A NOVEL IDEA by Kristin McCloy

If anybody asks, as everybody does, I am a writer. I’ve dabbled with plays, poetry, published a couple of stories, written some reviews, edited other people’s work, and taught; but mostly, I’m a novelist, and very lucky that when my first one was finished I was in the right place at the right time (young/NYC/late ‘80s, with a runaway manuscript that had five sex scenes, not a single one gratuitous).

Velocity made me a ridiculous amount of money while my second novel had already been bought as an idea. Because of this, I fell, and for too long remained under the illusion that writing would always sustain me.

HA!

My third novel, Hollywood Savage, published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster called Atria Books was given zero publicity. They rushed it out without even the author photo I had provided, or any blurbs from other authors. Perhaps they decided I would make a better tax deduction, but it was very hard to watch something I’d spent several years on come and go without a trace.

I am now working on my fourth novel, advance-free and editor-less.

All of the above is the preamble to the how and why I became an animal caretaker.

Primarily, it is something I do to generate some cash flow, if not much, but it is all cash, and boy does it flow. In and right back out again — as it should! That’s why it’s called currency.

I’ve been stupid rich, and I’ve been astonishingly poor, and I’ve discovered that I’m not materialistic, and I don’t need more money than it takes for me to live on – which I’ve learned to do with not much, unless you don’t count on tremendous generosity from your friends — and I do. Oh boy, do I!

In fact, part of that help began when a woman I met at my first reading for LitQuake, and who became the most constant member of my fiction workshop, asked if I would consider staying in their back storage unit/living studio to take care of their menagerie (one dog and three cats, plus the house and garden), so that she and her husband could take a three-month fellowship he’d landed in Marseilles, France.

The storage unit is filled mostly with books, has a wonderfully high bed, high ceilings, great insulation and a skylight, while the garden is lush and wild, with plum and apple and peach trees, along with a lot of fennel which attracts Monarch and Swallowtail butterflies. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, especially when I saw that my own kitty, Zelly, a serious hunter could leap out the window and into the mysterious natural world whenever she wanted, and then back in again – I felt like I’d won the lottery.

After they returned and graciously allowed me to stay on, I looked for more animal caretaking jobs and slowly began acquiring clients, two of whom book me at the beginning of every year, and who’ve kept me afloat when other jobs occasionally dried up.

While the work is not exactly high-pay, I love it – not least because it comes so easily to me, as I’ve loved animals with a freakish intensity ever since I was a little girl, as I think most children do (just look at picture books!) Innocence has such a soft spot for other innocence, and children are particularly vulnerable, as are nearly all the animals in our world.

I’m good at what I do because I have never not fallen in love with other people’s animals. It’s fun getting to know each little sentient being for its own distinct personality, with as many quirks and differing habits as any person I know. The exception is that, given enough time and attention, all of these little guys will start to shower me with affection in their own way – whether it’s wanting to be in (literal) touch at all times, or deciding they need to sleep on my chest at 3:00 A.M. Some of them follow me from room to room, others are more, Can you open the effing door already?

Like Jules Pfeiffer’s cartoon women, I dance to the ever-present grace in every single cat, their ability to drape themselves anywhere (and then sleep!) to twist themselves while free-falling in space so as to land on their flexible feet, then simply walk away unscathed (and, more importantly to them, I believe, unembarrassed!)

I dance to the way they pretend you don’t matter, but manage to keep you in their sight-lines at all times, regardless of how well they hide themselves (it’s called ‘cat space’ and if that cat does not want to be found, well then: good luck!)

When I’m writing I often ask my small charges to help me channel the genie, and so often they will curl up around me (on the arm of a couch, on the floor at my feet, nearby on a windowsill) and fall into the trance-like sleep I so envy, creating an atmosphere of deep serenity into which my mind can drop.

The only thing I dislike about animal care is that I have to leave Zelly at home by herself, where she basically just waits for me. She’s an Abyssinian, a breed known for their wild beauty as well as their unusual loyalty. They bond with a single being and you, lucky lucky you, become their world.

I got Zelly after the cat I had adopted from a neighbor who was never home — a regal creature I named Napoleon — was hit by some asshole driving very fast down a single-block street. Napoleon tried to come home and made it only halfway across the street. I bent over him and howled. The grief was so intense I knew the only thing that would help would be adopting another cat, because believe me, there is no shortage of beings who need out of a cage and into your heart.

Zelly was curious, insanely playful, and if you threw something for her, she would snatch it out of thin air and bring it back. Not like a dog, panting and leaving it at your feet, but much more casually, jumping on the bed and carelessly dropping it near your hand. Her cool was stunning, and very funny. But when she needed affection, she let me know. She would get up on my chest and knead me, then curl up next to me and sling one paw over my collarbone. I often fell asleep holding that paw.

Somewhere along the line, I had the realization that my cat was essentially living for me. Attending to her own cat business (oh where to take those seventeen naps?), but also waiting for me to come home, wanting attention, wanting to play, and later, if I’m very lucky, jumping in bed when I wake up panicked by everything at 5:00 A.M. to meow in my face then curl up in the space between arm and heart to purr us both back to sleep.

Understanding that this breathing, living, loving, very chatty being was and is singularly devoted to me struck me with a sudden force. The extent of that devotion left me breathless, and from then on I knew: she wasn’t my cat, I was her girl.

I think most people take their animals’ utter devotion for granted, and I want to shake them and ask, Don’t you understand what an honor that is?

So here’s the thing: while I identify myself as a writer, a label that goes a lot deeper than words (no pun etc.), who’s to say what’s the more important work? Writing books that one hopes will outlast one’s own lifetime, and might perhaps achieve what Jean Cocteau always claimed was the main reason for writing – to ‘utterly overwhelm a single soul’? Or is it the care and love that flows between myself and the animals I’ve been entrusted with, including my own?

I met a dog named Dirk when I was an undergraduate at Duke. Dirk was easily the smartest animal I’ve ever met (she should have been, considering how many classes she attended with me alone!) She was one of my roommates during her owner’s last semester at the university, and when I asked for custody, her human sneered and said, You don’t even know where you’re going to live next year!

Well, that was true. But apparently, Dirk did. Because one day, when I wasn’t even home, my sister, with whom I shared an off-campus house along with a litany of others, heard a wild scratching on the screen door, opened it, and in out of the rain came Dirk. She jumped on the couch, stretched out, and fell asleep. She remembered my promise, and she obviously had my number. For the rest of the time I was there, Dirk lived with me.

When, we had to part, I entrusted her with my soul. She was the fiercest guard I could think of, and when I die, I pray she will be the first creature I see. And when I look around, I hope that I see every other animal I ever loved, freed, helped, took care of, or mourned for – including every animal sacrifice, any animal hurt, wounded, or poached – every animal in the whole wide world.

Because that is my idea of Heaven.

This essay is a shout out to the gorgeous variety of creatures who have their own deep intelligence, and everything to teach us about being at ease in your own skin, trusting your instincts, and loving without limit.

Kristin McCloy is a thrice-published author (Velocity, Some Girls, and Hollywood Savage), working on her fourth, and living in Oakland with the cat who owns her, Zelly, and the family who took them in. 

 

MEET A MUSLIM by Moina Shaiq

Moina Shaiq

I have been involved in interfaith work for over a decade. The same open minded and receptive people attend those events, so it often feels like we’re preaching to the choir. Research indicates that 80% Americans have never met a Muslim. I want to make a difference by crossing that divide.

After the Paris and the San Bernardino shootings, I decided to put an ad in the local paper titled “Meet a Muslim.” What I had in mind was that I would spend an hour at a local coffeeshop. Whoever came, I would talk to. If no one came, I would just work on my laptop. That way, no time would be wasted.

I expected that a few people might come, but over 100 people attended that event. It was standing room only and it was pretty overwhelming. I invited people to ask me any questions they might have. No question would be off limits. They had all sorts of questions, but the questions were mainly related to current events. They were not interested in knowing about Islam or about me and my way of life. They didn’t ask me anything personal.

Moina Shaiq faces audience

I wanted to let them know that I am an ordinary American, just like they are. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter and a community member for the past 34 years. I have four beautiful children. One was born in North Carolina, a second one in Texas and my last two were born right here in Fremont. All went through Fremont schools. At one time, I was a little league mom, football mom and soccer mom. I also have a darling granddaughter. Both my husband and I have purchased our burial plots here and intend to die here.

I have been a community activist for over 16 years. I served as a Human Relations Commissioner for the city of Fremont and joined the boards of several non profits, because I was passionate about their work. In the process, of course, they learned about me too.

9/11 changed my life. I stayed home for 10 days after that happened. My family was very scared of a backlash and since I wear the hijab (head scarf) they didn’t let me go out. I knew that many people were uninformed about Islam and Muslims and that their lack of knowledge or personal exposure was prompting much of that fear. I decided that I wanted my fellow Americans to know about me and my faith, so I started getting more involved in the community, attending as many city events as possible.

One day after the Fort Hood shooting, when a Marine opened fire and killed several of his colleagues, I went to drop my daughter off at her soccer practice. Usually, after I dropped her off I would walk around the park, but that day I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was feeling guilty, like I had done something wrong, but beyond that, I was truly scared. After sitting in my car for a while, I thought, I can’t just sit here. I drummed up the courage and got out of my car. I walked, but I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. When I  posted a mention of this on Facebook, a Christian friend was so moved that she wore a hijab the next day, not only to commute to work, but the whole day, in solidarity.

Moina Shaiq answers questionsWhen I publicized my first “Meet a Muslim” event in the local newspaper, a non-Muslim friend noticed the ad and called me to relay his concern about my safety. He said that by putting myself out there, I could become a very easy target. He encouraged me to contact the police and inform them of my plans. So I did. I informed the police chief and he immediately offered to send an officer to the event. I’ve hosted 10 of these events so far and thank God, most people have been very respectful.

One beautiful aspect of these events is the way my friends from different faiths have participated.  My technology guru is a very close Jewish friend who does social media for a living, but she is helping me behind the scenes because she is very supportive of my cause and wants to bring the community together. Another friend is a Deacon at a local church and has come to all my events. If he thinks that an answer to a particular question might be better understood if people also hear his perspective, he’ll offer that input. For example, when I’ve been asked about Sharia Law, he will give an analogy of the Canon law in Christianity and Halaqa law in Judiasm to help further explain.

I want to reach out to as many people as I can, not only in Fremont, but throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. So far, I have spoken at places of worship, service group meetings, schools, coffee shops, a senior living facility, a mobile home park and a pizza place. I also ask people who attend these events to initiate a conversation of their own with family members, friends, co-workers or neighbors. I’d love to see these conversations happening in every community in the United States.

My “Meet a Muslim” conversations received a lot of media coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a cover page story and KRON4  ran a nearly 10-minute segment on their evening television news. I also created a dedicated “Meet a Muslim” Facebook page for people to get more information.

I want to reach one heart at a time.

And yes, I do speak Urdu.

Moina ShaiqMoina Shaiq has been living in the United States for 38 years. She is a mother of four children and a grandmother of one. She is also a community activist who is devoted to building bridges of understanding.

THE FABULOSITY OF SIMPLICITY by Alcoholic Anonymous

Alcoholic Anonymous

I got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1997, following a 20-year drinking run that began with fun, games, ease, debauchery and adventure . . . and ended up with me as a 33-year-old housewife with a quart-a-day vodka habit.

I was bankrupt in soul, damaged of liver, sluggish, guilty, lying and dodging. A mom to a darling toddler and wife to a kind, wry, hard-working man. I had become a bit of a shut-in, drinking while my son napped, watched cartoons and played (often, to my horror, with my ever-present bottles, like sinister toys). I was in the privileged, fortunate position of being able to quit my job in publishing and become a full-time mom while my husband worked long hours as a computer expert at a bank yet still came home to be a fine, attentive, loving dad. But I took this great opportunity and brought it to the precipice of ruin. I was at a desperate impasse and had the fleeting notion that it would take an act outside my own stubborn self to get me the help I needed.

It was the kid who ratted me out, blew my cover and saved my life. My bottles (quarts of Smirnoff 100-proof) were always in my purse, and they went everywhere with me. (I called it my portable bar, a sad “joke” known only to me.) One day, I got careless with the placement of my bag and – unbeknownst to me – my son dragged my husband over to my bottle-laden bag. This happened a second time and a third. Then, my intuitive baby led my husband to a vodka-soaked shirt I had hastily tossed into the hamper. After that, my husband (quick study that he was) checked quietly for the evidence on his own . . . always, but always, finding it.

He was baffled and horrified by the amount of alcohol I was consuming, but he was devastated by my lying about it. It all came to a heartbreaking showdown that got me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1997, where I gratefully remain to this day. It saved my life, restored my sanity, slowly rebuilt trust in what today is a happy marriage to the same man, and allowed me to be a gleeful, quirky, loving, responsible mom to my kid, who is now thriving on his own blazing path as a college sophomore.

But it was a broken, contrite, slightly jaundiced, wounded broad who walked into her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was in a location known to me; a nearby storefront that was always the site of a cluster of people laughing, chatting and congregating. I had long figured it to be a 12-Step group of some sort and often thought, “I’ll probably have to be there one day, but they haven’t gotten me yet!” I called AA for a local meeting place and a sweet, woolly-voiced gentleman provided me with that precise address.

It got me.

It’s a tiny room, a cold-water flat that was once a milliner’s shop in the 1950s, an authentic Greenwich Village structure if ever there was one. The people inside are like me – struggling with a disease that we cannot combat alone. This particular group is loose, whacky, supportive, profound, silly and life-saving. I attend many meetings all over Manhattan, but this one locale has become my spiritual home, my support group, my place to give back and my connection to the outside world. It has also returned me to my family, in better condition than before. And it has allowed me to take my own experience to help others and ensure my ongoing redemption.

My life is, in short, beyond my wildest dreams.

Having shared all that, it’s my profound, bemused pleasure to report that a life beyond my wildest dreams turns out to be a mellow, scandal-free, uninteresting-on-the-page existence. It’s a safe bet that no one would want to read my sober autobiography. When people share their problems, heartbreaks and concerns with me and then ask me how I am, I often don’t have a whole lot to report.

A true career never materialized. I do some volunteer work, lots of service within the 12-step rooms, design jewelry on the whim and take the occasional clerical or freelance job. My husband is a fairly young retiree, very immersed in the community, and we’re gratifyingly comfortable in the pricey city of my dreams.

My life is filled with small joys, each set off with the daily (perhaps not hourly, but still!) conscious awareness that I am upright, healthy, sane and happy…entirely as a result of my day-at-a-time sobriety.

I have reams of books, love crime TV and old movies, live in Greenwich Village (not the Bohemian Nirvana I fell in love with, alas, but a trove of delights nonetheless) in a pretty tight 10-block radius for the most part. I’m endlessly immersed in music. I hoof it everywhere, greet my doormen (and the next building’s doormen) like the old friends they are, love the deli guys, shoot the breeze with familiar faces on the street, hide out when I see fit. I have a bunch of go-to tea stores, hippie shops, diners and pizzerias that become homes away from home.

When I was younger, I’m sure I expected a little more glitz, bang for my buck, funky talking points in my existence, but that’s not quite what happened. I don’t come with a series of exciting anecdotes, but I’m treated with kindness and respect, looked to for advice and comfort. Astoundingly, I connect with people in ways I would have found impossible when I was busily hiding out in the bottle.

Life’s not perfect, nor need it be. I’ve had my share of disappointments, losses of loved ones, broken bones, health scares, friendship weirdness and agita in the past 17 years, make no mistake. It’s just life, on life’s terms. But the endless upside is that I am present and accountable to all of it, get to amend the wrongs, make fewer of them, not destroy myself on a daily basis an even give back to my world a little bit.

It’s a modest, delicious, fulfilling existence. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I work hard to maintain it, but the benefits are peace, ease, a certain comfort in my skin, and bursts of quiet, profound gratitude. I’m not only aboveground, I’m (metaphorically, mind you) dancing in the aisles.

Alcoholic Anonymous

“Alcoholic Anonymous” is a wife, mom, citizen, happy left-wing broad, voracious reader, lover of all things vintage & long-time resident of Greenwich Village.

 

“WE CAN READ!” by Anna Elkins

Photo by Carl Attard from Pexels

“I can read. I can tie my shoes. I have food in the fridge.” These are the kinds of things my down-the-street neighbor tells herself when she’s feeling off or blue—basic, often overlooked things worth giving thanks for.

The other day, I met my up-the-street neighbor. We talked about life, relationship and the pain and joy in both. We were trying to focus on the good stuff and not worry about the bad stuff. As I was leaving, I remembered my other neighbor and her gratitude. I said, “I think gratitude is the anecdote to anxiety. Wait…I mean antidote. Wait…I mean both!”

And there on her doorstep, I had a revelation. When we tell our stories of gratitude—the anecdotes—we create the antidote to the bad stuff: fear, anxiety, annoyance, all the nasty etceteras.

I can testify: it works.

Try it yourself: Think of something ungood that you felt recently. Feel that feeling. Here’s (one of) mine: annoyance. I was walking in the Woodlands where people ignore the signs requiring dogs to be on leashes. A dog bounded toward me, leashless. His owner yelled out, “Don’t worry, he’s friendly.” Yeah, well, friendly means he’s jumping up on my bare calves after having run off-trail through the poison oak. I wanted to yell out, “Can’t you read the signs? Can’t you take responsibility for your actions?” And in my head the scenario spinned into global proportions where all people were hopeless and I was a fuming misanthropist.

Stop.

Now, start listing things you’re grateful for—anything on the spectrum.

I give thanks for my nose.

I give thanks for the fact that I can walk.

I give thanks for the Woodlands someone bequeathed to this town.

I give thanks for trees that give shade, provide homes for birds, and clean the air that I am able to breathe through my nose as I walk in these woods….

I created an anecdote of gratitude that became an antidote to the nasty. Notice that it started with the thing literally in front of me: my nose. The more annoyed I am, the more basic the beginning, but those details inevitably build into a story of gratitude. I also moved from the little problem by reminding myself of the bigger narrative of life. I used a silly example to keep it light, but believe me: I’ve tried it on the Big Bad’s too. It still works.

Sometimes I begin with “I am grateful for…” or “Thank you for….”, but I have come to like “I give thanks for…” the best. It makes me an active “thanker.” It tells my inner pouty self: “You are choosing this good thing over this bad one. No matter what the bad thing is, you can still choose your attitude about it.”

When I practice this gratitude exercise, the annoyance dissolves. I discovered something I’m sure someone else has already discovered: that you can’t be grateful and annoyed (or angry, or anxious) at the same time. You have to let one of them go.

Now, dog paws in the woods are one thing. You might ask: what about divorce? Death? War? I’m not saying that if you drop and give 20 “thank-yous” in the midst of a military campaign that we’ll immediately have world peace. But then again…what if everybody did? What if everyone tried trading in their hurt, pain, and anger for gratitude? What might happen?

I’m grateful for grace, too—even (especially) toward myself. Just this morning, I indulged in frustration as a momentarily spotty Internet connection delayed some research for another essay. So, I gave thanks for my neighbors—those two friends whose anecdotes have become part of my antidote. And then I was in it again: the story of gratitude.

I choose to give thanks, thank you very much.

Anna ElkinsAnna Elkins is a traveling poet and painter who earned a B.A. in art and English and an M.F.A. and Fulbright Fellowship in poetry. She has written, painted, and taught on five continents—exhibiting paintings and writing books along the way. Anna has set up her easel and writing desk in the mythical State of Jefferson. 

WHY I BECAME A BUDDHIST by Pema Chödrön (a story told on video)

In this six-minute video, Pema Chödrön candidly and humorously shares the story of her broken marriage and how it ultimately led her on the path to Buddhism. 

Good Medicine by Pema Chödrön. Copyright © 1999 Pema Chödrön. All rights reserved. Used with permission from Sounds True, Inc., Boulder, CO

Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936 in New York City. She began studying Buddhism in her mid-thirties and became a novice nun in 1974. At the request of the Sixteenth Karmapa, she received the full bikshuni ordination in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism in 1981 in Hong Kong. Since 1984, Chödrön has been the director of Gampo Abbey, a Tibetan monastery for Western monks and nuns in Nova Scotia. She is also the author of many popular books, including The Wisdom of No Escape, When Things Fall Apart, and The Things that Scare You. 

HEART by Julia Butterfly Hill

Julia Butterfly Hill and Luna

The root word for courage comes from the French and means “heart.” True courage can only come when we are speaking out or taking action from the heart. For me, this seed of understanding took root and began to grow in December of 1997.

While traveling west with friends, I experienced the ancient redwoods in person for the first time. I was deeply and profoundly touched by their beauty, majesty, and ancient wisdom. I felt like I had walked into the most sacred of cathedrals.

A few weeks later, I found out that over 97 percent of these trees—that grow to be 200 to 300 feet tall and 2,000 to 3,000 years old—have already been logged and that they are continuing to be cut down with highly destructive industrial logging practices. I could not believe this was happening. I felt like I should do something to try to help stop this atrocity from continuing, but I didn’t know how or what to do.

Then, I heard that people were living in trees in order to protect them from being cut down and to try to bring attention to the issue. I thought to myself, “I could do that!” I grew up with two brothers and no sisters, so I knew how to climb trees! I wasn’t quite sure how to be an activist. I wasn’t even sure what that meant exactly. But tree climbing was something I knew how to do, so I volunteered.

When I climbed 180 feet up into the branches of a 200-foot-tall, over 1,000-year-old redwood tree, now known as “Luna,” I thought I would be there for three weeks to a month. It turned out to be over two years, 738 days to be exact, before my feet would touch the ground again. In that time, I faced many challenges that left my heart, spirit, and body broken. There were so many moments where I wanted to give up. Yet every time I felt myself in this space, I would pray and ask for strength. The funny thing is I would always get sent more challenges. Finally, I realized that I was receiving what I had asked for because the only way we get stronger is through exercise, including the exercise of heart, mind, and spirit. Every challenge then became an opportunity for learning and growth.

It was in this way that I realized that every moment, every day, every choice is an opportunity for courage. Every time I choose to act consciously out of my love for my world, no matter what the status quo says, no matter how difficult the choice might be, I am living a life that has meaning, joy, and true power. No matter how dark things in our world seem sometimes, I am the only one who can consciously choose to shine a light of caring, commitment, and courage. It really is a moment, by moment, choice. Yes, we need the “big” acts to encourage and inspire us, but it is only through looking at these as examples to empower ourselves, that we find the extraordinary person that lives within the heart of each and every one of us.

Julia Butterfly HillJulia Butterfly Hill climbed the 1,000-year-old Redwood to stop loggers from cutting it down. Little did she know she’d remain in its canopy, defying the scare tactics of the logging company, for two full years. Julia received international attention and went on to become an international speaker, author, and life coach.