Sunday, July 07, 2013


It's hard to believe that it's been almost three months since we lost the oldest four-legged member of our household, 15-year-old Mollie the cat, whom we had put to sleep after a short but precipitous decline in health.

Mollie began her life in the fetid trailer of a crazy cat lady in Maine. When local authorities finally raided the woman's property they found almost 70 cats, which they rounded up and sent to the local animal shelter; after they left, a neighbor noticed Mollie, then a tiny and emaciated kitten, sitting forlornly in the middle of the road. Knowing Fellow Traveler, and knowing she had a soft spot for rescue animals, she gave FT a call. And that's how Mollie came to be part of FT's pet family, eventually winding up in Michigan.

I'd known about Mollie for quite awhile before I actually met her. I was aware that she wasn't terribly fond of people and preferred to spend her days in a seldom-used spare bedroom. She introduced herself to me one morning via calling card -- a mouse's head that she strategically placed on my quilt while I was sleeping. Had I not already been a cat person this discovery would have probably led to a lot of screaming and perhaps some visits to my therapist, but because I know cats I understood this to be a kitty peace offering -- a choice morsel intended to communicate, "Hi. You don't seem that bad for a human." I was flattered -- at least as flattered as one can be staring into the lifeless eyes of a beheaded mouse. I knew I was in.

Mollie never let anyone pick her up, not until the very end when she was too tired and weak to protest. She did appreciate back rubs, head scritches and an occasional tussle with a proffered feather, although she usually preferred to play with her cat toys alone at night. As she grew older, she became somewhat more solicitous of human companionship; around 7:00 each evening she'd stroll into the living room, take her place in our recliner and sit listening to our conversation. At some point she'd usually jump onto one sofa, then the other, and accept brief pettings, never staying for long. She'd occasionally also come out to visit during the day, perhaps snoozing for a bit on a sofa back until she'd suddenly sit upright, look around and scamper off the furniture, down the hallway back to her room. She also became more vocal in her later years, chirping pleasantly in acknowledgement of "Hello, Mollie,"  but loudly scolding if we were too with her morning meal or tardy changing her litter box.

Mollie was a hunter extraordinaire -- never birds, always rodents. Every day she'd patrol the perimeter of our large yard, occasionally disppearing into the bordering ferns to sit and wait. At night she kept watch in our garage. She was proud of her work, and always a bit peeved when humans intervened on behalf of her prey. Whenever we went on vacation, even with a cat-sitter visiting her daily with meals and treats, Mollie would double-down on her mousing -- I think her attitude was, "I'm not sure if they're coming back, and I don't trust this other one, so I guess I'd better start provisioning now" -- so  much so that we quickly learned to do a thorough sweep of the house upon our return in order to avoid festering musine unpleasantness in some forgotten corner.

Mollie's relationship with our dogs over the years was mostly benign; think elderly maiden aunt forced to live in a household with boisterous, dirt-attracting children and you'll get some idea of her attitude toward most of our canine friends. Mollie seemed to have a special bond with my little Cody, when we moved in; maybe because he was almost as small as she was; I'd often catch them touching noses or even sleeping next to each other. Chica adored Mollie in a goofy puppy way; she got more than her share of thwacks on the nose for her overenthusiasm, but they still liked each other about as much as a cat and a dog can be expected to get along; sometimes, if Chica had a sleepover at one of her dog-friends' houses and Mollie was at home alone with us, she'd wander the house mewing, apparently trying to figure out where Chica was.

In the last few months Mollie seemed to be in good health but was sleeping more and more; then she developed a cough, stopped eating and started losing weight. One evening she tried to play-run the way she often did through our living room after her self-allotted family time, arching her back and skipping off to her room; this night, though, she kept listing to one side, almost falling over, and her lack of coordination seemed to surprise and distress her as much as it did us. That's when we decided, tears in our eyes, that it was time to let her go peacefully.

Mollie's death was hard for all of us. Even though she was an old lady cat who'd outlived most of her peers, it seemed so strange that she was no longer in our home. I kept expecting to see her in her room, curled up on her chair or keeping watch out the window from her favorite perch on a nearby table. Fellow Traveler felt the loss of one of the last real connections to her life in Maine. And Chica was sad; she had seemed to sense something final about Mollie's illness, and she didn't exhibit the sort of behaviors one might expect of a fellow pet, like searching for Mollie through the house, but she became very quiet and clingy for the first few weeks. And since then she's developed some odd only-dog obsessions she's never had before, like chasing our resident squirrels away from our bird feeders and standing guard, sometimes for hours under the tree. It's as if, without Mollie, she doesn't know what to do with her time and attention. For a quiet little cat who lived much of her life out of our sight, Mollie made such an impression on us, and left such a void in our lives.

But...that's not the end of our cat story. Days after our mournful resolution to not replace Mollie, one of FT's high school friends, someone we regularly keep in contact with, e-mailed us with a dilemma: She has two cats she adores, who are bonded to one another and who've been in her household for several years; but she's recently gotten engaged, and her fiance' doesn't like cats and is insisting that she find a new home for them. Would we be able to adopt them? FT looked at me; I looked at her; we knew what we had to do.

So by this time tomorrow we will be cat-keepers again. Our new cats' names are Dash and Pumpkin. We have so far been very low-key about all of this with Chica, and have decided to approach this new chapter in the family story with some affected wide-eyed surprise and confusion, a situation needing her assistance as pack lieutenant: "My goodness, Chica -- that lady left these two kitties at our house! What are we going to do? You'll have to help us take care of them!"

I'll let you know how that works.

Why You Want My Partner In Your Church

For reasons that for the sake of discretion/valor/working on my passive aggression issues I will decline to go into detail about here, Fellow Traveler and I find ourselves free agents in the world of church. Actually that's not exactly true; there's an ELCA congregation down the street that we enjoy and where we know people, and we are starting to gravitate there. But, technically speaking, we're in the market; or we could be if, for instance, we decided to move to another place. As far as that goes, there are also days when the infamous "None" starts looking very, very good -- leisurely Sunday-morning wakings-up, brunch in our jammies, the New York Times crossword puzzle, no ironing of clothes...wait; what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah; finding God's perfect church match for us; something like that.

Now, from everything I've read from hipster pastors "growing the church" in innovative ways, we're pretty poor prospects for membership, demographics-wise. Oh, I suppose if you're going for that edgy, see-how-inclusive-we-are vibe in your designer congregation two lesbians may be a more desirable addition to your sociodemographic mix than, say, a straight Swedish-American accountant. But I know that our age knocks us way down the "We want you" ladder; in some church circles, we of the graying hair and comfy pants tend to get blamed for our stodgy worship preferences and attitudes that are driving away our young people and  holding back the next Great Awakening. Sometimes, reading church-growth stuff on Lutheran websites and social media, I feel the way I imagine our elderly retriever Duke felt back on the day Dad took him and a loaded .22 for that final walk behind the barn.

But allow me to plead a case here -- not my own case, but that of my partner, Fellow Traveler. You may not know much about her other than her occasional third-person appearances on this blog; but if you did know her, you would want her in your church. Totes want her. Signing-bonus want her. Here are some reasons why.

She is an ex-Roman Catholic. With apologies to my RC friends -- I don't want to be accused of sheep-stealing-- ex-Roman Catholics, especially ones who grew up in old-skool, non-hippie parishes, make terrific Lutherans. They don't need remedial instruction in basic church etiquette. They know the church drill. They know the choreography. They know the lingo. And, unlike newbies from so-called free church backgrounds, they're not going to be bugging you about "why" -- not getting into frowny-face arguments with you after the service about the metaphysics of the Real Presence or why pastors give an absolution after the general confession. In fact,,they're not going to talk to you after the service at all, because they're used to sprinting out the door nanoseconds after "Thanks be to God." No off-the-cuff mini-pastoral-counseling sessions while shaking your hand; they want a nice dinner and a holy nap, and want you to have that too, as soon as possible after the service.

She wants to go to a Bible study. Yes; you read that right. Fellow Traveler wants to study the Bible. And by "study the Bible" I mean actually talk about the Bible in an in-depth, informative way --  not initiate a group therapy session to work on her issues or discuss church business or gossip in the guise of fraternal concern or answer questions like "How does that verse make you feel?" If the study is about the Gospel of Mark, then darn it, you'd better be discussing the Gospel of Mark. But, unlike some people in your Bible study -- unlike the crypto-fundamentalists in your congregation-- you can actually discuss Scripture with my partner in a contextual, critical way without her head exploding in shock and horror.

She can handle contemplative services. Fellow Traveler used to work for the Sisters of Mercy. She used to go to Mass with nuns, and Mass at a monastery. She liked it. When you float the idea of a Taize service or Compline and your praise band people go nuts and the old-timers frown and say, "We don't remember doing anything like that before the merger" -- my partner has your back.

She can help you pwn the Pietists. I remember the first time we attended an ELCA church while on vacation only to find that it celebrated the Eucharist twice a month, and we were unfortunate enough to be in town on a "non" week. "What just happened?" Fellow Traveler whispered when the liturgy suddenly imploded. "Why aren't we having Communion?" She was not impressed, later on during the ride back to the hotel, by my Cliff Notes version of Lutheran Pietism and its horror of over-communicating. If you have recalcitrant folks in your congregation who balk at weekly Communion, Fellow Traveler can give an eloquent testimony to the disappointment felt by church visitors seeking the Sacrament but not having it offered to them. And since I've never heard an eloquent argument in favor of infrequent Communion, certainly never from a clergyperson -- lots of rhetorical WIN for you.

She's got your number, Pastor. Like I said, before her retirement Fellow Traveler used to work for nuns. Prior to that she worked for a pastor in another Lutheran iteration. So she knows from church people, She knows you're not Jesus. She knows you occasionally need to blow off steam or tell impious jokes or otherwise act like a civilian. She knows that there are things you don't know. She won't care, and she won't tell. Seriously, not all new church folks have any of that figured out.

She will call it as she sees it. It is one of the things I really admire about FT, by the way. I grew up in a household where expressing what I really thought or felt did not always lead to positive outcomes, so I became the sort of person who -- well, who says, "I'm fine" when I'm really not fine or who composes rambling masterpieces of diplomatic bullshit in answer to questions about sensitive issues. FT, on the other hand, lets the chips fall. Where I, in response to a question about, say, musical quality in a church, would avoid direct eye contact with the interviewer while murmuring, "Well, sometimes it's, um, hard for me concentrate on the service when the organist, um, doesn't seem...well, very familiar with the music," FT would look the questioner straight in the eye and say, "The music is crap." Unvarnished honesty isn't always easy to take, but if you need a regular reality check on your perception of how things are going in your congregation, Fellow Traveler will give it to you.

I know this proposition is still a hard sell if you have your heart set on attracting a [cue the ethereal chorus] young family or the sort of hipsters who hang out at your favorite coffee joint. But you could do much worse. And since we come as a package deal, you'd also be getting someone who would actually like to edit your church newsletter. Think about it. Call us maybe.

Friday, July 05, 2013

A Flag-Waving Friday Five

Today at Casa Elenas we've been recovering from our annual family vacation up north -- not because it was bad, mind you; it was wonderful -- but a week of pretty nonstop sightseeing with four other adults and a precocious three-year-old can be fairly exhausting. My schedule today included watering and fertilizing my container plants, making dinner, and...well...that was it. Oh -- and writing. Which is why I'm here.

Here's this week's Friday Five Challenge:

How does one typically celebrate your native /adopted land's Big National Holiday?
Here in the Upper Midwest the Fourth of July typically marks the peak of  tourist season. The Founding Fathers wanted citizens to celebrate the birthday of the Republic with great public hoopla, and in most of small-town America that takes the form of community parades and fireworks. Here in the northern vacation lands municipalities aren't the only entities setting off fireworks; we have some pretty impressive displays over our local lakes courtesy of lakeside homeowners with the money and courage (or foolhardiness, depending on your perspective) to create their own elaborate shows. One of my former neighbors, on a nearby lake, spent a couple thousand dollars each year on fireworks for his annual Fourth of July Fellow Traveler likes to say, God bless America.

2. How do you personally celebrate the holiday described in #1? Any unusual twists on the typical celebration? Is it something you enjoy or endure?
We are not parade people. We are not fireworks people. We are not drunken party people. So our Fourth of Julys are usually spent enjoying picnic foods (indoors or out), avoiding local traffic gridlock during our town's festivities and comforting our pets during the noisier parts. While I don't mind fireworks per se,, they don't thrill me nearly as much as they did when I was a child -- and I hate M-80's; hate them with a white-hot passion.  I don't understand them, the way that our dog doesn't understand them. And as far as the day itself, my ongoing  lover's quarrel with my country makes me uncomfortable with a lot of Independence Day jingoism, as well as the ignorance many revelers have of their own nation's history and governmental workings. 

3. What does the word "independence" mean to you, whether in a political or personal mood? How has that understanding changed throughout your life?  
To me the independence I value includes not only independence from oppressive institutions, but also independence in terms of disengaging from popular culture; from expectations about what someone of my sociodemographic segment should think or do or be. The other day I thought about our household spending, and it's funny how atypical it is in terms of the things we value, the things we consume. It's also very freeing. And I love being a cipher, a puzzlement, to others who assume too much about me because of my age or location or anything else.

4. When did you first feel that you, personally, had gained independence? Was there a 'rite of passage' you would like to share?
To tell you the honest truth, I never felt totally independent until after my parents had both died. I think this might be the one disadvantage of being an only child: Even after you "launch" physically and professionally, it's hard to feel separate from your parents, especially when they're emotionally needy and constantly summoning you back home, psychologically if not physically as well. And because I felt compelled to hide my orientation from them, I also put my personal life on hold for many years. It was a sad, lonely moment when I first realized, "You're an orphan now" -- but in the scheme of things, that loss liberated me. 

5. Tell us about your favorite "indie" film, music label, book store...
I'm not even sure what counts as "indie," so I'm taking a stab in the dark here, but one non-blockbuster I've always loved is "Cold Comfort Farm," a quirkily charming English comedy about a city girl, down on her luck but determinedly plucky, who winds up living with her poor, eccentric country cousins in Sussex, whose fish-out-of-water presence in their midst winds up changing their lives in positive ways. Music label? Again, I'm not sure what is "indie" and what isn't these days. At our house we enjoy singer Catie Curtis, who has her own record label; that's pretty independent, right? As far as independent bookstores...Leelanau Books, in Leland, Michigan, is one of my favorite mom-and-pop bookstores; especially nice if you're looking for Michigan authors.

Bonus Question: Is there a time you remember going "against the tide" of advice or precedent, or in some other way? Or perhaps a time you wish you had done so? Share it here!
I majored in advertising in college because it seemed to be a good solution for studying the liberal arts while convincing my anxious blue-collar parents that I was getting a "practical" education. From the git-go I suffered a feeling in my gut (sometimes literally) that this was a big mistake...but after investing a couple of years in the curriculum I felt too afraid and trapped to change my major. I think this is one of the greater regrets of my life, and a case where I wish the promptings of my inner compass had overcome my sense of filial duty and guilt about accepting my parents' money to help pay for my education. On the other hand, had I not set out on the path I chose, I wouldn't be where I am today, in the life I have today, with the family I have today.