THE UPANISHADS

The Golden God, the Self, the immortal Swan

Leaves the small nest of the body, goes where He wants.

He moves through the realm of dreams; makes numberless forms;

Delights in sex; eats, drinks, laughs with His friends;

Frightens Himself with scenes of heart-chilling terror.

But He is not attached to anything that He sees;

And after He has wandered in the realms of dream and awakeness,

Has tasted pleasures and experienced good and evil,

He returns to the blissful state from which he began.

As a fish swims forward to one riverbank then the others,

Self alternates between awakeness and dreaming.

As an eagle, weary from long flight, folds its wings,

Gliding down to it nest, Self hurries to the realm

Of dreamless sleep, free of desires, fear, pain.

As a man in sexual union with this beloved

Is unaware of anything outside or inside,

So a man in union with Self knows nothing, wants nothing,

Has found his heart’s fulfillment and is free of sorrow.

Father disappears, mother disappears, gods

And scripture disappear, thief disappears, murderer,

Rich man, beggar disappear, world disappears,

Good and evil disappear, he has passed beyond sorrow.

(Last winter I collected some of my favorite ‘spiritual’ poems and compiled them in a personal book I called “Remembering the Sacred Self.” This excerpt from The Unpanishads, one of the greatest and oldest of spiritual books written around 500 to 800 BC. is one of my favorites.

MEA CULPA

You know, it’s been bothering me ever since I wrote “Cat, Dog” yesterday. It was when I stated that Mikey the Beta fish wasn’t a real pet. “Fish occupy that nebulous category between a knickknack and a screen saver. They are more than a plant but less than an animal.”

When I thought about it later I thought it was a mean thing to say, the arrogance of the human showing through. After all, Mikey is being the very best Beta fish he can be. In fact, he is the epitome of Beta fishness. He swims like a champion and comes to the surface when I dip my finger in his bowl. He isn’t moody or a fussy eater and he doesn’t talk back.

Granted, I cannot hug Mikey, take him for a walk or a ride in the car. Our conversations are limited to the typical “good morning, did you have any good dreams,” gambits. But when I am feeling a little low, I can press my nose against the glass that divides our domains and he will dart over and look into my eyes. His beautiful blue fins gracefully float beneath and behind him and his little side flippers flutter as if he is waving to me – and my heart lifts.

Indeed, I remember well when his predecessor, Mikey the 1st, died. The poor thing struggled for a day and a half and every time I looked at him, I cried. After he was gone I felt his absence keenly even though I had a dog and two cats living with me at the time. There was a rent in the fabric of our universe that wasn’t quickly mended.

So it isn’t the species of the pet, or the level of consciousness, or the ability to communicate that really matters. What makes the difference isn’t in the pet, it is in us. It is the capacity to care for something other than ourselves. So, although our home now has a kitty, Mikey is still the big man on campus.

CAT! DOG! CAT! DOG!

I want a cat. I want a dog. Cat, dog, cat, dog! The debate has been raging now for nearly three weeks. The dog’s devotion and optimism, and yet, the cat … so sensitive, so sweet, so self-contained. You can take dogs places, plus they are great conversation starters at the park. But cats are so wise and have the makings of such great stories. What to do, what to do?

I have been petless for nearly a year and a half since my beautiful Siamese, Mimi the Cat, died at age 20 after a long and happy life. What you say! Have I forgotten Mikey! Did I not put a tick in the box beside “fish” in the pet census? Does Mikey not count? Well … in a word, no.

Fish occupy that nebulous category between knickknack and screen saver. They are more than a plant but less than an animal. That is not to say hat Mikey is not at the top of food chain as far as great fish go. We definitely communicate, especially when I tap the bowl and show him the bright yellow fish food container. And Mikey is no slouch in the looking good department. He swishes those long blue fins with the finesse of a fan dancer.

But it’s hard to hug Mikey, and there’s only so many cute things he says. But a cat or a dog now, you’ve gotten story material for life, and when you’re blue there’s nothing like a throaty purr or wagging tail to get your priorities back on line. So like I was saying the only debate I had was should I get a dog or a cat.

I visited shelters, spent hours online at Petfinder and lurked around Petsmart on the weekends. And then I saw that the Placer County shelter had so many cats they were giving them away – no adoption charge. Here was a pet I could afford!

As I read over the available felines I found several that caught my attention – not only were they older but some had been at the shelter since last spring. There’s nothing like gratitude for tight bonding. So yesterday I loaded the kitty carrier in the back of the car and set off for Placer County.

The first candidate, Pebbles, was a real talker and very restless. The second, Lucy, was extremely timid and fearful. But the third kitty, misnamed Nutmeg, was a real sweetheart. She had long black and white fur and big yellow eyes. She had been living on the streets since summer and at seven years old, she was definitely mature. I felt we already had a lot in common.

Before you could say “Here, kitty, kitty,” I was on the freeway with a passenger in the back. After I set up the litter box and the food and water bowls I opened the carrier and out she stepped. While I sat down and watched, she blinked a few times, sniffed the corners and then sat down for a late afternoon toilette.

When she was done, she came to where I was sitting, hopped on my lap and invited me to pet her which I did. We did experience some difficulty as she is not a long and lean type of kitty but more of the plump and round variety – another thing we shared in common.

When she sat across my lap her head and front paws hung over the edge; when she tried to sit beside me our mutual widths could not be accommodated in the extremely narrow easy chair. Later on I noticed that her plumpness could not be attributed to overeating (she had a light appetite like myself) but was probably plump as a result of a genetic curse (the similarities continued to astound me).

That night she joined me in bed. Except for an occasional hairball hack, the evening was quiet. She was quite adept at dodging my flailing arms and legs and on the two occasions when I made a quick trip to the bathroom she graciously accompanied me.

Now the only thing left to do is give her the right name. She is certainly not a “Nutmeg” but maybe a Fifi or Lena, a Madeline or Sofi. Or, how about Rachel, Louise, Dixie ….

IN THE STACKS

She started talking to me while I was browsing in the recorded books section of the library. Of middle height, small boned and lean, her sharp pixie face was framed by short brown hair. She looked to be in her 50’s or maybe early 60’s – like most of the library patrons on this Friday afternoon. She reminded me of an aging Joan Cusack character in her abrupt movements and earnest anxiety.

She spoke quickly, brown eyes holding an unwavering gaze through wire rimmed glasses and asked me how these books ‘worked.’ Are they actually CD’s and how do you listen to them? Do you lie down and put on headphones or do you listen to them while doing housework?” I responded that I usually played them in the car while driving around on errands.

“I couldn’t do that,” she said, emphatically. “I can only do one thing at a time.” She followed closely behind as I continued down the aisle and asked if I could I recommend any? I could and did. She wrote the book titles down in a little tablet she carried in her purse. “Maybe I’ll take one out next time I come but wonder if I pick one I don’t like,” she said in a worried voice.

I said that often happened to me in which case I just returned it and tried another one. “You mean you just chose one even if you don’t know anything about it?” her eyes and mouth an O of astonishment. Yes, I replied. I often tried things and then didn’t like them, and silently remembered a few early boyfriends. By this time we had passed the fiction section of the audio books and were into non-fiction.

Picking up a CD of a nationally known motivational speaker she asked if I had heard that he had developed leukemia. No, I answered. “Well, he was always telling other people to snap out of it. Now we’ll see if he walks his talk,” she said setting down his latest CD on the shelf with a thump. “I listened to some positive thinking tapes a long time ago but when you’re depressed it’s hard to be positive.”

Maybe it is negative thinking that makes you depressed in the first place, I responded. She agreed, then added, “When I feel bad I think depressing thoughts, like the other day when I looked at my niece’s Facebook page she had 643 friends and lots of photos of all the places she visited and I felt jealous and I thought my life’s not like that and how come I don’t have that many friends. But then she’s still going to college and her parents pay for everything so she’s not in the real world, really.”

I wouldn’t want to be young again, I commented as I randomly picked up an audio book and stuffed it into my bag.  “Me either,” she agreed. “All the boyfriends who lie to you and the hangovers in the morning and learning how to have a real job and finding out how you can’t trust everybody and being all alone. It’s not easy being young.

I made my way to the automatic check out area and she followed closely behind. “Maybe next time I’ll see if they have an audio book on learning Russian,” she said casting a look over her shoulder.” My apartment complex is at least 80% Russian immigrants and I can’t understand a word anybody says. Do you think any of them have a job or are they all on welfare?”

Not knowing how to respond, I packed up my books and started towards the door. “Do you have a job,” she asked. “I’m trying to get back into the state government. I have ten years there in the accounting department but most of our department got layed off a couple years ago. I’m tired of not having any money.”

A few moments later as I stowed my bag of books in the back seat. I offered her my hand and said, “It’s been nice talking to you.”

“You, too,” she replied, her eyes bright. “By the way, my name is Barbara. What’s yours? Do you come here often? Maybe we’ll meet again.”

As I pulled away I glanced into my rear view mirror. The scene looked like an faded photo from the 1950’s. She was standing near a tan car with a dented fender waving goodbye with a sweet smile on her face.

 

 

 

UNDER THE WEATHER

On Monday morning I woke up with a knife in my throat. My vocal chords were swollen and my tonsils felt like I had swallowed two basketballs. It was the recent 100 degree heat wave, I muttered, coupled with the air conditioning that had finally done me in.

There is nothing more treacherous than an out-of-season cold. It creeps up behind you when you least expect it and has the mercy of an Old Testament prophet. Wasn’t having an eternal cold one of the punishments in Dante’s Hell, I pondered? Was it for making fun of Eskimos?

Knowing what was coming next I drove to the local grocery store and loaded up with orange juice, cough drops, cough medicine, Kleenex, a jar of Vick’s VapoRub and two frozen pizzas. When I got home, I locked the door, turned off the answering machine, climbed into bed and turned my face to the wall.

That was three days ago. Since then I have sweated, shivered, hacked, groaned, sneezed, moaned, and sniffled. While drifting in and out of consciousness, I have listened to AM radio talk shows discussing Armageddon and UFO’s, and political pundits discussing Sara Palin’s economic policies.

In the small hours of the morning I heard my lungs wheeze like an old accordion and gnashed my teeth remembering all those years of smoking cigarettes. It wasn’t fair, I thought. I had reformed and given up the filthy fags. Even when I submerged myself in that two week film noir marathon I had resisted their smoky allure.

During the lonely afternoons I cast my mind back to previous colds trying to remember how long it had been until the ‘turning point’ was reached – was it three days or five before the death wish finally subsided?

This morning I stumbled into the living room and dropped some flakes in the bowl for Mikey the Beta fish. To his query about my plans for the day, I cocked an eyebrow (a Victor Mature affectation from my film noir experience) and said I was going to the grocery store for another pizza.

Did I have time, he asked, to swing by PetsMart to pick up some blood worms? When I replied in the affirmative, he advised me to take plenty of cough drops to forestall any incipient throat tickle from becoming a full fledged hacking attack and to remember to cross my legs tightly if I sneezed.

BIRD IN THE HAT

The other day I was in the yard sitting in a chair under a big oak tree reading a book and minding my own business. The noon day sun was hot and to shield my face I put on my old straw hat with the yellow artificial flowers.

I was deep into beautiful story about life and death and everything when I heard a soft thrumming, followed by a light vibration on my hat. Hmmm. This was followed by more thrumming and then the brim of the hat began to lightly bounce from the dancing of tiny feet. Was it a bird? A giant bee? I froze.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the darting form of a hummingbird circling above. Delight sped through me and in an instant I imagined the whole scenario that was being enacted. The little bird on its everlasting quest for nectar must have been attracted by the flowers on my hat.

A benediction of sorts spread through me and I became one of my favorite heroes, St. Francis. I mentally donned his plain brown robe (luckily, I was already wearing sandals) and turned my eyes heavenward. I raised one hand upward in a humble blessing while the other was held outward to provide a perch for passing swallows and small squirrels. I smiled benignly and beamed out kindly thoughts towards others.

I think it was the beaming that did it for a few seconds later the hummingbird was gone, perhaps wondering if artificial flowers were another consequence of global warming. And I was left slightly bemused which is like amused but without the punch line.

The thing about the story of St. Francis that I always responded to was that the animals had no fear of him; they felt safe in his presence. To be completely non-threatening, to be harmless, means that you have no fear within yourself. My St. Francis afternoon was delightful. If only for a moment something wild and untamed touched me.

MIKEY LIKES IT!

I have a beautiful blue beta fish I’ve named Mikey. Well, really he is Mikey II as the original Mikey passed away several years ago but they look so much alike that I was hard pressed – which is like ironed but without the steam – to find a more suitable name. So Mikey he became.

Now Betas are also called Siamese fighting fish but not because of their accent or eye shape which are not that noticeable, but because Betas are aggressive by nature. In fact, you cannot put two Betas in the same bowl unless you have sadistic tendencies and a wager on the side.

I got Mikey last spring when I was still living in Sonoma County. I was renting a room with a very nice family who had as pets a black, aging rabbit and four, as they say free range, parakeets. In other words the bunny and parakeets were not caged except at night and had free run of the house.

Why is this important you ask? Their unfettered lifestyle meant that I could not get a pet dog or cat. You see the implications. In either case, death was on the agenda for one or more of the residents. When I cast around for a pet (no pun intended) I soon realized my best alternative was a fish. Outside of their watery environment they pose no threat to anything, plus they are clean and usually quiet.

Forthwith, which is like quickly but with more detours, I set off for Pets Mart where I soon found Mikey sitting quietly on a shelf in a little plastic tub. I snatched up said denizen of the deep and took him home. Wanting to keep things simple, I took a small glass cookie jar, threw in some rocks and a plant, and voila! Mikey had a new home. After the plastic container he was in fish heaven.

Which brings me to today. I was rummaging – which is like searching but without an objective – at the local thrift store when what do I see but a magnificent fish bowl. This glass bowl was of the low, round variety and would easily hold twice the amount of water Mikey current bowl had, and at $2.98 it was a steal. Posthaste, which is faster than forthwith and has nothing to do with mail delivery, I popped it in my cart.

It is now sitting on my desk where both Mikey and I can admire it and plan for the future. It offers expansive decorating
opportunities. In fact, its large circumference puts me in mind of the racetrack at the Roman Coliseum or the Hadron supercollider in Switzerland or the rink for the roller derby in downtown LA. Instead of the periodic spin around the aquatic plant, Mikey will soon be able to swim laps at incredible speeds.

In addition to the aquatic plant and rocks, Mikey has suggested I add an ominous crumbling castle, a charming treasure chest that blowsbubbles, or a mysterious helmeted deep sea diver with harpoon to the tableau. This evening we will let these and other ideas percolate while watching Richard Basehart and David Hedison in reruns of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”