Thursday, May 30, 2024

consoling angels

“I and Pangur Bán my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill...

So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his...”

~ Medieval Irish poem, ca.9th century,
The Scholar and his Cat, Pangur Bán.

mutuality and friendship

Gradually familiarizing myself with the newer apartment and neighborhood, after two years of housing instability, the recent weeks have been very much about taking stock. Indeed and also without doubt, even in a spartan building with a longer commute, peacefulness far outweighs inconvenience; as well, the place is more affordable and larger. No regrets. What was endured has somehow been survived. Glancing back at journal entries, essays, and photos from 2022 through early 2024, I’m astonished at the daily reality against which I had to function. Now on incrementally higher ground, I’m slowly rebuilding my physical and spiritual reserves, amidst fulltime work. Many things are still packed, albeit in familiar and carefully-labeled boxes. It’s been only eight weeks; healing takes time.

All the while, this region’s severe housing crisis remains in front of me. I continue to witness homelessness in my midst, and I continue listening to my neighbors’ stories- occasionally offering referrals gleaned from my two years of apartment-scavenging and countless conversations. Early this month, I was featured on a local radio programme, promoting the concept of networking neighbors-helping-neighbors, for a variety of community-reinforcing purposes. I’m hoping to be the sort of person I needed to meet during that agonizingly protracted time during which I met with far too much dismissive reticence. To really improve conditions, there would have to be a serious group of human-sized grains of leaven. I broadened the radio discussion to include more than networking housing referrals, and connecting those in need with supportive hands to assist with chores. Among the limits many of us contend with, encouragement is in short supply. Who will be compassionate?


In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, lingering beyond the physical health risks is what the U.S. Surgeon General calls “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” We adapted so well to quarantining and isolating that much of our human continuum dissolved. My experience included dispersion as colleagues, neighbors, businesses, and parishes left the area- chiefly replaced with remote-economy and short-term arrivals, largely inhabiting elite and gated housing. How friendships and communities now manifest is fluid. How shall we define friendship? Are each of your social media friends actually people you know? Do we know the souls within the names of our contact lists? Will we step up for those we call friends, and will they step up for us? Perhaps there are levels, imitating such service industries as travel, subscriptions, and various tiered “products.” Maybe there are economy-class friends, or gold-card inner-circle communities. In elementary school we counted our friends and best-friends; by high school it was friends and acquaintances. Alas, there were enemies, too. Bullying and fickleness have been around since time immemorial, long before the term unfriending existed. Let us treasure our loved ones, make it known what gems they are, and invest in those connections.

As encouragement is a form of compassion, so compassion is in the expression of consolation. How well do we know to be tactful consolers for those within our reach? Heartfelt reassurance expresses divinity; the Holy Spirit is also known as the Consoler. Petitionary prayers are essentially for consolation, for comfort, for mercy. We wish for this ourselves, as well as to be conduits for others. The gospel recounts how Jesus endured torment and provocation in the desert; as evil departed in defeat, consoling angels appeared. We cannot predict our times as consolers, or when consolation comes to us.

those who console

Arriving at the previous apartment and narrowly avoiding eviction, the intensity of distress combined with that loud and cramped space, filled with heaped personal effects, the mealtime seat was outside on the front steps. There was no place to sit comfortably indoors for at least a month. I naturally looked to the skies, just to see wide open space. In my sorrow about being in that demoralizing place, after losing my home, I’d tearfully pray for better days. In a few weeks’ time, a neighbor’s cat found me on that front stoop. Boo was the friendliest neighbor and consoling angel throughout that difficult time in the East End.

Indeed, Boo has a family and a home on a nearby street, though he liked to roam around among various other neighborhood cats. Some neighbors would pet Boo, or cause him to dart away, but Boo and I reciprocated an extraordinary bond of friendship. Beginning with feeding him bits from my plate, I later bought proper cat treats, ironically called Temptations, which he loved. In fact, Boo received treats every single time he’d come visit. Ordinarily, I’m allergic to most cats- but not to Boo; we were very companionable. Perching outside in all weather, I was always easy for him to find: I was regularly escaping claustrophobia and the bombast of upstairs neighbors, and Boo seemed to like the familiarity of a gentle friend with treats. Boo soon figured out when I’d commute back from work in the evenings, and he’d wait at the door for me to arrive- always polite and never imperious.

Above: Boo often waited at the door for me to return from work.
Below: We shared our tastes in philosophy and seafood.

Being a longtime insomniac, I’d admire how Boo could simply curl up, fold in his legs like retracted landing-gear on an airplane, and simply sleep. Just like that. I’ve tried imitating Boo. When Boo would jump onto my lap and sleep, I’d ponder what a dear soul he is, and that Saint Francis of Assisi sent Boo to my lonely stoop. “You’re such a good, good cat,” I would say to Boo. He really was a consoling angel, and I was sure to make that known; his cat-mother was appreciative. No doubt, he is greatly missed, but in my gratitude I’m glad he has a home, and I have dozens upon dozens of photos of Boo to treasure. In this example, a sweet consolation emerged in contrast to a bad situation. In the depths of despondence, it is vital to keep from desensitizing.

Above: Boo demonstrating expert napping skills.
Below: No matter what Loretta Tupper said in those old commercials, Boo kept his paws on my Parker.

The souls that cross paths with ours, especially friends, and no matter our age, profoundly affect how we live and perceive. Losing a close friend, not because of moving away but due to their passing, intensifies my sense of esteem and their great value. Saint Bonaventure wrote about how we are mimetic by nature, and that we do well to mimic our mentors. I recently lost a friend and role model of more than twenty-four years. My acquaintance with Maddy began when she hired me to organize, process, and conserve the archives of her forebears- Maine’s Gannett family, whose innovations in journalism, publishing, and broadcasting in this state began in the 19th century. The project was a real success, I published some of the results, and Maddy and I became friends for life. Over the years, she connected me with two wonderful unprocessed sources which I brought to equally successful archival fruition: the Children’s Theatre of Maine (her favorite cause) Archives, and the Gannett newspaper photographic negatives (which required my salvaging hundreds of thousands of pieces of film from a gutted building). Painstaking labors of love, to be sure. Through the years, we were both colleagues and friends. She would regularly call me with archival and research queries, and I would call her for wise advice. Maddy was so popularly loved, due to her unpretentiousness and great spirit. We always had interesting things to talk about. She introduced me to many friends, and my permanent gratitude also includes diverting me from my housing misery with tea visits at her home on Littlejohn Island. Healthy distractions, a bit as with Boo the cat. Within my gratitude is the occasional ability to recognize the consoling angels in my midst, and the remembrance becomes all the more vital in their physical absence.

Above: Keeping watch from a cold-weather blanket nest.
Below: Boo is truly a Magnifi Cat, and I'm forever grateful.