Let Love In: Lessons Learned from Nigel

Over ten years ago, my sister and I were at the animal adoption center, wandering between rows of penned animals. Don’t ask me why we made a habit out of breaking our own hearts; we had recently moved out of our family home together and one of the bold-faced rules in our new rental agreement was NO PETS. Still. We both loved animals, and apparently, we both thought it was enjoyable to pass a Saturday afternoon checking out scads of animals we could never take home or love beyond those few, fleeting minutes.


On a fateful day in October 2003, we walked by his cage, saw his orange face, and felt an inescapable stirring inside. We glanced at the name tag on the front of his pen: “NIGEL”, it read. Exchanging a knowing glance, we mouthed “perfect!” to each other, and within the hour, Nigel had found his forever family. Screw rental agreements, right?

How could we resist a face like this?

How could we resist a face like this?

Nigel was in rough shape when we took him home– physically, emotionally, and socially. For one thing, he was greasy. I’m talking really, super greasy. Even though the vet estimated Nigel was around four years old at the time, he either didn’t know how to, or didn’t care to, clean himself, so his fur was matted into what looked like a badass feline faux-hawk. Furthermore, his chin was sprinkled with generous doses of what we like to call catne— cat acne, for those in the know, and he had approximately zero muscle tone in his legs and torso. You could lie him on his back (theoretically), and his front and hind legs would splay out on the ground like he was making a snow angel instead of staying relatively pointed toward the heavens. Definitely unusual for cats.

Still greasy...

Still a bit greasy and matted…

On an emotional and social level, Nigel was a bit of a nut case, too. “Skittish” was an extreme understatement for him– he’d dart and dash away from even the hint of human interaction, and his eyes seemed to be locked in their ‘Alarm and Mayhem!’ expression permanently. The woman at the adoption center couldn’t even believe that Nigel had approached us, timid as hell, from the depths of his cage before we signed his release papers. During his stay at the center, she informed us, Nigel had earned a reputation as a coward-slash-Bad Seed, and the simple act of showing courage in front of an outstretched human hand was totally unheard of for him.

What the woman at the adoption center didn’t know, though, was that Nigel was on his last chance.

We later learned from the intake vet’s notes that Nigel was a “hard luck guy” who had been passed up for adoption enough times to warrant a scheduling of his demise in the not-so-far-off future. Apparently, acne-ridden tabbies weren’t in high demand as family pets, especially acne-ridden tabbies with deep-seated fears of everything. And even if the adoption center lady didn’t realize this, Nigel must have known The End Was Near to the very core of his greasy body. Woo-woo me totally believes that Nigel manifested us and enlisted us to orchestrate his prison break, just in the nick of time. (Rational me says “Oh, look! We adopted an orange cat named Nigel mere days before he was set to be destroyed. Funny that.”) There were only three problems:

1. Nigel had extreme health issues (kidney and liver issues in addition to his general greasiness, acne, and lack of basic muscle tone)

2. Nigel was completely unaccustomed to behaving in ‘normal’ cat ways (being aloof, preening the day away, feeling soft and pleasing to the human touch, etc.)

3. Oh yeah, my sister and I weren’t even allowed to have cats in our rental suite. Other than that, though, this was a perfect date with destiny! 🙂

Taking a cat nap. NIGE!!!

Taking a cat nap. NIGE!!!

To his immense credit, Nigel learned almost immediately to meet my sister and I half way: we would shower him with love and safety, and he would allow his deep suspicions of the entire world to slowly fade away into trust. We would buy him expensive cat food and let him sleep in drawers filled with our clean clothes, and he would improve his muscle tone and shock the vet at his follow-up visit a month after his adoption. (So fit and vibrant! How was that even possible?) We would try to dust him in “dry cat shampoo” and comb his greasiness away, and he would run around the house like a demon, resisting any and all efforts to tame the prized matted look that had taken a whole lifetime to achieve. Seriously, though– Nigel had known nothing but strife and struggle for the first four years of his life. To allow even a tiny bit of love to seep into the hardened crust of his demeanor took a mad leap of faith on his part, and whether or not Nigel did this “consciously”, he sure showed me by example how much we can all flourish if we simply Let Love In.

Nigel is my North Star

Nigel is my North Star

Time passed, and as things like grad school, blossoming love relationships, and moves away from the city started happening, Nigel was eventually placed in the care of my doting dad– Nigey’s forever and ever home. I swear, you have never seen a cat so loved. My suspicions of who was the Real Boss in my dad’s house were confirmed when Marty and I offered to cat-sit Nigel once on a trip back to Calgary. My dad had left us a 3-page list of caring instructions for Nigel, one of which outlined which stair we should sit on when brushing him, since he had apparently acquiesced to having his fur styled– but only if he got to sit on the top stair and we would sit two stairs below him. Only a truly doting dad could have figured that one out, right? And until some genius invented those magnetic patio door curtains, my dad would patiently let Nigel in and out of his house every few minutes, because even years of loving care hadn’t been able to erode Nigel’s ADHD. Bending over backwards for a cat every four seconds for hours at a time = true love.

Nigel wasn’t supposed to make it past October 2003, but he found a way to escape his fate and to thrive in an environment of love, safety, and trust. After ten years of living the Good Life, Nigel’s previous health issues suddenly came back full-force, and the vet’s prognosis was heartbreaking: pain, suffering, deterioration. My dad, fiercely devoted to this badass feline, made the courageous, never-easy decision to bring Nigel peace. Now, all that’s left of Nigel is his legacy:

Let love in and thrive against all odds

Allow yourself to be loved, even when it’s hard to love yourself

Let love transform you, and love will show you what’s possible (you’ll be amazed!)

R.I.P Nigel-- 1999 (?) to November 20, 2013 xoxo

R.I.P Nigel– 1999 (?) to November 20, 2013 xoxo

I love you, Nigel. Thank you for letting me in. xo

Jesus Smells Like a Wet Dog?: Curious Things Overheard at My Grandma’s House

Creepy LASER VISION basset hounds!

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Calgary– a shining beacon of happiness in the midst of sorrow, if you will– came courtesy of the interchange between one of my cousins and my mom. It was a few days before my Grandpa’s funeral, and a small army of family members had descended upon the Legendary Family Home like locusts (to save on hotel costs, of course). The bedrooms were all full, the couches had all been claimed, and one of my poor cousins got stuck on a foam mattress on the basement floor when she first arrived.

Not my grandma's dog, but pretty darn cute nonetheless. Ladies and gentlemen: meet Howard!

To make matters worse for my poor cousin, even though the eldest aunt had washed every piece of bed-able linen in the house, all of the bedding had been distributed to other family members already, leaving my cousin with only (gasp!) one of the dog’s blankets to use overnight. She didn’t know it at the time she snatched the furry quilt up, but my grandma’s prized basset hound, Metro, had snuggled in that very same blanket– probably for solid weeks before my cousin used it. (In this case, ignorance was bliss. Who would have wanted to knowingly curl up in the dog’s blanket for the night?) 🙂

Metro and Grandma

Anyway. My cousin understandably had a terrible sleep that night, ensconced as she was in a stinky dog quilt. My mom didn’t fare much better on the couch in the living room, as my grandma’s two dogs (Metro and Hunter, aka The Bestest Boy), were free to cuddle with her all night if they so desired… which they did. Hundreds of pounds of dog in her makeshift bed! In the morning, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, my cousin and my mother commiserated.

Mom: I didn’t sleep well at all last night. The Bestest Boy was practically wrapped around my face the whole time.

Metro is playing the part of The Bestest Boy in this pic.

Cousin: I had a terrible sleep, too. I’m pretty sure I was sleeping with one of the dog quilts, because I kept waking up and smelling Cheezies all night.

Mom: [Perplexed.] [Totally misunderstanding my cousin, thinking she said she was smelling Jesus all night. Don’t forget that we come from a super-religious family, so somebody claiming to smell Jesus wouldn’t be entirely unheard of in the family home.] [Giving my cousin a polite look.]   ???

Cousin: [Seeing look of utter confusion on my mom’s face.] [Attempting to elaborate.] You know… sort of like a wet dog smell? I kept waking up and smelling something gross.

Mom: [Nose wrinkling.] [Not sure if her niece is being serious or completely sacrilegious.] Jesus… smells like a wet dog blanket?!

Cousin: [Busting a gut laughing.] Not Jesus— CHEEZIES!!

[Gales of laughter erupt]


PS: Thank you to those of you who wrote to tell me that the Comments section is being a real jerk. The WordPress forums don’t have much to suggest except “Make sure you are logged in to comment”, so hopefully things will clear up soon!

Peace Is On The Rise

It has been a crazy few weeks, to say the least. On the evening of March 10th, I found out that my grandfather was in the hospital dying. The dreaded ‘c’ word– cancer– had overtaken his body, spreading from his prostate into his lymph nodes and– tragically– his brain. Mere hours after he had been admitted into the hospital, long before Marty and I were even able to get to Calgary, he was gone. A tumor– covering close to 20% of his brain like snaking, suffocating ivy– is what officially took him away from this earth.

This is a photo my grandpa took of himself for a camera course shortly before he passed away. Spooky, no?

At least it was quick. At least he was surrounded by family when it happened. At least there was no pain.

Grandpa smoking beside the first of his many children

I spent over two weeks at my grandma’s house, first helping out with the funeral plans and later watching over my grandma and aunts like a regular Florence Nightingale. I designated myself Queen of My Grandma’s Kitchen, and for weeks I prepared my extended family nurturing soups and nourishing bowls of morning oatmeal. I’ve never cooked so much food in my life! True to my Almost Vegan self, I roasted several organic chickens for a crowd and even ventured to make my grandma’s dogs raw dog food. (A word to the wise: using a food processor to blend hamburger meat and LIVER is not for the faint of heart, and especially not for the Almost Vegan Faint Of Heart.) Heh. During that two week span, I transformed from somebody who was secretly wary (and even a bit petrified) of my grandpa to an open-hearted goddess of love and understanding for that particular branch of my family tree. I am back at the lake now, safe and sound, but I am definitely a woman changed.

Newsflash: My Grandpa was good looking! Consider me shocked.

My metamorphosis started with a dream.

In the wee morning hours of March 12th, I bolted awake in bed, finding myself reciting the final words of the Lord’s Prayer. Out loud. In the dark! Only moments before, while I was still asleep, I had seen a circle of women holding hands and chanting the Our Father together. When it came time for the final verse, they summoned me over. “You have to say this part”, they said, but I was warm and cozy underneath my blankets. (Besides– godless heathen alert!– I wasn’t certain I would even remember the final words to the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, I had been raised ultra-Catholic, but it had been well over 10 years since I had recited any officially-sanctioned prayers.)

This photo pretty much sums up everything I thought I knew about my grandpa: cowboy hat, crucifix, enthusiastic fist pump, and the Lord Our Shepherd in the background. 🙂

There was no way I was going to say anything for the women in my dream. Sorry, ladies: No late night Lord’s Prayer for this sinner.

“You have to say this part!”, they demanded again, this time more urgently. “Now!” So I woke up and whispered, For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Now and forever, Amen. I scanned the bed in embarrassment to see if Marty had heard me, but luckily he was still fast asleep beside me. Then, knowing how uncommon it was to find myself roused from my slumber by a prayer, I quickly checked my alarm clock for the time. It was 2:52 am.

This photo ALSO sums up everything I thought I knew about my grandpa. His own caption for the pic is "Me reading bible". Yep. Reading the bible... on the deck... practically nekkid. Oh, Grandpa! 🙂

I found out from my mother, mere hours later, that my grandpa had passed away during the night. Do you want to hazard a guess re: the exact time of his death? Uh-huh. It was even adjusted across time zones– 3:52 am Mountain Standard Time, or 2:52 am Pacific Standard Time. Leave it to my grandpa to beckon me back onto the Catholic Path with his last earthly breath… (I called it Grandpa Shaktipat, a decidedly un-Catholic way of understanding what had happened to me and what it all meant.)

Grandma and Grandpa. My mom looks EXACTLY like my grandma in these shots!

It sounds cheesy. It seems cliche. But after that dream, my heart opened up like a flower in full bloom. I reconnected with my family members (dozens and dozens of them) and finally felt the peace associated with not judging them or trying to distance myself from them. I was awash with grace. I cared for my family members, both in the physical sense– making sure that the legendary family home was clean and that healthy food was always on the table– and in the emotional sense, too. Most of the tears I cried in Calgary boiled over not in sadness over my Grandpa’s absence, but in love and compassion for my Grandma, who had been with my Grandpa since she was only 15 years old. Her heart had been broken, and my own heart broke in empathy for her.

Only the best photo in the history of the universe! Can you believe that this is my grandma and grandpa? He was 17 in this picture; she was 15.

A year later, in Golden BC

Terrible circumstances are what brought Marty and I over to Calgary, but the tragedy of losing my Grandpa– the undisputed, often terrifying head of our family’s household; the God-fearing, Bible-loving Catholic with a big heart and a short temper; the usually-shirtless man with a permanent suntan and a generous gut– enabled us to form actual friendships with my Grandma, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and even my own sisters and parents again. My heart still aches for my Grandma, but for the first time in my life, I am phoning her regularly and enjoying our conversations together. We’re friends now! The two weeks I spent with her have literally changed me. Yes, I’m still the pro-choice, feminist, gay-marriage-supporting black sheep in the family, but the grace of god and my Grandpa’s spirit helped me to realize that so much more connects me to my family than sets me apart.

Grandma and Grandpa at their 25th wedding anniversary, unveiling the now-legendary pic of my mom and her infinite number of siblings. (My sisters and I have tried duplicating this pose in many of our own pics.)

RIP Grandpa: October 20, 1937 to March 12, 2012

Totally unrelated to this post: Apparently WP is blocking some people from commenting on this and other posts. If you have been trying to comment but find yourself facing the stone-cold wall of WP disapproval, please e-mail me at:

dana (DOT) zonapellucida (AT) gmail (DOT) com

and I’ll see what I can do. Thanks!

Holy Shiitake Stew!

My mom is serious about whole foods (the concept, not the store), and she doesn’t waste her time with single-serve portions. Ever. Even when she cooks just for herself, she prepares weeks of meals in advance. Bushels of gorgeous garlic bulbs fill every nook and cranny of her kitchen, and her fridge is always packed to overflowing with juicing carrots and leafy greens. (In fact, the first time Marty ever witnessed the splendour of her kitchen– with bags of organic grains peeking out from random cupboards and jars of decadent ingredients dotting every shelf (even local bay leaves!) — I suddenly made a lot more sense to him. The apple did not fall very far from the tree in this particular case, and it probably reassured Marty to realize that I am not the only person in the world who caresses bunches of kale in hushed reverence and admiration. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Garlic worthy of adoration

I had requested specific items in advance of my mom’s visit: lemons, ginger root, turmeric root, a bit of garlic, and rolled oats. (We drink the best tea every morning, with fresh lemon juice, ginger, turmeric, and cayenne pepper in it, so we go through those ingredients like nobody’s business.) My mom did not disappoint. She brought us LEMONS! and GINGER! and TURMERIC! and 25 POUNDS OF ROLLED OATS!, along with enough garlic to keep the whole cast of Twilight far, far away forever and ever amen. Alleluia!

Gee, I hope you didn’t say ‘A’ lemon, because I brought LEMONS!!

What I wasn’t expecting was the mushrooms. Specifically, my mom showed up with what she termed a “dealer’s weight” of shiitakes. She wasn’t kidding. As I watched– breath held with cautious expectation– my mom unveiled a hefty-sized paper bag stuffed to the brim with mushrooms. Upon seeing these elaborate flowers of the forest ground, both of us emitted our signature, clan-patented squeals of delight! (Thankfully, Marty was on a bike ride at the time and didn’t have to deal with two nut cases culinary aficionados. We were free to be as enamoured with the fungi as we liked.)

Soft-core shiitake porn

Shiitake close-up. You’re welcome.

Not wanting to let even one of these beauties go to waste, Marty and I have enjoyed mushroom soup and shiitake-studded omelets for the past week. This evening, I also made us a variation of our regular mushroom soup and dubbed it Holy Shiitake Stew. Have some mushrooms lying around, shiitake or not? Here’s a beautiful, soul-warming, and vegan way to enjoy them. (Non-vegan boot-wearing is optional.) Bon appetit! 🙂

Holy Shiitake Stew

You Will Need:

– 1 Tbsp coconut or other cooking oil

– 1 large onion, coarsely chopped

– 3-4 carrots, sliced

– 3-4 celery stalks, sliced

– Fresh garlic to taste (I used 2 large cloves), thinly sliced

– 2 pounds of shiitake mushrooms, or mixed mushrooms to taste. Take 1.5 lbs of mushrooms and wash and coarsely chop them. The other half pound should be washed and cut into bite-sized chunks.

– 6-8 cups of water or vegetable broth

– Salt and pepper to taste

– 1 tsp each of thyme and curry powder

– dash of caraway seeds, if you’re feeling adventurous

How To Make It:

1. In a stock pot, saute onions in coconut oil over low heat. Cover pot and check on onions occasionally, stirring until they are soft and translucent (approx 5-7 minutes).

2. Add carrots and garlic to the pot, along with 1/2 cup of water or stock. Cover and let cook on low to medium heat for around 5 minutes, until carrots start to soften.

3. Add celery and another 1/2 cup of water or stock to pot. Cover and let cook on medium heat for around 5 minutes.

Just in case you need to see what the soup looks like at this point

4. Add 1.5 lbs of chopped mushrooms to pot, along with 4 cups of water or stock. Water will not cover the mushrooms at this point, but they will soften and reduce in size very quickly. Cover pot.


5. Cook mushrooms with the rest of the vegetables until everything is tender, stirring as needed. Add rest of water or stock, salt, pepper, curry powder, and thyme. Bring to a boil, cover, and then simmer on low heat for 30 minutes.

Soup after 30 minutes of simmering, pre-blending

6. Meanwhile, saute remaining 1/2 pound of mushrooms in a pan with a small amount of water (and caraway seeds if you so desire) until tender. Remove from heat and set aside.

7. After soup has simmered for 30 minutes, remove from heat and blend in the stock pot until smooth using a hand blender.

8. Add sauteed mushrooms to smooth soup mixture to give it some texture. Adjust seasoning if needed. Serve hot over a whole grain or with fresh garlic toast. Holy shiitake, it’s delicious! 🙂