Basil 2005 – 2018

It’s almost the Day of the Dead, and time to honor those who have left us this year. Here is my tribute to a family member I lost this year.

I first saw him when I was in graduate school living in a two story townhouse style apartment with my elderly tortoiseshell cat, Ginger. One night I was awoken by the sound of Ginger growling at the glass door that led out to the balcony from the bedroom on the second floor.

I got up to see what she was upset about. Out on the balcony, there was a handsome gray tabby cat with white legs and a white chest chewing on Ginger’s potted catnip. When he saw me looking at him through the door, he looked completely unconcerned and continued enjoying the catnip. Ginger didn’t even like catnip that much, but she growled at him as if to say, “The nerve of that guy! That’s MY catnip!”

Like many apartment complexes, there were several stray cats living around the place. Some of them were feral, but some of them were probably cats who previously had owners, but had been left behind either intentionally or unintentionally when the owners moved. Over the next several weeks, I started to pay attention to the gray tabby cat, and it started to seem more and more likely that he didn’t have an owner anymore, despite being friendly and already neutered. He was a bit skinny and got beat up by the local tomcats a lot. He also seemed to be outside all the time, day or night. He started coming to get catnip on my balcony regularly each night. This apartment complex was right next to a major interstate highway, and I worried that he’d get hit by a car sooner or later, like many of the stray cats did.

The day before Thanksgiving 2006 it was one of those days where it was going to be in the mid-80’s during the day, then that night we were getting a sudden cold front and it was going to freeze. When I was walking home to my apartment, the gray tabby greeted me and rubbed up on my legs. That moment I decided I shouldn’t leave him outside in the cold that night, and I picked him up and brought him inside.

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He spent the night downstairs in the living room while Ginger and I spent the night upstairs in the bedroom. Ginger wasn’t too happy about him being inside her apartment now, but she had already gotten used to him getting on our balcony each night, so at least he wasn’t a complete stranger to her.

I wasn’t sure what to call him. My balcony had several different potted herbs besides the catnip, so I started calling him Basil, since that was the one herb I had that also seemed to make a nice name. My sister came to spend Thanksgiving with me the next day, and she thought Basil was kind of a stupid name, but I told her it was just going to be temporary until I thought of something better.

Eventually I took him to a vet to get a checkup. I told them he was a stray cat I found and was thinking of keeping him. They scanned him for a microchip and he didn’t have one, so I said, “OK, I guess that means he’s mine now.” I got him vaccinated and microchipped, and the vet commented that it was hard to get the needle in because his skin was tough, which is another sign that he’s been living outside all the time for a while. They estimated his age as being about a year and a half old, so he was probably born in the spring or summer of 2005.

I’d often see him visiting other apartments and getting treats and pets from other people. That was probably how he’d been surviving. None of my neighbors said they owned him, though, and over time it became known in the apartment complex that he was my cat now. But obviously someone had owned him at some point. It remained a mystery how he came to be living out in the parking lot of the apartment complex.

He was even friendly towards dogs. I had neighbors who got a female pitbull puppy, and I’d come home to find that dog and my cat laying right next to each other on the lawn between our apartments. The dog’s owner even came to me one time and said, “I think your cat is friends with my dog,” and I told him yes, I had noticed that. He said that Basil came to visit his dog often and they’d hang out together.

Since he had been living outside for a while, he didn’t like being inside much at all. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of a litterbox at first and left some messes for me to clean up. As a compromise, I let him outside each morning before I left for class, and brought him in each evening when it got dark. Eventually he figured out my schedule, and would make himself hard to find in the evening when it was time for him to come in for the night. It felt like having a teenage son staying out late past his curfew.

Basil full of catnip

In the summer of 2008 I met the man who would eventually become my husband. Sometimes he’d help me search for Basil when he’d go missing. We spent many evenings searching the apartment complex for him shaking a bag of cat treats.  I remember one time we found him all the way at the other side of the apartment complex at the volleyball court, and he sent us on a wild chase trying to get him and make him come in.

In 2009 I graduated with my Master’s degree and moved into a rental house with my boyfriend, who already had two cats of his own, so we had to merge them together into one big cat family. He had an elderly Tonkinese cat named K.K., who used to be his store cat when he owned an antique store. He said he didn’t know what K.K. stood for because that’s just the name she came with when he adopted her. Maybe it was Kitty Kat? His other cat was Lily, a young black and white spotted cat.

The two elderly cats, Ginger and K.K., were too old for shenanigans and settled in together just fine, but the two young cats, Basil and Lily, had some serious issues getting along at first, complete with territorial peeing and occasional fights where blood was drawn. Ginger ended up passing away in 2011 at the ripe old age of 18, and eventually the remaining three cats settled their differences and figured out how to live together in harmony.

Basil and Lily

In 2012 we got married and bought a house on a large lot further out in the country, away from any busy roads. The girls remained mostly indoor cats with occasional brief excursions into the back yard, but Basil still loved being outside, climbing trees and getting on the roof, chasing little critters around, and lounging in the sun in the herb garden or on the brick BBQ pit. Whenever my husband or I did any work out in the yard, he was out there with us assisting. He remained an extremely friendly cat and loved it when I had barbecues for Midsummer and invited all my friends over. So many legs to rub on! So many people to pet him and tell him how handsome he is!

Basil Helping with Lights 001

K.K. passed away in autumn of 2012 at the age of 17 and we were down to two cats, but Basil and Lily had finally become good friends. In many ways, they had opposite personalities. Lily is afraid of most people and really only likes my husband. She kind of tolerates me, but if we have company, she always runs and hides. But she and Basil would chase each other around and play together. Each night when it was time to for Basil to come in, I shook the package of cat treats to lure him in, and then both of the cats would get treats. Eventually she learned that when it got dark, it was time for Basil to come in for treats time, so she would meow at the back door, or even come and find me and meow at me to let me know. Then I’d get the treats, open the back door and shake them, and when Basil came in, Lily would rub up against him in greeting before they’d both get their treats.

Basil in herb garden 1 (3)

Heathens say that cats belong to Freya, but I always thought Basil was more of a Loki’s cat with how much he got into trouble. He was a bit too smart and too fearless for his own good. At the apartment complex, he learned how to ring people’s doorbells to get them to give him treats. He figured out that doorknobs are how humans open doors, and would stretch himself out as tall as he could to grab the doorknob with his paws to ask to go out. I’m sure if the backdoor had a level-style doorknob instead of a round one, he would have figured out how to open it. One evening I couldn’t find him, and I finally heard his meowing coming from my neighbor’s garage, and had to awkwardly ring the doorbell and ask them to open the garage to let him out. He must have gone in there to explore earlier that day while they had it open and then got shut in.

He once got crystals in his urine that blocked his urinary tract and almost died. He had to have a catheter put in and stayed at the animal hospital for several days. Before that, he was as friendly with vets as he was with anyone else, but after that he became aggressive with them. His charts at the vet ended up with a warning on them, “Aggressive! Will bite and scratch!”

He also got into fights with other cats in the neighborhood, because of course he had to defend his territory and his family from these invaders. Many of our neighbors let their cats run loose outside most of the time, and many of them also don’t even get their cats fixed, so they get into territorial fights a lot. Sometimes he got injuries that got infected and he needed to go to the vet to drain them and get antibiotics.

He seemed to like dogs better than other cats and continued to make friends with neighbors’ dogs wherever we lived, but he was NOT happy when my sister-in-law visited with her two dogs, a blue heeler and a border collie mix. I guess he didn’t give them permission to come into his house! My sister also has cats, so her dogs are used to cats and view them as friends, but when they tried to greet Basil he stood his ground and arched his back and puffed himself up and was almost ready to strike. These dogs were several times bigger than him, and there were two of them, but I had to lock Basil in a back bedroom, for the dogs’ safety!

He was a real warrior of a cat, so maybe he was Freya’s cat too.

Basil on Shelf

Last year my husband and I started to notice that Basil was getting skinnier and Lily was getting fatter. Lily would eat all her food and then help herself to the rest of Basil’s, because Basil would only eat a few bites and then wanted to go back outside. We started trying different foods to see if he’d like other food better. We started trying to feed him in a separate room from Lily (which only freaked him out because he didn’t like being shut in a room). We took him to a vet, and they did a blood test and said his liver and kidney functions were just fine, and maybe he was just a picky eater. They asked me if he had been lethargic lately, and I told them a little, but I figured it was because he was 12 and starting to get older. The vet concluded that there was probably nothing wrong with him and sent us home.

By February his hip bones had started sticking out, so we took him to a different vet to get a second opinion. That vet ran a complete blood count on him, something the previous vet didn’t do, and found out he was severely anemic, and told us we have a very sick cat here. He also tested positive for FIV, which the vet said was very common in cats the fight with other cats. They said I would have to bring him in for twice a week injections of a drug that should stimulate his bone marrow to make more red blood cells. Since my husband and I both work during the day, I had to drop him off at the vet before work, and then pick him up after work, for something that only took a few minutes. I felt terrible leaving him at the vet so much.

Basil and Lily Feb 2018

He kept getting sicker, and by March the vet concluded that the drug was not working, and his bone marrow must have failed due to the FIV. Daniel and I did lots of research online and found out that getting a cat vaccinated for FIV can cause them to test positive for FIV. I had gotten that vaccination way back when I first took him in, because I knew his “lifestyle” put him at risk, so I got him vaccinated for pretty much every cat disease they had a vaccine for! We told the vet that, and he said there was another, much more expensive test they could do to see if he really had FIV, and also if he had something called “feline infectious anemia” that is caused by a bacterium.

We got the test, and he was negative for both of those infectious diseases, so the vet said he probably had cancer. They said to be sure they’d have to do some biopsies of his bone marrow, but at that point he was so sick and had already been at the vet so much that I didn’t feel like having the vet drill into his bones to confirm that he had a disease that wasn’t curable anyway. My mom recently had one of her cats die of cancer, and she had been on steroids for her last few months, which really helped her feel better, even though it doesn’t actually do anything to cure the disease. We asked the vet for some steroids to give Basil.

Basil wasn’t completely back to normal on the steroids, but it did seem to make him feel better. He became a little more active and ate a little more. Easter was April 1, and I had my sister-in-law, her husband, and my parents –in-law over for Easter dinner, and Basil got a lot of petting from them and seemed to have a good time.

But the steroids only worked for a couple of weeks, and then he started to go back to the way he was before even with the steroids. I started to try to mentally prepare myself for the reality that Basil wasn’t going to make it this time, but my husband had more trouble accepting that. He did a lot of research online and found out that there are other infectious diseases that can cause anemia in cats, so we got the vet to give us an antibiotic to give him along with the steroids, even though the vet said he doubted they would work because those other diseases were very rare. The steroids and antibiotic were both liquid medications we had to force-feed him with a syringe at home, and they must have tasted terrible because he’d struggle and then foam at the mouth when we gave him the medicine. We had to do that twice a day, every day.

We started keeping him shut up in a spare bedroom during the day while we were both at work and at night while we were asleep. We put food, water, a bed, and a litterbox in there all close together so he could get to them easily. He had gotten to the point where he stumbled around when he walked. I fed him meat baby food that he could lap up because he had trouble chewing hard food.

The medications didn’t seem to be working, but my husband was having a much harder time accepting that it was time to give up on Basil. I found a vet that does home euthanasia, so we set up an appointment for the afternoon of Sunday, April 15. All day Saturday and Sunday we let him lie outside in the herb garden in the sun, which was all he ever wanted to do. My husband wondered if cats understand what death is and if he knew his time was short, and so he wanted to do as much lying in the sun as possible. I guess there’s no way to know for sure.

And maybe all that sunshine did him some good, because Sunday morning he seemed to perk up a bit, and Daniel became doubtful again that we were doing the right thing. He ended up calling the home euthanasia vet and cancelling, telling the vet we were going to give him a few more days.

But by the time we came home from work Monday evening, he could hardly walk at all. I went to bed that night completely expecting to find him dead the next morning.

The next morning, April 17, he was still alive, but just barely. Daniel and I both called in sick to work. If we held baby food or cream up to his mouth, he would lick a little, but then would sort of nod off and his face would fall into the food, and then he’d jerk awake again and try licking some more. Sometimes he’d try to get up and walk and only take a few steps before lying down on the floor exhausted and breathing heavily like he had just had a hard run.

We called the vet again, and he said he could get there in about an hour. We put Basil in his bed and put him in the herb garden in one of his favorite spots. The vet had two injections to give him, one that would render him unconscious, and then a second one that would stop his heart. We petted him as he got the first injection. When he was completely unresponsive, he got the second injection, which actually made him start gasping and coughing, which bothered me a little. Then he let out one more big sigh, and death came over him.

Daniel didn’t want to bury him right away, so we put him back in his room, still in his bed. We left the door open so that Lily could go in there with him. I don’t know if she understood what was wrong with her big brother or not, but she kept vigil over him for a while. I set my Freya statue and my Odin candle in there on a table. Daniel is always reluctant to bury our cats right away, just in case they are maybe not really dead. We both know that’s an irrational thought, but I think waiting until rigor mortis sets in and they really start to look dead helps with closure. We buried Basil after work that Thursday. We put his grave under a Mountain Laurel tree just outside our ritual circle in the backyard, near where K.K. is buried under an American Beautyberry tree. The weather had started getting warmer, and the mosquitoes were starting to come out, so Daniel put out a lot of citronella candles and torches. We had Basil’s funeral by the light of those torches, listening to the sounds of night creatures like Chuck-wills-widows starting to come out. We wrapped him in the red fleece blanket from his bed, with one of his favorite toys, some catnip, and some cat treats as grave goods.

I still feel horribly cheated that he died that young. I expected him to make it until at least 17 or 18 like our other cats had. I still wonder if we would have been able to get him better medical treatment if we had gotten a proper diagnosis sooner. During his funeral Daniel apologized to Basil that he might have put him through unnecessary suffering by giving him those medications he hated so much for the last few weeks of his life. It’s just so hard to know what the right thing to do in this situation is. In some ways, the death of pets is easier because euthanasia is an option, so you don’t have to wait and wait and wait for nature to take its course, like how I had to just wait and watch my dad slowly die of dehydration in that hospice. But on the other hand, euthanasia means you have to decide yourself when your loved one is going to die, and pets can’t tell you when they want you to do it.

 

For a few weeks after Basil died, Lily continued to meow at the backdoor when it got dark to let me know it was time for Basil to come in and get his treats. She’d look confused when I didn’t open the door and just gave her some treats. She’d eat her treats, then go back to the door and start meowing some more because Basil still wasn’t in yet.

Lily started spending all day in Basil’s room, which probably still smells like him. She lies in the same spot he was laying the night before he died, before we took him outside to wait for the vet.

It took a while to get used to coming home to a quiet house, instead of coming home to Basil greeting me at the door. Lily eventually stopped meowing at the back door each evening, but she never goes outside at all anymore, so I had to get used to working in the garden with no cat.

I waffle about getting a new cat. Lily seems to get no exercise at all anymore, so maybe getting her a new friend would do her some good. For all I know she does nothing but lie in that room all day when we’re at work. But I decided I would at least wait until after the Wild Hunt has come to collect Basil’s soul and take him away.

Is there such a thing as Cat Valhalla? Can Basil feast on cream and tuna and catnip with the gods now? He did fight all the way up until the end. Even that last day, when it was clear his anemic body was struggling just to get him enough oxygen to stay alive, he was still trying to get up and walk.

I know it’s been six months, but it’s still hard to believe he’s actually gone. He was an especially good cat. I know, all my cats have been especially good cats, but he was especially good. Even though his life was shorter than I would have liked, I hope I at least managed to give him a better life than he would have had if I had not taken him in 12 years ago. He was my buddy through graduate school and getting married and buying a house and pretty much becoming an adult. George Carlin said “life is a series of dogs,” but my life has been a series of cats.

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Alfred has gone with the Wild Hunt

I waited as long as I could, but Sunday it was time for my Butzemann, Alfred, to leave for the Wild Hunt.

My husband still wasn’t happy about the idea, but I told him again that Alfred wants to leave, and if we don’t burn him by Tuesday, he’ll just leave anyway and leave his empty body behind. And besides, since I stuffed him with a stem from a frost-killed tomato plant from last year, I guess that means his soul was the soul of a tomato plant. Tomato plants usually only get to live for one year, so he got to live an extra year as a Butzemann.

Thankfully, it had finally gotten cold outside, or at least cold by Texas standards. In early October we had still been getting highs in the 90’s, so it really didn’t feel like Wild Hunt season. But just in time, we got a cold front that gave us nighttime lows in the 40’s. You know how cold air has a smell? I’m not sure what that smell is, scientifically, but it definitely has a smell, and just like how I associate the smell of rain with Thor, the smell of cold air means the Wild Hunt is in town.

Sunday morning I still had some garlic and onions left to plant, so Alfred helped me with that. That means I got to plant almost all of my winter garden before Alfred left. It’s a little tricky to adapt these traditions to my local climate, but I think it will work out having the Butzemann created right before it’s time to plant warm-weather plants (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, etc.), and burned right after planting my cold-weather plants (kale, collards, carrots, radishes, garlic, onions, etc.). That way he can participate in both growing seasons.

Alfred and I also sat down together and went over the seeds that I plan on planting next year, which will be looked after by his son. I’ll stuff his son with the stems of the tomatoes that Alfred watched over this year.

I decided I should make him a special dinner before he went, and since he’s a Texas Butzemann, I made a big pot of chili. That’s the thing that Texans always want to eat when it finally gets cold. I made it the long way with stew meat, dried beans, and chili powder made from grinding whole dried peppers (instead of the shortcut way with ground meat, canned beans, and pre-made chili powder – which is fine in certain situations, but not for special occasions). I cooked it for about 3 hours. Yes, I know some people say real Texans don’t put beans in chili, but I’m born and raised in Texas and I always do. I don’t like the idea of eating a big bowl of meat without any vegetables in there, and beans are one of the Three Sisters, and I got some very good quality beans that I knew would get nice and tender. Oh, and speaking of the Three Sisters, I also put some pumpkin puree in there to thicken it, and that was pumpkin that I grew in my garden. The sweetness from the pumpkin smooths out the spiciness without people noticing it has pumpkin in it.

I also made cornbread in a cast iron skillet to go with it. That’s the best way to make cornbread! So all three sisters were represented (along with peppers and tomatoes which are sort of honorary fourth and fifth sisters, or maybe cousins, or something like that).

I set three places at the table, one for me, one for my husband, and one for Alfred. He got his share of chili and cornbread and some Shiner Bock beer, a local brand. But then when dinner was over, it was time for him to go.

My husband made a fire in our patio fire pit. He put some juniper in there which smells really good when it burns, keeps the mosquitoes away, and burns really hot. He built up the fire so that it would be really big and hot to… you know… make it quick.

I also came up with an idea for one last thing Alfred could do for us that I hope isn’t taboo or something. Since my husband and I both have dead loved ones we remember at this time of year (both human and feline), and since Alfred was leaving to join up with the Dead, maybe he could deliver some notes to them for us. We wrote some notes for our dead loved ones and tucked them into his jeans.

Then it really was time for him to go. The fire was roaring. He was sitting on the bench on the porch and seemed ready. I got two sticks from the brush pile and used them to lift him up under his arms to stick him in the bonfire. Thankfully, he was engulfed in flames almost instantly. In fact, later I noticed I had singed my eyelashes putting him in! The flames gave off some interesting colors like blue and green before going back to orange. My husband and I sat on the bench watching the fire until it burned down to embers. I noticed there were tears in my husband’s eyes. There may have been some in mine too. Maybe some of the smoke got in our eyes.

Then we went inside and watched The Book of Life before going to sleep. I’d been wanting to watch that movie for a while, and this seemed like a very appropriate time.

I kept the ashes from the fire and will sprinkle them on the garden this weekend.

Raising a Horn for Tom Petty

Monday morning, as usual, I had the local news on while I was getting ready for work. I was brushing my teeth when I noticed they were playing footage of Tom Petty and thought, “Oh, he must be putting on a benefit concert for hurricane victims or something like that,” because that’s the kind of thing he’d do, or maybe he was going to be at the Austin City Limits music festival coming up soon.

And then I saw the headline at the bottom of the screen and realized that Rockalfheim, the realm of the mighty rock and roll dead, had suddenly and unexpectedly gained another member. Again.

I’ve had a busy week, so it took a while for it to sink in. Tom Petty never inspired the same passion some other musical artists did. On the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band I watched a documentary about how musically complex and brilliant it was. No one would ever make a documentary like that about Tom Petty. After David Bowie and Prince died, the television and internet were full of analyses of their musical genius. Tom Petty wasn’t that kind of musician.

He just wrote good songs that made you happy when you heard them. When I saw him in interviews, he didn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in his body. He talked about how it only took him 30 minutes to write one of his most well-known songs, “Free Fallin,” and about how most of his songs only have four chords anyway, so any beginning guitarist could play them.

When I was a teenager, Tom Petty was “comfort music” for me. My generation’s music was Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. When I was depressed, I’d put on that music to wallow in misery.

But sometimes I didn’t feel like wallowing, so the CD I’d put in was Into the Great Wide Open. My dad got that album when it first came out, and I liked it so much and kept “borrowing” it so much, he let me have it. I still have it.

Since his death, I have seen articles praising Tom Petty for his storytelling ability, and I completely agree. He was a modern day Bard or Skald. Sure, his songs were musically simple, but songs like “Into the Great Wide Open,” feel like the plots of a whole movie or novel. He took well to the MTV era because his songs already evoked so much imagery.

But I think the reason I always found Tom Petty’s music comforting was that his songs felt optimistic, but at the same time acknowledged that life was hard. But just because life is hard doesn’t mean you just give up. You pick yourself up and keep going anyway. Maybe “I Won’t Back Down” is a more famous example, but when I was a kid, I really loved “Learning to Fly.” I remember listening to this song over and over again.

Well some say life will beat you down, break your heart, steal your crown, so I’ve started out for God knows where. I guess I’ll know when I get there.

I haven’t gotten to go to a lot of concerts in my life, but I did get to see Tom Petty back in the early 00’s. The boyfriend I had at the time was more of a heavy metal fan, but he knew I liked Tom Petty, so he surprised me once by getting us tickets to go see him when he played the Coca-Cola Starplex in Dallas. With the possible exception of when I got to see Paul McCartney, it was the most enjoyable concert I’ve been to. We got pretty good seats (unlike when I saw McCartney or the Rolling Stones), and the Wallflowers opened. I didn’t even know that until Jacob Dylan walked out on stage and started singing “One Headlight,” so I was pleasantly surprised to get a bonus band that I liked.

But Tom Petty sure knew how to put on a fun show! The venue was small enough to feel a bit more intimate than the huge stadium I saw in the Stones in. And he did that thing where he turned his songs into a sing-along for everybody.

My favorite part of the concert was when he sang “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” and on cue, he let the whole audience sing the chorus for him.

Let’s get to the point! Let’s roll another joint, and turn the radio LOUD! I’m too alone to be proud, and you don’t know it feels to be me.

That song came out in 1994, and that reminds me of another thing about Tom Petty I noticed a long time ago. There was some kind of timelessness about his music that he could keep going through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s still making hits. A lot of artists who got their start in the 70’s didn’t manage to do that. Even if they were still creating albums and touring by the 90’s, people came to their concerts to sing along with the old familiar hits from the 70’s, not the songs that came out recently.

I have a feeling that as long as people are strumming guitars, they’ll be strumming Tom Petty songs.

So it’s the end of the line for Charlie T. Wilbury Jr. Next stop is Rockalfheim, where two of his Wilbury brothers are already waiting for him, along with Prince, and David, and Freddie, and John, and Jimi, and many others…

Maybe somewhere down the road a ways, you’ll think of me, wonder where I am these days. Maybe somewhere down the road where somebody plays Purple Haze…

I don’t want to burn my Butzemann.

Back in February I made my first Butzemann, Alfred.

And then about a week before the Autumn Equinox I remembered: I’m going to have to burn him soon! And I was supposed to have been giving him offerings this whole time!

I did give him offerings of coffee regularly at first, and took him out to show him the plants, especially when I was planting my spring garden, but then summer got pretty crazy with me teaching summer classes, and then we went on vacation, and at some point in all that I started neglecting him.

While having coffee with my husband, I brought it up. “I feel bad that I’ve been neglecting Alfred lately, especially since he’s going to die soon.”

My husband goes, “WHAT? What do you mean he’s going to die?”

I told him, “Remember? We have to burn him some time between the Equinox and Halloween.”

He insisted I never told him I was going to burn him, but I’m pretty sure I did. Then he suggested that we keep him for one more year, since he hasn’t been getting his coffee, but I told him about how if we keep him past Halloween, his soul will leave to join the Wild Hunt anyway, and an evil spirit will inhabit his body.

Ugh, when I first made him, I knew I’d get attached and burning him would be hard, but it’s turning out to be harder than I thought. The Autumn Equinox is already a sad time for me anyway. Four years ago on the equinox is when one of our cats died AND I found out my dad had terminal cancer. So ever since then in late September I’m reminded of that.

And when I honor the Dead on Halloween, I have started to notice how my altar to the Dead has started to grow, and realize it will only continue to grow for the rest of my life as I add more and more loved ones (human or otherwise) to it.

So I know my little Butzemann is just a doll, but suddenly he symbolizes the inevitability of Death. And my husband saying maybe we can keep him a bit longer reminds me of people saying maybe our cat would be OK and will live a bit longer or maybe my Dad would be OK and pull through his illness. But nope, that didn’t happen.

I did tell my husband that I will make another Butzemann next year, who will be Alfred’s son. That made us feel a little better, but still, it’s not the same.

And I did decide that I’m going to wait as long as possible to burn him. I’m definitely in no hurry to do it. I’ll probably end up doing it on October 28 or 29. My excuse is he has to stick around long enough to watch me plant all my fall/winter crops. In Texas, this is the beginning of the winter growing season. I already took him with me to watch me plant the kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and lettuce. He still needs to help plant the carrots, beets, turnips, garlic, and onions.

But then once all that’s done, I guess it’s time for him to go.

Tilikum 1981 – 2017

tilikum_credit_paul_wigmore

I grew up in the Dallas area, and when I was a kid, one of the main places we went for summer vacation was SeaWorld of San Antonio. We went many times, and I loved it. I was obsessed with whales and dolphins as a kid. I had posters of them on my walls. I had plush toys. When I grew up, I wanted to be a Sea World trainer so I could swim with them.

As I got older, my feelings about it started to change. I watched nature documentaries about wild orcas and started to learn more about what they’re like. I saw footage of them hunting seals by tipping icebergs the seals were on, sliding out onto the shore to grab them, and tossing them in the air before killing them. It was a lot different than the “cute and cuddly gentle giant,” image that SeaWorld was trying to portray. David Attenborough made them look more like the lions of the ocean than pandas. And then there was their intelligence, that different groups of orcas had different cultures and spoke different languages, and that they lived in close-knit, matriarchal family groups.

I took another trip to SeaWorld with my family as a teenager, and this time I saw the Shamu show for what it was, a Siegfried and Roy style circus act with orcas instead of tigers. I didn’t enjoy it, and that was the last time I went to SeaWorld.

And then in 2010 I heard about the trainer in Florida, Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by one of the orcas there. They tried to spin it as being her fault, but I always thought that was unfair. After all, she was living the life I had dreamed of as a kid. She got to swim with the orcas. I’m sure she loved them. After all, you don’t get a job like that if you don’t love animals. She wasn’t the one who had captured them from the wild. She didn’t own them. But finally one of the orcas lashed out. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her, maybe he did, but when an animal that weighs several tons has a temper tantrum, a little tiny human doesn’t stand a chance. Circus elephants and tigers have been known to “turn on” their trainers, sometimes killing them. Circus orcas doing the same thing shouldn’t be surprising.

When Blackfish aired on CNN, I watched it with great interest. I found it very moving. I remembered how much I loved SeaWorld as a kid, and how badly I wanted to be a dolphin trainer someday, and how I had no idea how wrong it was. I had figured out it was wrong before I saw the documentary, but the documentary showed me that it was even worse than I thought. Of course, SeaWorld keeps saying that Blackfish is misleading propaganda and their whales are very happy, but they don’t have any supporting evidence refuting the specific claims in the documentary, so as a scientist that makes me very skeptical of their position.

At least they’ve promised to stop breeding orcas, even if reports of them ending their orca shows were greatly exaggerated (they merely reduced some of the more circus-like aspects of the shows). I do hope they keep their promise that they won’t breed any more of them. Maybe now that their main stud male is dead, that will make it more likely that they’ll stop.

I have mixed feelings about keeping wild animals in captivity. Captive breeding, when done responsibly, has saved some species from extinction, and I do think there is something to be said for captive animals acting as “ambassadors” for their species to inspire people to support the conservation of animals in the wild. After all, I went from being a zoo-loving kid to perusing an actual career in biology. Seeing pictures of some of these animals is just not the same as seeing them in person.

But some species do better in captivity than others, and I think there are some that just shouldn’t be kept in captivity at all. Killer whales are one of them. There’s just no way to come anywhere close to mimicking their natural environment. These are animals that roam for thousands of miles in the open ocean. On top of that, whales are one of those species of animals that are so intelligent, with such complex lives and societies, that they seem more like “non-human people” than animals. I feel the same way about elephants and (other) great apes. It just seems weird to “own” a being like that, as if it were a pet dog or cat. Captivity is the natural habitat of domesticated animals, but keeping cetaceans, elephants, and apes in captivity feels like it’s bordering on slavery.

Now, in the case of elephants and apes, they are endangered species. In the wild they are under constant threat of being killed by poachers. Maybe having some in captivity is necessary for their conservation. But in that case they should only be kept in the best conditions possible, with plenty of room to roam, plenty of activities to keep them from getting bored, and a good social group. If a facility can’t provide that, they shouldn’t have them.

I don’t see any benefit at all for keeping orcas in captivity. They’re not endangered as a species (though some populations are). Even if they were endangered, I don’t know of any captive orcas that have been bred in captivity being successfully released to the wild, so breeding them in captivity wouldn’t help with that anyway.

As for the educational aspect, SeaWorld educates people about orcas as well as Siegfried and Roy educations people about tigers, or Barnum and Bailey educates people about elephants. In other words, they don’t. If they teach people anything about these animals, it’s that it’s fun to teach them to do tricks for our entertainment. I don’t think that’s a good message to teach.

Modern humans are very cut off from the natural world, and I think one symptom of that is how we view dangerous wild animals. Like many top predators, such as wolves and bears, orcas were once seen as an evil animal. It’s where the name “killer whale” comes from. Then in the 1960’s people started capturing them live and found out they can be trained to do tricks. That changed people’s view of orcas from vicious predators to cute and cuddly and safe to pet and ride. It’s a type of black-and-white thinking. An animal has to be either good or evil. Wolves were evil, so we exterminated them, and now they’re all over t-shirts and posters and wall calendars. We exterminated grizzly bears, and then we have people like Timothy Treadwell wanting to pet them and give them cute names, until he gets eaten by one. Even though Roy of Siegfried and Roy was almost killed by one of his tigers, he still insists to this day that the tiger wasn’t really trying to hurt him. So which is it? Are these animals our friends or our enemies?

The truth is that wolves, bears, tigers, orcas, apes, and elephants are all powerful, dangerous animals. They are not pets. People shouldn’t be cuddling them and petting them and riding them and having them do tricks. But they’re also not evil demons who need to be exterminated. They should be respected for what they are and allowed to live their lives as naturally as is still possible in this human-dominated world. Sometimes I wonder if animals that are dangerous to humans have a place in this world anymore, or if they’re destined to only exist in zoos and go extinct in the wild. If (or when) that happens I think we’ll really lose something. These are animals that rival us, as top predators in the food chain, or as intelligent beings with complex societies, or both. They teach us that not all of nature can or should be controlled by humans.

Tilikum was taken away from his family as a small child and lived the rest of his life in a completely unnatural environment. Even after he murdered three humans, the humans kept using him in their shows, and used him as a stud to sire 21 children that would also be destined to live their short lives in concrete pools.  In the wild, male orcas live to be about 60 years old, but Tilikum was about 35 when he died of drug-resistant pneumonia. He would have lived such a different life had he remained in the ocean where he belonged.

Maybe there is some sort of Orca Vallhalla, and Tilikum is there now, swimming freely with his ancestors with no more concrete walls in his way. I just hope one good thing comes from his life, and that it leads to an end to orcas in captivity.

Celebrating Allelieweziel this year

This year Halloween/Samhain/Allelieweziel is going to be a private thing with my husband and I. No parties. No festivals. Much of that is for practical reasons; right now we are having to avoid spending any money that’s not absolutely necessary, but I think it might be good to have a quiet Day of the Dead this year.

Since Oct. 31 is a Monday, I think I’ll cook a special meal on Sunday and honor the Dead then. Monday we will be giving out candy to the Trick-or-Treaters and probably watching Young Frankenstein honor Gene Wilder who joined the Ancestors this year.

This year I think I will try to do a little more of an Urglaawe-influenced observance. That means honoring Wudan (Odin), Frau Holle, and maybe even Ewicher Yeeger as they start the Wild Hunt.

Of course, Odin is already one of my main deities, but the other two are less familiar. I’m interested in learning more about them. Several months ago my husband found an old sickle that looked like it had been lying around for a very long time. He put resin over the cracked old wooden handle and polished up the metal blade to remove the rust. An old sickle is an odd thing to find, so I took it to be a sign, and added it to my altar as something for Holle.

I’ve been doing some research on Allelieweziel, and read that it can be celebrated as a 12 day holiday that doesn’t end until November 11. Well that’s nice. That means if I don’t have time to do everything I’d like to do next Sunday, I’ll have some more time.

Ever since my dad died, I’ve been thinking about Death a lot more than I ever did before. Sometimes it really troubles me. It feels like my life is wooshing by faster and faster. Even though I’m in my 30’s, and people don’t usually call you “middle-aged” until you are in your 40’s or 50’s, I’m already over half as old as my dad was when he died. I already started getting some strands of gray hair a couple of years ago. (And I didn’t pluck them! They’re still there. I earned those gray hairs, dammit! Even if they do remind me that I’m not a kid anymore.) It’s good to remember that we are mortal, but I think sometimes I let it depress me too much, especially when I think about my loved ones eventually dying. I have yet to find the right balance between the awareness of my own mortality being a motivator to live life to its fullest without letting it get me too depressed.

In Urglaawe, the Wild Hunt is Holle gathering up the souls of the Dead, and then on Walpurgisnacht she grinds them in her mill so they can go on to the next life. I like that better than the idea of Vallhalla, which I always thought seemed too Christian-influenced. The thing is, once you’re ground in the mill, what is left of you? Is it anything recognizable as being you anymore? The person you were still becomes just a memory.

My Ancestry.com DNA Test Results

I know very little about my ancestry. I know some families keep records of their family histories going back generations, but my family is just not that kind of family. More often, my family is the kind that doesn’t like to talk about (or to) other family members, living or dead, keeping secrets from each other and keeping those skeletons firmly in the closet. Otherwise that means we’d have to talk about the abuse, alcoholism, or mental illness that lurks in there, and we don’t want to talk about that.

But I think this is one of the reasons I was attracted to Heathenry. My lack of knowledge about my family history gives me a feeling of rootlessness, while Heathenry is all about connections through the Web of Wyrd to your ancestors, the land, the gods, and everything else.

When I was a kid I once asked my mom what nationality I was, and she told me I was half German, at least a quarter English, and the rest maybe some Scottish and French. I think this was based on the surnames of my ancestors going back only a couple of generations. My mom was born in Germany and moved to the United States as a small child. My dad was born in Oklahoma, but had an English surname, so he must have been of English descent. That’s all I knew. So getting into Heathenry I assumed I was mostly German and English and prioritized what scant information I could get on Anglo-Saxon and Continental German practices.

Most Heathens I know are very focused on Scandinavia and I have some friends who practice Irish paganism. That’s all great, but my mom was born in Germany, so I’m a German-American, right? So that’s the traditions I should focus on if I want to revive the spiritual practices of my ancestors.

Yet I was still curious about my ancestry, so when I heard DNA tests were now commercially available at an affordable price, I knew I wanted to do that. Since I only know the names of my grandparents and no further back than that, who knows what else could be lurking back there? My dad was from Oklahoma. There are a lot of Native Americans in Oklahoma. My dad had dark hair and difficulty growing much of a beard. Sometimes there was speculation there was Native American lurking back in his ancestry somewhere, which would have been really funny given how his parents were pretty racist. But who knows?

So I got a DNA test from Ancestry.com. All I had to do was spit in a vial, seal it in a special bag, send it in, and then wait a few weeks for them to do my tests and email me the results.

Here are my results:

Scandinavia 25%

Great Britain 23%

Europe West 16%

Ireland 14%

Italy/Greece 8%

Iberian Peninsula 6%

Europe East 4%

Finland/Northwest Russia 2%

European Jewish <1%

Caucasus <1%

Well, I’m all European, unless you count the Caucasus as Asian, even though “Caucasian” is used as a synonym for “white”. That region includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, etc., which I think a lot of Americans would not consider to be white. That just goes to show how the whole American concept of whiteness is dubious.

As a scientist, I appreciate that Ancestry.com had a long explanation on their website about what these numbers actually mean and how many salt grains they should be taken with, though I’m sure most people taking this test will have no idea what it means, if they even bother to read that stuff at all. I just gave you the averages on my list above, but each of these ethnicities came with a range and error bars. Interestingly, of my four “dominant” regions, only Scandinavia and Ireland had error bars that didn’t include zero, which I guess means I definitely have at least a little DNA from those places, right? Great Britain and Europe West, the places I thought the majority of my ancestry was from, hand ranges of 0% – 51% and 0% – 43%, respectively (Scandinavia had 1% – 49% and Ireland had 1% – 28%).

Interestingly, by modern American standards, I’m “pure white”, but by the standards of my pre-Christian ancestors, I’m of mixed race. Until very recently, Irish people were considered a different race from English or Nordic people. I really wasn’t expecting to have Irish ancestry. Scandinavian wasn’t as surprising, just because those guys really got around, but I didn’t expect it to be at the top of my list. That’s where Western Europe was supposed to be.

After my main four regions, there’s Iberian and Italy/Greece. Perhaps I can blame the Romans for that. They really got around too. And then last I may have a few people from a little further East apparently, but that’s about it.

As for its implications for spiritual work, I guess it’s not so bad I’ve been borrowing from the Scandinavians after all, even though I feel like I have no cultural ties to Scandinavia. When I think of Scandinavian culture, if I want to get away from the Heathens who like to play Viking, all I’m really left with is Ikea and delicious meatballs and Abba. Not like there’s anything wrong with that. Abba had some catchy tunes.

Then there’s Ireland. That’s a very interesting place. I have several friends who are really into Ireland. They’re the sorts who really can trace their ancestry all the way back to whatever Irish clan they came from. Celts in general seem to be a very proud people, maybe because they have been historically oppressed. Ireland has some very interesting folklore and traditions, and then Irish-Americans continued with some very interesting traditions of their own. Maybe I need to take another look at Ireland.

But should I do what this guy in this commercial did, and “give up my lederhosen for a kilt?”

No, I still have fuzzy yet fond memories of my German immigrant grandmother, even though she died when I was only 4 years old. She was my only real tie to any sort of “old country,” with her thick accent and how she’d eat liverwurst straight out of the casing with a spoon. You have to be REALLY German to do that! She got me eating it, which now I realize is a really weird thing for a small child to eat, but I would always spread it on German rye bread from the German bakery to make a sandwich. I always liked bratwurst and sauerkraut when I was a kid too. Comfort food!

That kind of stuff matters. Nurture matters at least as much as nature, if not more. That’s why I think it’s OK for dark skinned people to be Heathens, especially if those dark-skinned people grew up in a country founded by European colonialism, which covers quite a lot of dark-skinned people, because like I said, my ancestors really got around.

So I’m going to keep being a German-American, if y’all don’t mind,

For the most part I don’t have anything cultural transmitted down to me by my European ancestors. No traditions or recipes or folklore or anything like that. I haven’t tried Ancestry.com’s family tree thing yet. I might go ahead and try it out it sometime, but with the scant knowledge I have of even people’s names or birth dates, I probably won’t get very far. Maybe it would have been different if my German grandmother hadn’t died so young, or my maternal grandfather hadn’t been such an abusive asshole, or I had a better relationship with my dad or his side of the family when he was alive. Those are the kinds of things that cut people off from their ancestors.

I just have my DNA to show that most of my ancestors even existed at all.

America’s Best Idea

Today is my country’s 240th anniversary, and before I go to a local city park with my husband and in-laws to eat very unhealthy food from food trucks (I’m thinking some kettle corn, hot dogs, and I hope they have those chocolate-covered frozen bananas again this year, yum!), listen to a band play music on the stage while small children dance in front, and then at sundown watch people set off multicolored explosives, I wanted to post something quick for this occasion.

There aren’t a lot of things going on right now that make me proud of my country. We’ve been at war for 15 years, we keep having mass shootings, we keep having unarmed black men shot by police or vigilantes, we still treat rape as if it’s not that big of a deal, but for some reason what public restroom you use is a huge deal, and one of our major political parties is about to nominate someone who admires Mussolini and is loved by white supremacists.

Theodore Roosevelt and John MuirBut there is one thing that makes we swell with patriotic pride: our national parks. Ken Burns was absolutely right, that was America’s best idea. All the other things that make America great are ideas we got from other places, but the concept of the national park was born here. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. And while there is a lot of talk in Pagan circles about honoring the “founding fathers” on the 4th of July, I’ve always felt better about honoring Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir as great Americans worthy of hero cults.

(Yes, I know John Muir was from Scotland, and yes I know Theodore Roosevelt had some problematic things about his presidency, but dammit, they gave us the national parks! And Teddy was a Republican. Can you imagine what he’d think about the Republican Party today?)

The idea of the national parks is that contact with Nature is a human right, just like free speech or the right to vote. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea. And now there’s plenty of research out to prove that Nature is vital and necessary to human health, both mental and physical.

And though the national parks were founded “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” they led to the modern American environmental movement and the idea (or rediscovery of the idea) that nonhuman life has a right to exist too.

The last episode of Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks had a segment about the return of wolves to Yellowstone, and I admit it, that part made me cry.

Yes, our country is very flawed, and yes, even the national parks themselves are flawed (they’re horribly underfunded and they don’t do a good job attracting non-white visitors), but I still think they’re a thing that truly makes America great. This year is their 100th anniversary. We must do all we can to ensure they last another 100 years.

A Lokean Rock Star?

I spend a few hours yesterday watching David Bowie videos on YouTube, and finally remembered something I should have mentioned in my last post, especially since it’s a little more relevant to a Heathen blog.

When I first got into Heathenry, before other people’s depictions of him influenced me, I always imagined Loki as looking like David Bowie. Maybe I should add Bowie to my list of “honorary Lokeans”. Hey, if Jim Morrison, another inhabitant of Rockalfheim, can be an avatar of Dionysus, why not?

He was an androgynous, gender-bending, shape-shifting, perpetual outsider looking in. But is he really the crazy one, or is he really the only sane one, and it’s everyone else who’s crazy? I can relate to that feeling.

We need people like that to test our boundaries.

So here’s a song that I neglected to include in my last post, but is a very Lokean song, with a video of how Loki used to look to me (maybe with slightly less eye makeup).

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

The Mighty Dead of Rockalfheim

I just got the news this morning that David Bowie has joined the Ancestors. His 69th birthday was just a few days ago, and I did think it was odd that NPR (which I had on my car radio as I was running errands) was talking about him so much on his birthday. Now I realize that they may have known what I didn’t know at the time, that he was terminally ill and probably wouldn’t make it to his 70th birthday. I had no idea he was sick. I guess I just assumed he’d keep on living like Mick Jagger. (Mick Jagger is immortal, right?)

I’ve never been a rabid David Bowie fan, but I have always had a lot of respect for him, and really like several of his songs (and I mean listen to them over and over again and never get tired of them like). I am a rabid Beatles and Queen fan, and consider Bowie to be just as important in music history. As far as music goes, I’ve always felt like I was born 30 years too late. I think rock music reached its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s and will never be that good again.

John Lennon died a month before I was born, and Freddie Mercury died when I was just a little bit too young to care who he was, so I hope David Bowie doesn’t mind me paying tribute to them along with him today. (I don’t think he would. He was friends with both of them.)

I discovered the Beatles when I was 14 and The Beatles Anthology documentary was broadcast on TV. I watched it because I had heard a few Beatles songs on the local Oldies station, so I was a little curious, and there just wasn’t much else on TV at that time. I think I completely fell in love with them about 15 or 20 minutes in. I had never seen footage of them performing before, and something just clicked when I did.

I became obsessed with the Beatles, and soon branched out into other music of that era, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Queen, and yes, David Bowie. The Beatles were always my favorite though, and John Lennon became a personal hero of mine in my teenage years. Listening to the Beatles now always gives me a warm feeling. They were a big source of comfort during a hard time in my life.

When George Harrison died in 2001 I felt grief almost like someone I knew personally had died. He was the least well-known Beatle, but All Things Must Pass is one of the greatest albums, which is impressive given that it’s a triple album. You’d think it would be full of filler, but it’s not. A lot of it is songs he wrote while he was in the Beatles, but didn’t get on the Beatles albums because he was overshadowed by the other two geniuses in the group.

After that he didn’t put out many more solo albums, but still had some great songs. My dad got Cloud Nine when it came out. I was a little kid at the time and loved it when he’d play it, but I didn’t connect George and the Beatles until later. George Harrison also helped introduce me to the idea that there were more spiritual options out there besides either Christianity or atheism.

I’ve always had a little trouble deciding which rock band was my second favorite after the Beatles, but Queen was always among those competing for that spot. (I’m also sure they wouldn’t be insulted by me saying they were second to the Beatles. They were huge Beatles fans too, so they’d probably agree.)

I can only imagine what would have happened if Freddie Mercury hadn’t died when he did. I could have gone and seen them live. Oh, that would have been great. Any lists of greatest rock frontmen that don’t include Freddie at the top are completely wrong. Yes, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Roger Daltry are all great, but none could hold a candle to Freddie.

 

So now David Bowie has joined that elite pantheon of Mighty Dead. You know, now that I think of it, maybe part of the reason I never got as much into David Bowie is just because I don’t know where to start. He was around for so long, putting out hits through several decades. He was like three or four artists in one. Collecting the complete albums of the Beatles, Queen, and Led Zeppelin when I was a teen wasn’t that hard to do, but David Bowie just had so much stuff. So all I have is his first Greatest Hits album. I know, that’s pretty lame.

I suppose in the coming days there will be a lot of tributes coming out, and some of them will talk about what his best albums were. Maybe that will help me decide where I need to start adding to my collection.