Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Peace Out, Dude

Every year my family and some friends board planes, other planes, swerving-hairpin-turn-loving taxis, ferries, and anything else that is required to get here, until we wash up on St. John in the U.S Virgin Islands. (The name of my blog honors one of my favorite bays here, Reef Bay.) Frankly, it's a pain to get here. And it's an even more long and uncomfortable journey to get home. Inconvenience, however, breeds a remote peace and, in this case, enduring natural beauty.

In the Caribbean, an island without cruise ships is literally like a day WITH sunshine. And St. John has none of the former and a lot of the latter. Along with floating virus-breeding hotels, St. John lacks Starbucks, shopping malls, stoplights, and reliable cell phone service. Of course, it's hard to notice the island's shortcomings in civilization. What with it's beautiful, pristine beaches and and being able to share an ocean with schools of fish, the odd eagle ray, and even the more rare green sea turtle, not being able to get your voicemail is a problem that quickly loses urgency.

Feeling stressed? In our family, you'll be advised to go "spend some time with the fish." In New Jersey, that might mean something more sinister, but down here it means donning a snorkel mask, floating off the beach, and looking down into coral. Unlike life at home, the slower you go, the better things get. You begin to hear the parrotfish pecking away at the coral, you notice little shrimp that live betweens the rocks, you hear yourself breathing in and out. You get to see all the things you can only see without looking for them, like a moray sticking it's head out of it's home or a barracuda cruising by to make sure you are behaving yourself in the neighborhood or an octopus chucking out the clam shell it just emptied for breakfast.

Besides the snorkeling, we relish other kinds of peace here. Rather than impatiently leaning on the car horn, we turn into people who patiently look at the countryside as the guy up ahead stops his jeep in the middle of the road to talk to his uncle. We make big breakfasts and take ages to cook dinner together. We don't care that a bird comes in every day to clean up the crumbs on the floor. We welcome incoming lizards and thank them or eating the bugs. And then we go off to float with the fish some more.

Over the years, we've come to love it here so much that we are careful not to recommend St. John to just anyone. On such a small island -- that's nearly all inside a national park -- it's unwise to welcome those who want a faster pace and services like, let's say, rental cars that can make it up mountainsides without having to turn off the air-conditioning. So please, if you like floating with the fish, come on down. But if you are someone who can't live without a fax or a latte, stay put. There's nothing for you here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

All Out of Pesto

Our cat Pesto died last month. We declared a day of mourning, and my son stayed home from school. We dug a hole in the back garden, gathered spring flowers in a vase, lit a candle. My husband, son, godson, and I each gave a eulogy. We ended it all with the traditional Jewish prayer: Baruch ata adonai eluhainu goodbye Pesto. Then, we stumbled on with life.

Our dog, however, didn’t.

Pesto was the last in a long, scratchy and temperamental line of family cats that began when my husband and I joined ourselves and our five cats in holy matrimony. (His two plus my three.) Pesto had been born on my bed, and that’s exactly where he died, almost to the day, fourteen years later. Of course, he didn’t know that. His last days on earth occurred during baby bird season – his favorite time of the year. We all felt badly for him, as he lay on the bed, wistfully eyeing robins out the window. It was a hard time to go.

Pesto was a Halloween cat, black with green eyes. He was incredibly annoying most of his life, but functionally so. At 5AM every morning, he stood in the front hall of our house, where acoustics were optimal, and howled in a piercing, relentless wail until I got up to feed him. He could keep this up for 45 minutes. It was a staying power that Pavarotti could appreciate. After he ate a can of cat food and I drank a cup of coffee, he would head outside for a digestive stretch and I would go up to my office to write. It was as good as it gets in the world of inter-species partnership.

He was a good mouser, and rid my garden beds of all moles, chipmunks, and other rodents every spring and fall, as thrifty as a girl might pluck daffodils. He frequently did the same for my neighbors, who regularly tried to coax him their way with treats and promises of future broiled salmon. He was unmoved. Only the hunt would guide him.

Pesto did what he wanted and didn’t do what he didn’t. He napped in the middle of the dining room table, regardless of how many times I shoved him off. He was affectionate, but would scratch you if you tried to hold him in your arms. He loved to sleep in the blazing sunlight, smack dab in the middle of the back yard. For a fellow who technically didn’t possess them anymore, he had balls.

His best friend was our dog, Smoke, who arrived as one squirmy, barking lack of decorum when Pesto was 10. Pesto regarded him with a mixture of pure contempt and haughty despair.

Over time they became inseparable. They napped together on the same sofa in my office. They roused themselves and followed me around the house together whenever I had the nerve to stir from my desk. They joined forces in the morning alarm duty, Pesto having elicited the dog’s large front paws to smack down hard on my chest, a kind of anti-snooze alarm device that he seemed to operate remotely from his position in the downstairs hall. The dog ate the cat food and the cat ate the dog food. It was a glorious symbiosis. They sparred at night over who would sleep in the best spot on my son’s bed.

At Pesto’s funeral in the backyard, Smoke was the loudest mourner. He barked during the eulogy, and paced back and forth as we settled Pesto in his grave. He tried to dig him up. For days after, as I passed in and out of our kitchen, no longer trailed by pets, I would catch sight of our dog out in the garden, lying atop Pesto’s grave. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and planted a big Nippon daisy over the old cat’s resting place.

For weeks now, Smoke’s been sullen. He roams around the house at night, unsettled and dissatisfied with his old sleeping spots. He looks mournfully up from bowls of the cat chow he once loved. I have to wake him in the morning.

This is why, once we get back from our summer vacation next week, we’ll be getting our dog a cat.