Episode Forty Eight: Gifts

IMG_20151226_153842.jpg

I am no Ebenezer Scrooge, but truth be told,  I always feel pretty ambivalent about Christmas. Part of this ambivalence is from trying to negotiate time, space, and expectations as a teenager when my parents lived in different cities. Another part derives from my political values wherein I harness my disdain for the way Christian monotheism supplanted land-based rituals like Solstice and then capitalist consumerism supplanted family-based practices.  But most of all, I feel that we all lose our ability to differentiate responsibility from desire during this time of year.

Last night as I came home from a weary Christmas road trip through southern Ontario I was talking to Virtute about these feelings as he played with his new one-and-a-half-inch mylar crinkle ball atop a big old gift box (that was doubling as a crypt).  I recounted how in our contemporary times, despite our best intentions, many of us grow up learning that Christmas is about seeking easy gratification.  We hear the word “next” spoken (as in “open the next gift”) more often than we do “care”.

Virtute, taking a pause from his new toy. Leaned over and whispered “gifts”. A little dismayed at this intransigence, I presumed Virtute had temporarily joined the “cult of the consumer,” I was ready to head up to bed in defeat. Just then Virtute stiffened up, stretched and then perched on my lap.

“Gifts,” he repeated, a little more thoughtfully this time.  “The word comes from old germanic – it has roots in both that which is given – and that which is poisonous.  Perhaps that explains our conundrum.  As beings we survive because we aren’t afraid to give.  But if one gives, one must also be able to receive.  The poison, for most of us, is in our fear of what receiving gifts does to us.  We can veer easily toward gluttony, we can succumb to addictions and obsessions, we can put desire above care.  That is why many of us love to give, but struggle desperately to receive – while others love to receive, but don’t know how to give.  The poison is when giving and receiving become unbalanced.”

Wise words – and I could definitely relate to what Virtute was saying. I’ve always had trouble asking for help or have felt anxious about receiving gifts or praise.  Perhaps it is a fear of my inner megalomaniac – I am afraid that by accepting gifts or praise or kindness that I won’t be able to control my desire for more. Perhaps it is my fear of being lonely and I allow the practice of giving to stand-in for the practice of building meaningful relationships.

Virtute had disappeared. He likely noticed that I had zoned out.  But as I was snapping out of my mental fog and started heading up to bed, I heard the pitter patter of his feet come down the stairs. Clasped between his teeth was a small partially chewed up bow. He sat it down on my lap. A gift.  I clutched the bow between my fingers and told him, “I’ll keep this as a token of the long and loving relationship we’ve formed.” He smiled and he, Gumption, and I all snuggled up in the cold bed on Christmas night and fell asleep.

Advertisements

Episode Forty Seven: Δ

IMG_20151030_150031.jpgVirtute shut his eyes to avoid thinking about it.  After about an hour of anxiously scurrying around the house watching furniture get moved out, he could foresee that he was on the precipice of another life change. Virtute is not a fan of change – and frankly – I can relate to him. I also like familiarity, routine, schedules, and stability.  Change is unsettling.

For a few weeks we’ve been talking about the fact that Virtute would be moving with Jenny to her new place on St.Clair Avenue and that he would have a lovely fireplace mantle to crawl on and a new set of stairs to perfect his 1-inch mylar crinkle ball chase sequences.  But Virtute struggled to deal with this reality.  He burst into my room and unloaded dozens of questions in rapid fire succession: “Where will my feeding bowl be located? What if the smell of the new place isn’t familiar? What if there are new noises that scare me? What will life be like without Gumption? Who will sing with me in the kitchen?”  All very valid questions, but these were difficult for me to answer.  Part of what makes change so unsettling is that you must surrender to it in some way. You need to be willing to pass through change with all the uncertainties, fears, and anxieties that it brings. That’s what makes change transformative.

Exhausted and weary, Virtute asked me for advice on dealing with change. I suggested that I am probably not the best person to provide advice about this topic, but given that his question came with such sincerity, I would do my best to respond.  I told him that one of the techniques I’ve used to negotiate large changes in my life is to think back on other pivotal moments where change occurred.  What was it like when my parents divorced? How did I negotiate moving to Toronto? What did it feel like to be radicalized in a political sense? And when did I realize that being radical didn’t mean being self-righteous?  What does it feel like to fall in love? To leave home? To make home?

We talked for a few hours about these things, before Virtute sat up, stretching his paws upwards in a long, drawn-out way, and said, “Change is the part of the story that’s interesting to the reader but difficult for the main character.”  I thought about this for a bit, I wasn’t sure if that was exactly correct – change can be such an exhilarating experience. It can be liberating, like the first time you see that collective organizing can produce victories or the initial moment when you are free to be who you are or who you wish to become. Change can be inspiring, like when you hear music you thought was impossible to create or read words that bring you to action.  It can be purposeful, like when you begin to learn from past mistakes or develop a skill you thought you’d never have.  But even if it can be positive – change is never easy – and so I’ve been comforting Virtute with things that are familiar – mylar balls, regular meal times, games on the cat condo, and taking time to write in the blog.  After waking up from his nap and seeing that I was hard at work on this post he quipped, “I’m glad to be the main character in your story.”

It’s in moments like these that I fear I’ll miss him the most.

Episode Forty Six: OCAP’s Birthday

IMG_20151128_230738.jpgGumption trotted around the house yelling “Happy Birthday!” in her most excited trill.  We sometimes  describe the sound as a squeaky wagon haphazardly rolling down a hill. I’ve been sick with the flu over the last few days and so I was a bit perturbed that she would disrupt my nap in such a brazen fashion.  I called her back to my room to ask her what was up.  She exclaimed, “It’s the twenty fifth birthday of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. I love those guys.”  I was a bit surprised she remembered. I’d been planning for weeks to go out to celebrate the big milestone with OCAP, but I hadn’t mentioned it much to Gumption.  I asked Gumption why she was so excited about the birthday and she responded,  “OCAP and Gumption are the same!”

At first, I didn’t get it – but then, like a barricade at City Hall, it all came crashing down. I knew what she meant.  At its inception 25 years ago, OCAP could have gone in many directions. It could have become another report-making, paper-pushing, anti-poverty NGO. It could have become a part of the union bureaucracy.  It could have risen and fallen on the crest of the anti-Harris years.  But OCAP from its onset had gumption.

The people who form its core – no matter how much it changes – are driven by the desire to act out of principle.  They seize buildings to demand social housing (like when they held the Pope Squat). They create the conditions for people to get money for food and rent (like when they held the Special Diet clinics). They build long-term relationships of solidarity with folks at Tyendinaga by being present and active and willing to drive up there to pick up toxic waste and then dump it on the lawn of Queen’s Park.  They force the city to open a 24-hour shelter for women and trans folks by mobilizing and refusing to leave.  They rip the microphone right out of Doug Ford’s hands in order to address city council.

“Do you mean, OCAP has gumption?” I asked my little furry friend.  She pawed at my chest and then responded with a sigh, “They do have gumption. But we all have OCAP – at least when we need to fight to win.”  The cold medicine started to kick in and I drifted in to a deep sleep dreaming of the worlds that we could create if we all had the kind of gumption that OCAP has.

Thank you.

 

 

Episode Forty Five: Nobody Puts Gummy in a Corner

IMG_20151001_150245

It’s been a stressful few days around here.  Beyond the fact that there is a lot of transition going on in our lives, Virtute, Gumption and I have been walking on pins and needles trying not to jinx the Blue Jays.  We’ve given props and received blessings from Lil B, we’ve written letters asking Taylor Swift to schedule a show in Dallas/Arlington, we have been careful not to walk under ladders or spill salt or misalign our Blue Jays shrine, we’ve tried everything. But after two games it all seemed hopeless.  Virtute and I spent a lot of time walking around the house with mopey expressions.  Given that we are both inclined to the study of advanced baseball statistics, we were aware that the win-probability for the better team in a short series flattens as the games are played. That means that the best team doesn’t always win – the team that wins always wins.

We pored through the stats. Virtute walked around shaking his head saying, “The Blue Jays have an .OPS over .800 against left handed pitching.”  I really felt his malaise.  Even though I received the gift of a lifetime when Tim surprised me with tickets for Game #1 of the playoffs, something felt off.  The defence did not seem as crisp and the offence seemed to be pressing.  It felt a lot like my own struggles to finish my dissertation, apply for jobs, and keep in relatively decent mental and physical shape. The world seem to be collapsing around us.  Virtute extolled a whole bunch of baseball theory that he’s brushed up on since joining the flock last season, he’s questioned the strike zone in Game 2 and the decision to keep Estrada on the roster even though his peripherals show he’s been the Jays’ most consistent pitcher. He’s cringed every time the Jays drop a sacrifice bunt, he’s questioned John Gibbons on his use of the bullpen and on his decision to bat Tulo leadoff back in August. He’s a bit of a know-it-all when it comes to in-game strategy.  But, none of this had seemed to help.

Gumption, the ever consistent Blue Jays fan since Day #1 (at least since her first game as a kitten) sat with us quietly and patiently. Finally, I had to ask her opinion after the Jays went down 2-0 in the series.   Gumption responded somewhat cryptically, “Everyday I go downstairs to eat my kibble.  I have a specific approach. I like to eat 3-4 pieces, take a break, maybe wander for a while and then come back to my bowl when I’m ready. I like to do this multiple times over several minutes until I’m full. I know that this is the approach that works best for me.  But it also means I contend with Virtute trying to eat my food the minute he sees an opportunity. I don’t resent him for it, that’s the game that we play and I know that he’s too big to push off the bowl.  But my strategy over the long-term forces you and Jenny to adapt to my feeding patterns. In fact, the whole house adapts to my feeding patterns. And just when you think I’m over-matched you realize that you’ve actually been playing my game all along and it’s just a matter of time before I come out on top. Nobody puts Gummy in a corner!” And with that quote, we saw the Jays storm back to tie the series at 2-2 and we anxiously await the decisive game on Wednesday. Now the feeling in the house is different. It is relaxed. We all know that win or lose the Jays have played their game to the best of their abilities. They’ve drawn Texas back into our house and our pattern and our city.

Gumption pecks a couple of pieces of kibble out of my hand. We go over the scouting reports for tomorrow’s feeding schedule and she too feels confident that victory is within her grasp.

Episode Forty Four: Hungry

IMG_20140415_180950Virtute moved ever so gracefully off the couch with a deft leap.  Once gaining his footing on the tv table he gave me a penetrating and haunting look.  I presumed what this was about. Gumption had spent the last twenty minutes of the Blue Jays game pacing and trilling her pleads for food between every pitch (she was still into the game of course) so I was sure that Virtute was also hungry, explaining the creepy expression he was darting my way.  The game was almost over and so I committed to waiting for the final pitch to be thrown before getting up to do the deed.  But that look was more pleading than normal, and though I tried to avert eye contact, it was near impossible to avoid it. Finally, I gave in to the pressure, “Are you hungry?,” I asked him already knowing the answer. Without hesitation or doubt in his voice, he replied, “Yes. We all are.” Which seemed like a bit of an exaggeration given that it hadn’t been that long ago since I had given them lunch.  “Games almost over,” I pleaded.  But Virtute held firm, “I know. That’s why I’m hungry. That’s why we are all hungry. I’ve only heard stories of what it was like in ’92 and ’93. But this is my time. This is our time.” I told him he sounded like a lousy York University ad campaign, but deep down I knew he was right.  Feels good to watch meaningful baseball in the 6ix in September.  The wind blew cool and we all took a brief whiff of fall baseball, before Gumption let out a blood curdling shriek – the game was over, Jays win. It was time to eat.

Episode Forty Three: Responsibilities

20150505_105925

So, it’s summer time.  Apparently there was a spring, but neither Virtute nor I seem to recall when that happened.  But that’s ok, because summer time is the best time of the year for Virtute. It’s a time he spends crawling in the grass and hiding underneath stoops in our backyard as we work the garden.  Most of all, though, Virtute spends many summer mornings having breakfast out in the front lawn with Jenny.  It’s a ritual that sometimes Gumption and I participate in, though for Gumption always carefully at the threshold of the door, lest there be another possible escape.

About a week ago, I made somewhat of a spring/summer mistake.  Our octogenarian neighbour, Stefano, gets anxious about our lawn becoming overgrown.  He prefers the old school style of a carefully manicured lawn. It is so important to him that 20-30 years ago he covered his front yard with stone so that his lawn would never be overgrown, so that it would present nice.  Though our house tends to think about the lawn in a more fluid and organic way and would like to let it grow, since last summer I’ve tried to be conscious of keeping it trimmed in order to maintain a good relationship with our neighbour.  Anyhow, I cut the lawn last week and Jenny was upset.

I didn’t quite get why. I felt like we had all decided to try to maintain a good relationship with Stefano and I couldn’t understand her frustration. So I asked Virtute what he thought.  Lying in a pile of freshly cut grass, he took a moment to chew up some green tips before responding, “She’s upset because you failed to remember that relationships aren’t linear, they are always intersecting.” I wasn’t following, so I asked for clarification. Virtute sat upright and explained, “Well, we exist in webs of relationships. We certainly have a relationship with Stefano that we need to honour, but we also have relationships with the grass and flowers.  The lawn needs to be cut when it is cool and when it is going to rain so that it can survive the hot summer.  The grass and flowers also have a relationship with the pollinators that we need to honour so cutting them too early makes it harder for pollinators to get food since most things aren’t yet in bloom.  And you also have a relationship with Jenny and the rest of the house in terms of ensuring that our actions are collective and done with care.”

Humbled a little, I sat back and thought about the lesson Virtute was trying to get across. It started to rain, so we took the conversation inside. Finally I asked Virtute how to balance all of these relationships.  He rolled over on Jenny’s bed and then said, “Care, communication, and learning from your mistakes. We don’t really have roadmaps or models to follow, but we have principles of interrelatedness that help us find a good path.” He paused, thought some more, and said, “Remember too, tall grass is good hiding for an anxious cat like me. That’s how I become a cool cat.”

Episode Forty Two: The Ultimate Question of Life

IMG_20131015_153320Virtute and I have a confession to make. We’ve both been anticipating writing this episode for some time now.  The number 42 has very special connotation in our conversations. It is the number worn by the great baseball player Jackie Robinson. It is the angle rounded to whole degrees at which a rainbow appears. But most importantly it is a number that gets at the crux of this whole Diaries of a Cat Named Virtute project. 42 is of course the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.  So this week, Virtute and I spent a few minutes reading through our favourite passage of the Douglas Adams book, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, before reflecting on this important question.

I asked Virtute how a simple number could explain something so complex.  He explained, “Well even though most people seem to consider me a very complex character, I tend to live life simply.  I enjoy catching the cracks of sunshine when they appear, I appreciate genuine cuddles from the people that I love, and I never miss a meal – especially if it’s chicken! If 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything – and if we are all just living on a large supercomputer called Earth tasked with determining what the ultimate question was in the first place, then I guess we need to start simply.”

Perplexed, I asked Virtute to elaborate. “Well 42 isn’t just a number. It’s an expression of a relationship.  We’re all simply expressions of relationships. Some of them are chemical, some are physical, some are spiritual, some are emotional, but they are all relational. Just like the arc of a rainbow or the number on your baseball jersey, we are bound to the relationships that sustain us while we exist within this plane.”

What if we never figure out what the ultimate question is in the first place?  Virtute was less certain, he gazed out the window as a rainbow began to emerge in the distance.  “Perhaps the problem is not finding a response to our question. Perhaps the problem is the way we have posed the question in the first place. What’s brilliant about the question’s answer, 42, that the super computer Deep Thought solved a long time ago, is not that it provides us with new knowledge that we can attain and use, but rather that it points to the mysterious nature of our relationship to life, the universe, and everything. That mystery is beautiful.”

Even though Virtute was eloquent as always, I wasn’t satisfied and prodded him a little further. What does it mean for us right now? Slyly, Virtute turned around and said, “What does it matter, they’re gonna bulldoze this place for an intergalactic highway any minute now.” He turned back and continued to watch the rainbow arc its perfect 42 degrees.  I went to the kitchen to prepare some chicken for Virtute, I figured I might as well nurture this relationship as much as possible.

Episode Forty One: Eduardo Galeano, Presente.

IMG_20150407_223312~2Virtute and I spent some time yesterday reflecting on the passing of a movement elder, Eduardo Galeano.  We talked mostly about the fact that we have lost a number of movement elders in recent years and it is worrying because it feels as though our movements have trouble remembering our stories and our histories.

Virtute definitely considers himself to be a storyteller, so I asked him about the importance of stories and histories in radical movements. I could tell he had been thinking about this for a while, as his face immediately shot up in a dignified manner as he explained, “Eduardo Galeano had this quote that’s resonated with me for years. He’s talking about capitalism and colonialism and he’s explaining the way it works to make us forget. Galeano says, ‘It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.’  This is an important lesson to retain.”  Touched by this quote, I asked Virtute what he thought was a good way to honour this lesson.

Normally self-assured, he slunk down a bit in consternation, “I don’t think it’s easy.  Storytelling is such a critical part of our movements.  But stories need to bring us to action, not just to understanding or to knowing.  Galeano’s stories called us to action. They not only called us to action, they compelled us to action. They came from action. They were part of the struggle. They were a narration of the ongoing dreaming of another world.”  I was lamenting this loss, when Virtute was quick to remind me, “Over the past few years, you and I have both witnessed the flourishing of storytelling within our movements.  Don’t underestimate the important work of people like Harsha Walia, Glen Coulthard, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Leanne Simpson, Zainab Amadahy, Chris Dixon, AJ Withers, and the many many other people within our collective movements who are writing stories that compel us to action, that are part of our actions.”  With those words, Virtute injected me with a little hope, hope that Galeano was right and that we are much more beautiful than we are told.

Episode Forty: Sun in an Empty Room

IMG_20150330_182955I walked in on Jenny and Virtute engaged in a long conversation about Edward Hopper’s painting “Sun in an Empty Room”.  They were discussing the ways in which John K. Samson’s lyrics to the Weakerthans’ song of the same name captures a very important and intimate reference to the disjunctures of home and belonging in Hopper’s work.  Of particular interest to them was the concluding lyrics where Samson points to the ways in which even refractions of light can seem unfamiliar once you have begun the act of moving out.

Jenny was very adamant that the song and the painting revolved around our perceptions of the familiar. “What does it mean to know home? Can we ever know home? Is home not something so fragile that a small change in the angle of light across a room can create a feeling of unbelonging?” Virtute tended to agree, and quoted a line from the song:

“Take eight minutes and divide (sun in an empty room)
By ninety million lonely miles (sun in an empty room)
Watch the shadow cross the floor (sun in an empty room)
We don’t live here anymore (sun in an empty room)”

“For me, this is an important indication of how a process that takes place across time-space can have a significant effect on our relationship to home”, he explained.  I wondered about this myself and as I snuck away from my eavesdropping on their conversation, I passed by the bathroom where Gumption was engaged in her most recent ritual of staring at the shower curtain.  I asked her what she was doing. She responded, “I like the light on the curtain.”  Feeling that the topic was relevant I asked what about it was interesting.  Her response kinda put the whole discussion in context: “Sometimes you can’t explain things that you like, sometimes you just take the time to observe it. To know it.”

Gumption definitely doesn’t get enough credit in this house. Sometimes big questions have simple answers and sometimes we just refuse to answer these questions altogether. Sometimes it’s just sun in an empty room.

Episode Thirty Nine: Strike to Win

IMG_20150329_171021Gumption sat steadfast beside her bowl. She had barely eaten anything and we were worried. For the last few weeks it seemed that she had eaten less and less and no amount of coaxing, cajoling, or trickery could get her to let up.  Virtute, normally keen on eating her leftovers, had changed his tune from one of opportunism to one of concern.  There were whispers around the house that Gumption was on strike.  You see, Gumption has a mild stomach sensitivity to a lot of foods, and the only kibble that seems to sit perfectly well with her is an expensive “Science Diet” brand. As Virtute is wont to say, “the thing that makes that diet scientific is how unnatural the food actually is. It’s like Gummy gets to eat McDonald’s everyday.”  And so given that there had been a squeeze put on us financially due to what York University termed “the labour disruption”, we had tried to scale back on our expenses, which meant mixing Gumption’s food with a cheaper (yet weirdly more nutritious brand)

Gumption, however, showed resolve and decided to go on strike.  Virtute and I tried many things to convince her that eating the new food was in her best interest. Virtute said, “This is the best deal you could possibly want. You get a shiny new bag of food that is packaged in very stylish shimmering crinkly paper.”  I tried to scare her into it by refusing to feed her if she didn’t finish her food within an allotted time.  Jenny kept saying, “During the “labour disruption” this is the best deal you are going to get.” It was annoying for everyone in the house. We all had to deal with Gumption’s consistent meowing or her angry booty twerks each time we poured a “kibble mix” into her bowl.

But something began to change. As Gumption’s strike neared the three week mark, we began to get letters of support from her friends Remus and Ash. Radar, our stuffed raccoon friend, refused to nap with us anymore.  We knew that we were fighting a losing battle.  So last night, in honour of the end of the “labour disruption” at York University, we celebrated by giving Gumption a full scoop of her favourite kibble.  She went to work, eating every single piece and purring the entire time.

After dinner, I asked her why she had been so stubborn, very clearly she enunciated, “Like CUPE 3903, I strike to win!”

And so a couple month-long battles resolved themselves last night. We know that there are many more to come and we know that we haven’t seen the last of Gumption’s tenaciousness, but we all learned an important lesson about commitment, determination, and solidarity.