Life After…Go figure

A Narrative of Life Outside The Box

Archive for the category “Life essays”

Censorship and Persian Eunuchs

As a child, I was lucky to attend a small summer camp in Vermont. There were things about the camp that were wonderful: three to five weeks of focusing on horses, riding skills, free swim periods in late afternoons. There were aspects of life there that were a little austere: one piece of candy, one soda, one ice-cream cone on sundays IF you attended Methodist services in town. Ultimately, camp was an escape into the green leaf-lit canopy of trees, animals, dirt and cats that I loved. One July day, when I was about twelve, I had come to another tent looking for my friend Kay and found it empty. On the floor near the older girl’s bed was a book I hadn’t seen before, The Persian Boy, but I knew the author; my mother had given me another book by Mary Renault that year. I sat down on the damp and age softened wood floor of the tent and opened it.

The hot summer day and the green and blue tent shadows in sunlight vanished. I was with the boy, Bagoas, in the high mountain country of Persia, then the sordid eunuch slave markets of Babylon. I had no idea what the word ‘eunuch’ meant. I didn’t care. I crept through the cool, dark corridors of the ancient and exquisite palaces of Ekbatana and Susa and watched the sun flash on the gold fish tiles of pools and fountains. There was a lot I didn’t understand. I could see that Bagoas suffered shame and loneliness with Emperor Darius and that he loved Alexander the Great with all his heart. Still, Bagoas spoke to me, not just drawing me into his world but transcending the barriers of time, of place and even my own sheltered ignorance until what he said made sense, not necessarily in every detail, but in what he heard, felt and saw, in what he tasted and smelled, in his sadness and fascinations.

Suddenly I was jerked back into the reality of the warm tent and the green-laden air of the Vermont forest when I heard my friend exclaim “Oh God, what are you doing? I have to read that book for school. It’s absolutely disgusting, all about gay sex and prostitution and harems! If anybody catches you with that I’ll never hear the end of it for letting a younger kid read it-“ or something to that effect. I had no idea what she was talking about and needless to say, Kay never enlightened me beyond repeating her initial torrent in a gentler voice.

The Persian Boy remains one of my favorite books today. I love it for the empathy of Mary Renault’s words, the bridge she built between me and a young man dead for over two thousand years. I value the book for the memory of how I first found it. That moment taught me that beautiful things can be censored, by prejudice and hatred for the unknown. Because I felt the loss of Bagoas’ story in my heart, and the pain of separation from his truth, his experience, I learned that even if this censorship came from the kindest intentions, that it was not something I could accept.

It would be years before I found my voice on Civil Rights, Freedom of the Press or Speech and began fighting for them and for the Humanities as well. I didn’t realize at the moment the book was pulled out of my hands, that I had any recourse but the sadness of not knowing the end of Bagoas’ story. I didn’t understand that that moment made me as much of a rebel as Bagoas himself was, in refusing to tamely accept his fate. What I did understand, both then and now, is that everyone’s voice, everyone’s story, can change lives and worlds, and as an aspiring minister, I can imagine few lessons as important to hold in my heart.

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On Cats, Part One: The Absolution of Lady Madeloone

I am sitting in bed this morning, and even though I have a double mattress, I am on the outer edge. This is primarily because a ten and a half pound animal, curled into a furry, tight crescent measuring one foot at the most, is asleep in the center of the bed. Her forearm is crooked over her face; she is not receiving petitioners just now. A low, eldritch, thin, rubbery hooting sound, like an eraser pushed against smooth paper, or a muted owl sneeze echoes up from her middle. She is snoring.

I have not always had the favor of cats. I spent my early childhood in a city, and it took me a long time to understand the difference between what animals like to do in cartoon-worlds, or when they’re stuffed toys on a shelf and what they prefer as living, breathing souls. My early experiences were not malicious but involved more error, through trial, than success. I eventually learned that cats do not like to wear doll clothes, ride in scoop nets, or have anything to do with a sand box that is not their litter box, especially when it’s wet. Dogs, I think, understood and forgave more quickly; cats took longer.

The 4H club kittens my camp raised every summer seemed to like me as a substitute mom/nursemaid, whenever there wasn’t anything better to do. One year a little grey male spent every chance he could asleep in my arms, sucking on my finger and purring. Adult cats, however, needed more convincing. The fact that dogs liked me, and frequently demonstrated their affection by trying to wash me, covering me with fur and leaving scent marks on my clothing (no, not the kind distinguishable to humans) did nothing to advance my cause with the feline population.

By the time I was ten years old, children my age had made it clear; they were not my friends. They were people who taunted me, got me in trouble, bullied me and made my life hell for reasons that escape me to this day. My mother and I had moved to a prosperous suburb of Boston just before 4th grade. She had fantasies of my playing kick the can with neighborhood kids and going to the movies downtown on weekends, (to be fair) just as she had during her own childhood in the mid to late 40s. (Dear reader, I think you have just spotted the intergenerational disconnect here.) Instead, since apparently I couldn’t play soccer, assist with amateur petty crime, condone cruelty to animals or stop liking books, I was fish food in that town from day one.

My dog Shadow became my best friend, my second mother and in some ways my first child. I would have run in front of a car for her, and I think she knew it. In fact, I think she started passing this on, because not only did I feel that way about any dog not trying to bite me, most of the dogs I run into to this day seem to understand that it’s still true. If they needed me, I would fight to the death for them without a second thought. They very graciously gloss over the fact that at 5″6, as a dumpy uncoordinated person in my 30’s, this death-defying chivalry, while utterly sincere, is worth about as much as the Oxford English Dictionary is on a daily basis to Sarah Palin.

I had, nominally, a cat but she lived with my father. He moved her to his summer-house in Maine and while she enjoyed hunting small animals of every description there, and occasionally suffered to give him affection, she had dismissed me. I was too big to hunt, too stupid to adopt as a surrogate kitten or family member and a dead loss as a good quality servant.

A week after my 20th birthday, my dog Shadow died. I returned to college for my sophomore year, relieved to be away from the town we still lived in and its utter dearth of friends and the house I had grown up in with her. I knew it would be years before I would be able to adopt a pet of my own.

That Thanksgiving, I couldn’t face my house. My relationship with my mother had been deteriorating rapidly, and my father was off to his third wife’s family for the holiday event. A very kind professor invited me to Thanksgiving dinner at her small farmhouse in Western Massachusetts. She had a few pets but, all these years later, only the Empress of her household remains in my memory. The august ruler was a brown mackerel-stripped tabby with a white belly and feet. She was a lady of mature years, with long dignified whiskers that curved down gracefully and yellow eyes. Her name was Madeloone. It should be said that I am not spelling her name right; my only defense is that cats generally rise above such petty distinctive notions like alphabets.

With the exception of the kittens I had helped to tend all those years before, cats had always reacted to me by turning the other way. Usually with emphatic attitude. Elizabeth Taylor and Gloria Swanson are rank beginners compared with the artistic flair in the plumpest, least prepossessing cat’s ability to walk away in disdain.

Madeloone gravely sniffed my fingers, as my hostess asked me about family pets and I explained that my dog had died in August. Then I felt something indescribably light, warm and velvety against my hand. Maldeloone was pushing her densely furred ears into my fingers. She started to purr. Gently, I picked her up and she sniffed my shoulder with the attitude of a dowager duchess inspecting a batch of snails destined for the escargot platters. She continued to purr. It’s difficult to remember the exact progression of events now, but Madeloone continued to make concessions. She sat on my lap willingly. She wove around my legs. She accepted any and all petting or appropriate forms of homage.

The next cat I encountered belonged to a friend. Instead of the usual dismissive glance, I received a thorough finger inspection and rub. The neighborhood cat near my dorm decided to fall asleep in my jacket on cold nights. An ex boyfriend’s cat deemed me lap worthy faster than anyone in his house would have prefered. And so it went.

Madeloone’s philanthropy did not have the obvious result that it would have with dogs. Cats are different. Their domestication appears much thinner, a veneer over the ancient bush and desert felines that wandered into granaries, looking for mice and lizards. In my experience, they look at humans as a threat, as potential Staff, and in instances of great fortune, as companions, or rarer still, surrogate family. Since my Thanksgiving audience, cats have stopped turning away and started making overtures of the kind they specialize in.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the continued friendly approaches by tongue lagging, tail wagging happy furry souls that dogs still gift me with. But Madeloone opened a door into a world of soft-footed steps, wild hunts for killer catnip mousies, strange operatic songs and the outboard motor rumbles of a purring belly. She also gave me something even more dear.

Years after I met Madelone, I went into a small Humane Society shelter in Virginia, originally looking for a kitten. Then I saw a small, black-sand shaded face with enormous jade green eyes and a flaming orange blaze stretching up from a spotted nose. It belonged to the young mother of the last kittens remaining in the shelter; only her babies had been adopted. (Really more of an unwed teen pregnancy case, as she had delivered them before turning 1 year herself.) I asked to meet her and sat down in a rocking chair in the cat-room. The caretaker put her on my knees and the little cat stared up at me. Then she turned herself around and fell asleep in my lap. Now she is asleep in the center of my bed. She is as surely a gift of Madeloone’s largesse as the original blessing of that great lady cat. Lady Madeloone, you should have lived in 12th century Aquitaine as a lovely noblewoman surrounded by adoring minstrels. Perhaps you were. In any case, wherever you are today–and given your age I’m sure it’s somewhere metaphysical–thank you.

A Short History of Pain

My husband, and I didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pain, but there’s one short conversation we had on the topic that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I have no idea what we were doing, or where we were, but Steve happened to mention a procedure he underwent when he had a tube inserted–a more innocuous, but perhaps less accurate word than “shoved”–into his chest to either drain fluid or facilitate some other form of vital plumbing around the time of one of his heart surgeries. I don’t recall the reason that he couldn’t have anesthesia. I’m sure, knowing Steve’s doctors, that it wasn’t about saving money or hyper callousness, but still, he was wide awake for it.

Steve told me that it was excruciating. He had to have it done at least twice. He had a lot of scars on his chest, one looping around under an arm, the badge of his membership in what he called “the zipper club” down his sternum and a couple of utterly smooth narrow, oval patches, whitened with age on each side of his torso–entry and exit, for the tubes, I guess. The image that stays with me most is the expression on his face as he talked about it with me. His eyes were wide, his feathery eyebrows faintly up. Steve always looked younger than he was but at that moment it was something more. He was the boy, the young man in his teens who had suffered this procedure, yet another in what must have seemed an unending line. He was also in complete earnest as he said to me “but it’s always harder on a patient’s family. It was always a harder thing for Ma than it ever was for me.” He meant every word.

Some people say that sort of thing because it’s expected, or at least I think they do. I think they do because if I had been in that situation, I might have said something similar out of duty. Some people would say it as a front to gain more sympathy for themselves. Steve said it because he loved his mother and because for him, it was true.

It’s possible that I attach more weight to this than I should, but that moment has always stood out for me as the greatest demonstration of my husband’s strength. Steve was quiet, in his daily life and in his rare anger. He was tall and so thin that he had to bore extra holes in his belt and had almost no discernible muscle. I outweighed him by at least twenty pounds for the entire time that I knew him. Physically, he was still strong; he was a steel bridge cable and once someone checked in to his death grip, they rarely checked out. I could out-wrestle him but only if I used my legs.

Strength takes many forms. So does courage. Steve was the bravest person I have ever known. I actually have to stop after writing that and stare at the sentence–do I mean that? Really? Am I sure I’m not sliding further down the slippery slope of exaggeration and the usual conventions of the surviving bereaved?

He wasn’t perfect: that’s not what I’m claiming here. He could settle into a pattern that became a rut, and it was hard for him to break out of those. He was the Lord High Celestial Grand Poo-baa Royal Emperor of Procrastination (and considering that I have the permanent Tiara for Ms. Procrastination USA, or would if I ever got around to picking it up, that is saying something). We fought about who should haul trash and do dishes.

So no, he wasn’t perfect. And perhaps he was also not the single bravest person in the world, but I do think he was forever in their ranks. He earned his place among the bravest of people in a very unobtrusive way, but I belive one of the only ones possible, which has nothing to do with career choice, gender or faith. He took great pain and looked through it with love and empathy at the people he cared for the most. He did this without deliberation, and with honest sincerity and compassion.

I wish I had a sweeping conclusion to draw up, nicely framing that truth. More to the point, I wish that I, I and the world still had him. Most of the people who share that gift of strength with Steve do not make the nightly news, write inspirational life guides, discover and broadcast “the secret” or become famous. One of the greatest aspects of their power is that they go on using it in all its wondrous simplicity, regardless.

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