There was something extraordinary in the air at the Rowe workshop this year. So many incredible people, and the whole thing had a kind of blessing hanging over it. Even though, or perhaps partly because of the sadness of Genie Zeiger's not being there.
Genie was a beautiful poet and essayist who died last Christmas; she was a long-time resident of Western Massachusetts and had created a lot of writerly community with the workshops she held out of her home. She had also made the original connection so that The SUN could get in and do the workshops at Rowe, which have now turned into an annual tradition.
So there were toasts to her honor, and remembrances of her, and some tears shed. There was heartbreak, and it was an extraordinarily beautiful weekend. Both things were true. That is perhaps the most miraculous thing I've learned from being close to Carla in the last few years, that you can have sadness and joy at the same time.
The Monday following Rowe, I visited my 15-year-old nephew's classroom--at his request--and talked about poetry, read a few poems, and answered questions. I was pretty wiped out from the previous weekend, still I wouldn't have missed it for the world. How many 15-year-old boys would want their middle-aged weird poet aunties to come in to their schools--want it and initiate and arrange the visit themselves? Noah made all the arrangements; he talked to his teacher, met me in the lobby, held my hand and walked me to the office to sign me in.
Not to brag or anything, but my nephew is, I think, a new breed of young man--engaged, present, kind, funny, smart, and most of all, not ashamed to be human. I don't remember boys being like that when I was his age--most teenagers, myself included, adopted some kind of facade of fake cool, rolling our eyes and feeling simultaneously alienated and victimized and superior to the adults around us. He exhibits none of that. You can talk to him, one person to another. What a gift.
Then I came home. At the airport Christopher greeted me a little nervously: "There's been um, a new development." One of the feral cats--kittens, really-- had dropped a litter of her own on our front lawn--six babies--and then abandoned them because she was too young to care for them; a barely pubescent mother. She was later seen lurking around the backyard reading Cosmo and doing her fingernails while her babies starved loudly in the front.
Christopher said the sound of their piteous mewling was more than he could bear, he had never heard anything like it. A cacophony of soprano whistles and shrieking. He took them in, set up an elaborate system of two plastic tubs with air holes drilled into them, lay in a supply of towels and newspapers, went out and bought expensive newborn kitty formula, tiny bottles, a funnel, the works--and so I was plunged from minor poet-stardom into newborn kitty care in the space of a few hours.
It was not a graceful transition. Kittens are supposed to be cute. These looked like large rats. They were so frantic to feed they nearly knocked the bottle out of my hand. They scrabbled and climbed on each others' heads in their frantic attempts to survive.
And they had to be fed every three or four hours, and then diddled--there's no other way to say it--to make them pee. Apparently the mother cat, if she's a good mother, licks their nether regions to stimulate elimination. In the absence of a real mother, Christopher and I were reduced to tickling their hindquarters gently while wearing rubber gloves until we were rewarded by a few drops of golden showers. Sorry to be gross, but that was the reality of our situation; hunched over, sitting on an old toolbox (closed) with its handle poking up into our own nether regions, trying to get to the kitty poop before they could get it smeared all over their fur.
They had fleas. They were a squirming writhing mass of naked need. And we couldn't figure out what to do with them. Oakland SPCA won't just take all abandoned kitties automatically. C had to go to work on Wednesday and guess who had to do the daily feedings? He tried to spare me as much as possible, so he ended up doing the very early a.m. feeding and the late-night one--this in addition to setting out food for the seven other feral cats who inhabit our backyard and the one indoor one. Oh, and working full-time.
He was getting haggard. I tried and failed to be saintly. Then I got angry and desperate. I posted our plight on Facebook, and was rewarded with some sage advice, and we ended up surrendering the kittens yesterday at a no-kill shelter in another city. Phew! Last night we finally had our delayed, romantic reunion, and then Christopher slept for ten hours and emerged rosy and beaming.
Now all we have to do is trap and spay the remaining seven and get the four younger ones adopted so we don't go through this again in a few more months. And still the feral cat situation in the city at large continues to spiral out of control.
How did we get into this situation? We just live here. We noticed. Or, to be more accurate, Christopher noticed. He's the cat person. But once you see, are you then responsible to...respond?
"What should I have done?" Christopher asked me. It was a sincere question. He felt bad about turning our home into a feral kitty nursery without consulting me first. "What would you have done?"
The book (and movie, with kate Winslet!) The Reader hinges on this question. An illiterate woman, employed as a Nazi guard is later prosecuted for "just following orders" and continuing to guard a bunch of Jewish prisoners while they burned to death in a locked church. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the movie's been out for over a year.)
She is not exactly evil, but rather, morally blind. Morally illiterate, as well as actually illiterate; she can't "read" the situation, she can't figure out what is right and what is wrong. "What would you have done?" she asks the judge and the jury. It's an honest question, and it angers them. They don't want to think about it.
What would I have done if Christopher hadn't taken the kittens in himself? Would I have walked by them? called Animal Control (they never come, in Oakland.)
I took in a homeless girl once. Although now I sometimes--often--walk right past people begging on the street, there are so many of them. It was a disaster when I took this girl in--and it was also wonderful--just as caring for these kittens was disastrous and wonderful. To make the choice to love something that can't love you back. Like the world.
Working in our yard together last night, after the heat of the day had cooled off and the datura flowers were pouring out their fragrance over the moonlit grass, I felt the presence of wild felines occasionally stalking in the weeds, or vanishing in a graceful leap over the fence. I could see how these elusive profligate creatures make our landscape more beautiful, more alive; how this is also their city as much as it belongs to anyone.