RIP Sweet Sera

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sera in cat room

Seraphina Walker-Weir, a sweet little cat who was adored by everyone who met her, died on August 25 of breast cancer. She was about 8 years old.

Born in 2008, Sera’s childhood was quite difficult. Her owner was a hoarder, a woman who collected felines yet failed to provide family planning, medical care or cleaning services. Around the time of her first birthday, authorities raided the house and rescued Sera, along with her 60 sisters, brothers and cousins. The cats were transported to the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, N.H., and treated for various illnesses. The entire lot was spayed and neutered, brought up to date on their immunizations and put up for adoption.

Due to the sudden arrival of so many cats, the humane society contacted the media for assistance. When Marcus and I read the newspaper article about the cats’ ordeal, we immediately drove to the shelter and offered our help. A few hours later, we adopted two of the hoarder’s cats: a fluffy black-haired beauty who was originally named Elizabeth Taylor but we renamed Mystery, and a tiny tuxedo cat named Jane Fonda who we christened Seraphina.

Mystery died in 2011.

Sera had a soft, brownish-black coat with white hair on her chest, tummy and feet. Whenever she wanted attention, she would stand on her hind legs, place her front paws/claws on your thigh and give you a look that begged for a lift to the lap. No one could resist this request. She adored being pet on the head, stroked under the chin, caressed across the back and rubbed on her belly. Unlike the rest of our cats, she even allowed us to tickle the pink jellybean toes on her paws. Although everyone marveled at her beauty, it was Sera’s affectionate nature that prompted friends and family to threaten to catnap her when we weren’t looking.

Sera’s disposition was generally very gentle and easy going; however, her tough upbringing and diminutive size gave her the spirit of a Mafia don (“Listen Cujo, I got some pretty wicked claws under these mitts, do not, I beg of you do not make me bring out these bad boys! It gets ugly!”). She would allow other cats to gain access to our laps, even if she was already settled there, but if they crossed the line in any way, Sera wouldn’t hesitate to bitchslap them back into place. She also had an affinity for all things shiny and dangly so wearing long earrings or necklaces was not usually advisable.

This smart and sassy cat became my familiar and was rarely far from my side. If I sat on the couch to watch TV or read, she would inevitably settle into my lap. When I occupied the reclining chair and worked on my laptop, she’d wedge herself next to it so she’d be available for snuggles. And if I was sitting at my desk, she’d stop by several times a night to lie on my chest or recline in my lap while I did my best to love her and type at the same time. Every encounter was accompanied by the song of her purr, which was loud and true. During the moments when she wasn’t cuddling with us, Sera was usually sleeping on her brother Duncan’s giant bed, atop my desk chair, in the cat suitcase or inside a cat condo.

Her health, unfortunately, was not great. Living in filth as a kitten seemed to stunt her growth so she never weighed more than 6 pounds. She suffered from digestive issues that required special foods, mats and cleaning supplies (particularly air freshener) to manage. Yet that didn’t stop Sera from always begging for bits of the scrambled egg or poached fish that appeared on our plates. She was so attuned to my cooking habits that she could tell the difference between the opening of a can of tomatoes and the opening of a tuna can. She’d only show up for the latter.

Cats who are not fixed before their first heat have a much higher risk of developing a vicious strain of breast cancer. When the vet diagnosed her with this deadly condition last November, she gave Sera less than a year to live. Since surgery would have been ineffective and needlessly painful, we vowed to care for her as best we could and make that final year a good one.

Over time, the tumors grew out of Sera’s chest and bled. Throughout the winter and spring, her appetite rarely wavered, in fact it increased as the cancer stole all of the nutrients her meals offered. When the tumors made lying on her stomach uncomfortable, she would lie on her side or back and purr. Once the cancer invaded her lungs and affected her breathing, we knew the time had come to say farewell.

The vet who had cared for Sera since the cancer diagnosis kindly helped to put her out of her misery. After the first shot was administered, I picked up Sera’s small, frail body and held her in my arms. M petted her head comfortingly until the light faded from her eyes.

She was our youngest, and she will be so missed.

Sera with the jelly bean toes

Sera by my laptop

Buddha and Sera

Sera and Duncan

Sera playing

Sera with the sassy tail

Sera at the end

The things I do to make up stuff

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Omnia vanitas

Many of you know that fiction is not my forte. I love it. I read it all the time. But decades spent working in journalism has caused my imagination to atrophy.

The difference in the two forms of writing is palpable; instead of doing sprints, I’m trying to run an entire marathon, which, as you can guess, is no easy task. Still, I’m determined to write this novel and write it well. At the moment, I’m smack dab in the middle of the research phase; I’m reading related books, jotting down ideas, creating characters and writing various scenes.

Some novelists start with the dreaming phase, then move into research before writing a word. I’m going about it from the other direction as a way to best transition the skills I’ve honed from the territory of nonfiction into the make-believe realm.

Researching before dreaming also provides me with a better sense of time and place, much the same way a painter paints the background of a picture before focusing on the details in the foreground. Once the world is formed, the characters can fill it.

Over the years, I’ve tried various forms of organization, including outlines, emails, snowflakes, blueprints and clouds. While I have no doubt these methods work for others, none gave me the clear picture I needed to move forward with my fiction. For this book, I’m going with a technique that’s both familiar and easy-to-understand: the murder board. Fans of “The Closer,” “Castle” and “Elementary” will know exactly what I mean, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, it looks something like this:

murder board

I’m writing notes on legal-lined yellow stickies, keeping track of research in trade paperback-sized notepads and tacking everything up on individual corkboards that have been affixed to the back of my office door.

Unless the air conditioner is on, I generally keep the office door open while working on the news. Closing that door is just one more sign to my muse that I’m ready to get down to the business of pretending.

Other signs? Well, there’s an actual sign that hangs on the front of the door that says: Novelist at work. Its message is more of a reminder to me than to others.

When I work on my novel, I shut down my email program and hide my browser. I don a necklace that features a quote from Ray Bradbury. And I sit at my desk with an ice chai latte, a drink that I discovered while living in Seattle in the early oughts. After two years of drinking the beverage while writing fiction, a Pavlovian response developed in my brain that permanently associates the two.

These efforts may seem like silly writing superstitions, or perhaps even crutches. I don’t care. My muse likes to be wooed.

How privileged are you?

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Before taking this test, I felt pretty privileged. Although I’m a woman, I’m also white, straight, middle class, educated, able-bodied, married and independent. I fully recognize that there are many people in this world who face much bigger hurdles than I do. Still, I was curious.

Ready to check your privilege? Here’s the quiz.

My results were surprising:

You live with 48 out of 100 points of privilege. You’re not privileged at all. You grew up with an intersectional, complicated identity, and life never let you forget it. You’ve had your fair share of struggles, and you’ve worked hard to overcome them. We do not live in an ideal world and you had to learn that the hard way.

How privileged are you?

Spending Saturday night with my two favorite men

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Chapter 1

Due to circumstances beyond our control, time and money will be in short supply in the near future. With this in mind, M and I decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Better to enjoy the moment than stress about what had already come to pass.

While waiting for the entrée to arrive, we discussed the origin of my new book’s hero. I had a general plot line in place, but my muse still hadn’t introduced me to the novel’s protagonist or explained how to invite him into the story. M’s a great sounding board for such things because he’s a reader, and thus able to recognize good storytelling. So there we sat, munching on bread and spit-balling ideas on how to get this ghost of a character to reveal himself.

As we talked, I realized once again how much I adore my husband. First, he didn’t mind spending time listening to me go on and on about the other (albeit fictional) man in my life. He also made the perfect suggestion about my hero’s backstory. As soon as he said it, I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. This idea was so good the hair on the back of my neck stood up. And that’s when the character stepped out of the ether and into my Imagination.

I could see him. I could even deduce his name.

Although the server brought our food then, I no longer wanted to eat or watch the movie. But I wasn’t about to reward my spouse’s generosity by bailing on him, which is why I ate and headed to the theater. After we arrived back home, I strode into my office, grabbed a notepad and started writing.

Inspiration had arrived!

–Photo by AlexStar

A spot to read, to write, to lose yourself

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reading

When I was a child, my favorite place to read was inside my grandmother’s walk-in closet. It was dark and warm, a quiet place to take a book and get lost in another world. The clothes hanging from the racks above my head dampened the raucous, summery noises of Florida, and the pile of pillows I kept stacked behind my back made it feel like I was reclining on a cloud.

Best of all, there were no boys allowed. This was key because my little brother and my cousin drove me mad, always wanting to play or get dirty or take the row boat out into the alligator-infested waters. At 11, none of these activities interested me. I just wanted to escape into “my room,” turn on a small lamp and read through the stacks of books I had borrowed from the library.

That summer, James Thurber introduced me to Walter Mitty, and filled my mind with dreams and possibilities. Although doing so felt invasive, I read Anne Frank’s diary, and cried at the hardships she and her family suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I also became best buds with Edgar Allan Poe. Whenever I search my memory for that summer at my grandmother’s house, I can still hear the dead man’s heart beating under the closet floor.

As an adult, I’ve read in cars, on trains, on planes, on couches and beds, in cafes, diners, libraries and in line. But it wasn’t until my honeymoon that I discovered another reading spot that rivaled my old walk-in closet.

M and I rented a lovely cottage in the Highlands of Scotland. Downstairs, in the family room, there was a wall of windows, with a stunning view of Loch Broom and the hills beyond. If you stared out those windows long enough, you could see four different types of weather in just 15 minutes. Or perhaps you’d spy a large ship pulling into the port of Ullapool.

On another wall, a stone fireplace filled the room with warmth, a soft light and a charming crackle. To the right of the couch was an upholstered chair and ottoman. While M was out exploring the backyard or climbing a nearby Marilyn, I parked myself in that chair. I stared at the fire and glanced out the windows while curled up under a periwinkle and cream throw. And, of course, I read.

It was heaven.

I returned to that very spot a couple of years later, and wrote the final chapter of my novel. Sometimes you sit at the computer and stare at the screen for hours, unable to see the words hidden in the whiteness of the screen. Sometimes, when the stars align and your muse is feeling generous, the words just flow like butter. On that day, in that chair, I closed my eyes and rapidly typed, eager to get the story on the page and fearful of losing the momentum of inspiration. When I finished the chapter, and wiped away the tears that trailed down my cheeks, I knew what I had written was golden.

That is the power of a good spot.

–Photo by Zsuzsa N.K.

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