The Cat and the Cardiologist or My Broken Hearted Prisoner

Our black cat, Cesario, does not care that Mr. Trump has been elected President.  He wants only to go outside, to get out of the house.  He has always been an outdoor cat.  He wants his old life back.  But we learned yesterday that he has a heart condition that requires medicine three times a day; if we let him out, we will not be able to give him the medicine.  His old life is over.  This morning, in the quiet dark, he prowls the house, puzzled, angry.  I stroke his glossy head.  He glares at me.  We both know he wants to go outside.  Why am I not letting him? It’s been a strange twenty-four hours—the nation, our cat, heart conditions.  We have a little kitten, too, Phebe.  She is also an indoor cat—too young and small to take on the world--careless, we fear.  So we are keeping her in until spring.  She is delighted by Cesario’s captivity, wants only to be his friend.  She leaps and feints and pounces, trying to engage him.  He hisses, baleful.  He is so much bigger than she, yet his is afraid of her—uninterested in her joy, her innocence. 

Standing in front of my girls on the stage yesterday, I read from my carefully prepared script that congratulated the winners and offered strategies to those whose hearts lay elsewhere in the election.  I watched girls all day embracing, weeping, averting their eyes.  I felt tired, pretending an optimism I know I must model, but one that felt strained, as if I were acting the role of Head, rather than inhabiting it.  

“What’s wrong with me?” I wondered, feeling muted, drained, teary.  Our college daughter phoned, shares that her Feminist Theory professor has told her students that she has spent 35 years telling classes that women matter.  “Ahh,” I sighed in recognition.  “Me, too.” I am not a feminist theory professor.  I am the head of a girls’ school; I have spent my life in girls’ schools, been shaped by them, by the fierce and formidable women that populated them, by good and generous men who joined those women in building essay by essay, problem set by problem set, a structure that convinced me I belonged, I was good enough, I had a place at the table, and a job to do in advocating for those more vulnerable than I.  I learned to lead with optimism, with my whole heart, with authenticity.  I chose a life as an educator in independent schools, and, long ago, when I was a young teacher, I fretted to my department chair, Judy, that I had chosen too easy a path, that I should have stuck to my guns and returned to the New Haven public schools, where I had cut my baby teeth as a student teacher.

“Annie,” she said, looking at me directly. “There are many paths. Here, you teach the girls that will have the access and the opportunity to make change.  If you are not teaching them, if you are not sharing your ideals and your insistence that they make a difference, then who will?”  That was a balm.  I have liked my life, felt purposeful, certain, in fact, that we, as a nation, were moving forward.  Part of me knows I need time to breathe.  I need some more rest—the World Series plus the election drama has wreaked havoc with my sleep.  I need to figure out how to offer to my girls and faculty offer the type of hope Judy offered me long ago—when I wore Laura Ashley dresses and white tights. 

Cesario crouches, ready to spring.  He is bewildered, cross. And I cannot explain this change in fortunes to him in a way he can understand.  He is still who he was yesterday, but not.  Me, too.  Sometimes, change is thrust upon us, like it or not.

Mary Catherine Bateson, Margaret Mead’s daughter, talks about composing a life.  I like the idea that we get to choose, that it is not all just random; rather, we have agency.  That is what I have taught the girls, always.

“You are not a tumbleweed,” I exhort to a child in my office, who has made a mistake.  “You always have a choice.  It’s not the mistake that matters; it’s how you move forward from it that counts.”

I have a choice about how to move forward.  I had hoped for a different outcome, one that more clearly demonstrated to my girls, my brown and black girls, my gay girls, my Muslim and Jewish girls, my immigrant girls that this country was committed to them, that they would be okay.  They will be okay, I hope.  They are strong and capable, feisty and resilient, amazing.  It is a privilege to spend my life among them.  But many of them are reeling, angry, let down.

 In acting, we say, “You must hold the whole experience—sorrow, joy, outrage, vulnerability.”  That piece of my repertoire has gotten quite a work out since the night before last—I am a moth, darting from one screen door to another, drawn to the light, unable to get past the tiny mesh barriers.  I can see the light on the other side—not a flame that will burn me up but an illumination.  I just can’t find my way quite yet.

 Cesario is heartsick.  We can treat him, help him improve.  Is it right, I wonder, to force him to stay in?  If his heart had simply stopped one night as he prowled this Circle that he loves, would it have been the worst outcome?  We want to hold onto what we love, protect and keep safe those who matter.  But he meows piteously at the door, brushes my legs, makes a nuisance of himself. I am having trouble figuring out what right is—for him.  For all of us.  Having trouble imagining what his future will be like.  And our own.


The first day, we go, three strangers with me, up a hill, down a hill, up another slope and there it is, the young red maple aflame in the middle of a circle of stones.  We find the entrance.  I follow Erin, trusting her feet when I do not trust my own.  On the way back out, I fumble—a stone has been moved; the path isn’t clear.  She smiles, points the right direction.  And, just as I am sure I have made a mistake, I emerge. 

We are silent walking, our sneakers on cedar chips—red chips lining the outside circle, grey and black ones within the paths winding, guiding, circling.  Today, alone, I stoop to see if the black ones are burned, testing the black against another rock gingerly to see if it can be used like a stick of charcoal, but it does not have that property.  Who built this labyrinth?  A grieving family, an artist?  This property is full of bird-houses painted in bright colors, a destination for a mother bird’s child, seeking a home.  The families making birdhouses have all lost children—their grief so palpable it feels like metal in my mouth.  Would we have come to such a place had it existed when Roddy died?  No.  This is a different time, a different part of the country.  We know more now about how to process.  How to trust the labyrinth to carry us forward deep into ourselves, how to spool us back out from the center, like an Elizabethan circle dance winding into a snail whorl, then releasing. 

Yesterday, Erin and I go again, silent once we are inside, lost in thought, surrendering.  After, we both whisper Namaste and walk home a winding way, around the pond and over Sophia’s bridge, painted rocks winking like Easter Eggs, placed lovingly in roots and nestled into stumps.  We heard last night what one grieving mother needed to do, an instruction manual of sorts for how to do grief.  Here, I think of my own mother and her mother—how was it they managed to move forward, inch forward.  I think of Lori and Don mourning Jess.

Today, I venture out by myself, quiet from all the stories I have heard.  Arriving, I see Kate and Erin walking.  It is warmer this morning.  I think of the Stage Manager in Our Town, explaining at the top of Act III in the Grover’s Corners Cemetery that “an awful lot of sorrow has quieted down up here,” and I hope that that is true for those who come to Faith’s Lodge, not on a writing retreat—or on a writing retreat, that our collective sorrows can quiet down.  I tilt my face to the sun, pause until the two who are walking have passed where I will enter, not wanting to interrupt their pace, but then, unexpectedly, I turn in on myself a few seconds later and there is Erin, coming in the opposite direction.  She throws her arms wide and we hug, this stranger-friend I acquired Thursday.  Kate and I hug next; then they leave, their voices soft, murmuring with the breeze.  Reaching the center of the labyrinth, I close my eyes. Shimmer. Circles. Red. I feel as if I am teaseracting in A Wrinkle in Time. Pulsing red. Anger?  Grief?  I breathe.  “Set down, set down”. Richard III’s Lady Anne’s words thrum in my ear.  Fragments of text float up to me.  “What would you do if you were not afraid?”  “Nature’s first green is gold.”  Mantras swirl in this place of meditation.  Lady Anne again:  “Set down, set down.” Set down anger, grief, sorrow, burdens, helplessness? Set down feeling silenced, helpless, caught.  Set down as in record, write. Set down as in I don't need to carry such burdens, so much weight any longer. I wind, burrow, coil, curl into myself in the labyrinth, in the lodge, witnessing others' stories, griefs, losses. Listening. I listen right now. One tapping bird. A chirp behind me. Breezes rustle leaves; I listen more.  There are several layers of wind, several types of rustle:  grass, small trees, larger noises of wind in branches.  What is louder than a rustle? Sun, so warm. I watched you rise over the steam a few hours ago, a golden band pushing up over the lake, pushing back the darkness. That's where grief lives, underground, I think.  A caldera, rising when it finds an aperture, reaching up. Cheep, cheep. One bird.  Another answers.   Rush. Whoosh.  The flutter of wings.  How unlikely to be writing on my phone when a river of words has flowed from my pen during this retreat. Re. Treat. A treat offered more than once. Accept what you are offered, a birthday treat.  Trick or treat.  Retreat from the field. Retreat into anger, loneliness. Retreat into silence. Words loud in my head. Breathe. In. Out. Set down. Set down. Spiral out. Trust.  Accept the gift, the peace, the possibility that this moment can inspire me next week, next month, next year.