I want to remember kindness

SOME nights the stars are so bright I cannot sleep. They seem to be asking me, Is this a night to be wasted on snoozing? Why don't you bestir and steep yourself in deep thoughts? I get up, make myself a cup of hot chocolate, and, sitting in a wakeful chair, ponder away. What has absorbed me for many nights recently is how I have been thanked in my life by the creatures to whose assistance I've come.

Take, for instance, the ladybug. Sometimes in the lettuce I bring home from the market I find a ladybug crawling haplessly through a maze of leaves, or simply clinging to the edge of a leaf as if to the very end of a world.

I have a profound respect, and even reverence, for the ladybug, mindful of the good it does in munching up the foes of flowers and other innocents in nature, and appreciating the art with which so much benevolence has been fitted into that tiny, cameo-like shape, orange with inky spots, as if night were saying hello to morning with balloons of itself. So always I coax the creature from its distress onto a paper towel, carry it outside, and carefully set it free.

My wife, who never ceases to marvel at this solicitude of mine, once said, ``If ladybugs were to have a patron saint, it would be you.'' In all modesty, I don't aspire to such an honor. I am content with the gift of a dream that comes from time to time.

In the dream I am a child again, way, way up in the sky, in pajamas luminous with reflected starlight, and holding onto the strings of what appears to be a cluster of slightly smudged, orange balloons. In reality, of course, the balloons are ladybugs, all the ladybugs I've ever rescued, from lettuce, from window-panes, from every variety of fix they've gotten themselves into. They are carrying me, they are flying me, their hero, around the world. Last seen, I was somewhere over New Zealand.

And then there was that unique -- odd as it may sound -- kindred spirit to the ladybug, a lion. The only lion, the only cat, in a rather shabby traveling circus that came to town when I was a boy. His name was Gustav, and the wistful kingliness of it, the hint of exile, suited him. He was a lean, pokey-ribbed portion of eternity, a shy, chrysanthemum-headed old Bert Lahr of a lion. His performance consisted of shambling through hoops held by his trainer, and of sometimes managing a leap to the top of a jungle-green block of wood, where he would open his mouth and give out with what were supposed to be fearsome, jungle-shaking roars but were actually enormous yawns of silence.

After one of his performances, as he was lying in his cage in a bleak corner, I tossed him a plaything, a ball of yarn my mother no longer needed. I had seen kittens play with a ball of yarn, so why not a lion that had the disposition of a kitten? And truly he did get up and play with the yarn for quite a while, giving it a good swat this way with one paw, a good swat that way with another paw, as if having a kind of homemade Ping-Pong game with himself. Why else would he have played like that if not to give me the thanks of seeing him cheered, to show me that, lonely as his life was, he could still have a good time?

I'm certain Gustav would have rescued, if he could, would have picked up and carried gently in his unferocious jaws, the little bird, a finch, that was grazed, stunned, by a passing car, and fell fluttering to the sidewalk. I stopped and crouched down, not knowing whether to reach out and right the little thing -- it lay on its back -- or just act as a protector from the feet of my wingless brethren hurrying to and fro on both sides of us. Gradually, with a few flips here, and a few flops there, the finch righted itself and stood for a few moments, still stunned, and seeming to look straight at me, as if in blurred recognition of something familiar. Its wings, though delicate, looked miraculously unbroken, and all of a sudden, giving them a warm-up flap, it flew straight to my right shoulder and perched there.

Never had I felt the fragile weight of a bird upon me, and I was afraid to move, even to breathe, lest the wonderful moment of freedom and trust end too soon. And not only did the bird perch there, but it chirped, it sang. I too wanted to chirp, to sing, in my happiness, but I didn't dare, and anyway it was enough that the bird sang. When two spirits, earthbound and airy, were as united as ours in that moment, united by the sheer possession of life, it took only one song to say everything.

By then a little crowd had gathered around us. Perhaps frightened, or simply restored to full alertness, the bird took flight and soared over the rooftops, off and away. From the beginning of time trees had known the thanks of birdsong on their branches; now I knew it, too.

For what have I compiled them, these accomplishments of assistance to the creatures, to a ladybug, a lion, a finch, and more? It is not for thanks, though to thanks I have never said no.

It is for memory. No one can look ahead and say what his life will be, but everyone can look back and say what it was. I want to remember kindnesses I did to creatures that have as much right to be here as I do. There is an old Jewish saying, ``We live in a world that is full of many little worlds.'' I want to remember I tried to make not only the big one, but all those little worlds, too, better.

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