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What did the crazy cat family do this time?

When I was a little girl, we had sheep that roamed the fields of Redbird Farm. To keep them safe from wild dogs and other predators, we would round them up, especially during lambing season, and bring them into the fold. Along the way we acquired a gorgeous white goat named Cauliflower, who took her charge so purposefully that bringing the sheep in at night ceased to be a strenuous human task. After a while, my parents thought it would be a good idea to breed Cauliflower and in the casual way that animals arrive and depart in the country, we acquired Billy, a shaggy orangy-brown goat with wide horns and an impish attitude. Cauliflower wanted nothing to do with Billy and hated being penned up with him. She tried every way she could to escape and return to her sheep scattered on the hillside, but she found herself stuck in a pen with him.

One day, a single ewe—something one hardly ever sees—came scurrying past the house on her way to the barn. A few minutes later she returned with Cauliflower—the message that the goat was needed by the flock somehow urgently communicated. My parents went out to investigate and found a wild dog stalking the sheep.

From then on, Cauliflower and Billy were allowed to work the sheep together, but one impish goat plus one very good one means that the sheep will be kept in a flock, but they’ll also be shown how to escape every pen, every enclosure, every field. Neighbors called from all around to let us know, “your sheep are over here eating my lawn; your goats are eating my shrubs,” and off my mother would go, often as not on horseback, to herd the animals home again.

Cauliflower and Billy were eventually replaced by Sunshine and Diane, pretty dark brown goats with white blazes who were worthless as herders but specialized in costing us money by eating specialty shrubs across the road at the neighbors’. We gave up goats, after that, opting instead for a capable if slightly insane border collie named Moss.

What I didn’t understand as a child that I know painfully well now is that as the person making the decisions about the animals, there is a tremendous responsibility involved. And when it all goes wrong, it’s awful. When I was little the farm animals came and went, some tragically, some to the table, some without ever becoming part of the family or pet-like. Even then, some of pets that lived in our houses and cuddled with us and relied on us to bring them food and attention felt far more like members of the family. Today that is even more true. The situation when the family members aren’t getting along feels significantly more dire: you can’t so easily farm them out elsewhere.

In “Fur Flurry,”, I wrote about the catastrophe in our household. We attempted to resolve it, with heavy, heavy hearts, by delivering Charcoal back to the shelter from whence he came. Brave Twelve, who felt she had discovered and chosen the magnificent beast as a tiny kitten, went with me to return him. I kept thinking “no deposit, no return,” but I was encouraged by a number of voices that let me know that they, too, had at one time or another had to part with a beloved pet because animals or animals and people in their households hadn’t been living in harmony.

It was with considerable, albeit perhaps short-sighted, surprise that we found the problems didn’t end with Charcoal’s departure. Our two older kitties, companions for six years, had discovered each other’s weaknesses and continued to bait each other, hissing and chasing. The smaller kitty, Katy, who had been persecuted by Charcoal for her position as Alpha kitty, got to the point where she would not go to the basement to use the litter boxes, where she would not pass one of the other two kitties without hissing or growling, and where she was spending as much time as she could curled up in a tight knot on Ninety’s bed, where she wasn’t entirely welcome. Neither feline nor human could approach her easily and the more cross she became, the more times she broke training, the more cat fights erupted in the middle of the night, the more crazed I felt by the stress of it all.

Isolation for Katy was the most logical solution: Back to the laundry room with litter box, cat tree, food and water she went.pjk breaks %22ground%22

And then I had an idea. Katy used to be in my room at night, long before all of the chaos began, behind the door she exclusively was allowed through ( She would come in during the evening, sleep on my bed, and asked to be let out in the morning. Before the troubles began, she was totally trustworthy. I have never wanted to keep her there all the time; however, because I didn’t want a litter box in my bedroom. And once Katy felt imperiled, she could no longer be trusted. But the laundry room and my bedroom share a wall. What if she had a cat access through the wall, could keep her kitty accouterments in the laundry room and come for socialization with me at night as she used to? It still wouldn’t be perfect solution, but, I reasoned, it would stem the stress and Katy wouldn’t be as lonely. All it meant was we would have to break the house a little … and with high hopes that we were
building a passageway to peace, that’s exactly what we did.Katy 2 Katy framed peek-a-boo breakthroughpassage other side






Ninety often says, “People don’t stay done.” I’m thinking animals (pets) don’t seem to either, but I hope this is a solution of sorts. Certainly my stress level over the issue has diminished … for now. Katy’s been sleeping on my bed, purring and cuddling a lot, and the other two cats stop at my door and look in. I hope one day we’ll be able to reunite the felines. Maybe a full moon in the spring? Meanwhile, happy full November moon … with love & gratitude for the journey, Rxo


Fur Flurry

Fur Flurry

Can you write about it?

Whenever I mention my cats, invariably the person I’m talking to asks: how many do you have? I’ve been told if you have to hold up fingers rather than announce out loud how many cats you own, you have too many. Even so, I’ll always hold my fingers straight up when asked, my thumb clearly crossing my palm so there’s no mistake. Four. Up until recently it didn’t really feel like we had too many.

Our alpha cat was born in a barn and full-grown weighs all of six pounds. She’s a clever cat, springy and swift. She arrived in our lives in early June, six years ago following the March death of Max, a beautiful black boy who found refuge in my mother’s garage from the flood water of 1993. I believe that cats appear energetically, filling a vacuum left by another’s departure. Keep your eyes and ears open, and your kitty will appear. So it was that I knew exactly what to do just a few days after Max’s companion Molly died of a broken heart at the end of the same summer (she was only five). I took the vet up on his invitation—we have kittens in the back when you’re ready—and we welcomed Leo to the family.

With considerable more thought and purpose, we adopted the kittens, Charcoal and Starling, four years later. They are now, of course, full-grown, but as with all young things, they seem somehow newer and fresher than Katy and Leo. The idea was that cats taken two at a time meant there wouldn’t be an odd-cat out. And with four laps in the house, everyone would have someone to snuggle.

And for a while it was the best of plans and all was well. Fifteen and Twelve were in kitty heaven. The kitties more or less sorted themselves out—Leo has always loved Fifteen the most. The females bonded with me but made the rounds, even enchanting my dog-person mother, Eighty-Nine. Charcoal was something of a floater and he bewildered us, bloating terribly for a while, but at last growing into a sleek large blue-grey cat with the smug look of a feline who has swallowed a delicious mouse.

As it turns out, not one of the four is an automatic lap cat, leaping up to curl on your thighs the moment you sit down. But any one of them might settle in close while we’re reading or working, and they provide plenty of entertainment.

During the darkest days of this past winter, Charcoal realized what neither Starling nor Leo knew: he was more than twice the size of alpha-girl Katy. And he began to stalk her. Katy took to sleeping high on Twelve’s dresser or hiding in my room with me, where she was the only cat allowed because she is smart enough to ask when she needs to go out. In spite of calming collars, liberal doses of herbal relaxing drops, and infusing the air with happy kitty pheromones, the stalking turned into chasing. As winter melted, the trouble between the two grew more and more tempestuous, such that one day I followed the flying fur into the laundry room and found Katy treed up the window screen, blood dripping from her chin where Charcoal’s claw had caught it, her urine streaking the window.

A bad situation became worse when Leo, who had always been a loving companion toward Katy, sleeping hip-to-hip especially when the temperatures dipped, joined the chase and took a chunk out of Katy’s ankle. Katy resorted to cowering in the laundry room, rarely venturing out, and crawling behind the washer to relieve herself.

Putting all of this down on paper makes me wonder how we let the situation go this far. When you’re a practicing writer, more than one person will ask, when things are dim, whether you’re writing about them. “I will,” I usually reply. However, I don’t keep a journal, and in truth writing this story now only makes me cringe. If someone sat at my desk at the studio and poured out such a horror to me, I’d gently say, “You can’t live like that. Can you find a new home for one of the kitties?”

But, of course, our own problems are never so easily resolved. In my family, we all love all four of these beasts. I am determined to involve my children in deciding the outcome, just as I did in the adoptions of Charcoal and Starling. Thus when Leo attacked Katy while the peeps were at camp, I did what I had been loathe to do: I bought a litter box and a purr pad and moved Katy into the laundry room in comfort, her door shut to the other cats. I took her to the vet to have her wound and stress levels evaluated. The vet was clear—keeping them separate was the only option besides getting rid of the principal aggressor. She also counseled making sure Katy had plenty of love and attention so she wouldn’t feel she was being punished and suggested after a while we try putting Charcoal away to see if Katy could reintroduce to the other two.

The peeps and I added one more piece—when they got home from camp, we built an outdoor kitty pen, a little larger than 7’ by 12’, out of chicken wire and fence posts and lots and lots of zipties. It has a roof to keep the cats from climbing out, stones lining the bottom so they won’t dig under, and a cat door installed through the aging screen in the sunroom we have always called “the East House.”leo pen

Leo (all black) and Starling investigate their little corner of the great outdoors.

Leo (all black) and Starling investigate their little corner of the great outdoors.

So far, the boys adore the pen, asking to go out first thing in the morning and staying there much of the day. Starling stands two feet out, two feet in, watching. One recent morning Katy had her first turn in the pen, co-existing mostly peacefully with Leo, although she made it clear she has not forgiven him and hissed if he got too close. After time with dirt under their paws and fresh air in their noses, everyone has been sleeping soundly at night.

As I ponder the options and watch the situation unfold, I recall reading once that pets teach us unconditional love—not just how to receive it, but how to give it. Unconditional love sometimes requires the hardest choices, as I have experienced over and over again when I’ve taken pets to the vet to be euthanized. I’m beginning to see that such incredibly hard lessons of love and loss may also include separation, and the anticipation of giving up a cat—although I intellectually admit it is the logical next step—brings up the hurt of lost friends, lost loves, lost places, lost talents and enthusiasms, lost times, lost opportunities. Perhaps experiencing separation from a pet—someone we’ve taken on to love, care for and protect—preps us for the separations we must face from other humans, breakups, empty nests, loss of friendship. Learning to live through such losses in our lives may well be another of the generosities that our pets give us, but it is one I am having a terrible time receiving.

I just now learned from the wilds of the Internet that today, August 8, is International Cat Day. The full moon shines on Sunday. This post goes out in honor of both—with my gratitude, as ever, for this forum in which I keep living the questions in poses & prose. Namaste, Rxo 

Napping together, Leo & Charcoal.

Napping together, Leo & Charcoal.

Katy in happier times ...

Katy in happier times …

Let It Be

Are you trying to do too many things at once and thereby scattering your energies? (Ted Andrews, Animal Speak)

The first time I wasn’t sure—there was a blur of movement where the foundation wall meets the floor joists. My eyes were focused on the television on the shelf below, playing my movie of the week as I walked on my treadmill. It was early in the morning, the basement lights low. I shook my head: It couldn’t have been. A minute later I flinched. This time there was no mistake. I saw the grey streak, long and low, scurrying along the top of the wall. A mouse. A mouse in MY house. A house, I reminded them as soon as I went upstairs and was confronted by the morning feed-me chorus, inhabited by four cats.

My lecture fell on unresponsive ears. Ten, Thirteen and Eighty-eight, as they emerged from their respective rooms, were far more sympathetic and outraged. Then the kittens played soccer with a cat toy; the older cats went off for their morning baths. The humans did our own scurrying as we got out the door for the day.

We were in the midst of true Iowa January cold. I thought maybe the overnight lows had driven the mouse inside. Given the mouse to feline ratio, I didn’t think he’d be there long. I certainly didn’t expect to see him again. But five days later as fog moved in and pushed the cold out, there he was at the top of the wall again.

I believe that the natural world sends us messages, if we’re willing to listen. Poet Carl Sandburg wrote about fog:

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

Each year there seems to be dense fog in January, a reminder to look carefully, just at what you can see. Wait to consider the big picture until the fog lifts.

I looked up mouse totem. Mouse’s message is similar to fog. Metaphysical author Ted Andrews tells us what it means when a mouse shows up in your life:

… it’s either time to pay attention to details, or an indication that you cannot see the forest for the trees.… Mouse medicine can show you how to focus and pay attention to detail. It can show you how to attain the big things by working on the little things. Whenever mouse shows up there are lessons associated with attention.

Maybe the fog came in on little mouse feet or my mouse disappeared in a shroud of fog. Both mouse and fog are shape-shifters, agile and light. The mouse scurries with agility and has a keen ability to hear, but can only clearly see what directly in front of him.

Okay. Message received. Take a tighter focus, dwell in the details. Reimagine January as a transitional month, allowing the whole uneven year that was 2012 to be wrung out. Attend to the details and work slowly toward more organization of house, work and family—a whole month like that day after a vacation when you unpack and do laundry and consider the mail that has mounted up while you’ve been gone.

I may not yet have attended to all of the details nor gained the organization of home, studio and laptop that I should like, but rethinking January’s meaning made the wintry month a lot easier. New Year’s Day was not a resolution-centered beginning, but a buffer through which to move toward a life more squared away.

In spite of a day when the cats seemed nearly organized into a hunt that lasted into the evening, the mouse continues to make fleeting appearances.

No, CharCoal, not that mouse, the real one please!

No, CharCoal, not that mouse, the real one please!

The fog, though, lifted after two days and the full January moon made lacework in the sky. Now January has waned as well and with the new moon arrived the Chinese New Year on February 10. It’s another gift—natural world meets energy world in celebration. The calendar turn moved us into the Year of the Water Snake—a watchful energy. A snake coils and waits until the moment is right. I’m a Wood Snake, myself, and reading about the snake year I’m learning it’s a whole year of rebuilding, working on infrastructure, focusing on detail, and moving forward. Progress may be slow, because of attention to specifics, but it will be constant and goal-oriented. These are appealing forecasts to me—more time to bring mental focus and adventurous spirit to the journey ahead. More time for the snake to watch and strike when the opportunity is right. More time to allow for events to unfold and evolve rather than pushing or forcing into the future. But I’m a little restive about how much more time it’s going to take those cats to eradicate the mouse from the house.

Happy Chinese New Year. Happy Snow Moon. Wishing you light, joy, and an early spring, just as the groundhog predicted. Thanks for joining me, xoR

Flower Power

What’s in the water?

When I was a little girl, my father told me the best bedtime stories. He would line up my stuffed animals and they would play parts. The stories varied each time he told them, but there were oft-repeated storylines—some he had been telling to children for years. My favorite involved a pearl necklace that disappeared from the neck of a patron in a restaurant when the lights went out. The patron was always played by a green hippo purchased from Harrods; the detective on the scene was Rabbitunya, played by a white silky bipedal bunny named Pretty Rabbit.

Rabbitunya is the star of her own story, a story that even in his ninetieth decade my father was still telling. Whenever he told a story, his crystal blue eyes sparkled and flashed. He connected with his listeners who would always be rapt. The last time I heard him tell Rabbitunya, my children his transfixed audience, I scribbled furiously on a legal pad, capturing the text.


© by Vance Bourjaily

            One day down by the horse barn, three kittens were playing in the dust. They were Little White, Little Black, and Little Grey. And they said, “Let’s play kitty fighting.” So they all played bite and scratch and kick and roll-in-de-dust.

            Little White said, “I’m tired.”

            Little Black said, “I’m tired.”

            Little Grey said, “I’m tired.”

            And so they rolled in the dust and went to sleep.

            Poor little kitties—there they were sleeping, exhausted, and along came Tail Thief. And Tail Thief said: “Oh ho—There are the kittens, and I will get their tails!”

            So he crept up to them one by one and unscrewed their tails.

            He took Little White’s tail and Little Black’s tail and Little Grey’s tail and he put them in his tail bag. And off he went to the market.

            And the kittens woke up. Little White said, “My tail’s gone.”

            And Little Black said, “Hey, my tail’s gone.”

            And Little Grey said, “My tail’s gone too.”

            “What are we going to do?” And they begin to cry.

            Just then, along came Junky Monkey, “What are you crying about?”

            “Our tails are gone! Our tails are gone!” Cried the kittens. “Our tails are gone and we don’t know what to do.”

           “All we can do,” said Junky Monkey, “is call Rabbitunya. She will help you get your tails back.”

            Well, Rabbitunya was out playing golf with a couple of doctors. Her beeper beeped. Each of the doctors thought it was his, but Rabbitunya said, “No, it’s mine.” She called Junky Monkey, “What’s the matter?”

            And Junky Monkey said, “Tail Thief had stolen all of the kitties’ tails.”

            Rabbitunya said, “Where did Tail Thief take the tails?”

            And Junky Monkey said, “He has taken them to the market to sell.”

            Rabbitunya said, “We’d better get over there—Meet me at the market!”

            So Junky Monkey went to the market and Rabbitunya went to the market and when they got there Rabbitunya said, “Where is Tail Thief?”

            Then they heard his voice, “Tails for sale! I got white. I got black. I got grey. Kitten tails! You put them in the pot and make tail soup.”

            People were crowding around.

            Junky Monkey cried, “No, don’t sell their tails.”

            Tail Thief said, “Get out of here, scat.”

            Rabbitunya said, “No, Tail Thief, you may not sell those tails.”

            Tail Thief said, “Rabbitunya, what are you doing here?”

            Rabbitunya said, “Tail Thief, you must not sell those tails.”

Tail Thief said, “Rabbitunya, go away.”

            Rabbitunya said, “Tail Thief, give the kittens back their tails.”

            Tail Thief said, “No, Never!”

            Rabbitunya said, “If you do not give those tails back right now, I will turn on my flower power.”

            Tail Thief said, “No, no, no, don’t turn on your flower power.”

            Rabbitunya said, “You’re going to give back the tails?”

            Tail Thief said, “No, no! People will buy the tails and make tail soup.”

            Rabbitunya said, “I’m turning on my flower power.”

            Tail Thief cried, “No, no!”

            “Yes, yes!”

            “No, no!”

            “Yes, yes!”

           So she turned on her flower power and it wafted up into Tail Thief’s nose. “No, no …” said Tail Thief, then, “Oh, I feel so nice … Rabbitunya, you’re so beautiful … What can I do to help somebody?”

            “Give back the tails you stole from the kitties.”

           And so Tail Thief said he would, right away. And he went back to the horse barn where the kitties had been playing kitty fighting and were once again asleep. And one by one he screwed the kittens’ tails back on. But it was getting kind of dark, so he screwed Little White’s tail onto Little Black and Little Black’s tail onto Little Grey and Little Grey’s tail onto Little White.

            Then Tail Thief said, “Okay kitties, you got your tails back. Good Night.” And the kittens purred and rolled over in their sleep.

           So … When you go down to the horse barn tomorrow and see a Little White kitten with a little grey tail and a Little Black kitten with a little white tail and a Little Grey kitten with a little black tail, you’ll know how it happened.

I wish that I could adequately portray in white space the way my father wound up his stories. When he got to the “So,” there was a significant pause and those blue eyes would connect with the intent eyes of his listeners, including me in my forties, pen poised over the legal pad, anticipating the big finish even though I’d been hearing the story my whole life. When I was growing up the finish held even more possibility because we lived on a farm and had a horse barn and barn cats. I might have been able to spot that kitten with the wrong colored tail if I got to the barn early enough in the morning (in follow-up stories, Rabbitunya often saved the day by returning the correct tails to their rightful owners, after which more madcap antics would ensue).

Flower PowerThe Bohemian blend of Rabbitunya’s beeper, golf game and flower power has been rattling around in my brain of late. Not only do we currently have a Little White kitten with a very grey tail, but her anxiety in settling in to a multi-cat household lately caused me, on the veterinarian’s recommendation, to begin lacing the cat water with Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic blend of essential flower oils. The change in the behavior of all of our cats has been delightful—there is a softness to their edges, a calm even when they’re playing kitty fighting. And Starling’s objectionable behaviors have stopped.

In my blended world, where I practice eastern yoga and live in a western world, witnessing the miracles of modern ingenuity on a daily basis, many in my own family, Rabbitunya seems to me today like an apt role model. As I have done so many times since he died two and a half years ago, I want to turn to my father and tell him how prescient he was, how much he gave me. And then I smile and feel a twinkle in my own blue eyes, certain he already knows.

We’re enjoying a snow day here, a few days after the luminescent January full moon. Computer blues kept me from posting on time, but these, too, are easing. Thank you for reading. love, Rxo

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