I have lived with several Zen masters—all of them cats.
—Eckhart Tolle

In 1999, a few months after Shonnie and I were married, I got a mid-day call from her at her office at the Mission Hospital marketing department in Asheville, North Carolina. I was putting the finishing touches on a client’s marketing plan at our home office in a little four-plex nestled in the woods just off Merrimon Avenue.

I answered the phone and Shonnie excitedly said, “Merrell brought in two abandoned kittens this morning, and they need a home. Can we keep them?”

“We’ve got three cats already,” I replied. “I really don’t think we need any more.”

“Please? They’re so adorable. Won’t you just come look at them?” Shonnie asked.

“Well, I guess we could consider one,” I said.  “Just let me get to a stopping point, and I’ll drop by.”

Bandit & Desmond in 2000

Bandit & Desmond in 2000

A half hour later I drove the four or so miles to the squat one-story building that housed Mission’s marketing offices. Upon entering I exchanged pleasantries with a couple of Shonnie’s fellow staff members and walked into Shonnie’s office. There on her desk were two very furry little kittens—both male, one black and white, one tabby—alternately grooming one another, wrestling and playing chase.

I took in the scene on the desk, smiled at Shonnie’s entreating and hopeful visage and said, “Well, if we’re going to take one, we’ll have to take both.” Shonnie beamed with excitement, and it was settled. We were now a five-cat family.

Though our three older cats—Chocolate (11), Kaali (5) and Attabi (4)—weren’t quite sure what to make of the two little fur balls and all the new masculine energy, the kittens settled in pretty quickly. Over the next few days we tried out various names, but settled on Bandit for the black and white because of his mask-like markings and Desmond for the tabby kitten in honor of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (though I never related this to “Arch” in my occasional email exchanges with him). Based on their big, tufted paws, their big bones and muscles (Desmond weighed 18 pounds in his prime, Bandit 11) and their long multi-layered fur, vets suggested that our boys had Maine Coon blood, a breed known for enjoying interactions with humans and being sociable, devoted, playful and at ease with children and other pets. Bandit and Desmond lived up to all of these characterizations and more. (more…)

The snowflakes, driven by the blustery north wind, blow into my face and nonchalantly dust the grass and the pines. Once again, Bandit, my trusty feline companion, is my teacher. He stands near me, tail curled around my leg, effortlessly present in the moment, while I struggle to let go of thoughts about the stuff I “should” be doing so that I am present too.bandit-in-woods

I suffer from nature deficit disorder, a common malady of our culture, especially among our youth. Sometimes I’ll spend a whole day indoors without even walking to the mailbox—writing, e-mailing, Googling, calling—yet I know that my body, mind and spirit all cry out for—more time on the trails around my home, in the mountains that surround us. I know at a cellular level that nature nurtures me, yet I forego its healing powers in order to handle the “important” matters of living—earning a living, saving the world, satisfying my intellectual curiosity, watching TV.

The wind continues to gust, but the snowflakes slowly diminish. As a terse reminder of our warming climate, the ice crystals that had collected promptly vanish without a trace. And Bandit and I saunter back to the warmth of the fireplace. As we approach the back gate, Bandit is spooked by something he hears and quickens his pace. I stride to keep up, wistful that our connection with the Earth is drawing to a close, at least for today.

From a 2/4/07 personal journal entry

“What is your purpose in life?” the guardian of the gate at the men’s retreat demanded.
“To work toward a more compassionate, just and sustainable world,” I immediately replied.
“You may enter!”

I guess I’ve known why I’m on this planet for 15 years or so,
And at first I organized workshops that encouraged folks to wake up,
To get off automatic pilot,
To live and love more fully.

Later I took to writing,
Hundreds of op-eds for a variety of publications,
On peace, simple living, climate change, treating our children well, the connection between us all,
Taking a few potshots at George Bush and his pals in the process.

Next I endeavored to shift the course of our nation by working for worthy candidates,
As a field organizer for Obama in Ohio in’08,
As a campaign adviser for Cecil Bothwell’s victorious campaign for the Asheville City Council in ’09,
And as the communications director for Patsy Keever’s successful race for the North Carolina State House in ’10.

And now on the final day of 2010,
I sit down to reflect on how I’ll help bring about,
Compassion, justice and sustainability in the coming year.

I call out to Life: “I am your instrument; I am ready; show me the way.”
And when I get no response, the relentless planner in my head jumps into overdrive,
Maybe I should complete my book on happiness . . . or my essay on gay rights,
Or I maybe I should go to work in the 2011 city council campaign . . . or the 2012 presidential race.

But Life finally answers my plea with the joyful giggle of a 16-week-old baby girl.
And immediately I understand,
This is my mission, my purpose in life:
To honor the sacred responsibility of consciously parenting this lovely, loving, loveable child,
To love Gracelyn unconditionally,
To trust my intuition,
To allow her her independence,
To be fully present with her . . . moment by moment by moment.

With Shonnie, to create safe, secure, loving, fun, enlivening space,
In which Gracelyn is empowered to grow into exactly who she is intended to be.

Thus we three begin our 18-year meditation retreat . . .BabyG14
And I follow my breath as I change Gracelyn’s diaper,
I buckle her into her car seat, and I breathe,
I gaze into her brilliant blue eyes . . . and I breathe.
As she cries and I wonder what to do . . . again, I breathe.

And something imperceptibly shifts . . .
Within Gracelyn, within me, within the universe,
And nothing will ever be the same again.

December 31, 2010

Just as I sit down at my computer this morning

To tackle my ever-expanding list of things to do

My cat Attabi silently slips into my office with an entirely different agenda

As he hops on my desk and lies in front of my keyboard

 

Attabi

Attabi

Attabi balks as I try to shoo him away

And his persistent presence gives me pause

To remember that I’m not just here

To churn out disposable income

To amass more superfluous stuff

To boost my sagging sense of self-importance

 

For in the end, on this January morning what could be more important

Than gently applying the brakes to my overactive mind

And forgoing, for the moment at least, the demands with which I’m (self) encumbered

Taking the time to cuddle and caress this gentle-spirited boy

And delight in the unyielding bond between us

(January 29, 2010)

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