Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter


Walking a Cat Walk

Copyright 2013 – By Susan Canavarro

When you are not writing, you are a writer too. It doesn’t leave you. Walk with an animal walk and take in everything around you as prey. Use your senses as an animal does. Watch a cat when he sees something moving in the room. He is perfectly still, and at the same time, his every sense is alive, watching, listening, smelling. This is how you should be when you are in the streets. The cat’s mind is not thinking about how much money he needs, or whom to write a postcard to when he visits Florence: he is watching the mouse or the marble rolling across the floor or light reflecting in crystal. He is ready with all of him to pounce. Now, you don’t have to get down on all fours and twitch your tail. Only be still – some part of you, at least – and know where you are, no matter how busy you are.
– Be An Animal, From Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, p. 90 ——-© 2005 (Shambhala, Boston and London)

I am reading Writing Down the Bones in a coffee shop called Mon Ami. Mon Ami sells antiques and estate sale items. Cindy, the owner, also serves delectable deli and bakery items, espresso coffees and teas. Her employees cook up fresh wicked apple-cinnamon and/or cherry turnovers daily. Her cappuccinos are deep and rich and soothing for my soul.

It is steamy outside. Sweat is beading up in my every nook and cranny and my bra, chaffing. I can feel my skin glowing red with rash. I have a headache. This is not your average Florence weather. This day I choose to drink iced tea at Mon Ami’s.

When I read the above paragraph by Natalie Goldberg, I sat staring off across the ocean with a grin spreading across my fat cheeks. Cindy waved her hand in front of my face to see if I was okay. Mustn’t stare too hard and too long when in a coffee-house. I smiled, nodded my head, yes. In fact, I was better than usual. Across the ocean across from my table was an antique soft creamy white dining buffet with ornate filigree decorating each cabinet-door edge. One door damaged and detached, leaned against the front of the cabinet. On the buffet top stood a large showcase trophy sailboat, two tall masts in full sail. This day, the ship, gripped in the stall of its display stand, was unable to fulfill its purpose–adventure on the open seas.

At one end of the ship was a small table-clock made to look like a ship’s helm, also an old gimbaled compass in its original box and two kerosene lanterns filled with red liquid. At the other end, a selection of three books leaning up against the base of a lamp: a first edition copy of Victor Canning’s novel The Chasm a story about adventure in the Italian Apennines; a first edition by Oregon writer Elizabeth Lambert Wood writing about the magnificent forests, ocean and lakes in her home state; and a 1931 edition of Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia Vol. IV of people and places, only the “B” list included. A set of very old binoculars with its original leather carrying case lies next to the books. And on the floor a small white, red & blue Route 66 sign, ticking time. A display of adventure signs, sailing the oceans and rivers, crossing a gorge in the Apennines, learning about new worlds and old times. Details observed.

A small table sculpture of two black Scottish Terriers standing on their hind legs holding up two interlocked rings declares an eternal cycle of loyalty, love, life, death and rebirth.

And here I sit in Florence, Oregon, not Italy as in Goldberg’s quote, living a life nearer to its ending than its beginning, yet dreaming of a desire to write, to publish, to create passable if not stunning paintings, to travel the world and sail down the canals of Europe, and to have the love, acceptance and tolerance of good friends.

I smiled at Goldberg’s words because I recognized that I had just experienced one of my Dad’s favorite synchronistic moments. Reading her book for the second time, wondering how to write about my animals while vicariously traveling to Lyon, France thru the email and picture journals from my friends just seemed to come together to bring more meaning to what I was writing. Dad believed that when you experience a coincidence such as this and it relates meaningfully to something happening in your life, it is a moment of Grace; one to which we should give our attention. And what’s happening in my life this moment is writing and armchair traveling and learning to walk like an animal. So it all fits.

Natalie Goldberg said writers should walk like an animal, with your senses alert like an animal’s senses are alert to every nuance of sound, smell and movement. As a pet sitter, I walk a cat walk. My senses are alive to what my special charges are doing and feeling every moment of the day. If they had been my cat or dog living at home with me, I would not have been so focused. Their daily adventures and idiosyncrasies would become uninteresting to me and I would have ignored them. I would have said, Oh you’re hungry again? You eat like a bull, Taurus. What is your problem? It’s not time yet. Bootsie, why the heck are you biting my legs? What is your problem? Leave me alone.

But, as pet sitter, I watch. I become a peeping-tom, a stalker. I follow them around. I walk like an animal. I check to see what they are up to, to see if they are okay. I annoy them to no end, especially Trina and Simon. I look for details. And they follow me. Even the cats follow me like a dog as if they were afraid I, too, would leave them. I remember thinking in the beginning, Why don’t these creatures let me have a moment of peace? But secretly, I love it. I know they are feeling insecure without their people and I become their only source of comfort when they are home alone. They eventually get it. I am it! I have the hand that feeds them, that gives them a rub-down. I glean a small bit of satisfaction that my presence makes them feel better.

I’m learning a lot about pets and about myself. I’ve learned that I like to ascribe human emotions to them. I know when they are happy. I see a cat tail extend straight up when he or she walks into a room and I say Hello Simon or Hello Tai or Hello Bessie! I watch whiskers turn up or down, knowing sadness, irritation, anger or contentment; I know eyes half-opened is an expression of love and contentment and trust; eyes large and round with dark pupils in full-moon is an autonomic response to fear or anger, and preparation for an attack. Often, I’ve experienced that glare. In fact, I have been the feared one too many times, the recipient of those big, dark alert angry eyes. Scary. Suddenly I am their prey and I want to hide under the covers.

I see the young kitten-energy return over and over after they do their daily job in the cat box. They burst into the living room wanting to play, wanting attention and affection, as if they know they’ve done a good job and they want me to know…so I can scoop it out for them. Cat sluggishness goes with cat constipation; and cat energy and happiness comes after a good bowel movement! The emotional and physical behavior of animals is amazingly familiar. Language of the animal world is as it is for us humans, too.

Dog tails swish back and forth and I know they are happy campers. Tails wagging. Jumping up and down barking. Barking in embarrassment, barking to warn, barking in excitement. Running in circles. Dog whimpering. Each whimper and bark a language to be deciphered. Each look a look of desire or love or need. Each rump-wagging, tail-wagging, a sign of love and excitement. The white lab lifts her head and looks at me, a sad questioning look in her eyes. What is it this time, Belle? I know she is asking me something but I don’t know what. Are you sad, hungry, do you need to go out? I prefer to think she is sad, but her owner says she is hungry. Just hungry.

I become a cat watching them like a cat watches a bird, chattering, waiting to see what would happen next, my body quivering with tension and excitement over what I might see, what indiscretion, what new sign I can read and learn, what might become a good story to tell their owners, thus Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter is in the works.

Writing. Watching animals. In Florence, Oregon. Traveling from my computer chair from cat house to cat house while reading emails from Bonnie and Ralph in Lyon and Avignon, France. A synchronistic moment. Just maybe I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.



Thanks For The Oranges ~ a short story by Alvin W. Need

Often, I’ve a need to revisit my father’s writings. Yesterday I found a short story he wrote which I remember enjoying when he first sent it to me. The oddest thing about it is that for my whole life, I never knew he believed in “God.” I knew he believed in a force, the a priori, universal consciousness, harmony, synchronicity, but he never called it God.  This story fills out the picture.

THANKS FOR THE ORANGES ~ © Thanks For The Oranges by Alvin W. Need

He had a feeling that it was the house that was changing around him, growing emptier and being invaded by a dingy solitude that was absorbing all space and all things. The symptoms were no stranger to him and he met them head on. But he met them by telling himself the time-worn things, and just the telling did not affect the growing emptiness around him.

Solitude was not really solitude, he reminded himself. He had always depended upon that “other” aspect of things—that “other reality”—to keep him from feeling alone. Aloneness was a myth, or better, aloneness was all there was, depending on how you related to the other reality.

And what of his isolation? Isolation was not really isolation when it was by choice. By choice he had remained at the cabin in the clearing deep in the Mendocino woods. By choice he could not leave the redwoods, the ferns, the trilliums in the spring, the deer, and the raccoons. By choice he needed the pervading sound of the storm winds rushing through the top of the forest. He could not do without the distant thumping roar of the surf against the coast, or the faint moan of faraway foghorns.

 He was not “cut off” from people, anyway. His files were full of “fan” letters from admirers of his paintings. Many of these letters were truly perceptive, and startling in their sensitivity to the ambiance and latent meaning he always managed to put into light and color and atmosphere. His work had worth in the lives of people. His own quality of love fulfilled a human need, whatever the nature of his personal seclusion.

 “Then, by Allah, why the emptiness now?” His mood was petulant as he addressed himself to the silent room—rather, to that other reality which he assured himself was always there, with him. “Father, Father, do not take thy presence from me…!”

He swept a pained glance around the familiar room which served as his studio and bedroom. No, it was not that it was really any more empty than usual. The mahogany spinet still stood patiently against the redwood paneling of the east wall. The dust on its top was a little more obvious this morning. Cat prints made a dainty trail along the closed keyboard cover. That Buddha-boy! When did he ever walk on the floor? And the bookshelves which formed most of the south wall still sagged under the weight of a jam of hard and soft cover religious and philosophical books, parapsychology reports, magazines, music, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, not to mention a small library of art books. His bed still reposed in the corner, neatly made. He scowled at it. “Should rumple it all to hell, walk on it, jump on it. “Change my luck, Lord, no?” he should have been, rather, a Varda, lounging royally on a fantasy sailing craft on San Francisco Bay, waited on by a colorful covey of nubile young maidens. [Varda also lived on the infamous ferryboat the Vallejo docked in Sausalito.}

Clothing was strewn over his beloved director’s chair which he had liberated from the Mirisch Bros., when they had come to town to shoot “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming.” He hung up the clothes, shoved his boots under the bed. “Make your bed, put your clothes away, wash the dishes, sweep the floor—but don’t dust the piano, old man.” Leave a slate for the Great spirit to write on.

His painting things, too, were filmed with dust. The sheet of glass he used for a palette shone pristine enough, but old paint-stained brushes and painting knives lay scattered on his painting table, mingled with bits of pencils, charcoal, matches, golf tees, grains of tobacco, squashed tubes of color, DiGel tablets, bottles and cans of turps, linseed oil, and spray varnish. His favorite painting tools were clean, though, and lay gleaming in the gray radiance from the north skylight.

His palette, his tools, the white canvas on the easel were ready. Ready for loving, as of old. Inwardly he grimaced and lowered himself wearily on to his painting stool. He stared all unseeing out at the vista beyond the glass wall. “Divine One, my love,” he sighed, “deliver me! Let me feel thine ambiance…!”

A mystical fog-shrouded corridor of trees and manzanita brush stretched endlessly down to the far-hidden sea. Ponderous-limbed ancient firs, moss-draped and vine-tangled, merged like shadows into the drifting mist, coming and going in changing planes, dreaming of primeval mystery…

Ambiance!

There was the key! The French spelling of a word that dictionaries define as the “environment or pervading atmosphere” of a place, object, situation, etc. It was not that the room was growing smaller, emptier, closing in. It was that somehow energy had drained out of the world. The “pervading atmosphere” was gone and what was left was a dry, shriveled bag of bones, without flesh, without vitality and without glow. Without ambiance…

He clutched his graying head in his hands. “Dear god,” he moaned, “Enlightened One, by all the Prophets…how can I live without thee? Bride of the Lamb, how could you fail me…?”

He crouched on the stool for a long moment, his shoulders silently heaving. Outside, blue jays screeched. The fog drifted in veils across the corridor, tapestry in motion. A lone raven cawed, high over the primeval shadows.

Presently he lifted his head, his eyes suffering, and stretched out a listless hand to flip on the stereo. “I know,” he whispered more calmly. “it’s me! O master, lift me up…come to me…”

Soft, faint, three-dimensional music floated down from the ceiling beams and he knew that the girl was singing with haunting nostalgia about the sun streaming through a window in late afternoon. With the sound, he was suddenly smitten with a deep flooding hunger for value, for significance, for communication, to be at the center of the meaning of life.

He shot from the stool, rigid. “Now look, dammit, Holy one…”

A loud knock shook the kitchen door and shattered the spell of his mood. He stalked into the adjoining room and flung the door open.

Two young men stood frozen, startled by the violence of his sudden appearance. “Uh…sir…” The taller of the two wore faded blue denims and a tentative bearded grin. “Would you like to buy some oranges?” he held up a mesh bag bulging with large oranges.

His darker, younger companion proffered the cut half of an orange, holding it out in his hand. The fruit glistened juicily in the gray light. “Sunkist,” he said, his eyes crinkling.

There was just the right inflection of confidence, welcome, and deference in his voice. “Try one?”

He stared in amazement at the two young apparitions. One tall, sandy-haired and heavily but pleasantly built, the other in jeans and a sweater, dark-eyed. He felt a tide welling up in his chest and exploded in sudden, releasing laughter.

Surprised again, they looked at each other, grinning.

“Sir…”

“I…” and another roar of laughter burst from him. “I can’t believe it!’ he gasped, tears running into his beard. “Wh…what are you fellows up to?” he lost himself in laughter again.

The blond one made a deprecating motion, the bag of oranges swinging from his other hand. “Just oranges,” he said. “Just selling oranges. Look, they’re good! Try one!”

“I’m sure,” he chortled. “But – out here” Man, houses out here are at least a mile apart, and all of them hidden in the forest. The only people I get here are Jehovah’s Witnesses. About once a month,” he added. He accepted the sample orange and sucked noisily at it.  “How much?”       

***************************************

A side note: An interesting site for an anecdotal history of Jean Varda and the Sausalito houseboat “beats” and artists – There is a page of Jean Varda’s beautiful collage work, pictures of him on his sail boat in the San Francisco Bay, stories from people who knew him.  Wonderful site.  – Susan



A Repository of Dreams
A Repository of Dreams

A Repository of Dreams

In 1999, A Repository of Dreams was my “prehistoric cave” painting to ensure a successful hunt for a literary agent and publisher! The vertical red book in the center—Bohemian Poor is as I wanted it to look back then.

This is one of my favorite paintings not only because it was a difficult challenge and achievement for me to draw and paint in a realistic manner, but also because I love reading, I love the feel of books in my hands, I love to see rows and rows of bookshelves filled with books, and since I was an innocent romantic 16 year old, I longed to be a writer. Note “to be a writer”—I didn’t know the difference between being a writer and actually doing the writing and living the writing life! And so I sat in front of the big double patio doors at sunset and day-dreamed about writing.

Growing up with a dad who was an artist I felt pressure to be creative, mostly in making art—drawing and painting—but he would have thought creative writing a valid option, too. In fact, when I was an adult, we had communicated by letter discussing the possibility of writing a book together about his painting. But between the age of 18 and 23, I rebelled—I did not want to do what dear old Dad did,  no way, no how. I did not want to paint.

My feelings changed shortly after I  married. I took up watercolor painting again and it soon dominated my life and grew into purpose. I wanted and needed something I could call my own, something separate from husband’s life. Painting was all mine. It gave me purpose. And unbeknownst to me for most of my married life, my painting, my artist being, was the one thing my husband had been proud of, the only thing he liked about me after a while.

In 1997 I had a dream. I started writing a memoir. I finished, or so I thought, a 360 page tome. Unfortunately, after sending out more than a hundred queries to agents and publishers, it never got picked up. I then sent it to a freelance editor; paid $350 to have her read it and write a response. She did a good job, writing four pages of comments, albeit most were discouraging…well, more like devastating.

She wrote that I was a good writer, but not an exceptional writer. I would need to edit and rewrite and pare down my concept. And that since my father the painter was not famous and my mother the seamstress was not famous and I was not widely known for any writing achievements or artistic merit, in other words, not famous, I would never get published. I was dead in the water. No famous relatives, no inside connections, and no exceptional writing skills. What’s a girl to do?

She wrote that I had enough material for three books in the one manuscript. And if the book was about my relationship with mother, then all the superfluous stuff about my father—I had included letters from my Dad as part of the book to give my miserable relationship with Mom a balance of a loving father—had to be removed. Three books—one about mother, one of Dad’s letters, and one about me?

An intriguing idea, so the thinking, conjuring and writing process began all over again.

I gave the editor’s ideas serious consideration. As much as I didn’t want to exclude the letters from Dad, I did. I needed to find some way to make my book different, to make it stand out among all the other unknowns, especially since the writing was not of literary quality, not poetic and not Pulitzer Prize winning.

I began with creating a few chapter illustrations. Since the chapters wandered all over the place, I knew one illustration could say very little about everything in each chapter. So I moved on to illustrating specific stories within a chapter. I rewrote each story so it fit on one 6×9 page and I created a corresponding illustration to go on the facing page. It was an exciting and fun challenge and, at times, a bit scary, like the time I drove from Port Orchard all the way around to Seattle on I-5 blinded by a torrential downpour. I felt compelled to finish that trip and I felt similarly compelled to finish my book…again. I couldn’t stop working on it.

To do the illustrations, I had to let go of a few expectations and inhibiting thoughts such as the one telling me that I can’t draw! I can’t draw well, but I had to let go of artistic ideas of perfection. I had to let go of fear. After a while, I knew the humor of my bad drawings was invaluable to the book as a whole.

The stories informed the illustrations, and the process of drawing helped me refine and edit the stories. The drawings and writing both triggered new memories, new stories. I had enough incidences in my life, funny and tragic, to make up a small book. Perfect.

Finally in 2008, ten years after I began my first draft, I self-published a spiral bound edition and sold copies to all the people I knew in Florence, Oregon at the time in order to pay the local printer. I self-published the second edition, which did include a few letters from dad, using LULU.com, an online POD, in 2009. And in 2010 I published the third edition, to include black and white images of several of my father’s paintings and sketches.  I had created a book that combined all the things I had originally started with but were now abbreviated, and I managed to include several of Dad’s letters!

Its cover is not red as in this painting, but black and white, and the title is Fragments: Growing Up Bohemian Poor In Dementia’s House. Still about growing up bohemian poor, but I wanted a title that would reflect the humor in the book as well as the seriousness of a troubled teenager and her mentally ill and demented mother. I felt black and white more appropriate to go with all the black and white illustrations. Plus black and white connotes documentation of reality; a memoir is a documentation of your own idea of your reality.




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