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October 8, 2017 / Rae Spencer

The Cat Eulogies

Vanna (1999-2016)

When we lost Scamper last spring, we were already in the process of losing Vanna, too. Vanna had been diagnosed with intestinal lymphoma two years earlier, and, after thriving for longer than expected under the excellent care of her veterinarian, she was beginning to lose ground.

Vanna had been my mother’s cat, which undoubtedly contributed to the depth of my attachment. She was a living link to an unrecoverable past.

What’s more, she flourished in Virginia. In Tennessee, among Mother’s four cats, Vanna had been the neurotic one. The reclusive, skittish one, rarely glimpsed by visitors.

In Virginia, she became the dominant personality in our household.

When the cancer finally overwhelmed her, almost exactly a month after we said goodbye to Scamper, I stumbled into another depression.

Our lively household of three cats had been reduced, in a month’s time, to a quiet household of one. I couldn’t write about Vanna’s death. Could barely talk about it.

Within a year we were losing Sabrina, too.

Sabrina (2001-2017)

Sabrina was the sweetest, gentlest cat I’ve ever owned. Perhaps the sweetest and gentlest cat I’ve ever met.

She and Scamper had been rescued, at only a few weeks of age, from a construction site.

She suffered a serious injury at about twelve weeks old, losing one of her eyes and undergoing multiple surgeries to salvage the vision in her other eye. She lived the rest of her life with a slowly advancing cataract, but didn’t seem bothered by her limited vision.

She played and romped through adolescence, survived an episode of liver failure in early middle-age, and settled into her senior years with the same calm serenity she had shown from kittenhood.

I had hoped, of course, that we might have a few more years with her, after losing Scamper and Vanna in such close succession. But in November Sabrina began showing signs of discomfort while defecating, our first hint of the rectal tumor that, while repeatedly testing benign on biopsy, was likely malignant at its core.

By March she was too uncomfortable to continue. So I made yet another last trip to our wonderful vet and said yet another goodbye.

How many goodbyes, now? Four, since starting this blog. Indigo. Scamper. Vanna and Sabrina. Before them, Spice.

Spice (?-2008)

Spice’s years as a feral cat ended in 1994, the moment I saw her huddled in the back of a cage with a vast, scabbed wound covering her neck and shoulders. She nosed forward to sniff my hand, speaking in unmistakable cat-language. My name is Spice, and I’ve been waiting for you.

Spice was my constant companion for fifteen years. We shared a dorm, an apartment, a duplex (with my future husband), and, in her final years, a house in the suburbs.

She taught Sabrina and Scamper how to be cats, and they kept her young longer than time should have allowed.

Losing her closed a door on my twenties and thirties. I would never be twenty or thirty again, and I would never have another cat like Spice.

All those that came before

Before Spice? The list is long, stretching through memory into the hazy nostalgia of childhood. Mischief and Jackson. Diana. Gizmo and Annie. Morgan and Shere Khan. Sadie and Daisy. Sheena and Poppy. (This list is far from complete, and includes none of the dogs. I’ll save dogs for a later post.)

Many of our cats were named for characters in books and movies. Some came to us already named, relinquished by owners who could no longer keep them, owners who were happy to let an eager young vet assistant adopt the cats they were losing to eviction, a family illness, or one of life’s other jarring turns.

Some of the cats materialized out of thin air, simply showing up in the yard. Others were dumped on the driveway, plucked from parking lots, and chased down in ditches by a trio of sisters who found it biologically impossible to just keep driving. Mother simply sighed and made room for them all, a tide of cats drifting in and out of our lives, in and out of the house each morning and night.

They were never all in the house at the same time, thankfully. Most preferred the yard, sheds, and pasture, most of the time.

 

Cats have been one of the few constants in my life. They’ve shared all of my memories, every place I’ve ever called home, and almost every job I’ve ever had. I don’t know how to be without cats. In the end, loving cats is part of how I love myself. So…

Meet Duchess and Marie

Cat Team 7 is a local rescue group who work primarily with cats living at Naval Station Norfolk. The majority of their mission involves a Trap-Neuter-Relocate program, but they sometimes have adoptable kittens.

Duchess and Marie (two of a group named for the Aristocats) were trapped in a warehouse in early June, along with two male kittens about the same age. I saw their photo on social media, contacted Cat Team 7, and the rest is happy history.

They were quite shy, in their first weeks here.

Duchess (or Dutch, because sometimes she’s more Killjoy than Aristocat)

Marie (just Marie, because it fits)

It didn’t take them long to settle in. They have plenty of windows, soft beds, toys, and treats.

They are closely bonded, more dependent on each other than Sabrina and Scamper were. They’re rarely apart.

(Except when Marie plays fetch. Dutch, who has no interest in fetching, stalks the action until she can tempt Marie into a thunderous, romping game of chase.)

And me? I’m sharing my life with cats again. That’s enough for now.

 


Recommended reading about topics that are more urgent and more important than my cat memories:


Finally, here are three of my favorite recently-read books. Have you read them? What did you think?

Poetry: Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? by Shonda Buchanan

Fiction: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Non-fiction: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman (I haven’t finished this one yet, but it’s already one of the best books I’ve ever read)

May 13, 2017 / Rae Spencer

Not Much and Everything

All of my reading and research keeps circling back to a frustrating conclusion: America’s current crisis runs deeper than I am capable of understanding. There are too many facets, too many fractures, too many nuances.

What I do grasp makes me want to hide, to retreat into my fiction reading list and never pick up another non-fiction book, never read another article or essay or blog post.

It feels as if everything I care about is under attack and there’s nothing I can do about any of it.

And, while nothing is an exaggeration, not much is the hardly-more-comfortable truth.

Even so…

Not much might be a fragile incentive, but it’s compelling when everything is at stake.

I recently read The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs. She refers a number of times to a quote from Mahatma Gandhi… Live simply so that others may simply live.

This, at least, I understand. Live simply.

Facets, fractures, and nuance.

I can help by living simply.

It is, indeed, not much. It’s also a tiny piece of everything.

“With the end of empire, we are coming to an end of the epoch of rights. We have entered the epoch of responsibilities, which requires new, more socially-minded human beings and new, more participatory and place-based concepts of citizenship and democracy.” Grace Lee Boggs in The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century (Updated and Expanded Edition)


Recommended reading (and viewing):

December 12, 2016 / Rae Spencer

Post-Election Changes

I am part of the problem. I have always been part of the problem.

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Monarch Butterfly (September 9, 2016)

I am a white, straight, cisgender, educated, agnostic, middle-aged, middle-class woman from the South–recipient of more privilege than I have earned. And this year, while I raised my summer butterflies, I watched America’s Presidential campaign with growing dismay.

Racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny are not new to America or American politics, but overt displays on the campaign trail are rare in my memory. How and why Donald Trump’s campaign thrived while exploiting the language of white supremacy has been widely discussed since the election, but the answer seems simple to me: far too few listeners objected.

Some, undoubtedly, agreed with him. Some didn’t recognize the language of white supremacy, never having spoken it. Others, like me, knew. I knew, and yet I remained silent.

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Monarch Butterfly Egg (August 1, 2016)

My particular silence was one of guilt and shame, complicated by the oft-repeated advice that beginning writers should avoid talking about politics and religion, lest they alienate half of their potential audience. But in this matter I am not a beginning writer. I am part of the problem. I have always been part of the problem. And, in this matter, I will no longer keep silent.

“Will Rogers said it a long time ago: Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Thomas L. Friedman in The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (1)

As a child, teen, and young adult, I heard the language of bigotry at school and in the community. My parents and siblings didn’t speak the language, nor did most of my friends. But I heard the words anyway. I learned them and I used them. And I slogged into college in a miasma of willful ignorance, dangerously unfit for adulthood.

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Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar (August 5, 2016)

In college, my instructors and classmates recoiled in horror when my ignorance leaked into the open. (Some, I suspect, were more frustrated with my inability to hide my ignorance than with the actual fact of it.) Despite the shame I feel when recalling those years, they mark an important change in my life–I began an ongoing effort to pry open my closed mind.

At every point along my journey, I have found guides. Most were women with gentle and luminous souls. Some answered my calls for help, others appeared unbidden–standing in the mist with hands extended, patiently waiting for me. They answered my endless questions as if they had nothing better to do than help an ignorant young woman expand her horizons.

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Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar (August 10, 2016)

(I know that this, too, is a hallmark of privilege. Such help was easier to find because I was white, straight, cis, middle-class, and educated. I will have more to say about privilege in future posts.)

As I worked through various stages of educating myself, I began trying to escape the stigma of hate by claiming that I had never embraced the malice of bigotry, only the language. I didn’t hate anyone.

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Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar (August 10, 2016)

Except, the language of bigotry is hate. It is not possible to learn the words without absorbing the hate. This has been my hardest lesson and is my most painful admission. I once spoke the language of bigotry, which by definition means I practiced hate. Years ago, when I finally accepted this fact, I retreated into silence on the subject.

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Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis (August 13, 2016)

But silence solves nothing. In dreading discovery too much and valuing discussion too little, I remained part of the problem.

“We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.” Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2)

Unlike the Monarch Butterflies that emerged in the yard this summer, I cannot flutter off to a mountaintop in Mexico and sleep through the long, cold winter ahead. (The irony is intended to be painful. I detest our President-elect’s disparaging comments and damaging “promises” regarding immigrants and immigration.) But I can use my privilege for something besides sharing my own writing and my love of nature. I can use my voice and this blog to promote the words and wisdom of other writers.

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Newly Emerged Monarch Butterfly (August 20, 2016)

I’ve already asked for help from my friends, but I’m also asking for help from my readers. Hold me accountable. Fact check me. Fact check my sources. Correct me when my ongoing ignorance shows. Correct me when I’m wrong, which I will, inevitably, be.

For starters, please read my new comments policy. It’s not perfect, and I could use your help with it.

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Monarch Butterfly (September 9, 2016)

Then read some of these poems, articles, and posts:

As a final note, it takes me a long time to compose a post like this one. Most of my posts will continue to focus on nature and writing, with occasional publication notes, as in the past. (i.e. My poem Duality recently appeared at vox poetica.) But I plan to add a section of links to each post, highlighting authors, articles, and books that have enlarged my world. Please share your own recommendations in the comments.

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Monarch Butterfly (October 14, 2016)


Quotation sources:

(1) Friedman, Thomas L.. The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007. Print.

(2) Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised Edition. New York: The New Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.

October 29, 2016 / Rae Spencer

Butterfly Mimics and a Publication Note

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Red-spotted Purple (10/22/16)

On first glance, I thought the butterfly shown above was a late-flying Eastern Black Swallowtail.

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Eastern Black Swallowtail (6/23/16)

After a closer look, I decided the unknown visitor might be a Pipevine Swallowtail. (I don’t have any photos of Pipevine Swallowtails because I’ve never seen one in person. Here’s a link with photos.) But how could it be any kind of swallowtail, without the characteristic “tails” on its hind wings?

Red-spotted Purple (10/22/16)

Red-spotted Purple (10/22/16)

As always, I turned to the internet for answers. Searching for “butterflies that look like Eastern Black Swallowtails” led me to the Swallowtail Butterfly Comparison page on a site called Butterflies at Home. There I discovered that my unknown butterfly is a Red-spotted Purple, which explains why it doesn’t have tails on its hind wings. It isn’t a swallowtail at all. Instead it belongs to the family of brush-footed butterflies. (As an aside, I’m now fascinated with name “brush-footed”.)

Red-spotted Purple

Red-spotted Purple (10/22/16)

But why do all of these butterflies look so similar? What is so special about a combination of blue highlights and reddish spots? Obviously the pattern carries some sort of selective advantage, something deeper than aesthetic appeal for camera-wielding writers.

Unknown Swallowtail July 25

Spicebush Swallowtail (7/25/12)

It seems that the story starts with Pipevine Swallowtails, which lay their eggs on the poisonous pipevine plant (also known as Dutchman’s Pipe.) As the caterpillars feed and grow, they ingest and store a toxin called aristolochic acid, which lingers in their bodies as the caterpillars mature into adults. So the butterflies, as well as all stages of the caterpillars, are poisonous. Even their eggs are poisonous.

All in all, it’s an elegant and effective defense against predators. So effective, in fact, that it conveys a measure of protection for any butterfly with black wings, blue highlights, and reddish spots. Selective advantage, indeed.

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Red-spotted Purple (10/22/16)

Now, if only I could find a Pipevine Swallowtail to photograph…


For more information, check out a few of these articles:


Publication Note: On October 7, my poem “The Fire” posted at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily. Many thanks to editor Christine Klocek-Lim!

October 14, 2016 / Rae Spencer

The Rest of the Wren Story

In June of 2015, I noticed that one of the yard’s House Wrens had begun feeding a family of Northern Cardinal nestlings. (Read my initial blog post here.)

Nestling May 30

The adult cardinals, especially the male, were also feeding the nestlings.

Nestling May 31

In that early blog post I wrote, “I wonder if this kind of behavior is common. Have the yard’s birds been feeding each other all along?”

Cardinal May 11

In searching for answers to my question, I ran across the Tough Little Birds blog, run by biologist Katie LaBarbera. I contacted her through the blog, and she replied that the behavior was unusual enough to be of interest to other biologists. Before too long we had a short article ready to submit for publication. After peer review and a few revisions, the article was accepted by The Wilson Journal of Ornithology and can be found in the current (September 2016) issue: House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) provisions nestlings of Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

And now, as Paul Harvey might have said, it’s time to post the rest of the story…

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Back in June of 2015, while I was searching for answers online, the wrens’ brood hatched. For a few days the male wren stayed busy feeding both nests, dividing his time somewhat unequally in favor of the young cardinals. But something changed as the cardinals neared fledging. The last time I saw the cardinal nestlings accept food from the wren was on June 5th, and the last time I saw him approach their nest was on June 6th. (They greeted his visits on the 6th with silence.) On June 7th, the young cardinals left their nest.

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The yard stayed in a turmoil on the 7th, loud with the cries of hungry cardinal fledglings and nervous cardinal parents. (The male cardinal was particularly aggressive with larger birds that day, much to the dismay of a hungry brown thrasher.)

cardinal-june-7

cardinal-june-7

The wren, formerly so devoted to the cardinal nestlings, never approached the cardinals after they fledged. Instead he spent the 7th, and the following days, feeding his own nestlings. The young wrens stayed in their nest box until June 16th and 17th, eating spiders and praying mantises and a variety of other insects brought by their parents.

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The nestlings grew bigger and bolder each day.

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And their parents worked harder and harder to keep them fed.

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By June 16th they showed signs of leaving.

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And on June 17th …

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They were out of the nest box, but they were still hungry!

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When they left the yard that evening, I felt bereft. As I always do when the yard’s children move on.

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I wished, as I always do, to follow the fledglings. Or at least to know their futures. Did any of them survive? Have they, perhaps, visited the yard again in the weeks and months since?

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Let me know if you see them.

September 21, 2016 / Rae Spencer

2016 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference

I quit writing this summer.

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Each time I opened a document, new or old, my inner critic won. Sometimes I closed documents without saving them.

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I avoided my notebooks, partial manuscripts, and poems.

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Something inside me whispered that my unpublished words were worthless. That no matter how much time I spent arranging them on the page, they would always be worthless.

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But then I went to the 2016 Hampton Roads Writers’ Conference.

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Where I remembered why I started writing in the first place.

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I remembered how stories haunt my dreams and daydreams. How the convection of my imagination brings characters and scenes to the surface over and over again, how writing these characters and scenes frees my imagination to create more characters and scenes.

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I remembered the shiver of recognition when lines and phrases turn to music in a poem. It doesn’t happen in every poem I write, or even in every tenth poem, but when it does happen it’s magic.

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I remembered how satisfying a difficult revision can be, both during and after the process. Like solving a puzzle or riddle. Pieces falling into place, sometimes falling into unexpected places. Creating order out of the chaos of previous drafts.

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This insight was alchemy, the combined effect of a series of excellent presentations and workshops.

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I can’t praise these presenters highly enough:

I’m grateful to Hampton Roads Writers for putting together such a wonderful conference.

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If you write, no matter what you write or why you write, check out one of the writing conferences near you.

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Especially if you’ve quit writing.

August 19, 2016 / Rae Spencer

The Nostalgia Shelves

The Nostalgia Shelves started with three bins of old books and a stack of tired posters. Many were as old as I am, and the wear showed. They were, literally, loved to pieces. Torn, faded, and stained, none of the items could be saved intact. So I dug out my scissors and bought some Mod Podge.

Shelf 1 July 5

Shelf 1 July 6

Shelf 1 July 6

All of my old favorites found new purpose in the Nostalgia Shelves. Their stories are alive again.

Shelf 2 July 8 Complete

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

Shelf 2 July 8 Detail

What’s more, the horses have a new home.

Shelf 2 July 31

I don’t have a “before” photo, but the “after” is definitely lighter and brighter.

Shelves July 31

And the unhoarding continues…

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