Just a Hopey High

Last spring a favorite poem came to mind as I perused the Hopey grocery store at its new location in South Asheville. Where else can you go, by poet Jim Daniels (from Blessing the House, 1997, Pittsburgh Press) encapsulates the pervasive buzz that coursed through me as I lit through Hopey’s numerous aisles and scoured its expanse of multi-tiered shelves. Lately, I’ve been calling that experience my “Hopey High.”

A flood of exhilaration sustained me as I explored the expanded warehouse-sized space for bargains that day.  As Jim Daniels’ poem so aptly proclaims: “Where else can you go, for the blue light, the blue light, the blue light specials?” and later: “Good cheap stuff, don’t you love it, cheeseballs and vitamins, a bag of cement, a light-up fish.”

The excitement I felt in combing those aisles of sundries and the wide variety of discounted health food and processed foods – that is, the gluten-free, sugar-free Uncle Sam’s Flax Flakes right up there with the sickeningly sweet Cap’n Crunch (my younger brother loved the stuff) and the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes – still in its bright blue package with the famous, orange-striped Tony the Tiger – that energy kept me going for at least forty-five minutes.

When my practical voice whispered how can you possibly eat all this before it expires, and then, more provoking, a vision of my husband’s troubled face upon seeing my bounty piled on the kitchen counter – those uncertainties drove me to the check-out register along with my not-quite-filled grocery basket and my reusable shopping bag. My pleasure was slowing subsiding, though I did have an answer for my husband’s upcoming remark about my lemon-rhubarb kefir-kombucha (he’ll say, didn’t they once give swill like that to the pigs? and I’ll answer haughtily: Well, the pigs ate better than I did back then, thank-you very much).

What did I buy that day? I can’t remember the specific items. Definitely kombucha and something crunchy. Now that I’m sixty-five years old and retired, I’ve had the opportunity for a few trips like this. Some of the excitement has worn off, but I still love to shop there.

That first day though, I felt like a young adolescent with a loaded credit card embarking on a shopping spree at the spanking new indoor mall. Couldn’t help myself – all the cool food, nutritious “weird” items and junk food, aisles and aisles of it. And more room to shop! Not cramped, like at the former downtown store.

There were all kinds of things that my husband would never buy (as the primary cook, he usually does the grocery shopping). The weirder, the more interesting and the more appealing. Like those organic peanut butter puffs, the strawberry cashew-nut milk yogurt, the dill-flavored egg-white tortillas, the tantalizing ice cream: everything from Fat Lady’s super-rich Triple Mocha Almond Fudge to YupYups’s non-fat soy-based Pumpkin-Spice Marshmallow Latte. Or maybe the dinner-plate-sized Valentine from winter – stevia sweetened, organic chocolate and only 99 cents. Or maybe the pickle-flavored potato chips. Even my husband would try those.  

But we’re not just talking food – there’s the stuff too: 200-count pack of multicolored construction paper just $1.99, back to the late-60s tubes of white lipstick just 49 cents each, ready-to-grow geraniums in a tiny pot $1.29. And the Finger Paints – don’t have grandkids – but who knows what the future may bring?

So, what’s it all about – this kind of excitement? Is it about being a child again, anticipation, a zeal to be thrilled by simple pleasures, to looking forward instead of backward? To saying yes, maybe, to things you know are silly, to imagine that stevia-sweetened organic chocolate isn’t too good to be true. And that when you buy the bag of misshapen jelly-bean rejects, you are truly helping to reduce food waste on our beleaguered planet. Maybe the hyaluronic and retinoic-acid, co-enzyme Q 10, and Vitamin C- infused anti-aging cream – was $19.99 but now $4.99 – will actually revitalize my sagging skin. Yes, but why would I buy a child’s paint-your-own-bumble-bee bank?

Jim Daniels poem asks the same: Why did I come here, what did I really need? I am lonely and it is raining. I am tired of flossing, I want to wander these cluttered aisles, till what brought me here, slides off into shoes boxes and dish drainers, into stale bags of caramel corn and circus peanuts, into disposable lighters and sugar-free gum”. I usually begin to sense a similar gloom if I linger too long. But if I get out of the store in time, I can hold on to that sweet feeling. All the way home.

Like I did that day as I drove back home, sipping on kombucha and probably munching on super-crisp-cheesy parmesan bites while listening to radio. Oh, and the song was perfect. The station was playing the jubilant 1969 Rolling Stones’ She’s a Rainbow. “She comes in colours everywhere, she combs her hair, she’s a rainbow.”  As I rolled down Smokey Park Highway towards home, I sang that song like I was fifteen again. Exuberance. The day was sunny, and it was early in the spring. I’d let the windows down. It was just warm enough.

When I reached home, the song over, I stepped out of the car and gathered my groceries and purse. I made a mental note: Play that song again! And find that poem! I know I have it somewhere in my desk. And I did find it. I’d kept a copy from long ago (and I just bought the book of poems too – Blessing the House – a treasure, by the way).

I’ve revisited the song and the poem a few times now. As Jim Daniels concluded, I was, for a short time, “purified by the smells of ammonia and Colorforms, the taste of junk America . . .”  Maybe I was killing the blues. But I was loving every moment of it.

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Reviews for ANY JOE

Readers’ Favorite announces the review of the Young Adult – Social Issues book “Any Joe” by Maura Lin

Reviewed By Viga Boland for Readers’ Favorite

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When I reflect on the style of the young adult novel Any Joe by Maura Lin, I envision a delicious dinner being prepared in a slow cooker. Why? Because special foods need time for all the rich flavors to fully blend and be enjoyed. So too, is the development of this beautiful story about Joe and Cherie, whose friendship began when both were very young, when life seemed so simple as long as you had parents who loved and nurtured you along the way. Then, of course, comes puberty with its often disruptive influencers and the resulting disturbances to fragile, developing psyches. Joe and Cherie each experienced events that didn’t seem particularly traumatic to them at the time…so subtle is the author’s presentation…but which prove to be life-changing in their later teen and adult years. As I suggested in my opening analogy, readers cannot come away from this delicious combination of familiar yet unique characters, settings, and situations, without being impressed by how much Joe and Cherie’s story of growing up resembles our own in some way or another. It’s so relatable it’s almost uncanny.

There is one aspect of the plot that will be of special interest and importance to today’s younger generation: the danger of chatting on the internet, and how good people can be drawn into a situation with life-altering results. We see the result of that when we meet the adult Joe in the opening chapter but it will take the novel’s passage of years to explain how he got there. It is at the end of the novel that we recognize that Joe could be any one of us. Hence the novel’s simple but deep title. One of the statements made about Cherie toward the end of the novel stays with me: “In her heart, at her most essential core, that overly tender part that empathizes with everyone, with everything — that core knows that any action is understandable if you know the story. But, is all forgivable?” Read Any Joe by Maura Lin. Know the story and decide on your answer to that question. Magnificent!”

Reviewed by Christian Sia for Readers’ Favorite

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Any Joe by Maura Lin is the story of Joe and Cherie who grew up in the same neighborhood and had both experienced trauma as adolescents. Joe is arrested and charged with felony sex offenses while Cherie continues to pursue her education in college, determined to make a good career in life. When they finally get a chance at love, will the past allow them to be there for each other and to face the difficulties life throws at them with equanimity?

Maura Lin has crafted a tale with a resonant setting in the mid-1990s and 2000s, bringing to life characters that are complex and fully drawn. The setting is in an era when communication was filled with sexual innuendoes and where there was a growing sense of sexual freedom among the younger generations. Joe and Cherie grow up in lonely homes and they understand what hardship felt like. As readers follow these two characters, they can’t help but be drawn to them emotionally. Even in the face of corruption and outright cruelty, readers want to see them get along well and survive the odds. This book presents relevant social issues, deftly illustrating how our environment can shape us and how the past can continually overshadow our efforts at love and success.

The characters are genuinely flawed and relatable, and their inner worlds are stunningly written, deepening the psychological richness of the story. Maura Lin makes it interesting to watch characters totter under the weight of their pasts while dealing with trying circumstances in the present. While this novel entertains, it equally invites readers to reflect on the influences in their lives and to be aware of how culture and environment can affect relationships. Well-plotted and cleverly accomplished.

Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers’ Favorite

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Any Joe is a work of fiction in the drama subgenre. It is aimed at young adult readers and was penned by author Maura Lin. The book follows the lives of protagonists, Joe and Cherie, as they experience a turbulent coming of age defined by misfired romance, soul-defining traumatic experiences, and the cultural shift of the early 2000s in which sexual identity and morality were impossible to grasp as solid concepts. As the events of their youth come to define their adulthood, a reunion between the two shines a light on the people they’ve become and casts a long shadow over their future.

This was a very challenging yet poignant read, exploring the cycle of abuse that occurs behind closed doors by charting the path from victim to abuser. Author Maura Lin’s gift for prose brings the philosophical character study to life as Joe and Cherie struggle with a series of realistic yet tactfully depicted scenes from their lives. Throughout the work, both characters feel grounded and intensely realistic, emphasizing the unpleasantness of their experiences by highlighting the unfortunate reality that the things that happened to them could happen to anyone from any background. What results from this beautiful character work and focus on a powerful theme is a story that engrosses the reader quickly whilst providing a reflection on the best and worst aspects of humanity. Overall, Any Joe is a powerful work of drama that shines a light on an issue that demands constant vigilance from all of us and tells a compelling human story whilst doing so.

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So many people were getting sucked in . . . any Sam, Dick, or Harry, as the expression went. Any Joe, for that matter.”

From ANY JOE, by Maura Lin, copyright 2022

Photo by Maura Lin
Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels.com

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A Belated Tribute

to you, Chris Smither

Prior to Chris Smither’s concert this past spring at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, I told my husband, “This time I’m going to stay to meet him after the show. We always rush off. I just want to tell him, thank-you.” But there wasn’t an opportunity that night, as there had been many times in the past. It’s understandable. Chris Smither, if I calculate correctly, will turn (or has already turned) seventy-eight this year (according to one of his songs, he was born in ’44). He’s been doing concerts for a long time and has had many post-show meet-and-greets with his fans. Maybe that night, he just needed a well-earned break. I missed out on thanking him in person, but I still feel determined to express my appreciation for him and his music.

So, thank-you Chris Smither.

Thank you for all your soulful songs, all your funny songs, your irreverent songs, all those that made me laugh or cry because they rang true for me. Thanks for all the songs that made me think and think, for your wise words, your humility, your honesty. And for your excellent guitar playing and foot tapping. Nimble, playful, upbeat, downtrodden or desperate, whimsical or resilient — all the moods and tones and timbres depicted in your lyrics were enhanced by your multifaceted musical talents.

Many of your newer songs are musings on a long life, on your many experiences, the lessons you’ve learned. Often your melodies relay honesty about not knowing all the answers, and further, accepting that ignorance with a shrug and a smile. Life goes on, you seem to say. This is what we’ve got, understandable or not. Embrace the lot – good or bad. Sometimes you just can’t choose. Make the most of it. Whistle a tune. Carry on.

On your album, Time Stands Still (2009, Signature Sound Recordings), the title song is an ode to time: She let me know a long time ago, it’s better to say just what you mean. Truth to tell, it hurts like hell, but it keeps me clean. And then there’s the quip: She’s so fast, I know I’ll never last, she’s by me now, but I don’t really mind. I oughta know, cause I move so slow, my shadow often kicks me from behind.

The mundanity, uselessness and confounding circularity of over-thinking are laid forth in the song, “Open Up” (from the album Leave the Light On, Signature Sound Recordings, 2006): I don’t think for pleasure, it’s just hard not to do, My thinking is a measure of how much I need a clue . . . The tune ends with: One small suggestion, quit all these questions, open up, just open up your heart.

Still, you acknowledge the unfettered descent of depression and dark moods, despite all efforts to resist their plundering. Again, from Leave the Light On, and in the song, “Shillin’ for the Blues” you reveal a basic formula: Take a little slow resentment and an ounce of small regret, half a cup of wounded pride that has not faded yet; Add a pinch of passion and a double-shot of booze, When your self-respect is crashing, you can drink it up and cash in on the blues. — Yes, sometimes life stinks. We become exhausted and succumb to desolation. Occasionally, we need a break from all the well-intended, sensible, good advice we receive from others and the two-bit contemporary psychology readily available through the media and the internet. All that advice can be helpful, but not until you’re ready to hear it and use it. Sometimes, you need to cry or hide away, to ponder and reflect, before you’re able to try again.

When our son was in prison a few years ago, a difficult and soul-searching period, my husband and I attended your concert in Asheville, sitting on one of the Grey Eagle’s well-worn couches. You played a variety of tunes, from funny and self-deprecating, to dolefully blue to upbeat, to daring, to philosophical and musing. During the last two songs (and I don’t remember which), I lost control of my emotions and sobbed, tears streaming down my cheeks, right there in front of you. I was embarrassed and hoped you hadn’t noticed. I’m glad you touched those nerves though. It helps to feel the pain. I figure it’s part of getting through it.

It was my eclectically-a-tuned, audiophile husband who introduced you to me almost forty years ago, while we were dating (I, too, am growing older). He’d had some of your earlier recordings. I listened, liked what I heard, and purchased many of your newer releases over the years. I can’t count how many times we’ve seen you. Several times in Asheville and Charlotte, once in Johnson City, and before we moved south from the D.C. area, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, the Barns of Wolftrap, and the Ramshead Tavern. Your performances and songs will always be fresh to me.

Fresh and maybe a little chilling, as in the song, “No Love Today” from the album Drive You Home Again (Hightone Records, 1999): I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound, Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town, I got okra, enough to choke ya, beans of every kind, If hungry is what’s eating you, I’ll sell you peace of mind, But this ain’t what you came to hear me say, And I hate to disappoint you, But I got no love today . . . Not a welcome refrain, if you’re hurting, but there’s also the heartening reminder, put simply: In the end no one will sell you what you need, You can’t buy it off the shelf, You got to grow it from the seed. Most of us have heard some version of that before, but somehow it comes home to roost -it’s more palpable, tender and evocative when you sing and play it (further intensified by your musical accompaniment, especially the bleating heartfelt saxophone played by John Mills).

Your latest CD, Call Me Lucky (Signature Sounds, 2018) is one of your most reflective. Partly, I figure that’s because you are older, and you’ve had more lifetime to consider. I played the tune “Down to the Sound” for my son (happily, no longer in prison). The tune resonated with me, and I thought he might also appreciate it: . . . it all comes down to the sound, Of something longing to be, It spins around in the lost and found, Til we learn to see . . .

I felt the words and music alight in me and lift me up: a recognition of self, a bold self-acceptance, acknowledgement of one’s better attributes, one’s flaws, with no apologies but with no undue pride either. “When it sounds like me, I hear my name, It seems like a picture slippin’ out of its frame, Takes most of the your wishes to make it come true, They’re mostly for free, but you pay for a few. Hearing this, I imagine glimpsing a reflection in a picture window and pausing, before discerning who or what I see. “Oh, that’s me,” I say. Then I walk on, humming, not stopping to fix my hair or worry over a blemish or stand up straighter.

I could go on reciting your lyrics and explaining why they mean so much to me, but I think you get the gist. Your music has made my life better. It has helped me through some tough places. I can shrug my shoulders more often now. not take myself so seriously, which is a good thing. Your music, grace, and humility are gifts to the world.

For those reading this who don’t know you: Listen to a Chris Smither song, then another. A whole album. Really listen. Smile, laugh, cry. Find some wisdom, while you’re at it. Time is ticking away. Chris Smither won’t be around forever, even if his music will. If he makes it to one hundred, he’s got twenty-two years to go. While you’re both here, check him out, and then tell him thanks. Better yet, do it in person.

Life Lessons with Guinea Pigs

A Reflection on Guineas and Guinea Tending

I had never given guinea pigs much thought until my family and I became caretakers of them several years ago. Before, I considered them rather bland, dull creatures if they came to mind at all. It made sense to me that guinea pig was a metaphor for a non-protesting and easily oppressed experimental subject. But having raised a few guinea pigs over the years, the notion that these charming little creatures are dull or merely ambivalent subjects for experimentation seems ignorant, and an insult to the species. Like my husband and children, I have come to know guinea pigs fairly well. Now, I see them as creatures with personalities and idiosyncrasies, creatures that you can come to love, and creatures that can teach you a thing or two about life, the good and the not so good.

Binkles with grass and clover

Guineas spend a lot of time munching and staring into space. They are experts in playing Statues, too, given their ability to immobilize themselves for several minutes at a time without a twitch, blink, or breath discernable to the naked eye. You’d be sorely disappointed if you expected a guinea pig to exercise in a wire wheel like the frenetic hamster does. If introduced to it, a guinea pig would sniff it, look back at you stonily, and sniff again, concluding that the wheel had little to offer, no cozy place to burrow, nothing at all to munch on. He or she would slowly step away and amble off to more familiar surroundings, those that more likely offer comfort and security.

Yes, guinea pigs can seem to be rather dull creatures, but that dullness is generally proportional to what you know about them and how much time you spend attending to them. Guinea pigs can touch your heart, they can make you cry, grumble or laugh. You must invest in your guinea pig to keep them interested and interesting. You must be an active participant in your guinea’s life in order to reap the rewards of guinea tending.

We had been the caretakers of three and a half generations of guinea pigs over thirteen years, and experienced challenges in caring for them, not necessarily pleasant, but always educational. We became familiar with guinea pig births, misbehavior, major and minor medical conditions, old age, and death.

The Beginning

My daughter with Trixie, her first guinea pig

My husband and I obtained our first guinea pig as a birthday gift for our daughter, Melissa, when she turned five.  We had been thinking about a first pet for a few months, but weren’t ready for a dog or cat, animals that could undoubtedly wreak havoc on our house and furnishings, much of which had been redone, repaneled, repainted, and recarpeted over our eight years of home ownership. We didn’t want things scratched, peed on, or chewed up.  We didn’t want to scoop up doo-doo.

I’d read that guinea pigs were a perfect pet for a young child. Compact, very holdable, gentle, simple to care for. Besides that, guineas were clean. They weren’t the source of peculiar or lingering odors. Their droppings were just that, droppings, not a sludgy stinky mess. Plus, they didn’t bark, screech, or scratch.

Melissa picked out a fluffy black and white guinea from the pet shop, and named her Trixie. She was an Abyssinian, covered in patches of medium length black and white fur, arranged in whorls and tufts from head to toe. She had shiny black eyes and a pink nose. She was our starter guinea pig.

Trixie enjoying grass

Birth and Beyond

After we brought her home, Trixie had the cage to herself for the first six weeks or so.   We took her out frequently for Melissa to pet, to brush, and to hold. Jeffrey, Melissa’s older brother, would occasionally hold Trixie too. My husband, petless throughout his life until Trixie came along, eventually took to her as well, letting her sit on his chest, typically at the dining room table while he read the paper. I set her on my lap in the evening sometimes, after the dinner dishes were done, stroking her soft fur. She sat fairly still, sometimes purring, sometimes sniffing the air or turning her head about, looking at the surroundings. At times, I would observe undulations, jerks, or twitching of her torso, contortions that seemed to go unnoticed by Trixie. I was naively surprised when Melissa and I witnessed Trixie give birth to three pups the first day of spring that year, one of our first lessons.   

We learned that birth is not as big a deal for animals as it is for humans, nor is it necessarily a pretty site. Out the pups came that morning, just as we readied ourselves to refresh Trixie’s food and water. Trixie bore them without a squeak or whimper. She licked each one clean after it appeared, and she instinctively consumed the blood-streaked afterbirth before our eyes. I wish I had a photo of Trixie’s brand-new babies. There were many other babies, later on, and my daughter became our official guinea-pig archivist and photographer.

Guinea pig pups are amazingly well developed compared to the offspring of other mammals. They are born with seeing eyes, working teeth, and a full coat of fur. They’re fully mobile too, capable of walking and even scurrying around the cage within a few hours of birth, hungry and ready to nurse or even to munch on hay.  As newborns, they can make a racket, especially as a herd. Their shrill squeak is often piercing to the human ear. It is amusing to watch the pups in their earliest days, scampering around the cage and squeaking simultaneously, as if these functions were interdependent.

Of Trixie’s offspring, we kept one pup, which Melissa named Squeaky, the only female of the three. She was a miniature golden and white version of Trixie, but with a disproportionately large head, compared to her body, like many newborns. We sadly gave up the two males to a neighbor girl, a trial itself, as we had quickly grown attached to them.

Squeaky, by contrast to Trixie, was an excitable and very high-energy guinea from the outset.  She could be plain irascible. Just lifting her from the cage was a trial. She raced, she scrambled, she ricocheted from corner to corner in an effort to avoid you. Inevitably, we would win out, but often times it was an exhausting and frustrating battle.

When we allowed Trixie and Squeaky outside in warmer weather, Squeaky learned to abscond from her wire pen to find fresh grass or a dark and cozy place. Her preference was under the lawn mower in the shed. Snatching her, as she raced from lawnmower to a distant corner of the shed, was a consequence of luck, not stealth.    

Full-grown Squeaky (left) with mother Trixie (right)

Guinea Pig Antics

We kept our guineas in a very large cage, constructed by my husband. It was set in the  back room, a closed in porch-like area off the kitchen.  Our guinea pigs soon recognized the sounds of food preparation, especially the readying of raw vegetables for a salad. Opening the refrigerator crisper drawer or the crackling of a plastic bag, brought on a chorus of squeaking and chortling. The rhythmic tapping or scraping of a knife against a cutting board was also music to a guinea pig’s ear, eliciting frenzied chatter. 

Guineas respond to visual cues too, the sight of you included, even those guinea pigs that haven’t agreeably accepted your efforts at physical contact, holding, or petting. If there is a hint that food is nearby, our guinea pigs typically stood on their hind legs, front paws against the side of the cage facing you, chortling as if their lives depended upon it. Just seeing you pass by the cage was an opportunity for practicing their histrionics. 

Guinea Pig Activity and Interaction

Binkles was one of the female offspring of another guinea, Velvet. Binkles was shorthaired, mostly black, but with numerous white markings on her face, torso and limbs. My husband would elicit purrs from her by initiating a “Brrrrrrr” as he held her against his chest and looked into her eyes. An exchange of “Brrrrr ‘ing” could go on for several minutes. Another game that amused all of us was the 100% Cotton Game whereby my husband would inform Binkles that she was “as soft as” a certain percentage of cotton. My husband tested this out in a variety of ways, changing his tone of voice, word emphasis, and order of the statements. Binkles purred solely when she heard the phrase as soft as 100% cotton.

The Brring and 100% Cotton Game in action

Guinea pigs can be amusing to watch in a natural environment too. Our guineas grew comfortable enough to traverse the lawn under the protection of their plastic igloos, using their snouts and the force of their moving bodies to propel the igloos forward.  Sometimes they would venture out of the igloo, boldly eating a patch of green grass or clover unprotected. It was a charming scene, really. They looked like miniature cows from a distance, grazing lazily. But they always bolted back to the igloo in response to any sound, be it a brash clang or a mere whisper. For stocky creatures with very short legs, it was amazing to observe their immediate response, and the bullet-fast speed at which they catapulted to safety.

Guinea Pig Illness and End of Life

Photo by Volker Kaes on Pexels.com

As is true for most pet owners, the most difficult periods occurred when our guineas suffered or died. Thankfully, with Trixie and Squeaky, death happened quietly, without drama, nor evidence of suffering. For a brief period, each of them slowed down, grew quieter and less responsive, and ate little. We found Squeaky still and lifeless one day inside the cage. Trixie’s death followed a few months later, as Jeffrey held her in his lap, stroking her fur.  They were both buried under the lilac bush in the backyard.

Velvet

Our experience with Velvet, Binkles’ mother, was harder. Velvet had given birth to Binkles and three other pups within a couple months of bringing her home. Velvet proved to be calm and stoic, and an excellent, patient mother to her four offspring. She seemed to lead a normal guinea life for several weeks after their births until one day when we noticed that she was not using her hind legs. Velvet had begun to depend upon her front paws to reach her bowl, the water bottle, or to move to a comfortable resting spot in the cage. There was no sign of injury to her rear legs or paws. She seemed to be comfortable, otherwise, eating and drinking normally, and dealing patiently with her needy pups, letting them nurse at will without complaining or rebuffing them.

Velvet as a healthy guinea pig

When the problem persisted for a couple days, we took Velvet to the vet. He surmised that she must have been dropped or that she had fallen, although we were very certain that hadn’t happened. There was no sign of direct, overt injury to her body or her limbs. The vet gave her a shot of cortisone, thinking that it might help any inflammatory process that could be affecting her mobility, and he gave us instructions to remove Velvet from the other guineas so she could rest, and so the area might have a better opportunity to heal. Give it a few days, he told us.

Unfortunately, Velvet did not improve despite the treatment and rest period. A few days after the office visit she had difficulty keeping her head upright. She was mobile, but far less so. Fortunately, she still ate a little. But soon, I noticed spasms around Velvet’s neck area. These would come so infrequently and were so brief, that I sometimes wondered if they were a figment of my imagination.

Still, a couple of days later, her symptoms grew worse. When I entered the house after work, I noticed that Velvet’s neck spasms were much more forceful and frequent.  Lying on her side, head drooping, she now exhibited an involuntary pedaling of her upper limbs. Periodically, she rotated her paws in a circular motion, as if she were cycling. But she was listless, otherwise. Her eyes stared, vacant and unfocused. What I had called spasms, I realized, weren’t spasms. They were seizures.

Acceptance, inevitable but not so easy

I tried to talk to Melissa about Velvet. I wanted to prepare her, to let her know that Velvet was very sick. She had trouble hearing that, and withdrew. I imagine she had difficulty dealing with such extreme suffering, a phenomenon that was unfamiliar to her, and that she felt helpless to alleviate. I knew Velvet would not get better, that all we could do was offer comfort.

But keeping her comfortable seemed impossible. We made the difficult decision. My husband drove me to the vet, and I sat beside him holding Velvet in a cardboard box.  On the way, her paws pat-a-patted on the side of the box continuously.  She lay on her side, seemingly oblivious. When I watched the vet examine her, my eyes were full, smoldering, ready to storm. Velvet had a spinal tumor, the vet ascertained, and it had advanced up her spine and grown larger. After Velvet received the injection, I saw that she was calm again at last, and as still as can be. I pet her one last time, then sobbed uncontrollably, embarrassed, covering my eyes with my hands and leaving the office, allowing my husband to pay the bill and to arrange for her remains to be cremated.

 It didn’t seem right to me. It didn’t seem right that such a defenseless creature should have to suffer like that, that anyone, any creature, no matter how small, should have to experience such misery. Velvet’s suffering, though a result of natural causes, was hard to watch and to accept.

 In retrospect, there was the benefit of anticipation and emotional preparation. By contrast, a few years later our then four guineas passed away suddenly on a sunny day, not long after my daughter set them outside. They were alive and well one minute, and gone minutes later. We weren’t sure what happened. We decided after much thought that the guinea pigs may have eaten grass contaminated by dirty water, water that had overflowed from the backyard fountain onto the grass as my husband was cleaning it.

 The sense of loss, the guilt, the sadness overwhelmed me at first. And of course I was concerned about my daughter, though it seemed she was coping better than I.  Over the next couple weeks, I was sensitive to the absence of guinea pig noises, especially upon awakening each morning. Our bedroom was adjacent to the back room where we kept the guineas, and I had grown accustomed to the rattling of the metal ball inside the water bottle, as the guineas drank from it. I especially missed the chortling of our guineas requesting their morning food, as my husband and I stepped out of our bedroom.

We cleared the cage out, leaving it nearly empty after we buried those four guineas under the lilac bush. Melissa put two stuffed toy guinea pigs in the cage to cheer things up. But of course, that was no replacement for the real live creatures.

Just Two More

Our last pet shop guineas were named Smore and Feathers. We’d thought we brought home two females, but learned later that Feathers was male. He was longhaired, white with tan markings, and we compared him to a jazz musician or a punk-rocker, given his wild spiky halo of fur. Smore, a cross between an Abyssinian and smooth haired guinea, sported a tufted, whorled coat of dark brown, caramel, and white fur.

Feathers

Smore didn’t disappoint us. She, too, gave birth to guinea pig pups several weeks after we brought her home.  My motto with female guineas is “buy one, get at least two free.” She bore one male and one female, who we named Zip and Checkers. Their coloring was very much like their mother’s. Checkers’ back was patterned in four contrasting squares of caramel, dark brown, and white. Zip had a white horizontal stripe across his back, dividing the vertical halves of dark brown and caramel. We kept the females separate from the males to avoid amassing multiple generations of guineas into the future.

Smore

Those Final Days with Trooper Smore

 Time passed. Melissa, like her brother, graduated from high school and eventually went to college. We moved during those college years, and took Smore with us. By that time she was our only remaining guinea pig.  We called her our trooper — Trooper Smore. While it was easy to take Smore for granted in our new home, I reminded myself many times to pay attention to her. I knew she was our last guinea pig, and I would miss her when she was gone.

Recognizing this, I got better at attending to Smore: greeting her in the morning and petting and picking her up in the evening, even if she scrambled to and fro to avoid me. Once in my hand, or resting on my shoulder, she settled quickly. She enjoyed being brushed. She loved a treat of fresh parsley or fragrant celery leaves.

Sometimes, I set Smore out on the grass, avoiding very warm days. No overflowing fountains this time, and always protection with a place to burrow. I knew that Smore’s vocalizations were something to savor, as were her longer periods of calm and serenity.

Smore is buried beside the Lenten Rose in the raised garden at the side of the garage, where two other favorite plants reside, green moss and a Hydrangea. It’s both a sunny and shady spot, depending on the time of day. A fitting place, I think, for a little creature that emits lively brightness and cheer, but is also a source for abiding in dark, sustaining quiet.

Life Lessons

So, what are some life lessons, anyway? We’ve had a preview with the guineas. Here are a few that come to mind:

Appreciate the small things; they are often the most precious.

Birth is a spectacular but necessarily messy process.

If you strongly desire something or someone, pursue and persist, but don’t push.

Sometimes, you cannot cure. If not, try to provide comfort and reassurance.

There are risks to living in the natural world. Try to minimize them, without obliterating them from your experience.

Protect those that depend upon you.

Life comes without guarantees. Slow down. Watch.