To Love a Cat Unconditionally

Mo and his master relax in the former chicken chair after a day's work 

We’ve seen telltale signs the past few years. Mo, our outdoor/indoor mouser extraordinaire, hasn’t scampered to the door when we slide it open to snow and frigid air. He curls his tail tighter around him, dreams of bygone days and nights as Alpha Cat, raiding all the food bowls set out in the neighborhood.
           He doesn’t meow much to be let out. I do and don’t appreciate that. It hurts to see Mo slow down, reminds me of P.J., our previous mouser of eight years. And when Mo’s sister was run over as a yearling, he mourned for months. Eventually, he recovered with TLC, although he preferred my husband to feed him.
My household timekeeper guesses Mo’s age at seventeen, beyond his life expectancy. You cat lovers understand the bond between the two, one strengthened with passing time and routine. Mo knows six o’clock when Mel’s blue CRV parks by the grape arbor. He stands at the basement-kitchen door and calls his name. “Me-o-l!”
That’s what I’ve enjoyed most about Mo since we adopted him and his sibling from a litter of feral kittens. His vocalizations are musical. Alas, I’ve learned you can’t name a hunter Mozart and expect a relationship.
Mo’s never had a thing to do with me, goes on hunger strikes when Mel's out of town. Until this summer, we couldn’t sit down to dinner without Mo’s interruptions—calling my husband’s name at the kitchen door, rubbing his facial pheromones on everything close to his master’s chair. That’s one jealous cat.
           Once the snow melted this year, Mo strolled outside, found the warmest step south of the house, rubbed his face on the stone, rolled onto his back, and at last laid down his four paws and slept. Weeks passed before I noticed the quietude of our table for two. 
           “Where’s Mo?” I asked. “I’m worried about him. He isn’t hunting much these days.”
           “Oh, he still hunts.”
           Afterward, I found his chipmunk-gut gifts at the garage doorstep. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he wanted to put my mind as ease. Then, I saw him strutting home from our neighbor’s woodpile with a vole clenched in his jaws. Good boy!
Although my affection for Mo remains unrequited, I love him nonetheless. To love a cat is to practice unconditional love, a most difficult virtue to achieve. He has no clue it is I who finds the most caring critter sitters for him and the hens while we’re away from home.
           Yesterday, a friend summarized my sentiments about our beloved pet as we hugged good-bye under the farm’s pergola.  “I have an old cat waiting at home. Maya is certainly very special to me. She’s not doing well, but I’m not yet ready to give up on her ninth life just yet.”
           Dear Reader, when Mo’s ninth life expires, we’ll bury him beside P.J., next to the compost bins where our hens love to scratch for bugs and worms. And when Mo's master's heart recovers, I hope to bring home a mouser who prefers me.

A Silent Sorrow

The Underwood family, summer 1990
July 6 marked our twenty-year journey from the phone call that reduced our family of five to four. I never know what to do with the day as it approaches. Other than prayer, a personal ritual of remembrance has not naturally arisen from my firstborn’s grave.
I don’t know what to do with myself, either. It’s odd to walk upon this earth while my child does not. The cycle of death is out of order. I do my best to adjust, remember funny and fulfilling moments my daughter bred within and without our household. No matter my efforts, the veil over the empty place at our table cannot hide the beautiful life destroyed by addiction.
Without warning, a flashback recalls a visit to a rehab center, the drama of recovery and relapse—the horror of transformation from track and cross-country champion to criminal to corpse.
 For eight years, I followed my daughter up her mountain of disillusionment, but couldn’t catch her when she fell—I lost her whereabouts in the wilderness. As other parents who walk this loathsome path testify, this is a common conclusion to an addict’s life.
Forgive me, dear Reader, for this dark subject. If I were you, I would turn away and take up my dulcimer instead, or walk my country road to ease my mind and spirit from painful truth.
Yet, in the heart of this homestead sweet with birdsong, there’s a solitary, silent sorrow that must speak for the legions who bear it. They include extended family members, dear friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow volunteers in community service I do and do not know, who climb this mount of woe with me.
I’ve heard few voices who speak truthfully about our country’s fatal attraction with pharmaceuticals and alcohol. In my daughter’s case, the chemical interaction of the two stopped her young, athletic heart. And it all began with marijuana at Hillsdale College. Some call that recreation.
Neglected in literature, our press, and political dialogue, who dares reveal and prosecute the sources of America’s drug traffic, our corporations, politicians, and law officials who harvest the profit?
I don’t know what Cincinnati’s newspaper printed about my brother-in-law’s nephew who passed this July 6 from an overdose. Perhaps the same line or two the Lexington newspaper published when our daughter left us twenty years ago. I couldn’t speak when my sister called the very date with the dreadful news. More flashbacks.
Depending on the deceased’s celebrity status, drug deaths have become passé or romantic to Americans, and to many youth, heroic. Anyone who searches for facts will discover, “Drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in the United States, ahead of motor vehicle deaths and firearms” (, for one source).
It’s redundant to ask why, then, gun control persists to lead the news. I must think upon whatever is a good report, set my eyes upon the Celestial City. High above our sick, beloved country, I believe, my daughter waits. Forgiven. Healed. Risen.

What the Honeybee Says

Before I see a honeybee in the lavender, I hear her. She says two things.
The first makes my heart sing because she proclaims the buds are blooming and ripe for harvest.  A bit impatient, it’s my habit to hunt the first blossoming stems to cut and bundle before a bee arrives.
There’s nothing like lavandula angustifolia to scent a room and linen closet. And with the deer consuming most my lilies, hollyhocks, and phlox, I’m ravenous for color and fragrance this summer.
The sun was high, the air sweet and calm when I strolled into the fields a few weeks ago, albeit preoccupied with my maiden kayak voyage that morning. I clipped in solitary serenity, surprised and satisfied I didn’t tip my friend’s boat and soak myself.
Hour after hour, the buds flowered before my eyes. Then, without a reservation, a bee flew in and landed beside me. She said her second thing. The year is half spent. Make most of every day.
That wee, wise worker bee knows of what she speaks. Her lifespan is about two weeks in summer, several months during winter. Unlike me, her genetic sense of urgency and duty allows no distraction. She went to business, one shrub to another, proboscis deep into corollas.  
The bee’s second message usually makes my heart sink with a mental inventory of what I’ve yet to accomplish for the year’s goals. Yet, as Eliza Doolittle sang, that loverly feeling of “sit’n ab-sa-bloom-a-lute-ly still” in a kayak and lavender field held firm. Truly, there was no better way to make the most of a summer day.
What irony. Kayaking wasn’t a goal, not even on my bucket list. The opportunity came by invitation. Now I’m looking for an inflatable kayak thanks to another friend who also appreciates the peaceful movement of paddling on calm water.
Serendipity. Blessed relief from rigid goals.
As I counted my blessings and lavender bundles, the bee’s solo swelled into a choir of thousands, the Apis mellifera’s rendition of Ode to Joy, I believe. A few independent girls followed my baskets under the pergola where I bundled the wands in shade. The bees sang their solos and said good-bye until the morrow. Could life be any sweeter?
Certainly. Like bees, people are also drawn to lavender’s goodness. So I harvested and bundled healing beauty for folk I’ll never know, casted my bread upon the water at the Farmington Farmers Market and Papa Joe’s.
Dear Reader, now, more than ever, I listen to the honeybee. Her voice is consistent, trustworthy. My life is way past half spent and there is much work to accomplish. Land to reclaim to native grasses. Books to publish. Family, friends, and neighbors to love and hold.
A metaphor of the human spirit, the lavender harvest is plentiful this summer. I cannot possibly bring it all in. And that is good, for the bees need a pure source of pollen and nectar.
They shall have it, lest I forget what the honeybee says.

Power of a Portrait

The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton, Art Institute of Chicago 
I first stood before the painting titled The Song of the Lark sometime after I reluctantly drove my youngest daughter to Chicago. “Mom, I have to do this,” she said in defiance to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In retrospect, letting her go led me to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, a large painting of a young peasant woman standing in an open field at sunrise, caught my eye. She’s heard the lark’s song and paused midstride with her mouth parted, face uplifted.
I found another kindred spirit, pondered the artist’s meaning of the lark’s song and sickle in her hand. As years passed, this stunning work of art became mine, clear and true, a prophetic image of whom I was becoming. When I walked into my developing lavender fields to weed and harvest, I paused in awe of the new day and birdsong.
Long before my discovery of Jules Breton’s beautiful work, Willa Cather, one of America’s foremost female authors, experienced a similar kinship with the portrait. Many readers consider The Song of the Lark Ms. Cather's most autobiographical novel, the story of a young artist’s awakening against the backdrop of the western landscape.
We see and hear again the theme of the lark’s song. Thea Kronborg, the protagonist, arises from her inextricable connection to the land with strength to become what she meant to be—an opera singer.
If the influence of Breton’s barefooted peasant seems limited to writers, think of Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1934, admiringly, she announced The Song of the Lark America’s most popular painting. The Chicago Daily News sponsored the nationwide contest.
No one has to convince me of the painting’s influence. Although, this past March while visiting again Chicago’s art museum, I was surprised to find Bill Murray’s testimonial on the wall beside my farmer friend. The actor claimed, “The painting saved my life.”
Early in his career while residing in Chicago, overwhelmed with failure and despair, Murray determined to drown himself in Lake Michigan. "I realized I'd walked in the wrong direction, not just the wrong direction to where I live, but…in terms of the desire to stay alive.” 
Unawares, he wandered to the art institute, walked in and found Breton’s peasant before the sunrise. " I've always loved this painting…and thought, ‘Well there's a girl who doesn't have a whole lot of prospects, but the sun's coming up anyway and she's got another chance.’ So I think that gave me some sort of feeling that I too am a person and I get another chance everyday the sun comes up."
Dear Reader, my husband and I drove our daughter home from Chicago one starlit night a year after I left her there. She wandered a long season before she found her place. Meanwhile, the sun arose each morning—always, our foremost, faithful prospect in a cloud of misery.
Hope. I believe Jules Breton understood this saving power of God’s morning light. A man who knew suffering and loved his native French countryside, he heard the lark sing.

Persuaded to Sail

Safely docked after a sail on the Detroit River with my daughters
“I can safely say, that the happiest part of my life has been spent onboard a ship.”
Mrs. Croft from Persuasion by Jane Austen

You never know what characters wait within a novel. Such is Jane Austen’s Persuasion. There, I recently met Mrs. Croft, wife of Admiral Croft. They had “crossed the Atlantic four times together” because parting from her husband would be “frightful.”
           "Women may be as comfortable on board as in the best house in England…nothing can exceed the accommodations of a man-of-war, “ Mrs. Croft insisted.
           So, wives were permitted to travel with their captain-husband during wartime? I was intrigued by Mrs. Croft’s perception of comfort, a surprising departure from Austen’s conventional Englishwoman.
“Neither tall nor fat,” describes the author, “(Mrs. Croft) had a vigour of form…and altogether an agreeable face; though her reddened and weather-beaten complexion…made her seem to have lived some years longer in the world than her real eight-and-thirty.”
           Although I admired Mrs. Croft’s world, larger than Miss Austen traveled, I couldn’t imagine a marriage of fifteen years lived in five various ships with a stinky, sweaty crew, all the while longing for mountainous horizons and solid ground. Could I endure countless sunrises without leafing trees, blooming flowers, and birdsong?
Furthermore, I’ve encountered enough rough seas that turned me green to know I could not embrace Mrs. Croft’s maritime merriment.
Then serendipity rang. “Mom, would you like to go sailing Tuesday with Kelly and me?” my youngest daughter asked.
This was a rare invitation I couldn’t refuse. Kelly’s flight back home to her family in California was Wednesday morning. We wouldn’t lay eyes on her again until another wedding, funeral, or holiday called us back together. Yet, I didn’t want to be a seasick spoilsport.
“Don’t worry, Mom. We won’t sail if the wind is high.”
Carrie, Ruth’s sailing teacher, welcomed us aboard her boat harbored at the Detroit Yacht Club. The two slipped on gloves and lifejackets and into the language of sailors. Who came to mind when Ruth tackled the sail with vigor and raised it with an altogether agreeable face at age nine-and-thirty?
Mrs. Croft. I imagined her tanned face must’ve lifted to many sails in her time at sea, watched in awe as I did my daughter pull the sail’s ropes.
Those ropes! I’ve never witnessed Ruth wholly engaged in such intense physical awareness and quick maneuvers, switching from port to starboard, unwinding and winding ropes in coordination with the captain’s orders as she tacked the boat. The sense of danger, the respect for wind and water was palpable.
“Don’t get your feet tangled in the ropes, Mom.”
I wanted to reply, “And watch that mast, young lady. I’ve sat beside your sickbed too often to appreciate another concussion.”
Safely docked, Ruth asked Kelly and me, “Did you have fun?”
“Sure did.”
Dear Reader, I can safely say I’m no Mrs. Croft. The happiest part of the day I spent sailing with my daughters was when we disembarked, no injuries.