The Oldest Cousin

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When people find out that I’m an only child, they’ll often make some kind of comment about how lucky I was to not have to share my belongings, or to have my parents “all to myself.” Logically, I can see how this might look like it’s the case, but it’s not exactly true. I grew up in a house in the middle of the woods, about a mile outside of town. Most of the time, there were no other kids around to play with. My parents didn’t have a lot of friends, so we didn’t have company often. My mom was/is a stay-at-home mom, so I had her, but my dad was always working, often not making it home until after I’d already gone to bed in the evening. I was lonely. I was also introverted, which back then just came across as shy and weird, so I didn’t make friends easily. Mostly, I just sat in my hammock out in the yard and read a lot.

My father is the oldest of three boys, and though both of my uncles also had children, their oldest kids are seven years younger than I am. Now that I’m in my 30’s, having cousins in their mid-20’s doesn’t seem like such a huge age gap. When you’re 15 and your closest relation is 8, it’s a little difficult to relate. Also, my mother’s only sibling, a sister, decided not to have children, so I’m the only kid on that side. Summer vacations at my maternal grandmother’s house felt lonely because I was drastically younger than everyone else, while trips to my paternal grandmother’s house felt lonely because I was drastically older than everyone else. On top of all that, from kindergarten through sixth grade I was sent to a private Christian school, and I was the poorest kid in class. My bookish behavior, worn-out Kmart clothes, and complete lack of understanding of pop culture did not earn me friends, let’s just put it that way.

So childhood was uncomfortable. As I got older, I started to focus more and more on just getting the hell out of dodge, and starting over again. The focus for my family was always that I get a great education, so I excelled in high school and applied to good colleges. I was excited to get into Tulane for undergrad, and once I moved away things got a lot better. Though I didn’t become a new person, I did find different ways to express myself. I pushed myself to be more outgoing. I found friends, and eventually those friendships built a family structure. Now, my friend family feels more real to me than my actual family.

It doesn’t help my relationships with folks back home that as I grew and explored, my life experiences began to shape my understanding of the world. My life in a small town in the country paled in comparison to my new experiences in New Orleans, Chicago, and across the world as I traveled and met people from all walks of life. My education level began to set me apart from my family, as well. I have a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, while most of my family members went to work right after high school, or else got bachelor’s degrees from smaller local colleges and then jumped into the workforce. It doesn’t matter much to me, but at home, people tend to mention my school career to me in a condescending way pretty often, like getting an education is a negative trait. I’ve given up trying to figure out what that means.

Also, I found that as I got more and more into modern tech and gadgetry, both for work and for kicks, I started finding that I had even less to talk to my mother and father about. Eventually, there couldn’t help but be this huge divide between us. All of the things that I take for granted about the way the world works are just not part of the world that they see every day. Their views are also often shuttered and prejudiced, so I find myself having to ignore a lot of things, while picking and choosing what “battles” to undertake, what ideas to gently attempt to instill to try to negate the prejudice (and sometimes, complete ignorance). It’s not easy. It’s not fun. I hate it. Luckily, both of my parents love me very much, and try their hardest to relate to me. It’s obvious when we’re talking to each other that we’re all doing our best to figure out how to talk to each other and keep the bond strong; it’s just nothing like what I know/see/experience happening with my friends and their families, so sometimes it gets me down.

The one bright spot in my family is my cousin Crystal, who’s my oldest female cousin. She’s almost eight years younger than me, but we’ve always been close-ish. When she was a tiny, chubby thing with a huge smile, she’d always follow me around everywhere, and as she got older we bonded over being the outsiders in the family. We’re the only members of the family to move away from North Carolina, and with me being pagan and her being an atheist, we’re both damned for all eternity as far as our family is concerned. So there’s that to bond over, lol! Plus, we’re both pretty geeky, which doesn’t hurt. But there’s still enough of a gap in our ages that we aren’t buddy-buddy or anything. It’s just nice to know I have one family member that gets me, and I think she feels the same way. We talk on Facebook every couple of weeks, so that’s nice.

Either way, here I am – the black sheep of the family, even though I’ve done everything “right”. An adult who hasn’t seen her parents in three years, and tries never to go home to North Carolina if she can avoid it. Someone who wants desperately to connect with her family, but mostly feels like she has nothing at all in common with them. Someone who convinces herself that feeling like an outsider is just in her imagination, only to have it proven over and over again that she has never fit in, and never will. If I felt like I didn’t belong there as a child, it’s definite that I actually don’t belong there now, as a grown woman. I don’t feel like I have an extended family, most of the time. I love my parents, but I’m often exasperated with them, and they with me. All I want is a big family that laughs together and could be counted on in a pinch. It makes me sad that I might never have that. But I guess that’s just what happens to some of us.

Various Negative Reactions To My Decision To Walk To Santiago De Compostela

When writing the story of your life, don't let anyone else hold the pen.

Hand-drawn Typography by Carrie Chang. Click thru to visit her Behance page.

With my excitement, it was easy to forget that other people might not have the same amount of faith in my proposed journey as I have. That’s one of the reasons I needed to start this blog – the real life reactions were beginning to get disheartening. Since coming to terms with the fact that this trip was definitely happening, I’ve gotten a lot of confused stares, a few politely-worded questions to the basic tune of, “Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” and only a small handful of genuine expressions of interest out of everyone I’ve told.

The interested folks: my three best girlfriends, a friend’s mom, a couple of other friends, and a coworker.

The disinterested folks: my parents, the rest of my coworkers.

The people who think I’m wasting time / wasting money / otherwise making a stupid mistake / am just strange or insane: my significant other, the rest of my family, a decent chunk of friends, pretty much everyone else that I’ve told in passing.

A lot of my friends think that walking 800km is kind of crazy. I get it. Some people just don’t like being that physically active. I’m comfortable with people liking to be inactive, so why can’t they be comfortable with the alternative? I’ll probably never get it.

A couple of folks have asked me what I think I’ll accomplish. They hear “pilgrimage” and think that I’ve gone soft in the head, like I’m going to start wearing a hair shirt and toting a life-sized cross around. I wouldn’t get that reaction if I said I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail, even though plenty of people hike the Trail to find themselves and enjoy their surroundings, which is exactly what I’ll be doing. If pilgrimage is a quest to to pay homage, why can’t one use it to pay homage to the world, and in doing so, find his or her place in that world? True, I go with some religious questions in mind, but I also go to meet other seekers, to explore medieval architecture, to pit my weak body against the much stronger terrain, and to have a story to tell. Shouldn’t one of these things be enough? Why is it that I can go through the whole list without seeing a single sparkle in the other person’s eye? It’s heartbreaking to know there are people out there with such small imaginations.

A number of people are treating this like I’m talking about taking an extra-long vacation, and see me as somehow selfish for making these plans. Americans typically get two paid vacation weeks a year, compared to four weeks in most European countries. Many Americans – in the past, myself included – take their work with them on vacation, and don’t take their full vacation time each year. We’re workaholics, and it’s killing us. There’s no upside. And technically, even though I’m working 40 hours a week at an agency, I’m a freelancer, so I should be able to dictate my own work schedule. I’ve given up a higher paycheck and health insurance in order to have a job that gives me some choice in my life. Even so, there’s a good chance that I might come back to find I have no job waiting for me. But really, if they can’t hold my desk, is it really a job I want to keep?

One person, in particular, has made it clear that they don’t believe in my decision or ability to carry it out. Planning an expenditure of this scale when I don’t have the funds to begin with, especially knowing that I will surely suffer afterward, just makes them mad with me for being stupid and wasteful and willfully ignorant. This is probably the hardest burden for me to bear on a daily basis, that someone close to me plain doesn’t think I’m capable of achieving a beloved goal. They want me to do what they do – obsess about the future without ever living today. What they don’t, maybe can’t, understand is that I’ve looked at this from all angles. I know the hole I’m potentially digging for myself. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is having the faith that what I’ve decided will not only come to pass, but will be the right thing for me. I’ve decided to LIVE, even if they’re too afraid to make the same decision.

Out of everyone I’ve spoken to, only one person – my best friend – has looked at me with some understanding when I told her what I was planning. She might not have understood the compulsion, but she understands me. She understood, like I do, that this pilgrimage is not an option. It’s happening, one way or the other. As it turns out, she was one of the first that I told once I’d finally made the call that it was going to be this year. I’m so happy that she was the one, because it’s kind of painful trying to speak my soul to other people and having them write me off so easily. I don’t think I can be any clearer: this is of massive importance to me. If I were having a baby or getting married, people would drop everything to congratulate me for embarking on a new path. The irony is that here I am, literally embarking on a new path, and no one gets it.

One thing I’m learning through this process is that I can’t afford to take too much time to be angry or hurt. I definitely can’t try to spew irritation, disgust, or misguided language back at people who try to influence me to change my mind. I truly believe that if I just keep working at this, and putting my back into it, so to speak, only good will come out of my decision. Above all, I need to stay true to the spirit of this journey, and that means staying true to my heart, inviting only the best energy in. Kind of like karma, I guess.

One way or the other, it definitely helps that I have you, kind readers. I really appreciate you all being here, and coming back to read on as I progress in my plans. You’re giving me some of the strength I need to make this journey happen.

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The Troubling Concept of “Family”

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This month’s Blogging for Peace prompt makes my stomach churn. We’re asked to confront any issues we have with fully accepting a member of our family, whether it’s a matter of resentment, shame, anger, or something else that makes it hard to find our groove in the relationship. Even before this post reared its head and forced me to examine my life, I had already started thinking that I should push myself to take care of some loose ends in my personal life prior to embarking on my journey to Spain. Better to leave with a clear head and open heart than to come back to self-imposed pain, right?

So here goes. I’m an only child. I have a pretty decent relationship with my parents, no major issues between us. I live 1000 miles away, and neither they nor I have enough disposable income to fly back and forth, so we talk every couple of weeks on the phone, and I generally see them every few years. It works. What doesn’t work is that I’m lucky enough to have three of my grandparents and some of my grand-uncles left, but I haven’t talked to any of them in years. My paternal grandmother and I are on fine terms, but neither of us is comfortable talking on the phone, and she doesn’t use computers. My maternal grandfather and I are also on OK terms, but he’s not comfortable on the phone either, and he doesn’t use computers. My maternal grandmother and I…well, that’s where things get dicey.

I love her. She’s funny, and weird, and smart. She’s also bossy, opinionated, and incredibly argumentative. She’s a shit-stirrer; the woman lives for drama. As a result, I had a very hard time getting to like her when I was a kid. We’re just very different people, and she can come across as kind of tone deaf, emotionally speaking. My mom’s emotional wellbeing was seriously impacted by this when she was growing up, and since I’ve always sort of acted like my mom’s older sister, my grandma’s need to poke and prod her into submission has always rubbed me the wrong way. Eventually I got over it, and for a few years post-college, we had a pretty nice relationship, talking every couple of weeks and generally enjoying each other’s conversational skills. We had an unspoken agreement that she would lay off of the nagging, and I would do my best to ignore when she was being too domineering. It mostly worked.

However, a few years ago she read one of my blog posts (an uber-boring outline of the steps of colon cleansing), and took it upon herself to call up my maternal aunt (who tormented my mom when they were growing up, and whom I’ve only seen maybe five times in my life, even though she only lived three hours away from me that whole time), to give me a talking to about my lifestyle choices. It was a turning point in our relationship. I understood that she loved me and only wanted the best for me, but the disrespect she showed me by attempting to involve an outsider in my life in a bid to control my choices (related or not, my aunt had never acted like a family member until that day) was just too much. After a brief angry email, I’ve never spoken to her again, except for calling to wish her a happy Christmas in 2011.

There goes my stomach, churning away. You see, I fully understand that I’m completely in the wrong in this situation. No matter how much my grandmother hurt my feelings, she’s the elder. It’s my job to get over it, to be more resilient and mend fences. But my pride is like something out of legend. I just can’t scale it. I’ve been trying for years to just give the woman a call. But I can’t.

And I must, for obvious reasons. I’m probably hurting her feelings, even though she’s got way more pride (and, as they say, piss & vinegar) than I ever will. Sometimes I wonder if maybe she doesn’t even care, but I’m the only grandchild. Of course she cares, even if she’d never say it. Then there’s the matter of my grandfather; I can’t talk to him unless I talk to her, and he’s never done one mean thing to me. He’s a nice guy, if a bit cagey. I’d be cagey too after 50+ years married to her.

But as important as it is to correct this mistake before it’s gone too far, the thing I need to remember is how being so prideful is hurting me at my core. I think about making the phone call every single day. Putting it off is physically affecting me. I’ve got thyroid issues; according to Eastern medicine, issues of the throat are related to blockage of the throat chakra. The throat chakra can become blocked when you’re not speaking your truth. My truth is that I love my old battle axe of a grandmother, and I just want to move past a stupid thing that happened years ago. I want her to know I love her, and I’m sorry for being an ass.

After that, I can tell her that I’m planning on hiking through Spain for a month on my own, and we can have some brand new argument about how I’m going to be raped and dismembered by Basque separatists, and how hiking is bad for your back, and that Spanish food isn’t nutritious enough for such a long trip, and so on, and so on…Oh whatever. It’ll still be good to hear her voice.

Working Women

I don’t know if you guys have been keeping up with the news lately, but there have been quite a few articles in the last few days about women in the workplace. First, there was the article about the new CEO of Yahoo cutting out work-from-home privileges for her employees until further notice, while simultaneously installing a nursery for her baby in her office. Then, there was a story on the COO of Facebook‘s new book about empowering working women. Lucky lady, she makes $30 million dollars a year, and leaves work at 5:30pm every day to be with her children. Then I read an article today about how women are more inclined to be snarky to other women who have “made” it in the workplace. Apparently I might be a snarky bitch for not being impressed that a multi-millionaire with a slew of people working under her could have time to go tuck the kids in at night. I might also be a snarky bitch for finding it really unfair to make people disrupt their childcare plans at the drop of a hat when your position entitles you to build your own nursery (and no doubt staff it) in your office. But whatever, it’s not like we didn’t already know I had a bit ‘o snark in me.

For the record, I think that making people work from the office can in many cases (and probably in Yahoo’s case) be the best course of option. Sometimes you just need to be with your team – especially if you need to make some exceedingly creative choices to pull yourself out of the rut you’ve dug. And even more so if that rut means you’re being eaten alive by someone like Google.

Also for the record, I think it’s amazing to be able to balance work and home lives, and good parenting is put to the test by making solid blocks of time to spend with your kids. Not that I have kids, or know too much about it, other than remembering how awesome it was when both of my parents could be at the dinner table, or a school event. I shined when they were around, and I’m pretty sure that’s how most kids react to a healthy dose of love and attention.

What I don’t get is that of all the stories in the news today about women becoming high-powered, heavy-hitters, why we don’t have more articles about how detrimental that life can be to our mental & spiritual wellbeing? Or why we aren’t talking more about how to get dads to have the best of both worlds? Or why we aren’t making ways for people to work shorter, harder days to allow them to go home at 5pm? Or why we don’t regularly build childcare situations AT jobs, for free (and not just as factories), so that the whole childcare debate didn’t get so heated?

I’m looking ahead, and I’m scared. Let’s not even talk about the fact that I don’t make enough money to afford to pay all of my bills each month right now; let’s just talk about what would happen if I did. Let’s say that I made just enough money to semi-comfortably afford to raise a child (which would mean four times what I’m currently making). To have that job, I would have to work from probably 8am to around 7pm, maybe later, five to six days a week. That’s how my industry works. So I’ll be making enough money, but I will have no time to spend with my child. OK. Hmmmm.

New scenario! I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom. My husband (don’t have one, but I don’t have kids, either, so whatever) will be the bread-winner. Which means that he will have to be paid six to seven times what I make now to afford both of our student loans, our house, food, medical bills, and child care. Neither I nor the kid(s) will get to see him much, during which time our marriage will grow cold and distant, and the kids will not bond with him as much as they should. He’ll resent me for having to work all of the time and also pay my bills, and I’ll definitely resent him for having to be at home with the kids instead of working. When the kids are old enough to go back to school, we’ll have to shift priorities and figure out how to pick them up from school. This means that I’ll have to take a part time job instead of full time, and I’ll make very little money and have no advancement opportunities. A life of lots of stress and pretty much no sex or happiness (except for what I glean by living vicariously through my children) will ensue. Wow, sounds like a real winner. Hmmmm.

Next scenario. I don’t get married, and I don’t have kids. Or maybe I get married and don’t have kids – who knows if I’ll ever have either of those opportunities? I spend the next couple of years focusing solely on my career and personal achievement, forsaking thoughts of family and relationship issues. I set my limits – only five days a week, maybe six if there’s a big project to get done. No more than nine hours of work a day. When I leave work, I’m on my own time. Double my current salary by the end of the year, however that has to happen, then working up from there. My first checks go to pay off credit cards, and from there, the rest starts to go into retirement savings and vacation savings, then savings for a house/condo. After that, I can start thinking about relationships again, and if my current one is still standing, we can talk about marriage. Let’s be honest – by this point, I’ll be at least 37 or so, meaning that kids should probably be taken off of the table. But I’ll be able to travel to everywhere I’ve wanted to go, to read the books I want to read, and if I’m in the right relationship, enjoy the rest of my time here with a man who makes every day sizzle. If he’s willing to not have kids.

Maybe the question that everyone should be asking is not “Why aren’t women advancing in the workplace?” but rather “Why do women have to chain themselves to kids and life partners to be ‘complete’?”

What do you think?

Life Notes: Training, Working, Fashion

work-life-balance

It’s my lunch break, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to jot down some notes about what’s going on right now…

1) My life/work balance is not at all balanced. It’s more like a see-saw with a baby elephant on the “Work” end and nothing on the “Life” end. I’m eventually going to have to rework my schedule and get my shit together, but it’s too much for me right now. I just hope The Man doesn’t give up on me before that happens – he’s getting the shit end of the stick, since I’m working between 12 and 16 hours a day right now.

2) I need to call my grandparents. They’re old, and I haven’t talked to any of them in years. I also need to call my parents, whom I forgot to call on New Years and have managed to successfully avoid calling (out of total guilt) ever since. While we’re at it, let’s add about five friends that I talked to sometime last year. Let’s call them, too. And now you know why I never call anyone – once the flood gates open, I’ll never be done talking to people on the phone. I HATE the phone. Why doesn’t anyone email or text?

3) I’m wearing a really cute outfit today – most of it snagged at the Banana Republic outlet store at steep sale prices. I’ve got on these great dark jean trousers, a tomato red sweater, an off-white lacy camisole, metallic snake skin print shoes (vegan), the lovely vintage Omega watch The Man gave me for my birthday, and a cute little black hemp bracelet from World Market that has a gold and rhinestone snake charm on it. It’s one of those simple, but pulled-together, looks that make you feel like a million bucks all day long.

4) Today was my 2nd full personal training session with Eric Capers of Pro Fitness Trainers. He really kicked my butt, and my weaknesses were glaringly obvious, but I feel really good about how hard I worked out. He really pushes me to be better, and makes me want to do better to not look too stupid 🙂 Today I’m down to 155.8 lbs.

5) Part of that loss is because I’ve been very good about following my nutrition plan. Right now I’m eating a fresh edamame succotash and a cup of veggie soup, with a glass of unsweetened ginger mint tea. It feels decadent, but it’s so simple. It feels good to eat whole foods and stay away from animal products, so I really hope I can stick with it.

6) Really need to watch some documentaries this week! I’m falling behind. It would be nice to watch something else about food safety, and there’s a great one about American horror movies that I know I could get The Man to watch if I tried. Maybe if I work hard enough tonight I’ll be able to go home to no work at all. That would be lovely.

 

Aunt Almost

I’m an only child. Just one daughter for my parents – one chance at creating someone to carry on their legacy. It was a choice that was made mostly for financial reasons, and also because my dad, ever the big talker, said something stupid. He combined the words ‘girl’ and ‘mistake,’ and my mom immediately decided she’d never have another child.

Fine for me – I liked being alone. Scorpios are loyal folk who love their friends and family to a fault, but like our namesake scorpion, we’re our best in solitude. I operate at my highest capacity when I’m able to be around a few folks I love every few days, while spending the bulk of my time in my own head, working out puzzles and thinking up magic.

There’s only one major problem with being an only child – I’ll never be an aunt. It’s a weird problem to have, or maybe it’s just a weird problem of which to conceive. But it is troubling. I’ve never really wanted to be a mom. I might eventually become one, and I’m sure once that happens, things will change and my heart/mind will expand considerably. However, for the last few years, I’ve been thinking about how cool it would be to be an aunt. I love my friends’ kids, and The Man has a little niece who is just the cutest thing ever. But no matter how much I get to know them, buy them presents, spend time hanging out and enjoying their little-person-ness, I’ll never be much more to them than the lady they see fleetingly throughout their childhoods. I’ll never be a real aunt.

Today my best friend Trinity is having a baby. Her water broke at 5am CST, and she’s in labor now. This baby already hit the jackpot in so many ways – two amazing parents who will shower him or her with love and magic, a huge extended family with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, and probably more brothers and sisters down the line, too. I’m leaving town tomorrow to drive to Austin and welcome in the new year with Trin and her new addition. I will be Auntie Anna. This kid is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a real niece or nephew, because Trin is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a real sister.

I’m going to have to be happy with being the Almost Aunt. I’m excited to hold this baby, to shower it with just a little more love, to imagine that one day I’ll be able to do just one thing that bonds us that extra bit, and gets rid of the Almost. We’ll see.

Another Day, Another Laundry Pile

Everyday isn’t laundry day in my house, though sometimes it sure does feel like it. I don’t mind doing the laundry, though. This is my first apartment with an in-unit washer and dryer, and they’re both brand new and awesome. For the first time in my adult life, I don’t have to hunt for quarters any time I need clean underwear, and the dryer actually DRIES my clothes. It’s revolutionary, I tell you.

Of course, we all know who absolutely adores laundry day – the gorgeous Miss Isabel. She’s always happiest when towels are part of the mix, but earlier today I was on a roll, and thoughtlessly unloaded and folded a dryer’s worth of towels quicker than she could make it to the bedroom to come play. Realizing my mistake a few minutes later, I threw a couple of the clean towels in with the next load of things to dry, so she could still enjoy a good snuggle. I’m such a sucker, but as you can see, it was totally worth it.

Isabel the Cat in a Laundry Pile

"Mmm...so toasty warm!"

Isabel the Cat in a Laundry Pile - Image 2

"Seriously Mum, this is the best ever..."

Isabel the Cat in a Laundry Pile - Image 3

"I'd invite you to share, but you see, it's such a small pile. It's really only big enough for one of us."

Isabel the Cat in a Laundry Pile - Image 4

"Seriously - you're not going to fit. Especially not with that black box thing strapped to your head."

Isabel the Cat in a Laundry Pile - Image 5

"Oh, all right, you can come play too!"

And much cuddling and purring ensued.

The End.

Murphy

Murphy in October of 2011

You’ve already read about my beautiful eldest cat, Isabel. If you’ve been reading along, you’ve probably caught on by now that there’s another fur child in my household, Izzy’s younger brother Murphy. His story is a little less involved than his sister’s, but every bit as important to our household’s history. Some of you might have experienced the feeling of being a family with loose ties, and how those ties tightened in the face of a major event, good or bad. Murphy’s simple story is the event that brought Isabel, The Man and myself together as fully-functioning family unit.

In the years BM (before Murphy), there was Isabel. She started out smelly and small, and grew to be snappish and larger. She loved me, and I loved her. I also loved The Man, whom I had started dating a few months prior to the disappearance of my late cat, Matthew. There was no love lost between Matthew and The Man; in fact, when The Man and I first began dating, he told me that he “didn’t really like pets.” He’s really fortunate that I can spot a lie a mile away, and understood his asinine comment really translated to “I haven’t ever had a pet of my own, so I don’t know what it means to love one.” Well, Matthew would have gladly raised a leg on The Man if he were a dog and The Man stood still long enough, so for awhile I resigned myself to the possibility of eventually having to dump this guy in favor of my cat. Fate chose a different route for us all, however. Matthew passed on, and Isabel entered our lives, so tiny and at first so sweet that The Man’s heart of stone was turned to mush – for awhile. Until she went half wild and took to treating The Man, in particular, like a favored scratching post. So much for their short-lived love affair, but at least there was mutual interest and healthy respect on The Man’s part. I figured it was a good starting place.

Two years later, we moved in together. We were in a new city, in a new house, with a two year old cat who was getting a little bored all on her lonesome. I started to put out feelers. We needed a new member of the household, but not just anyone. This cat had to be special.

I spent a lot of time researching cat personalities, and realized that Izzy was a bit of a mash-up of Beta and Gamma, being talkative, pushy, thoughtful, and very eager to please when dealing with me, but also very shy and non-verbally expressive in some realms, especially if other people are in the house. She’s a tricky little beast, and I spent months envisioning the type of cat I’d be bringing in to be her brother or sister. I knew there was only one chance to get this right, and it could be very difficult for everyone if I didn’t take my time.

A few months later, a friend of a friend moved to town from Texas, bringing with her SEVEN cats, four of whom were part of a litter of kittens. While out at a party one night, the new girl mentioned her kittens, and that they were weaned but she wanted to keep the mother and family all together a little longer. I found it refreshing, a complete 180 from the life Izzy was born into, so I asked for more info. What were their markings and personalities? What was their mother like?

The Black One (Murphy), napping with his litter mates Tooken and Saki, and their Aunt Ro Rittens

Cat 5, the kittens’ mother, had been an indoor cat who went into heat younger than anyone expected, and pretty much immediately got out of the house and knocked up. As her human mother put it, “babies having babies.” When the resulting progeny arrived, the first was a little brown tabby. Their human was happy – an entire litter of dark kitties, just like their mother! Then the next kitten arrived, and the next, and the next – in the end there were four orange and white tabbies, and one little dark kitten, who picked up the moniker The Black One. That night, the story of The Black One stuck in my head. I knew I couldn’t afford to choose a new child by looks alone, but I promised the girl that when the time came to give her kittens new homes, I’d be waiting.

Murphy's brothers & sisters

Murphy's mom, Cat 5, and her daughter Kitteh Fluff (a.k.a. Flurf)

A few weeks later I got a phone call. I’d just had all of my wisdom teeth out the day before, and was heavily drugged. The call was from two of my friends, roommates, who were on their way to choose kittens. Since everyone knew I was looking for something specific, I was to be given first dibs on the litter. All I had to do was get across town, my cheeks swollen like I was chewing softballs, my mind complete mush. Awesome.

A few hours later I sat in my new friend’s living room, surrounded by cats. I ended up sitting there for about five hours. It was a surreal experience, and not just because of the painkillers. I was watching kittens like my life depended on it, rating their actions in my hazy little mental scorecard. My friends humored me, sitting, watching, waiting, drinking beers. Of the four kittens in Chicago (one had remained behind in Texas), there were two males and two females. The long-haired female, the sweetest, silliest ball of fluff, was to stay with her owner. She and her mother are still as thick as thieves, or so I’ve been told. Of the others, there was The Black One, a mostly-orange male tabby named Tooken, and his sister, an orange and white tabby who was later renamed Saki (I can’t remember her original name). It was a very tough decision, but as I watched the kittens play it became obvious that Tooken was the alpha of the litter. Saki deferred to him, and hung tight to his side. The Black One wandered happily about, attacking the broom, crawling inside of a wicker table, jumping on his siblings, and getting bathed often by everyone. It was clear that he was the baby, and he loved it. He looked high maintenance, though. I was gravitating toward Tooken, even though he wouldn’t be the best choice for Isabel. It was a moment of drugged weakness. Luckily, I came to my senses when Tooken climbed up the back of the television. With The Man having just bought a new flat screen beauty a few weeks earlier, I realized the orange tabby was not the most intelligent pick.

And so that’s how I made one of the best decisions of my life, and came to carry a sleepy, utterly calm brown tabby kitten home that night. The Man greeted me at the door (I have no clue why he wasn’t in attendance for the choosing, but it’s probably best), and there was a brief moment where I was sure it was a mistake, he’d hate the new cat, Izzy would hate the new cat, it was all going to go awry…

Murphy still naps belly up, though he doesn't do it mid-play any more.

Then, wonder of wonders, I watched as The Man began to fall in love with a pet for the first time. Over the next day, I tried the method of introducing cats through a closed door, with the kitten in the bathroom and Isabel outside. He was very happy with the arrangement. She – not so much. Eventually he bounded out on accident, and when Izzy didn’t kill him immediately, I decided to let it slide and see what happened. The first few weeks were oddly sweet. The kitten, who became Murphy after taking a sip of my Guinness, trailed after Isabel constantly, despite her obvious disdain. She hissed, spit, and batted, but still he followed her around, looking like her pint-sized doppelganger. He made a habit of ambushing her from high places as she walked, and pouncing on her as she settled into her naps. He stole her toys. In general, he made such a cute little ass of himself that I’m inclined to think she couldn’t help but fall in love a little bit, herself.

Murphy wore Isabel down with good old fashioned love. This is about two weeks into their relationship, when she'd finally given up and let him nap beside her.

Isabel was orphaned as a very young kitten, and had never had this kind of relationship with another cat. When I walked in to find Murphy giving the perfectly relaxed Isabel a bath, I knew they would be just fine together.

One day I walked into the living room to find them giving each other mutual baths, and I knew that all would be well.  Now, Isabel and Murphy have been together for a little over two years. Once less than half her size, now she’s about half of his. At about 14 lbs., he’s a linebacker of a cat, with the sweetest, most lovable personality. He still tackles his sister once or twice a day, and their epic battles rage through the house, but they also nap together, take baths together, and generally pal around together like siblings should. They look so similar that people assume they’re from the same litter. Since Izzy prefers to remain out of the way and Murphy likes to come out and meet people, some folks that see both but never at the same time just assume it’s the same cat, moving around quickly. Of course it’s easy for me to tell them apart, as Isabel is petite and sharp, and Murphy is bulky and soft, but at night, it’s easiest for me to tell by their tails. Like the witch in “Hansel & Gretel”, I often find myself reaching out in the dark, running a hand down an encroaching cat’s back, and gently squeezing the tip of its tail. If it’s a calm, bony tail, waiting for me to ascertain its owner, it’s Isabel, come to curl up for the night. If it’s a thickly padded tail, twitching with impatience, it’s Murphy and he’s only come to tell me he needs more kibble.

True love - Munkey and The Man napping together a couple of years ago. He's too big to sleep on someone's neck now, but this basic scene still plays out most days at our house.

Murphy (a.k.a. Murph/Munky/The Munky/Munky-man) has always been The Man’s cat, even though I feed him, change his litter, take him to the vet, and give him belly rubs whenever he pleases. He likes me just fine, but he and The Man have bonded in a way I’ll never get to be part of. Their mutual love of napping during baseball games probably has something to do with it. He is a gentle cat, interested in simple pleasures – kibble, belly rubs, shoulder massages, tastes of coconut oil, naps on a velvet throw that we keep on the couch just for him. Like his mother, he can’t meow properly, instead squeaking or just opening his mouth and exhaling loudly when he’s perturbed. He can’t stand the idea of an empty bowl, and often lets me know that he’s going to be running out of food in a few hours. Even though he’s not a big eater, a bowl with less than several teaspoons of kibble is cause for complete red alert-style meltdowns, with much frantic squeaking, so I’ve learned to keep an eye out. He loves to knock the water bowl over in the night, as well, so I get woken up pretty often for that calamity.

He’s never been interested in toys, but he is scarily obsessed with straws. You can’t leave a cup with a straw in it alone for even a second if Murphy’s nearby, and he will be nearby because he has a 6th sense that only works to pinpoint a straw’s location in his domain. I’ve forgotten and walked away from a cup a couple of times, and come back to either a spilled drink with no straw, or just no straw if he’s been particularly clever. A few days ago I brought home a cup with a straw and he sat on the end of the couch, his eyes never leaving the straw for the entirety of my meal. I swear he didn’t even blink, just followed the cup’s journey to my face and back every time. His normally sweet, teddy-bearish face was taut with the kind of intense emotional hunger he only experiences when tubular plastic items are around. Once gifted with the desired object, he becomes a furry little madman, batting his prey about the house for ten minutes or so, then leaving it lifeless on the rug, perforated with tooth marks.

Well, there you have it – my weird little fur family, in a nutshell. I consider myself to be so blessed to have found a brother for Izzy who surpassed my expectations, and who has brought so much joy to our lives. The Man will never again say he doesn’t like animals (in fact, I often catch him telling others that he’s “more of a cat person”). My beautiful Isabel will never be a lonely, maladjusted orphan again. Over the last two years, she’s mellowed, become less inclined to bite, stopped using her claws when she plays or reaches out, and has even started being affectionate to The Man on occasion. As for me, there’s nothing like being woken up at 3am to clean a litter box again, or wondering what on earth could be making that weird noise, just to find it’s a by-product of crazy cat games. In other words, it’s the best.

My beautiful little man, all grown up.

Raising the Bar

Today I read an update posted by a dear friend on Facebook. She declared herself to be in a very low place, feeling unlike herself. Being no stranger to highs and lows, I immediately wrote back with a few suggestions for crawling out of the rut, but if she is anything like me, I know she took my suggestions more as meddling than helpful hints.

In my own life, periods of the blues have been frequent and often quite deep. As I aged, I mellowed. Part of this change was no doubt due to pesky hormones, part to a change in lifestyle, and a large part in a change in how I nourish myself spiritually, mentally & physically. We’ve probably all been through this in some way or another. One of the best things about being human is the capacity for growth and change, the journey ever upward (with occasional sidesteps and roadblocks).

I wish that I could help my friend see life in a different light, but we live so far apart, and all I can do is be there in spirit. It’s disappointing, and frustrating, especially when I know my words sound empty to someone in such a different place. All I can do is offer her hope that life gets better, and it doesn’t have to be boring, or sad, or lonely.

You just have to reach out, and someone, somewhere will be there to enrich your experience. It might take awhile. It might not be immediate. It might be the smallest return, like someone commenting on your FB status, or letting you ahead of them in line at the grocery store (talk about small miracles, right?) The Universe is looking after you, whether or not you believe it or choose to acknowledge it. If a beautiful flower can grow out of a crack in the sidewalk, it is possible to make a good life grow out of a series of not so great days. You’ve just got to be open to the opportunities, looking for the tiny happy moments and being conscious of how they all link together. Once you can do that, you’ve got a good thing going. Sometimes I forget this, the same as everyone else. This is as much an affirmation as it is admonishment to myself to be more grateful of the love that surrounds me.

My little advice to my friend: collect one pretty image a day that makes you smile or laugh (online or elsewhere) – that way you’ll always be able to go somewhere for a smile or laugh when life is getting you down. Come to visit, so I can make you laugh. I don’t care how old we are, I will always love to see your beautiful smile.

My own personal plan: look for moments that teach me something, whether or not I like what I’ve been taught. Try to be mindful of these lessons, and carry them with me. Take time to be active every day, and don’t do active things that seem boring or like a chore (I go to Zumba, go dancing, and run, run, run). Get pampered often, even if it’s something as little as taking time to give myself a scalp massage while I’m washing my hair. Tell my friends I love them every time I talk to them. Think about what it means to love. Envision good, wholesome energy flooding from me to my friends & relatives whenever I share my love with them. Share nice thoughts with people I meet – if I see a stranger wearing a beautiful dress, I work up the courage to tell her how nice she looks. All of these things come back to us. Try to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, and will think and feel about whatever action I’m taking. If I can see a negative outcome, determine if that outcome is what I really want before taking the action. Sometimes I miscalculate, and I end up having to apologize. Either explain why I meant what I said, or just suck it up and apologize – it’s good for everyone involved. Embarrassment is inevitable at some points in life; try to be graceful about it, or at least wear smudge-free mascara. Breathe, breathe, breathe – deeply and often. Eat real food, not processed crap. Hydrate – it makes your brain happy! And I sing and write whenever the hell I feel like it, as a matter of principle.

What do you do to make your life a better place to be? I know that one person who reads my blog travels the world to bring medical care to those who need it. Another takes time out to care for special needs cats at her local shelter. Still another writes enough great content to fuel a small magazine; I wonder if she ever sleeps! Then there’s a very special cat who is training to be a model yet somehow finds time to keep a great blog. I’m so inspired by reading all of your blogs and seeing what inspires you – I’d love to hear your own personal recipes for happiness. Comment away!