m extremely grateful. Life is always an adventure, even if it is just a stroll down a barn lane in the dark wondering what might come at me next on the path.

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson

Unhurried

God never hurries. There are no deadlines against which He must work. Only to know this, is to quiet our spirits and relax our nerves.
Those who are in Christ share with Him all the riches of limitless time and endless years. For those out of Christ, time is a devouring beast; before the sons of the new creation time crouches and purrs and licks their hands.
~A. W. Tozer from
The Knowledge of the Holy

When worries overwhelm and fretting becomes fearsome,
I need quieting.
When the noise of news headlines screams for attention,
I call out for quieting.
When there is sadness, conflict, tragedy, illness, estrangement,
I long for quieting.
When too many balls are juggled at once, and I drop one,
I desire quieting.
When the ache lasts too long, the tiredness lingers, the heart skips a beat, and one too many symptoms causes anxiety,
I am desperate for quieting.
When tempted and ready for surrender, forgetting confidence, conviction, commitment and faith,
I pine for quieting.
In order to stay still reflecting restoration and rest,
I am called to quieting.


Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage

~Thomas Merton

photo by Tomomi Gibson

Lonely Unyielding Fir

A silence slipping around like death,
Yet chased by a whisper, a sigh, a breath,
One group of trees, lean, naked and cold,
Inking their crest ‘gainst a sky green-gold,
One path that knows where the corn flowers were;
Lonely, apart, unyielding, one fir;
And over it softly leaning down,
One star that I loved ere the fields went brown.
~Angelina Weld Grimke “A Winter Twilight”



I am astonished at my thirstiness
slaked by such simple things
as a moment of pink,
a burst of birdsong,
a cat balancing on a fence rail,
a focal fir that stands unyielding on a hill top,
a glimpse of tomorrow over the horizon of today.

The Flow of the Motionless

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I count it as a certainty that in paradise, everyone naps.  
~Tom Hodgkinson from How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto

 

 

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A slight breeze stirs tree branches
so shadow patterns play on the curtains
like candlelight in a drafty room.

The harvest is over, corn
stubble and weeds in the field. The sky is
soft blue, a few clouds in the distance.

I will close my eyes, nap for
a while. Perhaps when I wake all will seem
the same. Sleep plays tricks in many ways.
~Matthew Spereng – “Late August, Lying Down to Nap at Noon”

 

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Like a graceful vase, a cat, even when motionless, seems to flow.  
~George F. Will

 

 

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I believe the world would be a better place
if we could stop in the middle of the day~
just rest our eyes for awhile –
stare at the sparkling inside of our eyelids for a few minutes,
pause, pray, purr…
perchance to dream.   Aye, there’s the rub.

We might see things differently when our eyes reopen.

 

 

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A Residual Celestial Heat

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“Somehow the question of identity is always emerging on this farm. I found the body of a barn swallow lying just inside the barn the other day. There was no telling how it died. I noticed the intense particularity of its body, its sharply cut wings, the way its plumage seemed to glow with some residual celestial heat. But it was the particularity of death, not the identity of life, a body in stillness while all around me its kin were twittering and swooping in and out of the hayloft.”
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from “A Swallow in the Hand”

 

 

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Stumbling across death on the farm is always startling.  The farm teems with life 24 hours a day: frogs croaking, dawn bird chorus, insects buzzing and crawling, cats stalking, coyotes yipping, raccoons stealing, dogs wagging, horses galloping, owls and bats swooping.  Amid so much activity, it doesn’t seem possible that some simply cease to be.

An ancient apple tree mysteriously topples over one morning, a beloved riding horse dies of colic, another dies of lymphoma, an old cat finds her final resting place in the hay loft, another old cat naps forever under a tree,  a newborn foal fails to break free of its amniotic sac, another foal delivered unexpectedly and prematurely lies still and lifeless in the shavings of the stall, a vibrantly alive dog is put to sleep due to a growing tumor,  an old dog passes during an afternoon nap, a predator raids the dove cage and leaves behind carnage, our woods bears its own tragic history.

Yet, as often as it happens,  there is a unique particularity about the end of life.  The stillness of death permits a full appreciation of who this individual is, the remarkable care that went into creating every molecule of its being.

The sudden presence of absence is a stark and necessary reminder of what I myself want to leave behind.

In truth, we will glow with residual celestial heat, still warm even after our hearts cease to beat.  We are distinct individuals in our own particularity:  living and dying at a particular time and place as a unique creature, given a chance in the cosmos of infinite possibilities.  The Creator knit us together specially, every feather, hair, bone and sinew a unique work of His Hands, and what we do with what we are given is the stuff between our first God-given breath and our last, handed back to Him.

May we not squander our particular role in the history of the world.

 

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The Golden Amber of Her Eyes

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photo by Tomomi Gibson

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

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.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

 

 

 

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Bobbi arrived on the farm 14 years ago after living a life of luxury in town.  She couldn’t accompany her owner to life in the big city so moved in complete with a van full of her own cat furniture, a personal chair, toys, and special cuisine.  When she strode out of her cat carrier, took a look around and climbed into the nearest tree, she never looked back at the accoutrements of her former full time indoor life.  She became queen of the farm, undisputed and regal, watching the goings-on from a carefully calculated and royal distance, never interacting with her subjects unless it was absolutely necessary.

She tolerated other cats, but barely.  They scattered when she came in view.  She thought dogs were a waste of fur covering empty skulls, but when they met her needs, like on a chilly night, she would happily bunk down with them.  They were astonished but grateful for her royal blessing when she decided to sleep among them: a two-dog and one-cat night.

She chose only one person to be subject to: our daughter-in-law Tomomi.  On Tomomi’s first visit from Japan, Bobbi approached her and decided then and there they were meant for each other.  During Tomomi’s annual summer visits, Bobbi brought her mice on the welcome mat and followed her like a puppy, coming only when Tomomi called, and deigned to allow her to touch her calico coat.

Earlier this year, nearly 16 years old, Bobbi took over the front porch bench when our black cat Jose died.  She liked to stay a bit closer to us, but seemed thinner and less disdainful.  When two kittens arrived to live in the barn this summer and within a week formed a coup and took over the front porch, Bobbi retreated again to her other quarters on the farm. I worried a bit that she had given in too easily with no yowls or flying fur.

Yesterday morning she lay still on the grassy slope out front – she was never one to take her naps where her subjects could see her.  I knew her long life was over.

Long live Queen Bobbi.  May you forever reign in our hearts.

 

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

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photo by Nate Gibson

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photo by Nate Gibson