The Saga of Moira Aschenputtel

Reading with a cat (or dog!) is one of my favorite images of contentment.

There’s something soothing about the quiet it requires, the warmth of the fuzzy one curled up on a lap or on the floor nearby. It’s an image of comfort, as we imagine the person sitting for a period of time, reading in quiet companionship. And a cat or dog, who can’t interrupt (at least not with speech) evokes a shared silence conducive to reading.

I was lucky enough to spend many hours over Thanksgiving break in such a position. I feel very rested.

I have spent many hours reading with pets over the years, but this weekend was a little different. This weekend we adopted a new cat because her person, my cousin, recently died. This kitty has quite a story.

This kitty found and claimed my cousin’s husband about four and a half years ago. She was alone and needed a home, and they were mourning the recent loss of their previous cat. It was perfect. Brian was retired and lonely while his wife was at work, so the cat became his companion, and in the way these things go, they rescued each other.

But then he got cancer. He was strong and healthy, and he kicked it, but it came back with a vengeance. Through a second round of chemo and some alternative medicines, including trips to far-off retreats and Bucket List vacations, the kitty stayed close, offering what comfort she could. When he died, she was the only other heartbeat in the house, and Carrie was consoled, but still bereft.

A married woman for two thirds of her life, Carrie was lost without her partner. The kitty was a tie to him, but also a reminder of her loss. After a few months, the cat started wandering off for longer and longer periods.

She was on walkabout when the fire came.

When Carrie evacuated, seriously fearing for her house and property, she looked high and low for the cat. The school where she taught third grade closed for over a week. She took refuge at her parents’ house fifteen miles away. She feared for the little gray cat alone in the smoke and ash. Ten days later the kitty returned–haggard, dirty, hungry, lonely.

In the months that followed, she stayed home more. She seemed to sleep more. Carrie described her as lazy. The truth was they were both cocooning, trying to decide what shape their life would take moving forward. My cousin made the decision to stay in the house. She resolved to renovate and redecorate and make the house hers–to shape her next phase of life purposefully.

But just as she seemed to be finding her footing, she went to sleep one Saturday night and didn’t wake up.

The cat went rogue.

How much, really, should one little cat have to take? How much can any of us take? She came and went, and the neighbors put food out for her, but she didn’t live there anymore. No one did. Instead, she watched.

In the weeks that followed, the house was emptied. The last ties to her people were boxed and bagged and donated and dumped. What reason could she have for staying there? The food, sure, but nothing else, really–at least not until the sweet voice and soft hand of a sixteen year old girl who scratched her ears and cleaned the cobwebs off her whiskers.
We went to help clean the house last weekend and came home with a new kitty cat. We have pets, and she was dirty and flea-addled, so she needs to be quarantined for a bit while she heals and recovers and adapts. And while she does, we’re taking turns doing our various homework in the back room with her. Because reading with a cat is the best way to read.

The box: In Memoriam

My dad arrived in the mail today.
A box.  I had to sign for him.
The postal carrier was sweet—told me to focus on happy memories—and then handed me the box. The body. My dad’s ashes. How have we come to such a place where the dead are mailed? I received a box of books at the same time. Didn’t have to sign for them. People are more important than presents, but not so important they can’t be boxed and shipped—moved from holding facility to mail truck with no one knowing or caring what’s in the box. That’s my dad. Be gentle with him.
And yet no need. He’s not there. It’s a box. It’s full of ash. I haven’t opened it yet, but I’ve seen other “cremains.” He’ll look like fine sand from an Oregon beach, some bigger bits poking out of the dust. He won’t be wearing his NEVADA suspenders or his dorky little glasses case that hung from his belt loop on a carabiner for as long as I remember him. No teeny agenda book in his breast pocket. No mustache. No glasses. No wedding ring. All those things I collected long ago, too early to appreciate them—they were surrounded with the bitterness of losing him to dementia, but still having to steward his body through the end.
That transition complete now, I am gifted with a box of dad, and a strange freedom to reframe the objects I associate with him, to see them in light of real loss. Now he’s really gone.  Now I can’t even hold his hand or kiss his head or sing him “Stardust” anymore… I could sing to the box.
But he’s not there. He’s not in the box. He’s in my head and in my heart and in some of my movements and some of my words. He’s in my children and he’s in the wind. I felt him at Yellowstone, hiking, when I learned of his death. I took him with me through Yellowstone’s canyons and meadows, looking for wildlife while the light lasted.
He’s in my pictures; that is certain.  He wanted to be a photographer, but the closest thing the University of Alaska offered to a photography degree in 1949 was chemistry. He took some classes, then he followed different passions.  But he took pictures all his life. He once lost his camera on a trip to Canada, and some stranger found and returned it, shipping it from British Columbia to Nevada at his own cost. I have rarely seen dad so happy as when he opened that box. When I bought myself a camera in college and then returned it (I really couldn’t afford it; returning it was a very responsible, adult thing to do), he bought me a camera for my graduation. And a case. And two lenses. And four filters. He was proud that I liked taking pictures too. But it wasn’t my driving passion either, but something to document with, to create, to express how we see or at least acknowledge the appreciation that both of us have for the world.
There are other boxes to go through: boxes of slides, thousands of slides of the pictures he took. Now that he’s gone, I can go through them, and I’ll find him again, in what he found important enough to photograph and how he chose to frame it. I’ll see the world through his eyes, and I’ll have questions for him that no one will be able to answer. But in the questioning, there will be commerce. In the looking, there will be contact. And as with every time we try to see the world through another pair of eyes, there will be love.
Reading · Teaching

Transfiguring Grief

I taught the story of Phaethon in my Myth as Lit class last week.  In some ways, it’s become trite:  Young Phaethon gets caught up in his desire to drive his father’s car, to step in to his shoes too soon, and ends up literally going down in flames.  Phaethon’s dad happens to drive the sun, not just a Camaro, so when he goes too high he scorches the heavens, and when he drops too low he sets the world on fire.

Jove, his grandfather, has to shoot him out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Apollo, his father, mourns so that the world is sunk in to darkness, for he is too distraught to go to work. The only light comes from the burning wreckage of the earth. This sounds pretty dramatic as I write, but still the story of Phaethon taking on his dad’s role before he’s ready is pretty well known, and can feel obvious.

I classify it in class as one of the 18-year-old-itis tales—one where the only “tragic flaw” is youth. He is in that period of life when boys (girls too, but statistics bear out mostly boys) start taking big risks without realizing the consequences. When they feel bullet proof.  But they’re not.  And they die.  Icarus falls here too, of course, and for similar reasons—flying too high, too fast.

So that’s why it feels overused, I suppose, because it is. There are lots of stories of young men dying because they underestimate laws of physics and overestimate their own abilities. But reading it this time, I was struck not so much by that lesson, but more by the grieving family he left behind.

In Ovid’s tale, Apollo mourns his son with a depth and a humaneness that staggers me.  When he refuses to show up to work, he cries, “Let someone else/ now guide the chariot that bears the light!/ If none will do that, and the gods confess/ they can’t, let Jove himself take on that task!/ And when he plies my reins, at least for once/ he’ll have to set aside the thunderbolts/ he uses to strip others of their sons.” He is devastated, and he is a god. What chance, then, have the mortals who love Phaethon?

His mother mourns.  She wanders the world looking for a sign of him, any trace of his lost body.  When she finds the grave that nymphs have made for him, she throws herself on it and bathes it in tears.  His sisters follow, and in their grief, they transform in to poplar trees.  The mother loses more children, as she tries to tug at the branches to free them, only to be told the branches are their arms, and she’s hurting them more by holding on. 

A cousin, too, transforms in his sorrow, this time to a swan.  (His name is Cycnus, which means ‘swan,’ and we still have ‘cygnet’ in English, meaning a baby swan.) Ovid uses this and other opportunities to show that we have an underlying nature that can be revealed by transformation. Cycnus wails for Phaethon as a swan, while his sisters are rendered immobile by their grief.  Paralyzed.  They are able only to cry tears of sap, which, beautifully, transform in to amber. Those who could not abide the pain of grief gave themselves over completely. 

This message seems clear to me: grief is transfiguring. If we let it, it can undo us. It always changes us. In the context of Apollo and his creed–Know thyself; and Nothing in excess—we can come to see even grief can be excessive, but the gods also grieve, so there must be something noble in feeling loss so profoundly. 

In the larger context of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it anticipates the story of Proserpina’s (Persephone) marriage to Pluto, which bonds life to death in an unbreakable union, promising that death will never just be death; there will always be life attending—following in sequence as the seasons follow one another, and living together with death, so we can bear death more easily.

This scene struck me last week when I taught it. It resonates even more today, in the aftermath of the largest mass shooting in recent American history. I hope we let this grief transform us too, and resolve to take action to prevent it happening again.  Young men do lots of crazy things that put their lives at risk, but going to a concert shouldn’t be one of them.
[image from]


What I Did Over Summer Vacation

Not a lot, honestly.

That’s not true—just not what I had in mind to do. I had great plans for a sabbatical project and some travel and a last hurrah of a summer before my institution converts from a quarter system to a semester system next year, and we go back to school in mid-August, rather than late September.

I did do some writing. I did do some reading. But everything else went haywire.
My mother passed away in April. It was a long time coming, and I expected it, I think, every day for the last six years or so, except the day it happened. I have been dreading phone calls for years, especially from anything looking medical, but for some reason, this time when I picked up the phone, it was the farthest thing from my mind. I actually was thinking, “Oh, it must be time for a quarterly review.”
“Hello, Ms. Baker. This is ______.  I’m calling to inform you of your mother’s death.”
First of all, who says that? Shouldn’t she ask me to sit down, or say she has some bad news? Eesh. I did sit down. Abruptly. The breath I let out was a sigh and a moan and a balloon fluttering around in my chest.
No. Not now. Not like this. When my father passed away, I was a thousand miles away, and I got the call that if I wanted to say goodbye, I should come right down. I couldn’t, of course, but they tried. Where was that call this time, when I was twenty minutes away?
This time it was over in a moment. Years of anguish, as she battled Paranoid Schizophrenia, winning some days–losing ground, most days. After years in her convalescent hospital, after more than a year on hospice, and after being completely blind and not particularly noticing, she had only clothes and a few stuffed animals in her possession. I donated them to the convalescent hospital. They didn’t even need me to come down.
All there was left to do was wait for the death certificates and the cremains, both of which would be mailed. “Thank you. Have a nice day. Very sorry for your loss.”

I have been responsible for my parents for the last ten years. Dad had dementia and passed away a year and a half before Mom. Because I had been mourning them for so long, I thought it wouldn’t hit me so hard. It didn’t hit. It sucked.
It sucked the life out of me–all my energy, all my emotion. I couldn’t think or feel or cry or yell. I watched more tv this summer than I have in the last ten years. And those things I said I’d do—I forgot what they were. All my plans involved thinking, and I just didn’t have thinking in me.
I read novels. I watched Netflix. I filled my head with other stories, until I was ready to tell my own. I’m ready now. And being ready to tell my story means I’m ready to work again. I’m ready for the fall quarter. I’m a chapter away from that book being done. I’m taking a fiction writing workshop and looking for an agent.
There are stories to be told about my mom now, and I’ve started spinning some out for my kids. That will continue, now that it makes my heart swell, rather than deflates me, to talk about her, now that she is an exhalation, a soul free in the ether. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Life flows on.

What I learned from my mother

I’m still processing my mom’s death, but since it followed a ten year decline in to paranoid schizophrenia, part of me feels like I should be farther along.  In some ways, after all, I’ve been mourning her loss for years. I mourned the absence of a grandmother in my children’s lives, the fact that she was “here” but couldn’t hear our triumphs and setbacks like she used to, the fact that every visit took her farther away from me, but not so far I could find any closure. 
Once she was medicated out of the terror-inducing delusions, she was still left with delusions. I had a mom, but not my mom, or at least it didn’t feel that way.  Her passing is allowing me to close some doors and open some that were too painful to deal with. It was too hard to think about the happy memories when I was faced with her suffering at every visit. But now that has passed, I can redirect my thoughts of her to the good ones–and there are many–and give myself permission to roll around in them. 
Upon some reflection, I feel like I’ve had something of an epiphany. I think I got my mind from my dad—my curiosity, my sense of wonder, my joy in learning.  But I know I got my heart from my mom. 
The middle child of seven, she grew up around kids and couldn’t wait to start her own family.  When she miscarried twins at 22, the doctors declared her broken and unable to have her own children. That broke her heart, but when it healed, or when the desire to raise a family overcame the failure of Plan A, my parents adopted two children.They told themselves it was better, even, because they could choose how to plan their family—a son first, then a daughter. So they made it happen. And she loved those babies like crazy.
Then she had me at 35. She didn’t believe it at first, the “broken” comments about her body still as fresh and wounding as they had been years before. She asked the doctor if one could be “a little bit pregnant.” But there I was.  And she loved me like crazy, too.
She loved lots of people and lots of things–painting and music and reading and traveling–and she was a model for me for how to have a heart open to the world.  Mostly, though, above all else, she loved her family:  her parents and siblings, and then her husband and children, her heart growing with each marriage and birth.
I found an anniversary poem she wrote for my dad on their 38th anniversary, where she described their family like a complete set—first came a blond boy, then a red-haired girl, then a little dark-haired baby. Genetically, of course, we’re all different, but she described us so sweetly, like a lucky kid getting all three colors out of the gumball machine. This was all framed in an ode to her husband—the best prize she’d ever won. She loved us, and she made it her life’s goal to make a loving home for us.

And she did. Warm, supportive, comforting, cozy, cinnamon-scented, celebratory home-life, I learned from her. And I am ever grateful.

Living · Writing

After the Golden Years

When my first child was born, I was told to look in to his eyes, because he had so recently looked on infinity.  Does looking in to a dying person’s eyes give the same view?  What if that person is blind?
Poetry is how I process.  Sometimes feelings are too big to fit in to prose.  That doesn’t mean poetry written in emotional straits is necessarily good—far from it, and it can be the opposite.  But it does mean, at least for me, that ordinary statements don’t suffice.  They don’t draw out the pain as well as words that have been subjected to rules and strictures, held to higher standards. Sometimes poetry soothes because it forces one to take some critical distance from the subject, and in that space, healing happens, or begins to.
I visited my mother recently.  She has paranoid schizophrenia, she is blind, and she lives in a convalescent center.  When I walked in, she was sleeping, and she was so stiff and uncomfortable looking, she appeared frozen in death.  I staggered, then realized she was only mimicking death—not yet moving on, but readying herself and me.  She woke abruptly, shuddering at the sound of my voice, then calming at it when I began to sing.
Her eyes are blindness.  What does she see?  What can I see in them?  Blankness, peace, a tabula rasa—pure potential.  Perhaps that is a window to infinity.  It’s not the face of angels I was told would be lingering in my son’s eyes, but it is the face of humanity reckoning, reflecting, readying.
It’s as if she’s caught between earth and ether, inhabiting neither completely.  Here she is on a mountaintop, years ago, close enough to touch the sky.
After the Golden Years

She walks a line she doesn’t see;
She feels it vibrate in her mind.
On one side life, across it death—
She’s wheelchair bound and wholly blind.

It’s years now since she felt real fear,
Or threw her head back, laughing long.
Her days are numb now, mind’s sedate.
I speak to her in favorite songs.

“Too Ra Loo Ra” wakes her up.
“Scarlett Ribbons” slows her breath.
“Stardust” makes her arch her back
In rictus as she tries on death.

One day she’ll whisper to her soul,
And daughter’s dread will turn to awe.
I brush her hair back from her eyes
And sing her “Que sera sera.”