Friday, April 2, 2021

Of Lent and Litterboxes

Lent was approaching, and I hadn’t yet decided how to observe it. In my particular tradition, Lent is a time to slow down and examine how we live our faith in the day-to-day. It’s a time to challenge our comfort zones, which can so easily become barriers to a dynamic life of faith.

Last year, of course, we were midway through Lent when the entire world came to a screeching halt. And it didn’t start up again on Easter Sunday.

So this year seemed a little odd. I’d had a year of semi-isolation, yes, but I hadn’t really slowed down. If anything, I was busier than ever. I was focused on work and associations and research and to be honest, with nothing and no one at home to interrupt my introvert self, that comfort zone had gotten a little more rigid. I put on a few extra unwanted pounds, but otherwise the isolation of the pandemic didn’t affect me as deeply as it did others. I kind of liked my rut.

On this particular day, though, a friend stopped by to drop off a book. After placing the book on my doorstep, Jim withdrew partway down the walk and texted me. I came out and stood in the open doorway to visit a moment. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a flash of movement.  A cat was running down the alley across from me, a little over a block away.

As Jim and I chatted, the cat made a beeline across the street, down the sidewalk and up my walkway, glancing up at Jim without breaking stride. When he reached me, the cat paused, looked me in the eyes, and walked through the open door into my house.  

After Jim left, I went to find the cat. He was sitting on my sofa. I could hear him purring from across the room. I grabbed my phone and took a few pictures. A cat this friendly must have humans somewhere.

The pictures went up on Nextdoor. I searched the “lost pet” websites and bought cat food and kitty litter. Temperatures were dropping that night and I wasn’t tossing the friendly little guy out into the cold.

Besides, I like cats. The first pet I ever had that didn’t have to be shared with my siblings was a little grey tabby with tiger stripes.  He disappeared when I went off to boarding school; it broke my heart.

The next day, I let Cat out of the bathroom where he’d spent the night turning a toilet paper roll into confetti. He ran outside the open back door and disappeared. Gone to find his family, I assumed. Minutes later, he returned, meowing loudly at the door. After a while, I let him back in. It was time to take him to the vet to check for a chip.

He had no chip.

I sat down at my desk to see if anyone had responded to my attempts to find his humans. No luck there.

Cat jumped onto my desk and stared at me. Did I mention he’s a grey tabby with tiger stripes?

“You’re gonna to be such a pain in the butt, aren’t you,” I said, and he crawled onto my chest, put one paw on either side of my neck and pressed his face into my shoulder in shameless agreement. 

Forget my comfort zone. The cat now interrupts every activity and takes over my desk. When I work, he supervises.  


I had to upgrade my noise-cancelling headset so that Zoom depositions wouldn’t be interrupted by indignant yowls when I locked him out of my office.

My daily power naps have long been a perk of being self-employed. My first midday snooze after Cat moved in was interrupted by an unexpected thud! on the bed that my drowsy forgetfulness interpreted as the presence of an intruder. Adrenaline does not mix well with naps.

I decided to shut my bedroom door at night to avoid such surprises. The first night, I woke up out of a deep sleep, every sense suddenly on alert. I’d heard something, but wasn’t sure what. There it was again! Scratching… on the inside of my bedroom door

Heart pounding, I snapped on the light. Two paws were slid under my door, scratching on the inside to wake me up. Soon there were vocals. Not a simple “meow”, but a three-toned “ah-OOH-uh”, sometimes varied with “AHH-ooh-ah” or even “ah-ooh-AH”, which always sounds like a question.

I yelled, “Cat! Stop!” and realized he needed a name so I could yell at him properly. He looks like Irish Cream in a cup of coffee, so Bailey it is.

One week later, Texas went into a deep freeze. My house lost power. In a time when I’d gotten too busy despite a worldwide pandemic, my personal world now came to a screeching halt.  

As the temperatures dropped inside, I took refuge under my covers with my fully-charged laptop, phone, portable charger and Kindle. A camp lantern sat on my bedside table. For the next four days, Bailey joined me. Sometimes he crawled down to my feet like a feline hot water bottle. He watched me on the computer, stared over my shoulder as I read, and occasionally went to monitor the rest of the house.

Since then, I’ve lost a few of those pandemic pounds. It’s hard to snack absently when every bite must be guarded against a curious feline.

I can’t focus just on work anymore: there’s a litter box to clean, food to supply, backyard doors to open and close, and “stop that, bad cat!” to yell from time to time.

My fourth granddaughter was born, and when I finally got to hold her I was horrified to hear myself crooning, “Oh, she’s a good girl, yes she is. Such a good girl.” I may be on my way to becoming that cat lady.

Lent is almost over. Today is Good Friday. Although the pandemic persists, there are signs of hope on the horizon and I think of the disciples’ grief and hopelessness. Spring buds promise new life, and I think of Mary in the garden on Sunday morning, every expectation about to be shattered.

Sometimes we go into Lent with intentionality. We examine how the comfort of our worldview may be hindering our spiritual journey. We solemnly mark the days until Easter Sunday.

But sometimes Lent surprises us. Sometimes, to borrow from Carl Sandburg, Lent comes to us on little cat feet.

 Photo credits: Carol Shaw  

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Murphy and the cold, hard facts

There are icicles on my porch roof that haven’t melted since Wednesday. The weather folks say it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’re getting snow with high winds tomorrow and are on our way to single-digit temperatures.

I love the cold. My teen years and early adulthood were spent high in the mountains. Chilly weather makes me feel young, energized. Cold in Texas is a treat, so when I went out to pick up a last-minute order from my local Walmart, it was with an eye to staying off slick roads, not out of the weather.


It was still light outside when I left the house just after 6 p.m. Walmart is barely 2 miles away, so I slid my feet into sandals and threw a lightweight poncho over my short-sleeved t-shirt and sweat pants. That’s all I would need to sit in my car while some bundled-up teenager put my purchases in the trunk. Besides – young and invigorated, remember?  

I must have said that last part out loud, because somewhere, Murphy’s ears perked up.

When I got to Walmart, the app kept telling me I was 18 minutes away. Eventually it dawned on me: I’d placed the order on the other Walmart, 5 miles away in rush hour traffic. By the time I got to the right store, dusk had faded into dark and the temperature was dropping.  A polite, cheerful young man loaded my purchases and I started back home.

Ooh, Boston Market! Chicken pot pie for supper sounded perfect. Unfortunately, by the time I managed to move over just one lane, Boston Market was 5 blocks behind me. I’d have to loop back. The added “adventure” seemed to justify a Boston Market brownie, too.


Eventually, I pulled into Boston Market’s parking lot. My sandals no longer seemed practical so I decided to stay in the car. After placing the order online, I pulled around to a curbside pick-up spot to wait my turn. Switching off the car, I sat and enjoyed a few moments of unbusy-ness.

A young woman opened the Boston Market door and made her way toward the car. I hit the window button, and nothing happened. Oh, right, the engine was off. I pushed the ignition. Lights flashed, something chittered in the console, but that was all. Nothing useful happened. She walked around to my side and handed me my supper through the door. I explained that my battery seemed to be dead and I’d have to wait there for Roadside Assistance.


Roadside Assistance notified me that my rescuer would arrive in…. 1 hour and 49 minutes? I decided to eat my pot pie. And brownie.

The cold  was no longer invigorating. Bracing, maybe. I thought about how it's been a minute since those chilly nights in the mountains of my youth. I pulled my poncho closer around me, tucked my feet in a bit and prepared to wait. Time crawled by. I read Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and WhatsApp, emails and all 5 news sites on my phone in a steady rotation to pass the time. Unbusy-ness had lost its charm.


An hour and 45 minutes later, my toes were on strike and my arms were thinking of joining them, when a truck pulled up beside me and a man got out, wrapped up like a human burrito. I stepped out into the night in my frozen-toed sandals to say hello, and popped the hood on my car. Arctic wind whipped my poncho around. I climbed back behind the steering wheel, not sure if it was the cold or my arthritis that was slowing me down. My cheerful rescuer hooked up the cables. Frigid fingers pushed the ignition. Frozen toes pushed lightly down on the accelerator. The engine sprang to life and warmth, blessed warmth, began to fill the car.  

Burrito man walked over as I let the engine run. “I never knew it could get so cold in Texas,” he said.

“Yeah, but it’s been a while,” I answered. “Back in the mid-80s we had several cold winters, if you’ll remember.”

“I wouldn’t know,” he said politely.

“Oh, you’re not from here? Where are you from?”

“No…” he hesitated, then went on, “I am from here, but back in the mid-80s… ma’am, I wasn’t even born then!”

Just like that, the years caught up with me. Thanking human burrito child, I drove away, amused and grateful for my greying hair and thawing toes and the heated bliss pouring from the vents. Maybe, I reminded myself, maybe sometimes I should embrace the wisdom of Not Young. 

And somewhere, I swear, I heard Murphy laughing gently in the cold, invigorating night.  

Friday, July 24, 2020

On Stories and Holy Ground

For the last 3 weeks, members of my church have been meeting in small groups online for Safe Conversations - honest, vulnerable looks at stories and experiences of racial prejudice and bias and our own, often-subconscious responses. For me, it keeps coming back to the stories. Listening to someone else's reality without judgment or critique. Listening to learn. Listening for what is holy.
Holy Ground Come. Let me move myself over. Sit a while and share with me your story. Let your words Filter through the cracks and fissures of my world, past my certainties and creeds and the neat arrangement of my understanding, until they take shape, and grow. Stretch the sinews of my conviction. Push my inner parts aside. Let your story hollow out in me new holy ground and let me witness God’s eternity in you. © Carol Shaw 072120

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Cuaresma, Cuarentena

In Spanish, the word for Lent is Cuaresma. The word for quarantine is cuarentena. But the word cuarentena is also a rarely-used synonym for Lent. This year, during Lent, the world itself made a sacrifice of change and isolation. May we, like Jesus, come out of our desert stronger, with lessons learned.

Las palabras cuaresma y cuarentena tienen una misma raíz. Pero cuarentena es también un sinónomo poco usado de Cuaresma. Este año, durante la Cuaresma, el mundo mismo ha hecho un sacrificio de cambio y aislamiento. Esperemos que, como Jesús, salgamos de nuestro desierto más fuertes, con lecciones aprendidas. 



De la ceniza de
tu miércoles
no queda huella.
La cuaresma está
por terminar.
Abraza tu desierto.
El ruido, déjalo atrás.
Entra al silencio
de esta santa cuarentena
hasta que lo único
que queda es respirar.
Tu viernes
se vestirá de luto; 
el sábado de
gloria y confusión.
Pero el domingo renacerá
en destellada Luz
que convertirá
en catedral
tu solitario balcón.

-cs 041120

(Loose translation into English)


Of your Wednesday ash
not a trace is left.
The Lenten season is
coming to a close.
Embrace your desert.
Leave the noise behind.
Come into the silence
of this holy quarantine
until all that you can do
is breathe.
Your Friday
will dress itself in mourning;
Saturday in turmoil 
and in glory.
But Sunday will be born anew
in blazing Light 
creating a cathedral
of your lonely balcony. 

-cs 041120

Saturday, April 20, 2019

And the rains came

the rains came down
and we huddled,
cradling our pain and confusion

this was not the promise.

expectations drowned in mud,
reality in lockstep marching
without malice
without mercy,
a red line slowly strangling
the world.

when all was lost,
when we were lost,
that’s when the rains came down.

and the Earth thundered.
the Heavens split,
Holy Fire engulfed
a man-made Tree,
leaving only bitter Ash

cleansing ash
mixed in mortal silence
as the Living Rains came down. 

-cs Ó041919

Thursday, March 28, 2019

On Keys and Compliments

It was 1983. I was working in the international sales department of a manufacturing company, a job landed two months earlier thanks only to my command of Spanish. The environment was nothing like that of my last full-time employer (a leading law firm in Ecuador).  The rules and jargon of the U.S. labor culture still perplexed me.

At that particular moment, I was interrupting an engineer. Spreading a schematic out on his desk, I pointed to an error in the design. Not that I knew exactly where the error was; I just gestured vaguely in the direction my boss had.

The unhappy engineer made some notes for himself. I reached past him to pick up the schematic. All of a sudden, a smile softened his face and he murmured,  “Someone sure smells good!”

Then, with a horrified look on his face, he stared up at me and blurted, “Oh, but it isn’t you!”

(I later learned that he had been reprimanded for inappropriate comments made to female colleagues. As for me, I’ve giggled over his compliment-backsie for years.)

Compliments. Powerful little bits of encouragement that we’re often too unmindful to give. There’s a juvenile judge in whose court I interpret from time to time. Watching her interact with the teens that file nervously past her bench is a study in the power of compliments. 

One young offender walked forward this week in his Sunday best. The judge smiled and said, “Thank you for dressing so respectfully for court. That’s a great tie.”

“Thank you,” he mumbled in his thirteen-year-old voice (part man, part boy, part yodeler), and stood a little taller than before.

She does this with all the kids in one way or another.  

I was thinking about that when I left the courthouse. Thinking about how easy it isespecially on social mediato criticize those who are too young, too old, too different or just don’t seem to have a handle on life, overlooking the chances to build someone up. 

While lost in thought, I pulled up to the post office to check the day’s mail. The battery has gone out on my key fob and I haven’t found my teeny little screwdriver yet, so I’ve been locking the car manually. As I walked to the post office door I shifted the keys in my hand. The key ring felt light. And small.

The car key was missing.

I retraced my steps. Nothing on the ground. But when I peered through the window of my car, there it was: my key, lying neatly in plain view. The ring that attached it to the rest, the ring that I kept meaning to replace, was flimsy and had come loose from the rest of my keys.

Stepping inside the post office, I called roadside assistance. Just telling the operator that I’d locked myself out of the car apparently wasn’t enough. I felt compelled to explain about the flimsy ring, and the dead battery, and how this hadn't happened in a long time, and how I’d make sure to take care of it all right away. She listened patiently, an impromptu Mother Confessor who tried to assure me that I had no reason to feel dumb even though we both knew differently.

Fifteen minutes later, a man in a roadside assistance car pulled up beside me. About three minutes after that, my door was open and I could sheepishly return to normal life.

As he reached past me to pick up his logbook, my rescuer’s face eased into a smile. “Someone sure smells good,” he said. “That perfume is perfect for you!” 

Then he got in his car and drove away, leaving me just a little bit taller.  

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Borders and a New Year's Prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot about borders, current events being what they are. 

At a Rio Grande summit last month where I served as the interpreter, someone made the simple but profound observation that you cannot see the border in the river. The image gripped me. 

It got me to thinking about water and baptism and new life and how we all have borders in our lives because change is one of those inevitable things, like death, taxes and the pull of gravity on body parts. 

I don’t know about you, but when I plan a journey I start with the destination and work backwards. If there is no To, there can be no From, and I find myself forever parked at the starting line, wondering where to set my sails.* 

Of course, most of my journeys happen without planning. I pin my hopes or expectations or fears on a distant point and somewhere along the way realize that I’m headed there, gathering experiences (and pounds and wrinkles) as I go. Somewhere along the way, I reach a border between what was and what will be. 

The thing is, whether the journey is planned or (more commonly) accidental, I tend to forget that after reaching the border, after I rest and take a breath, I will inevitably – there’s that word again – head for yet another border. Another invisible line between what was and is, and what will be. 

And while I may not see it, the experience is always a baptism. Each border always brings a death and rebirth of sorts.

I think about things that drive people from their physical homes and homelands, and those that drive us from our metaphorical ones.

I think about the fears, dreams, or needs that push and pull us into the journey and how they trigger fear or hope in others along the way, others who are then pushed or pulled into their own journeys, carried to their own borders, facing their own invisible lines.

And in the crisscross of our paths and borderlines, I find sketched the face of our common humanity.

So here’s my prayer for 2019: whether we look at the exhausted faces of refugees fleeing conditions most of us cannot imagine, or the careworn faces of our neighbors whose struggles we cannot see, may we all extend a little mercy and remember the grace we have been given.  

*Metaphors may be unapologetically mixed, shaken or stirred this New Year’s Day.

© 2019 Carol Shaw