Alfie, Rocks, and The Red Wheelbarrow

Woodstock and Alfie many years ago.

Alfie, our guinea pig of 7 years, a resident of the planet for 8.5 years, died yesterday. My sons and I took him to the vet in the morning , knowing they’d allow him to return to the earth a bit sooner, rescuing him from the pain he’d experienced in the last month or two. A few minutes after an injection to the abdomen, he stopped breathing. We brought his body home.  In the afternoon, my younger son dug a hole for him, and with little ceremony but plenty of heart, we returned him to the universe. That afternoon we also watched the eighth in the Teaching Company’s lecture series, How The Earth Works, by Dr. Michael Wysession.

It was the perfect eulogy. That lecture was about the rock cycle with generous nod to the carbon cycle. The two intertwine, with atoms moving from inorganic to organic matter, then back again, over and over, for billions of years. He began the lecture with a sheet of paper, posing the question of how to return the carbon atoms in the paper to a tree. Bury it burn it, flush it, eat it. Whatever action one chooses returns it to the universe and, often, potentially to the tree. I’ll not relate the mechanisms by which this recycling of atoms can happen, but I found his recitation of ways to be deeply meaningful on this day of sadness and loss.
We’re star dust, the products of fission and fusion, all which began billions of years ago. We’re but a short blink in the existence of an atom, just a stop along the ironically both ordered and chaotic way of the universe. Every breath we take continues this exchange of the matter that makes up our bodies. Stay in the same place for a while, and it’s hard to say what around you is you and what is other.
I find all that immensely comforting and utterly humbling. I am an indescribably small part of the universe, with my body a collection of transient atoms arranged just so in a form that I call me. And yet, I’m part of all of it, the whirl of life and what came before life, along with what comes after it. Awareness of my transient nature and ever-changing collection of atoms could lead one to believe that one doesn’t make a difference here. With all than change and flux in the cycles of the universe, who cares what I do in my blink of a time here?
Along comes chaos theory, ready to lift us out of existential despair.Chaos theory is about finding the order in what looks disordered. Mathematics, physics, economics, biology, psychology, geology, and more all utilize chaos theory, applying the principles to order and disorder. Rather than discourage one further, chaos theory can be encouraging. After all, even small differences can make profound changes to the larger system.
Recall the butterfly effect. Mathematician Ian Stewart puts it this way:
The flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen, does. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, pg. 141)
In other words, little stuff matters. We’re the little stuff, or at least we’re a bit of the little stuff. Alfie’s life mattered. On a biological level, he certainly put out his share of waste that found its way to the back garden off my deck. He also took a fair amount in, creating a small but definite carbon footprint over his 8.5 years. He had an impact on the universe. While beyond the realm of formal chaos theory study, he certainly had an impact on our hearts.
Finally, there’s the  red wheelbarrow:


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams
It seems that before chaos theory was first a subject of experimentation by Edward Lorenz in 1960, William Carlos Williams hit upon it in verse. His intent remains a mystery, and there is no indication that he was musing about chaos or the purpose of life. But I’d agree with our virtual geology instructor, Dr. Wysession, that one possible interpretation is that the details and seemingly small stuff matters. I’d extrapolate from the poem that if the wheelbarrow and its particulars matter, so do we. As one who doesn’t hold that we’re here with a preordained purpose from a deity, this sense of “mattering” in the physical sense is comfort.  We are made from the stuff of stars, and we’re in constant interaction with the universe, atom by atom.
In our short trip as whatever we call “self”, we participate in the chaotic order of the universe as well as the far more tangible lives of other selves. Our selves in the world matter, and if the flap of the butterfly’s wings effect on the weather a hemisphere away, the little stuff we does matter as well. Between our birth and dying, the living matters. It’s the smiles, encouragement, compassion,  and love that we share that makes a difference far down the road. (The not-so-nice stuff we spread travels just as far.) It’s the care we take today of our planet that changes what happens in the seasons of our children and grandchildren. We do make a difference, whether we mean it or not.
So Alfie, goodbye. Dr. Wysession, thank you for a reminder of our interconnectedness and to the greater web of the universe, from rock to tree to me. William Carlos Williams, thanks for the image of a wet wheelbarrow. Thanks for the little ways you touched our lives, Alfie.  Those little touches have such a far reach.

Prayer Problems

This week left me ragged.  It left me exhausted, depleted, and shaken.  Full of personal and interpersonal trials, it tried my mind and spirit dearly.  It’s the sort of week that turned my thoughts to prayer.

That’s a problem.  Concerns about prayer contributed substantially to my conversion from liberal Christian to spiritual seeker and Unitarian Universalist. (Note:  Not all UUs agnostics or atheists.  Some are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, and/or something else.)  I’d prayed for years.  I can’t recall a dinner at home that didn’t start with grace: “God is Good” or “Come, Lord, Jesus” were standby rhymed prayers in our home, with freestyle grace led by Dad on special occasions. Thanking the divine for was the first purpose of prayer I learned. Other rote prayers followed.

In my Methodist Sunday School class, The Lord’s Prayer was a third-grade memorization task.  While I wasn’t in the sanctuary much at that age, I had plenty of seat-time invested in the Jesuit-led, Catholic community that made up church part two on most Sundays, and I’d long learned their version.  My challenge in 9 a.m. Methodist Sunday School was to stick the ending, since that was different from what I heard each Sunday at noon.  Aside from the sung Doxology, the Protestant portion of my spiritual life provided only prayer as soliloquy, with the minister at the pulpit delivering it.

As I moved to Catholic school in my middle and high school years, continuing my religious formation there more than in the Methodist home of my elementary years, I picked up the other Catholic basics.  It was, however, a prayer class in high school that was instrumental into shaping my perception of prayer and its many roles.  We were taught that prayer had four forms:  giving thanks, intercession for others, praising God, and petitioning for one’s own needs.  We examined Catholic prayers, which promptly went from rote and empty to filled with purpose.  We meditated to mantras, focused on candles, reflected to music, studied the Psalms, and wrote our own prayers.   A year or two later, a Catholic youth group furthered that understanding, expanding my understanding as prayer as conversation with God.  Prayer moved from rote to intentional.

I believed deeply.  Not in a punishing, restrictive God, but rather in a loving God, one who wanted the best for us but left the details of that up to us.  God as father and mother appealed to me, perhaps since 19, I’d lived without parents in close proximity.  My view of God offered me the intimacy and security of a relationship with a being who would never abandon me and loved me despite what I saw as innumerable, fatal flaws (at least fatal to human relationships).  And, for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t.

Somewhere in the last decade, I started to question.  Not profoundly, but just in the usual ways that people question when they ask hard questions that are no longer satisfied by short answers.  Specifically, I questioned petition and intercession.  Why would a loving deity — unconditionally loving and forgiving — act for someone for whom I prayed?  What about all the people in hard times who had no one to pray for them?  Why would this loving deity only act for those who others remembered first?  What was the purpose of praying for what I wanted or needed — or even for guidance — if we have free will?  And again, where did this leave those who didn’t pray?  What kind of divine being would only respond and comfort those who contacted him/her first?

Prayer fell first.  The rest of faith soon followed.

Old habits die hard, however.  While my understanding of what exists beyond the individual human is still in formation, my long-held view of the divine no longer remains.  But in times of extreme stress, I often myself starting a prayer only to find myself stumped after the salutation.  Do I address my plea to the universe?  Do I take my delight in the sleeping form of my son  or the setting sun to the wheel of chance or to the universe?  How do I take another person or nation into my heart with love and wish them well?  And does any of that matter?  How do we reach out of ourselves to that which is bigger than the individual?  How do our depths touch those when we cannot actually reach out and touch them?   It’s intercession that, as much as it troubles me in theory, that tugs at me the most.

This week was one of those weeks, a week where I wished I knew how to make this part of my agnosticism work.  Plenty of my ilk rely on social action, on any scale, as the answer.  It certainly play a leading role.  It does not, however, answer every concern of this heart.  Sometimes there isn’t an action to take, aside from in our own hearts.  I’m playing with voicing concerns and intentions in two-word mantras, matching the words to my breath.  With this modified meditation, I can later bring those two words back in a stressful situation.  “Pause, praise,” increases my ability to not chew a child to bits during a rough homeschooling moment.  “Live love” is another pairing that focuses my intentions.

That’s not the whole answer, but it may be a start. Directing the heart and mind may be the bulk of prayer, creating a space within where one can listen to more than the firing of one’s own neurons and find meaning beyond the confines of the body of one.  I’m a big logic and reason fan, but loving isn’t about logic and reason, and neither is prayer.


A Frog Story

African Clawed Frog (genus Pipidea)

Four years ago, a mother who shall remain nameless, bought her children three tadpoles with the intent that, together, they’d watch the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs (small, aquatic ones) that would live a year or two at best.  Together, they did watch as one tadpole died (and was subsequently dissected) and as the other two fulfilled their destiny as adult male frogs of the Pipidea genus.  This mom and her kids enjoyed watching them shove frog food into their mouths and listening to them croak in the evenings.  As with most pets, the children lost interest as soon as the dirty work of aquarium cleaning came around, and the frogs became a part of the background, not unlike the unpainted patch on the living room wall and the crabgrass along the driveway. Sound familiar?

A recent post by fellow blogger and friend Keith Yancy recounted his daughter’s loss of Steve, a tadpole that never reached frog status.  While it was hardly considerate to his daughter to do so, I cheered the demise of Steve, knowing years of drudgery (likely for the mom of that house) lay ahead.  The cause of Steve’s death is unknown, and Steve, may he rest is amphibious peace, is buried in the yard.  I maintain that the family dodged the amphibian bullet.

Yes, watching the transmogrification of the two surviving MacLeod tadpoles was fascinating.  Over a startlingly short time, legs and arms grow and the tail shrinks.   The resulting young frogs were even kind of cute, albeit in way the young of many species are.  They fit nicely in their Grow-a-Frog habitat while undergoing metamorphosis but quickly required a two gallon aquarium.  With more room they just kept growing, finally reaching a rather appalling 5 inches from front claw to back claw.  I changed their water regularly, treating it first so as not to poison the creatures, but the larger they became, the more difficult were the water changes.

Frogs jump.  That’s not surprising, but the height which these solely swimming creatures could get when in a net for transfer surprised me each time.  I took to changing them at the sink, placing them in the bottom of a Rubbermaid pitcher with just a bit of water, so as to avoid escape.  But during one transfer, I wasn’t fast enough moving my net from tank to pitcher, and one made a break for it, landing right on the flaps over the sink drain.

After a few moments of open-mouthed staring, I did the practical thing.  I called for my older son, then 10, and asked him if he would pick up the frog.  He declined.  Together, we watched the frog jump and land, this time dropping through the flaps into the garbage disposal.

His eyes grew wide with concern and fear as he said, “You’re not going to turn it on, are you?”

“Of course not!” I replied, not entirely certain what course of action I’d have taken without this impressionable witness.

So I had no choice.  I reached into the (unplugged) disposal and pulled the critter out, depositing him back in the pitcher with his more obedient buddy.  The remainder of the tank cleaning was without incident, although I soon moved them to a newly vacant (due to gerbil deaths) 10 gallon aquarium with a filter to decrease hand-to-frog contact.

And it worked.  A few times a year, I’d scrape down the sides, sometimes moving the frogs to a bucket for a more thorough cleaning.  I started feeding them a bit less often and found they thrived and that the aquarium remained much cleaner without all the uneaten food going to rot.  I came to a resigned peace with the frogs, sure that they’d live only another year or so.

Then I spoke to Bill.  Bill’s a Biology professor, and Bill knows his creatures.  A short description of our metamorphosis project prompted him to ask me if I knew how long these critters could live.  No, I admitted.  That’s when he dropped the frog bomb:  20 to 25 years.  20 to 25 years.  The kids would be out of the house by then (hopefully), and I’d still be left with these stinky, messy frogs.  Anything living that long should come with a long list of disclosures and options for surrender to Pipidea rescues should one move to a home prohibiting aquatic frogs, become allergic, or the like.  How many parents are left with these frogs, caring for them years after their now metamorphosis-educated children have moved out and on?

So I did what any practical mother would do.  I tried to give them away. Homeschooling definitely hampers the transfer of pets to unsuspecting classrooms, so I took to social media, offering them on Facebook.  No takers.  This spring, after installing goldfish in the rain barrels to eat mosquito larvae (works if the fish live — don’t put them in before an unseasonably cold spring night), I considered adding the frogs to the barrels.  Knowing they couldn’t weather the winter (they are native to Africa and South America), I opted out, not thrilled about the prospect of fishing them out in the fall.  Resigned to my fate as frog owner for another few more decades, I gave their aquarium a much-needed scrubbing, down to the rocks, rinsed all well, and returned them to their home.  The clean tank improved my attitude toward them, as it always does when they’re sporting spiffy digs.  All seemed well, and two frogs were swimming, ribbiting,  and eating as we left for vacation last week.

The stench that met us at the front door, six days later, was difficult to identify.  Alfie, our eight-year-old guinea pig was munching carrots, so the smell wasn’t from him.  The garbage can, filled only with some of his not-very-noxious vegetarian-diet poops, also didn’t hold any clues.  The kitchen revealed a soft but unblemished peach, and the garbage disposal had been run before we’d left.  Befuddled, I left the kitchen, moving toward the back of the house.  Ten feet from the frog’s aquarium, the source revealed its malodorous self.  One frog was floating at the top, decay quite evidently in progress.  The second frog was nowhere in sight.

Suitcase still on the front porch, I whisked the aquarium outside and started dumping out the contents onto a gravel path.  As the water sloshed out, I held my breath and turned my head.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw distinctive frog movement.  I set down the aquarium and repeated my open-mouth staring as the frog hopped furiously away.  With no net and no desire to touch anything that had just left that decay-ridden water, I ran into the house for a net and container of water, knowing my chance of finding the stinky survivor was slim but bound to try (a bit) of a rescue.  Of course, I never found him.  I returned to the definitely dead one and finished my clean-up work with only a shadow of remorse that I’d done a rather halfway job of searching for the missing Pipid.

And the boys?  They’re fine.  I attempted to enjoin my younger in the search for the living frog, but he proclaimed the task futile and, besides, the yard was too stinky from the dead frog.  My older never blinked, instead pausing a breath before finding the light at the end of a very short tunnel:  “Now we can get gerbils again!”

It’s Life and Death

Woodstock, the early years

By all accounts, today has been unusual.  It’s also been a bit hard on the heart, too.  This morning, the boys and I were surprised to find Woodstock, our six-year-old guinea pig, dead. Now, six years is a respectable lifetime for a guinea pig, who have a life expectancy of six to eight years, but his death was a bit of a shock.  Somehow, I assumed Alfie, his older cagemate, who is about seven-and-a-half, would go before Woodstock.  And, given the slow demise of a gerbil a few years back, requiring a trip to the vet for euthanasia when his suffering became obvious, I guess I expected death after at least a brief illness.  Coming to the cage and finding him dead never crossed my mind.

Woodstock was my first furry pet.  As a kid, I’d had two goldfish, each named Goldie, and a cricket, named Arthur.  I can’t recall my reaction to the death of each Goldie, but I do know I wept bitterly at the loss of Arthur, which occurred three weeks after his capture from the wild and imprisonment in my room.  Allergies (mine and my dad’s) and an aversion to pets to care for (mom’s) made all non-aquatic or insect pets out of the question.  So aside from the occasional weekend caring for a class gerbil or hamster, furry pets (or any pet interested in a relationship with humans) was out of the question.  The first mammals in my care were my children.  When I’d kept them alive until the sturdy ages of seven and three, they hit me up for a pet.

“How about a fish?” I countered.

My older firmly informed me that fish were not real pets.  You couldn’t hold them, at least not more than once.  No, he asserted, he wanted a pet with fur.  A real pet.

So we reviewed our options.  Dogs and cats were out.  I was allergic to both, and that was far more care and committment than I was up for.  Rabbits?  Allergic to them as well.  Dreadfully.  Mice?  Too micey.  Gerbils?  Too much like mice.  And don’t they bite?  Hamsters?  Stinky.  My younger discarded howler monkeys on his own — way too loud and howly.  Guinea pigs?  Hmmm.  I was stumped on that one, not having been around one since elementary school classrooms.  Research was needed.

So we delved into guinea pig books and websites.  From our reading, they seemed fairly sturdy (good when you have an inquisitive 3-year-old around), generally unlikely to bite, and generally unlikely to escape.  Off to the pet store we went, where we found Woodstock, an eight-week old American Smooth, brown and black, bouncy guinea pig.  We were smitten, and we set on making his life as good as possible, with the best food and hay, a large cage we made from Coroplast and squares of metal shelving, and comfy fleece bedding.

But soon, our reading led us to belive Woodstock was lonely.  Guinea pigs need a buddy, it seemed, and while ours seemed content with our ministrations alone, we set out to find him a friend.  How we stumbled onto the Guinea Pig Lady (our name for her), I don’t recall, but we drove a half hour south to see this woman who gave much of her home to be a guinea pig shelter.  In addition to some 30 sheltered pigs, she had 20-odd pigs of her own, living in the most elaborate three-or-four story (pig stories) structure.  At some point, my younger mentioned that the pigs might want a snack, and the cacophony of squeaks that followed his words was nearly deafening.  Somehow in all that, we found Alfie, a white and brown Abyssinian who was between one and two years.   He was the friend for Woodstock.

And the handsome guy on the right is Alfie

Cautiously, we introduced them, first putting them in adjacent cages, then supervising time with them out of the cages, and finally caging them together.  And they didn’t care.  Sure, they chuttered at each other a bit over which shelter to use, and for the first few years of their cohabitation, they would mount each other, with no clear dominance emerging,  but really, they just didn’t seem to care about each other.  Ah, well.  We decided they were friends.  And we’d become bona-fide pet owners.  My parents were surprised.  Honestly, I was surprised.  I hardly needed more bodies to care for, but I really did bond with the stinky, messy guys (the guinea pigs, well, and the boys).

Gerbils followed, then aquatic frogs.  Mealworms, ants, guppies, fighting fish, slugs, and snails all found shelter in our home for prolonged periods over the years.  And while the gerbils and most of the rest have passed on or been released, only the guinea pigs and those immortal aquatic frogs remain.   The pigs were our gateway drug of sorts, opening our doors to an ark-load of creatures over the years.

And, over the years, we’ve lost fish and gerbils, ants and slugs.  But this was different.  Woodstock was my first furry pet, and, for a rodent, he had a remarkable amount of personality.  He was the one who squeaked every time the fridge opened, hoping for lettuce, carrots, curtains, fleece, plastic… he was hardly a discriminating eater.  He was the one who greeted each foster cat that batted a paw between the bars of the cavy cage with a hopeful sniff, looking for food.  Yeah, he was a bit slow.  We didn’t dub him least likely to survive in the wild for nothing.  But he had personality.

My older was initially sad, although not as bereft when, several years back, we had his first gerbil put down.  My younger was a bit scornful of his brother’s and mother’s long faces and sad tones.  “It was just a guinea pig,” he scolded.  “It’s not like it was a cat.”  Ah, priorities.

But life goes on.  Alfie seems unphased by the loss of his cagemate of six years, and I imagine he’s glad to have the food to himself.  And the three of us are rather distracted.  Today, February 22, the boys’ half-brother was born.  They’ve been excited about his coming, which is a contrast to their reactions when first hearing about him seven months earlier.  In contrast, I’ve been sad and pensive over the past few weeks, as birth became imminent.  I’ve ridden waves of anger and sorrow, tempered by the hope that my children and this child can bond and grow to love each other.  I’m watching what I feel become colored by my thoughts and vice versa, and simply watching that process reminds me how easily I can confuse those thoughts and feelings with the reality of the situation.  Reality is that one life has left the world and another has entered.  Reality is a universe taking care of itself, ever maintaining balance.  So I keep breathing, sometimes crying, sometimes simply being, and, occasionally  — just occasionally — smiling.

Out of My Mind

Emmy was hard to return.  Although she’s only been with us two weeks, she really found her place in our home.  She fit in well:  talkative, heat-seeking, and assertive about her needs.  She and I just bonded.

So returning her to the Michigan Humane Society was tough today.  I’ve liked most of our foster cats, but a few are special, and letting go of those is a tougher.  As my younger and I walked down to the cat rooms,  a foster employee stage whispered, “If you want them, we have great fosters for you!”  Before she elaborated I knew she had kittens, but before I could ask, she continued, “Six babies, each under a pound and about five weeks old!” 

My younger squealed with the delight only six kittens, each able to fit your hand, can bring.  What can I say?  His joy was infectious, as was the staff’s pleasure that we’d care for such a brood until they recovered from their kitten cold and gained enough weight to be adoptable.  Of course they came home with us. 

On the way home, I called my older to share the news.  His jumps (audible through the phone) and yells said it all.  “You said never more than four at a time again, Mom!  And now we have SIX!!” 

He’s right.  After a particularly worm-infested (read: poopy in the wrong places) set of five, I swore to keep the kitten-count under that level.  But these babies needed us.  And the five hadn’t been that difficult, had they?  I’m a bit of a sucker for cats in need but much more of one for the joy of my sons, especially in dreary January.  So here they are.  Yoda, Obi, Chewie,Sam, Rosalind, and Irene.  Stuffy, sneezy, and adorable.  And I’m smiling, but perhaps I’m just out of my mind. 

Returning Feynman

The boys and I finally managed to bury our gerbil, Feynman. We had him put to sleep (yes, you can have a gerbil euthanized at the vet’s) over a month ago after a large tumor on his shoulder extended through the skin. He was bouncing along fairly well with this, but when bone was visible, my older son decided to let him go. While he opted out of being in the room for the injection, he was able to say goodbye in the exam room and see him again after his death. The front desk staff commented on the peaceful nature of our family during our visit to the clinic, and while our eyes were dry, I think the statement spoke more of our spirit than our outward appearance.
Add Image
So why are we just burying this little critter at a date so distant from his passing? Four inches of rain the weekend of his death made his spot in the freezer quite secure while we waited for the yard to dry. The immediacy of the situation left, to be honest. We recovered from our first non-flushable pet loss while the ground soaked up the rain.

Today’s weather drew me outside for one of the last gardening hurrahs of the season. I find post-summer clean-up a bit sad and not nearly as fun as spring gardening, so neglect sometimes occurs. The boys and I planted about 50 tulip and daffodil bulbs when my mind turned to Feynman in the freezer. I asked my older son if he’d like to bury him with some of the bulbs, returning the gerbil to the earth. He heartily took to the idea, and now Feynman rests among a cluster of red tulip bulbs in our backyard flower garden. Spring blooming will hold special meaning in 2009, knowing that our friend is part of the cycle of the universe.

New Friends!

We’re officially a foster family for the Michigan Humane Society! Right now, two adorable kittens, 5 weeks and 7 weeks of age, are romping around the house, delighting all of us to no end. They’re with us for at least three weeks, with weight gain as top priority. Despite coming from different litters, they became fast friends and enjoy wrestling and pouncing together until they collapse into a pile of furry exhaustion, the older resting his head on the younger. We’re completely won over by their so-soft fur, squeeky meows, and clumsy antics. Of course, getting any homeschooling work done is challenging — how can anything compete with all that cuteness?