Thursday, January 25, 2018

Don't Think About Tiger

“Don’t focus on finding a man,” old self-help books used to advise husband-hunting women. “Instead, get involved in something: take an evening course, join a bird watchers group, volunteer. And when you least expect it, the love of your life will appear.”

Lately I’ve been coming across similar advice, albeit on topics other than finding a man.

Like everyone I know who has tried to meditate, I often feel frustrated at my seeming failure to get anywhere. What is the point, I wonder, of sitting day after day with aching hips and knees while my mind compiles grocery lists and resurrects old forgotten gripes? When will I finally see results, find peace of mind, achieve even a dumbed-down version of enlightenment?

 Here is Thomas Merton on how to approach meditation (which he refers to as contemplation): “[A] law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation, or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced.” (Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 2)

As with finding a mate, it looks like the only way to reach a meditative or contemplative state is not to go at it head-on, with focus and singleness of purpose--not, in other words, in the way that we were taught at school. Rather the trick seems to be in a sideways approach, not looking the thing directly in the eye but waiting quietly for it to come to you, sort of how you might entice a wild animal.

Speaking of wild animals, I found an astounding example of this “pursuit by indirection” in a Nature documentary about the rare, elusive, and endangered Siberian tiger.

Sooyong Park, a Korean photographer, lived five years in the far eastern forests of Russia filming the tigers. He spent as long as seven months at a time in complete solitude, hunkered in a four-foot hole he had dug in the ground and roofed with planks, or up on a tree blind. He subsisted on rice, nuts and salt, in -30F temperatures, as he waited endlessly for the tigers to appear.

At one point, having gone eighty days without even a glimpse of a tiger, he became entranced with the beauty of the falling snow and started filming that instead. And that is when not one but three tigers—a mother and her cubs--appeared.

Towards the end of the video, a biologist who is also hoping to film the tigers asks Sooyong Park for advice.  Here is Park’s response:

“Don’t think about tiger!
 Only hear,
feel the Nature.
And then maybe tiger come….”

We each long for our own tiger. But perhaps, instead of crashing through the forest after it in the time-honored American way, we could try waiting patiently, focusing on our daily tasks, and paying attention to what is before us.

And then maybe tiger come.

(Park’s five years in the forest, which left him so weak and wasted that he could barely walk, yielded unprecedented footage of Siberian tigers in the wild. You can see it here.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Birds And Cats

First, a confession: I am the previous owner of several outdoor cats. I believed I was doing the right thing. My cats were neutered. They had food, shelter, and regular vet visits. They were free to climb trees and chase butterflies. I loved to watch them stalking in the garden like miniature tigers.

When the first one, black Grendel, came back from one of his nights on the town with one ear and half his face torn off, I rushed him to the vet, who managed to sew him back together. Soon after that, Grendel went away again and never came back.

The next one, an orange kitten named Gato, somehow broke his leg while playing in the garden. The vet put it in a cast. When the cast came off, Gato went exploring, and we never saw him again.

Mitsou was an exquisite chocolate-point Siamese. Her head and face were round, a throwback to the days before anorexic-looking, sunken-cheeked cats reminiscent of runway models became fashionable. In love with her looks, and tired of losing cats, I kept her indoors, where she ruled the household, especially the dogs, for seventeen years.

I adopted Pascal, a black and white kitten who had been abandoned by his mother, before his eyes opened. He had to be fed every two hours, so I put him in a cardboard box and took him to the office. After each feeding I would take him to the bathroom where I would enact a mother cat’s attentions by wiping his nether regions with a washcloth dipped in warm water.

As Pascal grew, and grew, so did his affection for me. I could not sit down without huge, rangy Pascal flinging himself on top of me, purring and kneading and drooling, eyes half-closed in bliss. If I had left the back door open, I doubt that he would have chosen to leave my side. But I didn’t. Pascal was an indoor cat.

But then we moved to a suburb of DC and I had a long commute, which meant that we had to install a dog door so the dog could let himself out to the fenced-in yard during the day, which also meant that Pascal became an indoor-outdoor cat.

He had a grand time, and became an expert hunter of moles, something that neither his mother nor I had ever taught him. His record was nine moles in a single evening, which he laid in a row next to my lawn chair while I sat watching the sunset.

But within six months he was dead--poisoned, we think, by licking antifreeze off somebody’s driveway.

You see where this is going?

While many an indoor cat lives as long as twenty years, the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is two to three years. Needless to say, my present top-predator-in-residence, Telemann, lives strictly indoors.

But Telemann’s safety is only half the reason why I keep him in the house. The other half is the welfare of the innocent chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, goldfinches and woodpeckers who come to our feeders.

There is no doubt in my mind that, despite his exquisite diet of raw turkey, given five minutes in the yard sweet Telemann would turn into a bird-killing machine. According to the Bird Conservancy, in the U.S. cats kill approximately 2.4 BILLION birds a year. This makes cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds (human-caused because we’re the ones who let the cats outside).

With a pane of glass between them, however, Telemann and my birds coexist peacefully. It didn’t take long for the birds to figure out that the kitten swatting at them just inches away from the feeder was prevented by some invisible magic from catching them.

For Telemann, the birds outside the window are just another joy in the joy-filled life that we strive to provide for him. When they are eating, he leaps from windowsill to windowsill to get the best view, looking fierce and waving his tail like a tiger on the hunt.

And then there are the squirrels, gray like him and almost his size, bold enough to “touch” noses through the glass. They are the big game, the zebras and wildebeest of Telemann’s savannas.

Is Telemann frustrated because he can’t crunch on the neck of a titmouse, or sever a squirrel’s spine? Probably. It is in Telemann’s nature to enjoy killing things, just as it is in mine to enjoy eating the flesh of lobsters boiled alive. But I don’t, and I survive the deprivation, and so does he. Telemann and I already have almost too much pleasure in our lives.

But the birds, those little harmless beautiful bits of Nature, are threatened everywhere by the loss of woods and fields and bugs and wildflowers. They suffer from sudden and bizarre weather events. And they are eaten by the small tigers that we love. They need all the help they can get. 

So Telemann does his bit by staying inside, and I do mine every morning, when I clean his litter box.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Camels, Not Reindeer

In my Catalan childhood Christmas was a time of manger scenes (the manger left empty until midnight Mass, when the long-awaited  Baby was placed in it); ancient carols (some of them funny, having to do with misbehaving shepherds); and my favorite dessert, turrons d’Alicant, the almond nougat bars that required a hammer to break them into individual portions.

Gifts were out of the question until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, el dia dels Reis. The night before, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar guided by a star came swaying atop their camels to leave gifts on the balconies of apartment houses all over Barcelona.

As the days after Christmas passed—the feast of the Holy Innocents, those poor babies slaughtered by paranoid Herod; the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr--my anticipation grew. It was the culmination of a months’ long pregnancy-like state, which began every autumn with my spotting the doll of my dreams in the window of a toy shop.

Like a lover, I would bring up this doll in every conversation, point her out to my mother whenever we passed the toy store, and meditate on her every night before going to sleep. Finally, towards the end of Advent, I would write my letter to the three Kings, humbly imploring them to bring me my longed-for child.

After that, it was out of my hands, and all I could do was pray and wait until the night of January 5th, when the ceremony of “the laying of the trays” took place.

There were two of these trays, one for the balcony of my grandparents’ apartment, and one for our own balcony. First, we went to my grandparents.  After my grandmother finished entreating my father not to kill himself by working so hard; my father’s younger sisters asked his opinion about some musical performance they’d just heard on the radio; and everyone had a glass of sherry “because it was such a cold night,” I was buttoned into my stiff winter coat and my grandfather flung open the balcony.

My father would lead me out on the balcony and point toward the heavens. “You see that bright star up there? That, I am almost certain, is the star of the Three Kings. It is especially bright to help the camels find our balconies tonight.”

My little black-clad grandmother (she had just lost her eldest son to cancer and malnutrition following the Spanish Civil War) would totter in on her high heels, bearing the tray, which held a dish with three pieces of nougat for the Magi and another with three leaves of lettuce for the camels. She handed me the tray, I set it down carefully on the balcony floor, and we all knelt while my grandfather led us in an Our Father.

Back in our apartment, my parents and I laid out another tray and, after another Our Father, I was sent to bed. There I would lie in a fever of excitement only equaled by what I experienced the night before my daughters’ births. Would the Reis really come, and would I find my doll, my child, on one of those trays in the morning?

Despite the anticipation, I always managed to fall asleep. But one year—I must have been five or six—I awoke in the dark and saw, standing at the foot of my bed, none other than Balthasar, el rei moro, the Moorish king, the most exotic of the three. He had a thin face and dark brown skin, and wore a turban and robe of a fine, scintillating green material. I still remember the look of otherworldly kindness in his eyes.

Although my night visitation only happened once, in the morning there was always the doll. One year it was a rubber doll with a hole in her mouth and another between her thighs. I could pour water out of a tiny baby bottle into the mouth and then experience the thrill of changing diapers. Another year it was a Black doll, dressed in ruffled white organdy. And one year there were two dolls, Pituco and Pituca, with arms and legs made of a spongy material that could be bent in all directions.
Those dolls were, without exception, infant or toddler dolls on which I could vent my maternal instincts and practice for what everyone anticipated would be my future career. If someone had handed me a doll with breasts and hips and feet in tiny high-heeled shoes I wouldn’t have known what to do with her. The last thing that Barbie looks like she needs is a mother.

The year I turned eleven we were living in Ecuador. That Christmas there were no grandparents, no turrons or manger scenes.  No laying of trays on January 5th. I was growing faster than my mother could let down the hems of my dresses, and puberty was around the corner. My mother thought it was time to have a talk.

 “You do realize,” she said, “that the gifts of the Magi actually come from the parents?”

“Sure,” I said. “I know. Of course.”

But I was appalled. Appalled that that world of ceremony, mystery, and feverish anticipation--and also the world in which I was la nena, the center of a watchful, loving circle of grandparents and aunts and uncles--had suddenly vanished forever.

 And I was embarrassed, of course, that I was eleven years old and starting to grow breasts and my mother had had to break the news about the Magi. But I was a backward kid, reluctant to grow up. I wonder now if my mother felt sad to dash my illusions, or if she was irritated by my stubborn naivety.

Either way, she did what she had to do, and I’m grateful she spoke up. But around this time of year I always wonder what it would be like to wake up in the night and once again see the Moorish King standing at the foot of my bed.