Waiting for Nemo

Waiting for Nemo

Years ago, when I lived at my folk’s place in a small development past the outer edges of the suburbs in the country, there was a cat.

He was black, and at first we just caught a glimpse of him every now and then, but it was enough for Mama to get some cat food to put out. (While not a believer in indoor animals, she liked to encourage strays to hang around the house and cut down on mice and snakes.)

I’ve always had a fondness for black cats, and I started thinking of him as “Hamlet.”

The next time we saw the cat, I put a bowl of food out on the back deck. He ran as soon as I opened the door, but later that evening we saw him eating. I did the same thing the next time we saw him, and the time after that. And eventually he would come back for the food sooner and sooner after I’d gone back inside.

One evening, I decided to stay out on the deck when I put the food out. I curled up in a chair as far from the food as I could. It took a while, but eventually he sidled up to his bowl and ate anyway.

After that, I stayed on the deck every time I put out his food, gradually moving the bowl closer and closer to the chairs, until eventually it was just just an arm’s length away.

The whole time, if I moved to get up, or even just lifted my arm, he was gone. But I could talk to him. I’d talk to him and meow, and he’d meow back. We’d have whole tentative conversations out there on the deck.

But always at arm’s length.

He was so close, but so skittish.

I started moving more naturally –talking with my hands – as I sat and we talked. And he stopped startling unless I moved toward him, so I never did.

But gradually he started moving closer to me, until one day he walked around me and rubbed lightly against my side. If I moved to pet him, he was gone.

He was still afraid, but part of him wanted to trust me.

One day, as he rubbed against my side, I lifted my arm at the elbow and he walked under it, arching his back under my hand.

It was the breakthrough. Soon I was petting him naturally and his attention was as much on me as his food.

Our conversations lengthened, a series of meows I was mirroring from him. “Who knows what you’re talking about?” Mama remarked.

But talk we did, and soon, if I saw a black dot far off in the neighboring farm fields, I would walk out on the deck, say, “Good morning!” in a normal voice, and watch a small black head pop up and then streak across the fields to me.

One evening when I returned from work, I was standing beside my car outside the garage when I heard a distinctive “Meow!” I looked around the corner of the house, and there, 18 feet above me on the deck, was Hamlet. We talked back and forth for a bit, and then I watched him gather himself and jump down to me.

Mama said, “Cats don’t jump like that. I wonder what you told him?”

After I moved away from home, if I was visiting my folks and we were talking outside, Hamlet would always show up to see me.

One evening, in the dead of winter, Mama and I were talking in a basement room when I thought I heard something. “Meow…meow!” Hamlet was outside the small, high basement window where he’d heard me, and I went out for a visit on the porch.

That was one of the last times I saw him. One of the dogs that roamed the neighborhood got him.

This past spring when I went to meet Nemo to consider adoption, he didn’t want anything to do with me (or much of anyone, to be fair). He hated the shelter, and especially the kittens being raised in a big cage in the center of the room we met in. He stalked around the room muttering, “Damn kittens! Seriously?” like a grumpy old man.

I liked him. He was black (with a white shirt front and collar), he was intelligent, and he spoke his mind.

I was looking for my first pet, and as we waited to see if he’d warm up to me, I told the shelter manager and the cat-person friend with me about Hamlet.

Nemo didn’t warm up that day, but they gave him to me anyway. “I really had my doubts,” my friend said, “but when you talked about that cat, I knew you wouldn’t rush Nemo. You’d give him the space to get to know you.”

And he did. At home, I let him explore and soon he was rubbing against my legs and offering his head to be petted. All these months later, we’ve bonded, but he’s still the same cat.

He’s always happy to see me in the morning and when I get home from work – talkative and ready for attention. When he’s caught up on things, though, he’ll settle down somewhere. Maybe keep an eye on things.

When I go to him, it rarely works for long. He’ll tolerate a moment of affection before moving away. But often, if I let him go and just wait a while, he’ll come back and leap up to settle in my lap.

Patience has never been my strong point, but I’m learning to wait. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s part of the relationship with this cat of mine. And when I wait and respect his terms and timing, he eventually comes.

Patience is hard.

It’s always been worth the wait.

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Hidden Roots

Hidden Roots

The days when things felt good were the days when the systems of injustice and bias were already in the ground we walked on, the ground we built our homes and families and careers on. The ground we built our communities and churches and safety and sense of well-being on.

What we see happening – the rise of overt racism, the excusing of bigotry and bias, the anger of those who have borne it – these are not something new. They are the green shoots of those roots finally breaking the surface of the soil and showing themselves in the light of day.

We cut off the weeds of racism (or many of us thought we did), but we didn’t pull it up by the roots. And that root system spread. And because we didn’t see it above ground we thought all was well. We went about living our lives, even building good things, on ground that was pervaded with evil.

But the plants broke the surface of the soil again, here and there, and too many of us thought (think?), “The last vestiges.”

It’s far more than the occasional bad apple, far more than the isolated incidents we’d like to believe it is. Instead it is the outworking of the whole system of roots we’ve been building everything on all along.

Just because we were blind to it, didn’t realize, even meant well, doesn’t change the reality.

Yet we keep chopping at the weeds where we can see them, because we don’t want to think about what it would mean to dig everything up and clear the roots.

My folks live in the country (its suburban-ish country, but one of their neighbors is a horse farm with a rodeo, so…), and when my mother goes out to weed poison oak in their yard it’s no simple task.

It’s not the plants that are really the problem (though they are the reason she weeds with every inch of skin except her face covered), but the root system that produces them. It spreads from plant to plant, far deeper than you expect. And if you don’t get it all it spreads again.

The poison we see is the outgrowth of those roots. The poison hurts us and it needs to be cleared.

But the roots, the roots are under everything.

Telling Our Stories

Telling Our Stories

Last Monday, I went to a storytelling open mic in my neighborhood.

I heard stories of middle school crushes and bullies (sometimes they’re the same), of fighting through remarks from family and friends to love yourself the way you are, of becoming a clown (complete with the red nose) and realizing that openly listening to and engaging with others is a lost art, of an introvert whose extroverted mother thought letting her daughter’s friends kidnap her for a surprise slumber party was a great idea, of the unexpected connections that a political canvasser made with strangers. I even told a story of my own for the first time.

Then on Tuesday I went to OutSpoken, a monthly LGBTQ storytelling event that I never leave without feeling challenged and encouraged. There were stories of finding your own identity in the face of others’ assumptions, of bad dating decisions, of respecting where others are and still challenging them to learn. And there was a powerful story from an African-American woman in her seventies about owning her life again after being raped as a child. She named the childhood stolen from her, the mark left on her soul, and claimed her life and the girl inside her.

Stories have power. Words do things.

When we tell our stories, we shape our lives. The things other people told us about ourselves, the stories family gave us – they can all be rewritten into a story that is our own. As we tell our stories we begin to learn who we really are, and as we learn who we really are, we are freed to tell our stories.

But something else happens, too. When we tell our stories, we shape other people’s lives as well.

The crazy thing about telling our stories is that even as they are asserting our individuality and uniqueness, they are also confirming our common humanity. I’ve never heard someone else’s story without finding some sliver of myself in it, of my experiences or my feelings. And that openness to commonality with people very different from me has changed me.

I love Outspoken and identify with the stories told there. They are stories of standing on the outside – of family, religion, society. And even as a straight, cisgender woman, they resonate with me. I grew up as an outsider with my peers and – even though it took me many years to understand this – with the fundamentalist community of faith I called home. I continue to come to terms with what it means to belong to a community where you don’t fit, and Outspoken has become a safe place to explore that.

Even beyond Outspoken, storytelling communities are some of the most generous and accepting I’ve ever encountered. The story being told is always more than a performance – it’s a piece of someone’s life. It’s a community that values listening and encouragement, and applauds the courage to bring what you have. Storytelling is like the potluck of life. Whatever you bring will only expand the meal!

My life was opened up by the stories I read growing up – in the Bible and in so many other books. And the stories I encounter embodied by their tellers each month continue to draw me open in new ways. I feast as I listen and always walk away full.

I’ve barely begun learning to tell my own stories. I hope they teach me how.

The Risk of Forgetting

The Risk of Forgetting

All who love will lose.

CS Lewis, who I think missed much about love, got this right:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” (The Four Loves)

Friends will fail you – not to mention themselves. Lovers will leave. The life you love will through you a curve ball. (And then another.)

Even God will disappoint – silent when shouting is called for, holding back when intervention is needed, just letting us royally mess things up.

And yet…

There is still love. It is never really love that betrays us.

Friends will still be there, even if they are new ones. Lovers show us more of ourselves and the possibilities of life. The life you love is recreated again and again.

Resurrection will always come.

And in the silence of God there are still such gifts. The sun, still obeying the word that first made it shine. Rain, still watering everything. Beauty, stubbornly decorating the world. Breath, still filling lungs when we have forgotten how. Love, still rising in the most unexpected places and ways.

The true risk of love is not in losing, but in forgetting.

Forgetting the warmth of the sun in the frigid dark of winter. Forgetting what once made us smile. Forgetting the joy, the exhilarating beauty of actually living. Forgetting what delighted us in the sheer otherness of another. Forgetting the gifts we have received.

Even when they are gone, they are no less gifts. And when they are gone, there are more to receive.

Because love is always giving. It is not a limited resource. We cannot give it all away, and there will always be more to find. In every ending, there is a beginning. One of the saints said that.

In Advent, as the Christian year is both ended and begun, Jesus is proclaimed Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. I think perhaps I always took that too linearly. Perhaps it means that they come together, beginning and ending. That in every beginning there is an ending, and in every ending, a beginning.

God is love – both beginning and ending and ending and beginning. But never leaving.

The world and us – we are full of such possibility, beyond what we can conceive. Love won’t forget.