Sunday, May 31, 2009

Do Pets Have Souls?

These are three of the five fur babies that we had. The one with his back to us is Longfellow, the black and white is Molly (Molli-licious!) and my orange tabby, Buster Crabbe.

It's Longfellow, my silky as ribbon, sweet-natured, form-fitting, Bengal, I wanted to post about; he was struck and killed by a passing motorist this past week.

This question has been asked many times before, and brilliant theologians who studied The Word and quote Scripture will unequivocally say no, only humans have souls.

But still I wonder. Our other cats bring in the occasional mouse or snake (EEKS!!). This past autumn I watched Longfellow sort through a pile of autumn leaves. He found one the one that he wanted and brought it into the house and presented his precious prize to me. And this winter he found a child's lost blue mitten and sat on the deck railing, holding the mitten in his mouth, amber eyes peering into the kitchen window,willing me to turn around and see him, waiting patiently to be let in. At night, he was my snuggle kitty. He would curl into a tight silken ball in the crook of my neck, singing his lullaby in deep contentment, velvet nose in my ear, body vibrating with his song, until we both fell asleep.

The last time I saw him, he was was leaping through one of my straggly flower beds, chasing a yellow butterfly, oblivious to the world around him, only knowing that the butterfly might be the finest treasure yet.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Suffer the Children; Send Them to Me

Let me begin with a bit of a brag.

My youngest niece just graduated from college this past weekend with a double major, nutrition and communication. She worked full time and went to college full time the five years she attended school. She is the first student in four years from her college to be accepted in an dietary internship at a prestigious Boston hospital. Her long-term goal is to be a food writer! She confided to me that I inspired her when I used to let her help me in the kitchen and didn't get angry when she made a mess; instead we cleaned up and made it fun. Can you believe that? That has to be one of the top ten compliments I have ever received.

Earlier this year, my oldest niece received her masters in pharmaceutical research. While she was an undergraduate she won first place in a national science contest and later went on to win third place internationally. She was the first in the history of our family to acquire a four-year degree, but to obtain a Masters is downright unknown. Currently she's working on finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease.

These young women did not achieve such excellence by accident. They had a tremendous amount of love and encouragement and support from their both parents, even when their mom and dad were no longer married to each other. When the days seemed endless and their goals unattainable, my brother would say, "Look how far you've come and achieved so far! When you were in high school, did you ever envision you'd come as far as you have? You can do this! Concentrate on today and do well today, tomorrow will take care of itself. Get help if you need it and don't be embarrassed to ask for it. Don't feel bad about asking for help; feel good that you know that you need it and you get it."

I am so terribly proud of them. When they were still in high school, I asked them individually if they had a boyfriend. My oldest niece, Hilli (BeanBag) was clearly put out by the question. "Aunt Kathi," she sniffed with all the confidence and arrogance of a fully informed teenager, "there will be no time for boys. I will have my education and my career first and then there will be time for boys. Boys are a distraction; they keep you from achieving your goals!"

Laura, on the other hand, half-heartedly gave me the same statement; perhaps it was wisdom their parents had instilled in her and her sister and she was still attempting to adopt it as her own. I heard the pause. She leaned deep into me, peering seriously into my eyes, and said, "Aunt Kathi, can we talk about boys?"


I have a former coworker whose daughter, Vicki, was dating a man who had sole custody of his young three children from a previous relationship. The children were beautiful, well mannered, and adoring of their dad and Vicki. They were the kind of little ones who would be welcomed anywhere. As time progressed and it seemed apparent that their adult relationship was leading toward commitment, I was happy for all as they looked like a loving family unit. Then one day my coworker, in describing the children, referred to them as 'pseudo grandchildren.' Then she went on to say how her daughter was looking forward to having her own children and being a 'real' mom. And she was looking forward to being a 'real' grandmother.

I could not contain the reverberation that shook within me. "I think your daughter has 'real' children to love and she is a 'real' mother to them."

My coworker scowled defensively. "It's just different to have your own, ones that you bore. They're yours. If you had children, you'd know what I mean."

Possession and ownership. Objects d' art. Mine, mine, mine. Yours. Mine.

Thank you, God, that I don't have children, for now I can love them all equally, without prejudice.


A couple of weeks ago, my Sweetie-Pi and I were sitting at our kitchen table, eating a simple lunch. Earl looked past me and stared out the front window. "Somebody's sitting on our retaining wall," he said. "Probably just a hiker who needed to stop for a quick rest." We munched quietly and I forgot about the person on the retaining wall. "The person's still out there," he said.

I put my sandwich down. "I'll go see if they need help. If not, I'll scare them away. For all we know they could be plotting to steal our irises that we have planted," I teased. I found my shoes and walked down the grassy knoll that is our lawn. An ash-blonde head slightly turned to the sound of my footsteps, and I was surprised to see the profile of a young girl, around ten I guessed. "Hi, are you okay?"

A rapid nod of the head dissolved to a a slow shake. "No, not really," she mumbled into her chest.

"Are you hurt?" Alarm set in and I wished I had brought my cell phone so I could've called for an ambulance or the police.

"No." She looked up at me, golden eyes filled with an uncertainty beyond her years, and then back down at her bare dangling feet. She hugged herself against the cool spring air, goose pimples dotting her arms.

Silence as I thought about what to say next. "Are you running away from home?"

A noncommittal shrug. A tentative nod. "Sort of."

"Oh, I see. Well, that's a pretty big decision. Things must be pretty tough at home. Would you like me to sit with you for a while so you can talk about it?"

"If you want to." Her voice was whispery soft, the invitation hidden in her despair.

"I do." I came around and sat beside her and for the first time had a good look at her and she studied me out of the corner of her eye. She had a spray of freckles across the top of her cheekbones. Her long hair blew into her face, hiding her expression from me.

"So, do you want to tell me why you've decided to run away from home?"

"Because my mother yells at me. She's always yelling at me and I'm afraid of her."

My heart seized at the word 'afraid.' "Did she hurt you?"

Shrug. "No, she just yells all the time and swears at me and calls me names, hurts my feelings."

I could feel my jaw tighten and the words choking in my throat. "Well...I don't think it's right that a person gets yelled at or sworn or called names. That doesn't seem like the right thing to do. It would certainly hurt my feelings if someone treated me like that, too."

More silence as each weighed what to say. "She's not my real mother. She's my foster mother." She turned away from me, ashamed. "I can't live with my real mother right now." She slunk further into her humiliation. "I was on the trampoline and my foster brother bounced me off and I fell off and hit the ground. And then she came out and started yelling and swearing."

I asked this brave little girl what her name was, and she told me, Lena. "Lena, I have to be honest here; I'm at a loss for words. I never had my own children, so I don't know what to say, but I can speak from some life experience." I plucked a cream colored daffodil with a coral center from my border and gave it to her.

"Life is not fair. In just the little time I've spent with you, I can tell that you are good and bright and smart, and yet you are given a difficult life." Lena nodded. "I'm sure that your mother wishes that she could be with you and that you could be with her." More nods. "From the sounds of it, your mother made some poor decisions and choices that are keeping you apart." Unspilled tears and thin lips.

"I'm sorry that has happened, Lena, and I'm sorry that your difficult life is part of the consequence of someone else's actions. One of the things we have to learn as we are growing up is that life is full of choices. Do you go left or do you go right, do you pay attention in school, do you say no to the pressures of your friends who may be offering something that could hurt you or your future. Lena, some choices are hard and will require you to be very strong and sometimes if means you may be alone. What I have learned is that there are all kinds of prisons, Lena. There are ones that the courts put us in because we didn't obey the laws, and the ones that we put ourselves in, maybe because of our attitude and maybe because of our poor decisions. Right now you have a hard life, and being a "kid" (we both chuckled at that) means that your life is not really your own now and that you are largely dependent on the goodwill of others. But you do have a job and that job is to be the best kid possible, to get a good education, obey the law. Eventually, you will find a freedom that you never knew existed. Does that make sense to you?" Nod.

"The other thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that what we learn as children and the experiences we have make up part of who we are as adults. You have learned that you don't like yelling and swearing, right?"

"I hate it! When I am around little kids, I never swear and yell at them!! I never get mad at them. I want to hug them! When I grow up I want to work with kids."

"See, you have already learned something that will make you as wonderful an adult as you are as a young person now."

I was missing the mark, and I knew it. She did come to my retaining wall to hear this. "Lena, sometimes people yell at us because they were afraid for us, and that is how they express their fear, through anger. Anger may be the only emotion they are comfortable showing. Maybe she was never shown how not to be appear angry when she's really just concerned for you. Have you tried telling your foster mother that you are sorry for scaring her and upsetting her and that next time you'll be more careful?"

Lena smiled brightly as the idea grew in her mind. "No, I never have! I didn't even think of it!"

"Hmmmm. Well maybe it would be a good thing to say to her and see how it goes?" I smiled in self-admonishment. Forty-five minutes later I finally hit upon what she needed to hear from me. I talked too much; listened too little.

"Yes, I will do that!"

I noticed the goose pimples had multiplied on her arms. "Want a jacket?" She nodded yes. As it happened I had a zip-up, sweat shirt type jacket from my thinner years that I had just washed and was going to give away. It had been on a hook, hanging in front of a window in the back set of the car. When I handed it to Lena, it was still hot from sitting in the sun. She slipped it on, wrapped it tightly around her to absorbing all its warm. "You don't have to bring it back. It's yours."

"Thank you. This is nice!"

"All set to go home?"

"Yes, I am going home now." She picked up the daffodil that was bent from being twirled in her hands and looked down the street in the direction of her home with her "not real" mother. She set off; her bare feet crunched and swished the sand that had remained on the shoulders from last year's winter, the too cool spring breeze blowing the hair back from her face, her eyes ahead, full of resolve, not turning to wave good-bye. I watched until I could neither see nor hear her anymore.

Journey well, little Lena. Go build some mountains.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Perfect Clarity

In putting these stories on the Internet I realize that I am also sharing with the unknown multitudes whose life experiences and learning are vastly different than mine, but that's okay. I hope that those who may come here will find something valuable that they can take with them.

So now the difficult part for me. I am keenly aware that my spiritual experiences that I share may sound fictional and dramatic. I can not tell you why they happened to me, I only know that they did. I know that I do not have them the same way anymore. I think it was the absolute childlike faith, the unquestioning belief, that made them possible.

My grandmother was devout. She read the Bible every day; she prayed every night. She didn't eat meat on Fridays; never went to church with her head uncovered. Many of the books that she gave me and read to me were children's Bible stories. She talked to me of God and Angels and Heaven. She was the one who taught me the prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep...."

When I was old enough, I was allowed to stay overnight and some weekends with my grandparents. On warm summer days Gram and I would lie on a blanket on the grassy knoll at the back of her tiny two-room house. Grasshoppers and crickets would leap on us; bees buzzed about the Indian paint brushes, wild daisies and brown-eyed Susans. We would look up at the blue sky and white fluffy clouds and see if we could see Heaven beyond the clouds, because that's where Heaven is. At home my mother was silent with her own sadness; my father bellowed his anger at everything. My grandmother was the only one who talked to me.

One summer day, a neighbor of my parents, Mrs. McLaughlin dropped by invited my mother and us kids to join her and her children at a local beach. My mother cannot swim but she craved the companionship of other women and to leave a forlorn house. She eagerly accepted, packing up a quick picnic and me and my younger brother.

I remember my mother wearing a two piece polka dot swimming suit. It looked like the package of Wonder Bread, white with yellow, red and blue polka dots. I loved it. I thought she looked beautiful in it, and she looked so happy talking with Mrs. McLaughlin, thoroughly engaged in her conversation.

I wandered away, at first only wading in the cool water. I wiggled and dug my toes in the cold wet sand. I could see other children and adults swimming. I could see my mother, face turned away from me, head thrown back in laughter.

I waded deeper. The water was soft, beckoning, inviting me to chase it. A ribbon of water rippled past me and I could not resist and I followed. Water rushed into my ears, filling my head with its roaring. I opened my mouth but I could not scream. I looked up through the water, and the sun and sky waved and danced, but could not claw to the top. The light dazzled and fragmented all around me. Bubbles burst. I looked through the water and saw myself floating and struggling for the surface. I was wearing a blue bathing suit.

How could this be, I wondered? How could I see myself struggling to find the surface? I looked towards the beach where my mother sat, hugging her knees to her. The air was crystal clear and pure, the day shone brighter than it ever had, I did not need air to breath, but I was alive and had knowledge of my surroundings and the people there. My visual perception was so sharp it almost hurt to look; I could see my mother. I could hear her words. It was as if I were standing beside her only I was midair, floating, looking down and out, unafraid, curious. Perfect clarify of vision and hearing but not understanding.

A shout. I saw Mrs. McLaughlin spring into the water. Blackness. I was on the beach. Mrs. McLaughlin gave me mouth-to-mouth until I was awake, dazed, but still not afraid.

I cannot remember my mother's exact words to Mrs McLaughlin, but she laughed and thanked her for jumping in to get me. She seemed untroubled by the incident, more disturbed by the commotion I caused, and returned to her conversation.

I went back to the water's edge and waded some more. The water warm and inviting, but this time I did not listen to its lulling song.

Mrs. McLaughlin never invited us again to join her at the beach.


Many years later, my husband of barely ten years, lay in bed, paralyzed from the neck down from a freak accident in the home. Tubes were running everywhere, machines were tracking all his impulses. He was dying. We were both fighting it.

Dr. Choi patted my shoulder. "Mrs. Shields, your husband is brain dead. It's only the machines that give the illusion of life. If I turn them off, he will stop breathing." In demonstration, he turned them off, the chest rises and falls stopped; I gasped in horror and abject denial, and the machines were turned back on. "You must think about removing the machines."

I could not think! I would not think. Only days ago we clung to ever fading hope, we held hands, and I made every promise to God that I could think of. "Take me," I begged in prayer.

Daniel awoke, saw me, smiled. "You are my favorite wife, " he mouthed over the respirator tubes. I was is third wife.

"You're my favorite husband," I quipped, having been only married to him.

He smiled wearily; blue eyes flickered, lids heavy with the effects of drugs. "I want you to know that life with you was never boring. Even being mad at you was never boring."

"Me, too. I was never bored either."

"I want you to get married again."

"No," I said too firmly. "I will not marry again after you."

He looked sad. "Was it that bad? Being married to me?" A long gasp of air.

I clutched his hand in panic. "No, I only wanted to be married once in this life, and I married you. There will not be any others."

He closed his eyes, as if in thought. "I hope you change your mind. You should not be alone."

Alone I made the decision to turn off the respirators. Alone I accepted the responsibility for never seeing him breath again. Alone the hope was extinguished.

My mother went with me that last night. The doctors felt I should have someone with me as I sat and waited and watched and held to desperate, desperate hope. My mother was silent with me, speaking only to the medical staff as they drifted in and out, She reported my emotional status, "She's doing fine." "She's holding up." Then more silence as she sat.

I recalled that moment on the beach when I was a mere child filled with faith. I knew what awaited him: perfect clarity, vision, understanding where the skies were bluer and the sun shone brighter and the clouds were whiter; he would float, like a feather in the breeze, the quadriplegia only a memory.

I knew all these things, and I still wished he were with me.

I have a distinct recollection of being only thought, no form. I wonder if this is what the new age folks mean when they say we are a perfect thought in Divine Mind.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


When I was around five years old, my sainted grandmother gave me a Golden Book that was about Icarus, the god who tried to fly to the sun with waxed wings. Being a kind of know-it-all, he didn't listen about flying too close to the sun and he subsequently crashed to earth.

I became obsessed with that story. (Can a five-year-old be obsessed?) I thought about flying. I just had to. I would fly with waxed wings, just not too close to the sun. It was so simple. Why wasn't everyone flying? All I needed were some waxed wings. Hmmm... I studied the drawings in the book. And suddenly I had a plan.

My father was in the process of building a stick home and I had hung around him and watched with rapt interest. When he feeling generous, he'd let me pound nails into bits of scrap wood. If I pestered him enough he'd give the occasional approving nod and I'd happily go about pounding more nails.

With the model of Icarus's wings in my mind, I dragged out sawhorses, hammer, and nails. Using leftover wooden slats I nailed together two triangular frames. I stood back to survey my progress. The ends were cross-hatched; the triangles misshapen. I wrinkled my nose in distaste, then decided: irrelevant detail. What really mattered was the lace and wax.

My mother had an old rags bag, and in the bottom of it I remembered there were old lace curtains. Mother was napping on the couch and I stealthily crept past her into her bedroom. The bag was thrown carelessly in a corner and I opened it. I plowed through her fabric odds and ends and found the curtains, held them up. Perfect!

Next the wax. I climbed a chair and got into the top cabinet to retrieve a box of paraffin wax she used to make jellies. I found her big jelly pot, put it on the burner, turned the gas on low so that the wax could slowly melt, (just as I had seen her do) and then stuffed the curtains into the pot to saturate them. Everything was going just as I imagined. Mother still soundly napped.

I took the hot pot of wax and curtains outside. The wax burned my fingers and I had to blow on them to cool them, but I didn't care. I was so close. Carefully, I stretched and nailed the curtains onto the wooden frames. I stood back and surveyed my wings. The curtains were too long and too wide for the frame, hanging sloppily over the sides. Now that wouldn't do.

Once again, I had to sneak past my sleeping mother. Her sewing and button box, an old cookie tin, was on the floor beside her. I pried the cover off with my short fat fingers, and found her pinking scissors. Ha! I took them outside and hacked away at the offending lace overhang. Better, but not perfect. A shrug. What really mattered was the middle part of the frame, where the lace was taut, stiffened with wax, ready for flight. The scissors, no longer needed, were left on the sawhorses, their blades open.

I carried one wing under each armpit, tripping, trudging, stumbling to what seemed like a huge cliff that I had found one day while wandering in our woods. I looked down; it seemed like such a looong way down, but the blue sky was such a loooong way up!! And up was the direction I wanted.

I clumsily raised my wings to the sky. I imagined the the sensation of flight and I felt my spirit rise to the clouds above. Yes! Fearlessly I jumped. With wild determination I flapped my lacy wings. I felt the air, I felt the sun on my face, I felt elated.

I hung in midair for a moment, felt the pull of gravity and the sting of surprise. The wings must have been on a downward flap; they now were like crutches under my arms as I teetered precariously before being unceremoniously dumped to my feet. This wasn't supposed to happen! I tried again. I was grounded. The wings broke at their joints; the ragged lace held the misshapen and twisted frame.

I am not a quitter. I continued to dream of flying. Perhaps it was the wings; maybe I just needed to flap my arms, the way birds flapped their wings! I jumped off the roof of my grandmother's garage. I jumped from the roof of my father's Ford. I jumped from stairs from the porch stairs. Grounded. Always grounded.

So maybe the waxed wings and bare arms weren't a good idea. However, since then, I have seen a most fascinating contraption. It's a bicycle with wings and propellers. Now if I could only just peddle fast enough I know I could fly.

I just won't fly too close to the sun.