Fraidy Cat

Strictly speaking, the domestic  cat isn’t a domestic animal.  Individually, perhaps; a super-model skinny Siamese in a jeweled collar or any cat lounging like an Ingres odalisque looks and normally acts about as wild and crazy as the attendees at a home and garden show. But the experts tell us that felis domesticus is more properly a commensalist—a volunteer rather than a draftee in humanity’s circle of furred and feathered retainers.  And as any true cat person will tell you, that constitutes a large part of their charm.

One of history's most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.

One of history’s most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.

The cat, being a citizen (dogs, fine creatures that they are, are most often slaves) has an upfront agenda—getting free room and board with major medical thrown in.  In return, they will, when they feel like it,  do something about the rodents that also chose to live with humans, but fail to repay us with grace, beauty, and a chorus of purrs when the can opener kicks in.  And there are plenty of cats (in Texas, we call them barn cats, even if they patrol, like three in my acquaintance, the out buildings of a boutique winery) who feel it best to make the arrangement strictly business.  Which means

Now tell me you don't see it.

Now tell me you don’t see it.

that the humans involved must rightly do a once-a-year kitty roundup, live-trapping the help for the sake of shots, worming, and general inspection for need or damage.

But there are situations in between that don’t fit neatly into anyone’s agenda, more’s the pity.

Less than a year ago, a threesome of wild kittens showed up here minus their mother.   They were old enough to survive without her, yet really too young to be on their own.  Needing neither barn cats nor an ungoverned population of wild cats, I set about the business of winning the hearts and minds involved with regular food, dependable water, and the patience that cat people learn when trying to do a favor for a suspicious commensalist.

I was soon reminded, as you commonly are in such undertakings, of the limits of good will; one kitten, a little grey tom, was promptly killed by a car.  The surviving two, baptized Fritz and Frieda Fraidy Cat, hung on, just out of reach, until Fritz came over, turned into a love kitty, and then vanished without a trace a week after his first trip to the vet’s.  That left a diminutive, wild-eyed ball of fluff who ran if I so much as glanced at her, hiding until I was inside before coming out to eat.  There was no way to hurry the process, but spring was coming; for little girl Frieda, the biological clock was ticking.  Frieda needed a trip to the vet before the alarm went off.

Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.

Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.

When it did, it was like having to watch a bewildered 13-year-old nymphet being mobbed by a gang of horny bikers. Cats are nothing if not secretive; the number of tom cats who showed up to answer the ultimate call of the wild was astonishing, and the result predictable—non-stop, 24/7  cat fights, a front porch that whiffed like the lion house at the zoo, and finally a half-grown kitten with a swelling mid-section.

Maybe it was hormones, or the realization that a single mom can always use friends.  Many weeks pregnant, Frieda finally accepted my good intentions, going almost instantaneously from fraidy cat to clingy cat.  It wasn’t ideal, but it would do.  As tiny as she was, the litter would probably be a small one, and I could socialize the kittens and find homes for them while arranging for their teenage mom to spend the rest of her days as a bachelor girl.

That last part remains on the table.  Just that.

A week ago, I came home from an errand to find Frieda utterly confounded by the miracle of birth.  She looked at me with frightened eyes as the second of three kittens tried to fight its way out of her tiny body.  Mama cats are generally the best of mothers, knowing what to do from beginning to end; but Frieda clearly knew nothing.  I brought her inside, made her comfortable, cut the cords on the second two kittens (the first had apparently been born dead).  To no avail.  Frieda wanted nothing to do with any of it.  Even my emergency purchase of tiny baby bottles and kitten-specific formula accomplished nothing.  By the next evening, the kittens were dead.

A sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, holds an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.

An especially sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, held an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.

Fear is said to be a gift, and I suppose it is a lot of the time.  Fear keeps us out of trouble, keeps us alive, by steering us away from danger.

But it costs a lot too.  Like help when we need it, and deliverance from things we just can’t handle—especially, things we can’t handle alone.

–LMJ, 4.14.16

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Fame

DB, hot as hell as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, 19--.

DB, hot as hell as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, 1989.  One of Jim Henson’s most delightfully scary productions, replete of weird creatures and surreal visuals.

David Bowie handled being famous about as well as anyone can in a hyper-nosy and envious age. Staying ahead of his own curve probably had a lot to do with it; he never held still long enough for anyone to catch and classify him, which is one smart way to approach any endeavor that necessarily involves being personally famous.

This is not a problem that most of us are ever likely to have, although a lot of people seem to aspire to it. Fame as an end in itself, fame for no particular reason, has become pathologically attractive in an age in which access to YouTube is all that’s necessary to get one’s 15 minutes.

For a slightly paranoid, aspiring hermit like me, this is the height of insanity. The nail that stands up is the one that the hammer will find, and thanks to the Internet, there are now a darn lot of hammers out there–most of them in the hands of those for whom trolling offers a quick and easy way of attracting the attention that is as close as they’ll ever get to achieving personal fame.  Likewise a ready means for the untalented and unaccomplished to lash out with impunity at those who are not so undistinguished.

Still, there are forms of fame that I find worth coveting—ones that would baffle the envy of even the most rapacious, ego-ridden troll. With that in mind, allow me to introduce Aponopelma johnnycashi—the Johnny Cash tarantula.

Apomophema johnnycashi, courtesy of the BBC. Not sure how big this guy is.

Aponopelma johnnycashi, courtesy of the BBC. They didn’t mention how big this guy is.  But I’m impressed.

A recent revision and tidying up of the family tree of the tarantula genus Aponopelma yielded the discovery of 14 new tarantula species in the American south. One of them occurs abundantly in the state of California in the area of Folsom prison, and the adult males of the species are stylishly dressed in black.

This juxtaposition caught the attention of a researcher on the project, one Dr. Chris Hamilton ( now attached to the Florida Museum of Natural history), who saw in it a unique opportunity to express his devotion to the Man in Black. The naming of creatures is a weighty and significant business—witness the prominence given the act in the Book of Genesis—and it’s not often that a fan can arrange such a lasting tribute to an artist. As monuments go, this one partakes of immortality as much as any such thing can. A fact that would not be lost on the man whose final encounter with his own mortality yielded such a profound result.

jc

I do see a certain resemblance between man and spider–an observation that I offer as a compliment, since I’m rather fond of spiders. Especially jumping spiders, which,  up close, look like the Cookie Monster.

The business of creation is often, very often, less a matter of finding what you need to work with than of using what you’ve got, and it takes more than most of us can muster to find in our own impending death the stuff of beauty and enlightenment. The songs that The Man sang at the end were heavy with the understandings that can come only when the time is short and the weight of memory and experience too pressing to be denied. That signature voice, weakened by pain and illness and loss, thereby gained a power that could have been achieved in no other way. It simultaneously wrings and seduces the heart.

We could stand to recover the old Greek concept of, and reverence for, the lyric poet—the definition that Homer had in mind when he described how Odysseus, having  cleared his house of the suitors who had come in his absence to  infest his estate and besiege his wife, found himself dealing with two of the defunct suitors’ hangers on. One was a priest, the other a poet.

For Odysseus, it was a no-brainer. He killed the priest but spared the poet. The priest, he said, only served the gods. But the poet had his gift from God.

It is not often that modern poets get back anything even close to what they give. But perhaps for once, the scale balances. Aponopelma johnnycashi, on its eight long hairy legs, will carry the memory of its namesake into unguessed quarters of time and place, memorializing a poet beyond the reach of all those small souls whose dreams of fame are ultimately as graceless as a baby’s tantrum and as vapid as a junkie’s smile.

LM Johnson, 03.14.16

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Being Naked

last leafThe word is—according to a certain ground hog—that spring will come early this year.

But I live in Texas. And here, spring is official only when those wisest of trees, the mesquite and pecan, leaf out. Normally, this doesn’t happen until well past Easter, so we’ll be looking at naked trees for a while yet—unless you count the live oaks, which can be depended on to keep some green in the landscape even in the dead of winter.

An old cemetery is apt to protect the ancient living as it is to give undisturbed repose to the dead. This live oak would need about three average sized people to get their arms around it. Its been where it is long enough to grow around some very old headstones.

An old cemetery is as apt to protect the ancient living as it is to give undisturbed repose to the dead. This live oak would need about three average sized people to get their arms around it. Its been where it is long enough to grow around some very old headstones.

They’re cagey trees; they do a quick striptease in the spring, almost simultaneously shedding their old leaves and putting on a new crop before going dormant for the summer. I think the druids, whose knowledge was said to come from their own Old World oaks, would have regarded the New World live oak with a particular reverence. In the winter forests of Europe, only those iconic pagan plants, the evergreen holly and ivy, the mistletoe and the pine, make visible the promise of continuing life during the cold months after the winter solstice. A being like the live oak that not only stays green year round, but has figured out how to keep the mystery of its ultimate self so well-hidden, would’ve blown them away.

live oak 2The architecture of a live oak is obvious only in the most ancient specimens, whose trunks have a muscular, antediluvian quality that speaks of the patience needed to endure time and heavy weather in mind-numbing quantities. But for most other trees—including other oaks—winter is the season of revelation. It is only then that the above ground structure of trees large and small can be fully seen and appreciated.

Looking up into the soaring latticework of empty branchesbig oak 1 against a winter sky is like standing under the arching vault of a Gothic cathedral. It is a world above the human world. By day, it is a realm of wind and silence punctuated by the occasional fretful bark of a squirrel or the cries of over-wintering birds. By night it is a star-hung eyrie for hunting owls, a fishing net that snares the moon. The rustle of leaves is absent, replaced by the creak of limbs and the dry rattle of big oak 2twig on twig. The summer chorus of singing insects is still.

The mysterious details that even a small tree can conceal are open to inspection. The song bird’s nest that was hidden at waist height by summer leaves is suddenly, astonishingly, there. How could you and every cat in the neighborhood have overlooked it?

Even now, this carefully constructed bundle of twigs could be overlooked, if it was in a bigger tree.

Even now, this carefully constructed bundle of twigs could go unnoticed, if it was in a bigger tree.

canvas Reading Tree 002

The Reading Tree. Original acrylic on canvas miniature by LM Johnson, 2016.

Most song birds do not reuse their nests. This one, it’s mission accomplished,  will fall apart in the course of a new year’s storms. The trees will recover their leaves and their mystery, giving shelter to all the creatures who live in their embrace and shade to those who contemplate our time and lives from the sanctuary of their roots.–LM Johnson, 02.17.16

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Scary Monsters

dragon portraitHe was born a springtime ago in Michigan. His mother took one look and decided not to bother raising him. The humans who took him in named him Dragon.

The Darwinian demands of survival can be very harsh, especially if you aren’t at the top of the food chain. In a whitetail, all the details count heavily; a pink nose would sun burn, too much white would make for high visibility to predators, and blue eyes are light sensitive. Mama deer made the only choice she could, that of not expending her limited resources on a child unlikely to carry her genes forward to offspring of his own. In her book, this child was a monster.dragon portrait2

The humans who rescued him had a different frame of reference. Humans value oddity, at least in other creatures. And we are as drawn to beauty as we are baffled by its definition.

Definitions of beauty are as slippery as they are varied, and the quest for beauty haunts and informs us as we pick through the mundanity of our lives, hoping for that which eludes us even as it draws us on. The recent arrival at local nurseries of the year’s first bare root roses has already suppressed my memories of rose bushes past to awaken in me that optimistic pursuit of beauty that possesses even the most under skilled gardener in the spring. I’ve sworn that if I give in to it this year, it will be to replace my dwindling collection of modern roses with the old roses that can survive almost anything. Within my frame of reference, toughness has its own unique beauty, although not everybody sees it.

Maybe what we see as beautiful must always be referenced in some intimate way to ourselves and our circumstances. Or perhaps it must be something that stands well outside us—a strangeness that would seem monstrous if it was any closer than arm’s length. There is a recent theory that the  gene that produces blue eyes in humans mutated only once in a single individual, someone with the dark eyes that remain the norm for our species. Two copies of the gene are needed to produce blue-eyed children, and the person who carried this anomaly passed it along to enough unsuspecting descendants to eventually result in blue-eyed babies.

I wonder how many of those first strange children were abandoned—or killed—by their horrified parents? And how many were taken in by strangers who were sufficiently removed to see beauty where those closest to it saw only a terrifying, intolerable difference?

dragon miniature canvas 001

Winter Stag. Original miniature acrylic on canvas by LM Johnson, 1.17.16

If Dragon the fawn lives to be fully grown, he will be a thing of astonishing oddity—and beauty. Fated, too, for a life in captivity, if he is to have a full one. Left unprotected, his beauty would likely summon that other response that beauty too often stirs in humans—it’s a too human thing that we do, so eager to possess beauty that we impoverish ourselves by destroying it.

LM Johnson 1.27.16

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Happy Trails

sadieSometime before the end of winter, I’m likely to be out another dog.

I don’t normally cry over such things; any life that has been long and well lived is not something to be mourned when it reaches its inevitable end. The dog in question, Sadie, is around 14 years old, a boxer mix. And if she came here as a neurotic, abused puppy, she has lived and will die as a well-loved pet and companion who regularly went fishing with her master, ate home cooked meals, and always had a warm place to sleep in the winter.

Of course, it’s hard to watch the life of anyone you care about end, even when the end is shaping to be a gentle one. Extreme old age is not generally a pleasant spectacle, unless you’re looking at a redwood tree.

Yet I can look at Sadie with something other than horror and pity even though she is so very thin now, still eating well but it doesn’t stick to her bones. Every rib is showing, old scars are resurfacing and she sleeps a lot. She has a hard time walking. But she is content and in no obvious pain, and watching her fade is like watching the end of a year as it subsides into fall and winter.

The spring always returns, although it is always a different spring. There will be flowers and birds, not last year’s flowers and birds, but others just as fine and beautiful. By next spring, I expect that the grass will have covered Sadie—I always get out the shovel and do the honors myself. And I will miss her, even though by then there may be another bright-eyed puppy tumbling along beside me, yapping and hassling the new senior dog who will be two years old and settling into his role as such.

The Long and Winding Road. Original watercolor, LMJ 1.11.16

The Long and Winding Road. Original watercolor, LMJ 1.11.16

But the trail of time and life always leads onward through the endless endings and beginnings that are its punctuation. It is memory that gives it its full dimension, I think. Will Sadie carry from her time here any memory of the ones who loved her? I can’t say, although I firmly believe that all dogs—and cats—go to Heaven.

But I know I will sometimes, not unhappily, retrace a certain pathway in my mind that I can walk, if I choose, forever. And she will be there, young again, with her sad gargoyle’s face and her lean and agile step, her fear of thunder and lightning, her patient gentleness and the wild strength that was always held in check by her gentle, fearful heart. The happy trails are always there, winding into eternity for those who would follow a pathway carved by love.–LMJ 1.11.16

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Fine and Quiet Part 2

leaf litter2The solstice has officially arrived, but the bright days of late autumn lingered here until as lately as a week ago. This is frequent in North Texas; well into December, we often enjoy a muted but pleasing echo of the extravagant colors that fall foliage takes in the Northeast. Leaves like freshly minted gold coins flutter and shower down from sycamores and elms, while a scattering of Chinese tallow and red oak leaves glow overhead like cold flames of burgundy and purple and pink, and underfoot like a careless scattering of ephemeral jewels. The show will be over only with the first hard freeze, leaving the bright red berries of nandina and pyracantha to put color into a landscape otherwise gone as 3leaveswheaten/sere as a coyote’s winter coat.

The pup and I continue our forays to various local graveyards, and his manners are indeed improving as he explores the world on a level that I can scarcely imagine. He is blessedly free of the thoughts that humans are likely to have in places and times like this; an inclination to take stock is an essentially  human leaning, and time a concept that we seem to share with no other creature. Nose tocisco1 the ground, the pup ponders the messages that the earth delivers– the scents that mark the mysterious passages of other animals and the workings of storm and drought and season. As he does his research, I do mine; I study the stones that mark the human passages that ended here, and contemplate the accompanying messages of the season.

Most of us hope, in some way, to outrun our mortality–to live on, if only in our names.  The quest for immortality is an old one, and humans ranging from the ancient Egyptians to the current Kardashians have invested a lot of time, effort, and resources generally in the hope of not being forgotten.  But this has not been without its downside.   Fame, if you’re around to know about it, will get you stalkers, trolls, lawsuits, parasitic hangers-on, and the cover of the National Enquirer.  Homer, wise in the ways that poets are apt to be, recounted that Achilles, having chosen  everlasting fame over a long life, wound up regretting his choice.

This stone and others like it was placed long after the fact. A final act of kindness and respect.

This stone and several others like it was placed long after the fact. You can see it as a bit of housekeeping in a very well-kept cemetery–or the last possible act of kindness and respect that can be extended to a long dead stranger.

There is no discernible inscription on this marker, an unworked piece of native stone about a foot high. The pattern of the lichens is as rich as the threading in a piece of brocade.

There is no discernible inscription on this marker, an undressed chunk of native stone about a foot high.But the pattern of the lichens is as rich as the threading in a piece of brocade.

But the elaborate concern that most of us show for out dead  bespeaks our humanity in intimate ways that are only incidentally public.  Our private griefs must have tangible expression; and the awareness of our shared fate binds us, prompting us to extend our caring to strangers.  What they are, we will be.  Where they have gone, we will follow.  We must care for them, if we hope to be cared for in our turn.

The dates on this handmade marker--a very simple bit of concrete work--are Depression era. Money was short--but love was not.

The dates on this handmade marker–a very simple bit of concrete work–are Depression era.  It looks to be the grave of a small child.  Money was short–but love was not.

I‘ve seen that in the last few weeks, even some of the older graves have grown festive. Silk poinsettias and wreaths sparkle among the stones. We have a hard time letting go, and holidays, those significant markers in our personal timelines, highlight the absences. It’s a time when we feel the urge to commune with those departed, even though any response can come only in memory and imagination, and will likely owe much to our regrets.

This, likewise, marks the grave of a child. I suppose the parents had more money--but no less grief.

This, likewise, marks the grave of a child. I suppose the parents had more money–but no less grief.

Time is the stream in which we all go a’fishing, and what we catch as we cast  into it is as uncertain as the end is sure.  Maybe it’s enough that we made the sort of impression that merited words on a  stone–one that someone will visit yearly in the first days of winter, bringing with the token of evergreen a hope of immortality and rebirth. —LM Johnson, 12.28.15

group concept

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Fine and Quiet

boneyard1

The cemetery at Acton, TX. Some of the following pix are from elsewhere. Out of respect for the living, I decline to be specific re: most names and locales.

Tim Burton, so I’ve read, grew up in a house that was immediately adjacent to a cemetery. That explains a lot.

I used to think that my own taste for picking through necropoli started at the age of five when a first run viewing of The Ten Commandments left me with an ambition to spend my life digging through the ruins of ancient Egypt. But now I think it began a lot earlier. Somewhere, I have a faded black and white photo of an approximately two year old me sitting on my paternal grandfather’s tomb stone.

Sometimes the story is implied by juxtaposition. This monument is most of the size of a VW beetle. It commemorates the death of an approximately 2 year old girl.

Sometimes the story is implied by juxtaposition. This monument is most of the size of a VW beetle. It commemorates the long ago death of an approximately 2 year old girl.

Grandpa Johnson died when his only child was somewhat less than two years old. Family lore spoke of an early morning accident in a fog-shrouded switching yard—my grandfather worked for the St. Lewis Railroad, somewhere in the neighborhood of Covington, Kentucky. Perhaps hearing this led me to understand that history—any history, all history– is ultimately a chronicle of personal lives and events, whether or not any of it gets serious press or makes its way into the official written record.

There is something decidedly Old World in a marker like the one in the foreground. But the New World is very immediately to its right as...

There is something decidedly Old World in a marker like the one in the foreground. But the New World is very immediately to its left as…

So it is history that concerns me as I take advantage of the fine quiet afforded by a boneyard to work on imparting manners to the pup in my life. At somewhat over 18 months, he is now a teenager, and as distractable and given to impulse as teenagers commonly are. For him, there aren’t many distractions in a graveyard—neither strangers to bug for attention, nor other dogs to challenge. But there are distractions aplenty for me.

...this: the last resting place of a Texas Ranger who saw Texas the country become Texas the State.

…this: the last resting place of a Texas Ranger who saw Texas the Republic become Texas the State.

Old cemeteries are the best inspiration for a story teller. Modern burying grounds are usually too orderly to be interesting, designed for the ease of maintenance that usually precludes the artful, sometimes fabulously lush monuments that our Victorian and earlier ancestors favored. I’m fortunate to live in an area that boasts a gratifying collection of old burial grounds, the stories they contain attested in the formulas comprised of dates and the frozen images of flowers and hands, angels and lambs.

This detail comes from a 19th century marker erected by the Woodmen of the World, who took seriously the need to see their members properly buried. I was told once that work this fine was commonly done by German and Italian craftsmen who learned their trade in their place of origin.

This detail comes from a 19th century marker erected by the Woodmen of the World, who took seriously the need to see their members properly buried. I was told once that work this fine was commonly done by German and Italian craftsmen who learned their trade in their countries of origin.

So as the pup starts and sniffs, tugs at the leash, and generally rejoices in his time on this earth, I meditate upon the evidence and mysteries before me, measure my own time against the critical dates inscribed, and try to pick stories from the cool/crisp air of the year’s, and my own, mid-autumn.–LM Johnson 12.1.15

Autumn.  Original watercolor by LM Johnson

Autumn. Original watercolor by LM Johnson

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Wish List

goblin1According to my DVM, an excellent lady, October 31is a good day—and night—to keep a black cat inside.

She knows as well as I do that the dark currents in human nature never require much summoning, and that the chariot steeds of the Norse goddess Freya—for such the black cat is—have served too long as a too ready lightning rod to bent and sadistic souls. Statistically, the domestic cat, regardless of color, is the most abused domestic animal. The black cat, with all its primal and atavistic associations, is doubly marked for negative attention. Even when Halloween is not on tap, it is best to keep temptation out of the reach of so many sinners.

This probably Victorian depiction of the Freya--who was equally the patroness of love and war--suggests that she harnessed an occasional tabby. But black cats seemed to be her preference--which was bad news for black kitties when Christianity came on the scene and proceeded to demonize their past pagan associations.

This probably Victorian depiction of the goddess Freya–who was equally the patroness of love and war–suggests that she harnessed an occasional tabby. But black cats seemed to be her preference–which was bad news for black kitties when Christianity came on the scene and proceeded to demonize their past pagan associations.  Still, every cat has his/her day.  Friday is Freya’s day.

But this little fellow would not in any case have been going out. Some of us, our own notions to the contrary, were not born to be wild.

He came to me a summer ago as a tiny, lost, but decidedly unwild kitten. And what he lacked in size he made up in attitude.

He stared down the lately acquired border collie puppy and climbed to places where no previous cat had climbed before. He squawked to be fed, fussed to be carried, and filled the still hours of the night with the mysterious sounds of scrambling feet and falling objects. Once, a nocturnal ninja run over a wall unplugged the freezer, resulting in the loss of several turkeys and a haunch of venison. He alternated between sticking himself to me like a deer tick and serving as a corporeal poltergeist. He became the resident Goblin, and he lived up to his name with innocent, perverse glee, particularly when he sneaked out for the first time.

On that and subsequent occasions, it was as if a switch had been thrown.

Once outside, the purring house kitty vanished into the wild kitty. Days would pass, and I would catch only hair-second glimpses of a golden-eyed black wraith who would flit through the backyard jungle, hanging just out of reach, pretending not to know me as he sparred and flirted with the outside cats. A lust for canned cat food and lunch meat would finally prove irresistible. Like a kid from Highland Park who had gone slumming in Oak Cliff, the allure of the gangsta life would yield at last to the prospect of clean sheets, room service, and gourmet meals.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the city of Dallas, be advised that while Neiman’s finds a nice chunk of its customer base in Highland Park, the life and economy of Oak Cliff rests more than a little on transactions in sex, controlled substances, and ammunition. But I have been told that the rents are cheap, if you can handle a certain amount of ground fire.)

The last wilding took place a week ago. He is inside now, chastened and still nursing the sprained leg that would have made him easy prey for an owl, a coyote, a dog, or a nasty human. Outside, on this Day of All Souls, (it is also, I think, the Day of the Dead—Dia de los Muertos) my other cats are sunning themselves.

They came to me in the winter as indubitably wild kittens, glad for steady meals but skittishly doubtful of the hand that extended the invitation. Now, they pony up for head rubs and tummy scratches. They are thinking that they want to come in.

goblin2Gazing down at the sleeping occupant of my lap, I note that the swelling in his leg is finally subsiding. His eyes open momentarily, and we look at each other across an evolutionary chasm, that which separates the latest made of the primates from the ancient, elegant tribe of the felinidae.

And yet whatever has been lost in our translation and separation, the shared  capacity to wish for things opposite, to imagine What if? , remains to bind us. A thing to consider as I contemplate my own dream of wilding, not knowing who, if anyone, will take me back when I want to come in.

LMJ 11.2.15

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Enter the Mantis

“Hey! You need to come down here and see this!”

My husband’s voice from below stairs. He is also laughing. So I put down my pen and come to see.

Confrontation.  Original watercolor/ink by LM Johnson

Confrontation. Original watercolor/ink by LM Johnson

In the middle of the living room, beneath the light of a ceiling fan, two cats are facing each other across a rumpled plastic grocery bag that has fallen onto the floor. But the cats aren’t looking at each other. Their attention is focused on the praying mantis that has taken up a defensive position on the high ground of the bag and is attempting to stand both of them off at once.

It is a quiet night in late summer, the time of year when a porch light will attract not only a blizzard of moths and late-hatched June bugs, but formidable visitors like mantises. This one probably flew in when the front door was opened, probably to admit a cat. It is dark brown and a bit over two inches long—about as big as mantises get in this part of Texas, and then only by the end of summer.

It will die with the first frost if something else doesn’t get it first. But whatever that something will be, this bug won’t go quietly. As a result, I am treated to a martial arts exhibition that would impress and humble Bruce Lee.

As I watch, the cats take turns dabbing at the mantis, which holds position while moving like a boxer to duck, weave and bob away from each strike. Even when both cats attack at once, the mantis fights a proper rondori, effortlessly slipping around and beneath both paws. Frustration occasionally makes one of the cats surge forward to use its teeth. Each time, the cat falls back in surprise, shaking its head after getting its nose raked by the insect’s claws.

Having seen little of the Chinese martial arts, I had often wondered how much of a role imagination rather than observation had played in the creation of the various schools named for animals. But now, regards at least one style, I know what the story is. This mantis’ fighting technique is as impeccable as its spirit. And its courage something to be honored. So after watching for a fascinated five minutes, I intervene. The cats watch without argument when I reach to catch the mantis between thumb and forefinger.

It responds in the only way that it can, dodging my hand adroitly, striking when I try to get a hold, escaping me as easily as it did the cats. When I finally catch it, it locks onto my fingers with not only its claws but its jaws and its other four legs. Surrender is not an option.

I walk to the door and open my hand. My teacher flutters into the night like a fallen leaf.

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Autumn Mantis. Original watercolor/ink by LM Johnson

LMJ 10.11.15

 

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Minutiae

deer hunt 001

R&R for the medieval upper classes. Detail from the Hours of Marguerite d’Orleans, c. 1425. Note the sizes of the deer and dogs relative to that of the hunters, and the dwarfed,  stylized treatment of the trees in the background.

m.1 001y theology teacher, Father Dave, used to say that God is in the details. It was not until many decades later that I learned that it is more usual—certainly among members of the legal profession—to say that the Devil is.

i.1 001 guess it depends on what you’re looking for or hoping to find. I like Father Dave’s version better. It always recalls me to a day in my teenage years when I spent several hours looking in wonder at a room full of paintings from the Middle Ages.

t.2 001hey were the first I had ever seen. By then, I knew something about the guys who worked on big canvases with big brushes and in oils, and in the course of this particular class field trip, I had made a point of checking out an adjacent gallery full of Renoir nudes. They were, as advertised, glorious. Shimmeringly vibrant in Auguste Renoir’s china painter’s palette of rosy pinks and verdant greens and candy yellows. Joyous confections of flesh and sunlight from the master Impressionist.

b.2 001ut those tiny medieval images, none bigger than a sheet of typing paper, each one lined on wood in egg tempera using brushes little bigger than a single hair, were a revelation of a very different sort. A few years later, in my junior year in college, an inspired history teacher would give me a more solid understanding of the world that their makers had sought to record. But when I first saw those paintings, they were like postcards from a place as unknown as someone else’s dreams.

t.3 001hey had the naïve quality of an artistic tradition innocent of the principles that I was only then learning—perspective, foreshortening, proportion. Houses and castles looked like toys on a toy landscape, one in which a man pushing a plow might be drawn as tall as the trees that overhung the field he worked. And every detail had been filled in; every leaf on a tree was delineated, every stone in a castle wall outlined, the embroidery on a knight’s tunic carefully, precisely inscribed. The effect was almost hallucinogenic, an obsessive, unrelenting attempt to render every minute detail, however trivial.

m.3 001y younger self marveled at the sheer patience of those medieval artists who had lived at a time when the average lifespan was around 30 years. I was wrestling then with my own vision of the world as it collided with my burgeoning itch to put images on paper and canvas. I would learn much later that even Renoir, coming to the end of his life, would insist that he had never really learned to paint.

b.1 001ut those mostly nameless artists had labored away, on wood and parchment, with a meticulous, single-minded certainty that had yielded what seemed to me an utterly charming fairy tale world, one populated by people and creatures of myth and romantic legend. Yet one of the most profound realities of that world is what drove them to produce what was in fact an utterly ironic result.

t.1 001he spiritual and social glue that held Medieval Europe together, through war, plague, famine and political upheaval, was the all-pervading Roman Church. An odd notion to really grasp for someone who lives, as I do now, in a town of fewer than a 1000, within which there are around eight assorted churches, none of them Catholic. I occasionally get flyers in the mail that advertise upcoming services and hint that my prospects of eternal bliss will be greatly enhanced if I show up.god.2 001

celtic b 001ut there wasn’t much in anyone’s life that the medieval church did not by some means control, whether through direct patronage or indirect influence. So, bowing to the Church’s claim to a monopoly on truth, and its insistence on the doctrinal correctness of artistic realism, my medieval counterparts produced a record of their world that was both delightful and  absurd. For in attempting to picture the world, God’s world, exactly as it was, they pictured instead a world that did not exist—not, at least, this side of Alice in Wonderland or a stout hit of acid.

m.2 001y various art teachers would more than occasionally make the point with me that any attempt to render the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but could only fail because human sensibilities, however fine, are necessarily limited, individual, and hedged in by personality.  The lesson would have other applications; serious writers also wrestle considerably with the truth, coming most often to an uneasy truce.

Medieval Miniature.  Original watercolor by LM Johnson, 9.15.15

Medieval Miniature. Original watercolor by LM Johnson, 9.15.15

t.4 001hat the perils and possibilities of freedom are perhaps equal is an understanding that’s awkward  even when uninformed by fear of a brush with the Inquisition.  But choice is everything, perhaps especially when seeking either God or the Devil.  And I’ve learned that it’s sometimes  pretty hard to know exactly who it is I’m looking for–or who it is I’ve found.–LMJ 9.15.15

(Note: the letter graphics that I have used are from Dover’s copyright free CD-ROM and book of Medieval Ornament.  The images were selected from 19th century reprints of assorted medieval manuscripts.)

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