Strange Company: A guest post by Jean Ryan

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Strange Company

Recently I watched a program on strange animal partnerships. The first story featured an old blind horse and the goat that adopted him. Each morning the goat would lead the horse out to graze, skirting any obstacles, and all day they would stay close together. In the evening the horse would follow the goat back to the barn. This was the pattern for several years, until the horse died, and the goat, seemingly bereft, died soon after. There were other odd companions: a deer and a cat, a cheetah and an impala, and most famously, Tara the elephant and Bella the dog. And there were all sorts of unlikely mothers, animals willing to nurse just about anything. My favorite was a calico cat diligently raising a litter of skunks.

One scientist, Temple Grandin, posited that caretaking is an attribute specific to mammals, that our warm-bloodedness keeps us connected on profound levels. However, another story in this program focused on a goose smitten with a tortoise. Not only did this goose bring food to the tortoise, it attacked any other animal that came too close. There was also a story about a barn owl that cavorted with a black cat, and a crow that assumed the care of a kitten.

Maybe it’s not so odd that creatures raised together, even mortal enemies, will overcome their natural instincts and bond instead of fight. But what about animals that link in the wild? In the last segment of the program, a dog chanced upon an abandoned fawn, and they became immediate, playful friends. This alliance lasted for years, the dog waiting patiently for the deer’s inevitable return.

The central questions raised in this documentary were: Do animals feel compassion? Are they empathetic? The answer is fairly obvious, based on the evidence presented, but it invites a deeper question: what, from an animal’s point of view, does compassion feel like? Of course we can never know this, cannot enter the mind of a crow or cheetah, can never leave the frustrating confines of our own consciousness, which is why we must leave room for staggering possibilities.

From what I’ve seen, there is no limit to a dog’s ability to forgive; dogs are actually inclined to forgive: our oversights, our neglect, even our abuse. Dogs always want and expect the best from us. There is no love more unconditional than a dog’s love. Even cats, in their own haughty way, forgive us our humanness when they bunt our heads or settle on our laps. And the unions we enjoy with non-domestic animals are no less rewarding, and often more powerful, on account of their strangeness, as evidenced in that tender video many of us saw of an elephant seal cuddling with a young woman.

There is another video, a more recent one, of a spider monkey showing a person how to crush leaves. Certain plants have insecticidal properties, and monkeys in their canny, unfathomable way, will crush the leaves of these plants and rub them on their fur. In this video, the monkey seems to be trying to teach this method, placing leaves in a human’s hand and then pushing the fingers closed. The monkey seems quite adamant that the human needs to learn this. It’s one of the most touching videos I’ve ever seen because it shows how little we know of the animals we have come to depend on, for companionship, for service, even for help with psychological disorders.

There are three categories in fact, three ways we classify the animals we employ for our own needs: service animals, like seeing eye dogs and miniature horses; comfort animals, like those brought into hospitals and assisted-living facilities; and therapy animals, a group comprised of animals that help calm our demons. Any sort of creature can be considered a therapy animal. There is a parrot, for instance, that accompanies a schizophrenic man named Jim on his daily excursions. Jim adopted this bird after it had been dropped off, in bad shape, at a pet store. Jim nursed the bird back to health, and the bird apparently reciprocated. You see, whenever Jim experienced a psychotic episode coming on, he would pace his apartment, smacking his head with his hands. “Calm down,” he would tell himself. “Be good, Jim. You’re okay, Jim. You’re fine.” The parrot, hearing these words, began to utter them, and Jim found that the words, coming from another source, had a far more calming effect. The parrot also began to nurture Jim in other ways, sensing a psychotic break at the onset and tucking itself under Jim’s neck. We are warned against anthropomorphism, and I do think we are presumptuous in attributing human emotions to animals, in limiting them to the paltry depths of own feelings.

Compassion must be a far different thing in the animal kingdom, some primal, boundless urge we will never fathom.

I do know this: If I had the forgiveness of a dog, the intuition of a parrot and the kindness of a monkey, I would be one very special human.

Jean Ryan is the author of the short story collection Survival Skills and the essay collection Strange Company. Learn more about Survival Skills here, and visit Jean’s website to find other publications and posts. 

Cat editors: ACP authors Mindy Mejia & Jean Ryan

After realizing how many authors seem to find inspiration (or, at least, avoid procrastination) thanks to the felines who keep them in the chair, I began a blog series called Cat Editors. The series began with my own cat editor, Theo, who is also General Manager of Ashland Creek Press and basically keeps us both in our chairs.

Several Ashland Creek Press authors have shared their cat editors’ stories with me, and I’m delighted to share two of them here, especially since we have brand-new reasons to celebrate these two authors: Mindy Mejia and Jean Ryan both have new books out in the world!

Mindy Mejia‘s novel, Everything You Want Me to Be, is a page-turning mystery that we guarantee you won’t be able to put down. If you’ve read The Dragon Keeper, you know what we mean — but don’t just take our word for it: Mindy’s new novel is also a People magazine Best New Books Pick, one of The Wall Street Journal’s Best New Mysteries, recipient of a starred Booklist review, and so much more! Visit Mindy’s website to learn more.

Author Mindy Mejia lives and writes with a cat named Dusty.

Mindy's cat

On working with Dusty, Mindy says:

Dusty’s main editorial talents lie in encouragement and prioritization. He usually lounges on the table or in my lap, purring his approval at whatever scene I’m working on, and if I start daydreaming he’ll jump directly on top of the computer or manuscript (see picture) as if to say, “Oh, you’ve got better things to do than write? I guess I’ll just make this my new bed.” It never fails to refocus my energy, which I’m sure is his intent.

 

 

Jean Ryan is the author of Survival Skills: Stories and a novel, Lost Sister. Those of you who are familiar with Jean’s gorgeous short stories will love her newest book, Strange Company, a collection of essays featuring the same exquisite prose and astute observations on nature and life. Strange Company is available from MadeMark Publishing in paperback and will be available as an audiobook on March 31. Visit Jean’s website to learn more.

Author Jean Ryan writes with Tango.

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Of working with Tango, Jean says:

Tango does not want me to get too comfortable with my writing. She urges me to stay on the edge, to persevere through difficulty, to remember that the deepest truths are found outside my comfort zone.

 

Thanks to Mindy and Jean for sharing their writing processes with us, and thanks to the cats for making it possible! We look forward to reading much more of Jean and Mindy’s work.

Cat Editors: AMONG ANIMALS contributors and their feline muses

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about authors and their cat editors, and among them are three contributors to the first edition of Among Animals. Learn more about the brilliant felines behind these wonderful writers…

Diane Lefer and Junie (click here to read more about Diane’s many muses…)

Junie

Suzanne Kamata and Sumi (learn more about these two here):

Sumi

Jean Ryan and Tango, whom you can learn more about here.

tango

We would like to officially thank these felines for keeping these terrific authors in their chairs; without them, we may not have received their stories, and we are most grateful. And if you have a feline muse of your own, please feel free to get in touch!

 

Seasons in the Sun: A guest post by Jean Ryan

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Seasons in the Sun

Last spring, the seventeen-year cicadas, called Magicicadas, emerged from their burrows along the eastern seaboard. This was Brood II and involved seven states. Last year Brood I emerged in Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee; next year Brood III will surface in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.

I love this chart—it’s like a treasure map. How wonderful to know that if I’d shown up in a woods in east Kansas in the spring of 2015, I would have witnessed the emergence of millions of cicadas. I would have liked to have been there, peering at the ground, when the very first one stuck his head up. “Welcome,” I’d have said. “Welcome to this world.”

When the nymphs emerge, their bodies are soft and cave-white. I imagine they are blind, too, which might explain why they show up after sunset: sunlight must be shocking after seventeen years underground. The first thing they do is find a bit of vegetation to rest on while they complete a final molt that takes them into adulthood. In a week’s time, their exoskeletons have hardened and darkened, and they have grown transparent wings with orange veins. Their eyes, now quite large, are bright red. Like stubborn ghosts, the skins of their youth remain in the places they were.

The males, seeking mates, begin contracting their abdomens to make a series of loud buzzing and clicking noises. Often they form choruses high in the sunlit branches of trees, and their considerable racket attracts females of the same species. While the females don’t sing, they answer the males with a noise of their own, a movement called a wing flick, which can vary from a rustle to a sharp pop. Eventually they all find each other, and a mass mating occurs overhead, after which the females cut slits in twigs and lay their several hundred eggs. Six weeks later the eggs hatch, releasing nymphs the size of ants that fall to the ground and immediately burrow in. For nearly two decades, these pale bugs tunnel through a black world, sucking tree root sap as needed and growing ever so slowly. No one knows why they stay hidden for so long, or what finally beckons them skyward all at once.

Cicadas don’t live long as adults, not even long enough to see their progeny. In a month’s time, they sing, mate, lay eggs, and die, leaving an immense litter of dry husks. So many of them come into the world that even after the birds and rodents are satiated, the population remains intact.

I suppose those four weeks of glory is the point of a cicada’s life, but I wonder about the young, who live seventeen years in silence, impervious to cold and wind and noise. I see them tunneling away, no clue there’s another world waiting, no need to know anything but the next quarter inch. It seems a kindness, all that time to be young.

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Cat Editors: Two ACP authors and their feline muses

Last year, I began a blog series called Cat Editors, after noticing that I am not the only writer with a feline companion who is always in the middle of the writing action. (Below is my editor and our General Manager, Theo.)

theo-

Several of our beloved Ashland Creek Press authors also have cat editors — among them Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper and the mystery novel EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, forthcoming this November from Emily Bestler Books; and Jean Ryan, author of the story collection Survival Skills.

Click here to learn more about Mindy and and her hardworking editor Dusty:

Mindys-cat

And click here to learn more about Jean and her devoted editor Tango:

tango

And, if you’re a writer with a cat editor in your life and you’d like to share the joy, feel free to send me a note!