Alternative Realities: As the Family Pet

Mrrrhouw.

I’m not sure what’s so important that you found it necessary to interrupt my nap, but I suppose I can help you. I need to stretch, first, though – front legs and back, hind legs and back. OK, now, what can I do for you?

What kind of question is that? What’s it like to be a family pet? Do I look like a pet? A pet, by definition, is a domesticated animal kept for pleasure. I am neither domesticated nor an animal.

A domesticated animal is trained or bred to need and accept the care of human beings. I neither need the human with which I live nor accept care from the human with which I live. I care for her. She needs me, not vice versa.

It’s a common misperception. At least, common when the perceiver is also human. You think, “food, water, shelter, litter,” and arrive at a one-word conclusion: care. Cats understand that care involves keeping another safe and healthy in a far more significant way.

When she walks in the door, I welcome her so that she knows her very presence makes a difference to me; that affirms her worth. In the morning, I wrap myself around her ankles and greet her so that she knows she makes a difference in this world. Granted, feeding me is a little difference, but it gets her day off to the right start. And at night, I curl up in the crook of her knees so that she’s not alone. My human is happier because I share her life and that’s what it means to care.

And while it may be true that I am a living thing, neither human being nor plant, which is the standard definition of an animal, that I am an animal is far from the truth. Irish essayist Robert Lynd knew the truth and shared it with those who were not too arrogant to have their eyes opened: “A cat is only technically an animal, being divine.”

Divine. Relating to or coming from God.

Where do you think I learned to care for my human? Now, do you need anything else, or can I go back to my nap?

Memories

Memory: something that is remembered.

Remember: to have or keep an image or idea in mind; to think of something or someone from the past.

I am tempted to quote Edmund Burke, an 18th Century philosopher and political theorist, who wrote, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I am tempted to write about memories which American voters should have held in their hearts and minds when they went to the polls this year.

However, like many others, I need to take a break from the toxicity of this election year. I need to sip long and deep from other memories, memories which will bring me a modicum of peace and give me hope.

And so, instead, I will quote Rosamund Pilcher. In her heartbreakingly beautiful novel, The Shell Seekers, first published in 1997, she wrote about a woman in her early 60s who was recovering from a heart attack and coming to terms with her life. At one point, Penelope recalled a letter from a man she loved deeply, a man who had been killed on D-Day. He had written to her, “It was good, and nothing good is truly lost. It stays part of a person, becomes part of their character. So part of you goes everywhere with me. And part of me is yours, forever.”

Who are the people who have become part of my character, who go everywhere with me? Obviously, I won’t be able to list everyone, because God has been good and blessed me with a wonderful array of friends. I’m also, not going to make note of family members, because their place in my heart is a given. But, I will name two wonderful women and share briefly the goodness they have brought into my life.

  • Merry Lou Sunshine Christmas Burgess: She’s married now, and I’m pretty sure she’s dropped the “Sunshine.” (I think I was the only one who referred to her in that way, anyway.) But in my heart she is still “Burgess” and I suspect I’m still “Gales” to her. I met Burgess at a time in my life when I was painfully alone. Mom had died a year earlier; Dad had told me there was nothing for me at home – and he literally meant “nothing,” not a place, not emotional support, NOTHING. My best friend from high school had “outgrown” me, and I didn’t have anyone else to whom I could turn. Suddenly, there was Burgess, with her smile and her welcome invitations, and her patience with all of my dysfunctional interpersonal behaviors, consistently extending the hand of friendship. More than 40 years have passed since the January day when I met her. I can’t say I think of her every day, but I doubt if a week goes by when I don’t think of her and give thanks for what she gave me, a safe harbor in which to begin healing, thoughtful conversation and laughter.
  • Karen Kinder: Karen and I met at a juried art show in June 1990. We were both moms with young children, and both delighted to discover our pieces had been well received. Karen’s painting placed second and mine won an honorable mention. She was returning to art after a hiatus during which she had started her teaching career and a family. I had been painting for years, but it had been a clandestine activity for reasons too numerous to record here. The recognition was good for both of us, but the friendship which grew in subsequent years has been the greater gift for me. Supportive, understanding, nonjudgmental – Karen has been the receptacle of so many of the stories of my life, and in doing so, has given my heart a home. In addition, she has continued to inspire me to be an artist by succeeding in her own art career. So much from one chance encounter!

To these wonderful women, thank you for becoming part of my character. To all the friends I did not name, you are valued, too, and have also helped me to become me. Even though you are not named, you are cherished.

Winning the Lottery

I probably should be embarrassed to admit this, but I cope with stress by fantasizing about winning the lottery. I consider the fantasies to be mental vacations. Some folks pack a suitcase and grab a plane; I give my imagination free reign to wander for a while.

Not only is a mental vacation cheaper, but it also allows me to identify underlying causes of stress, primarily because I’ve learned to understand the way in which my mind works. For example, if I stop at Target to pick up bread on the way home and find myself looking at journals, I know my subconscious is telling me I need to sit down and write. I know that indicates I’m ignoring a deep or hidden truth about my current situation.

Knowing the way my mind works and tapping into my deepest truths is important because I am a master of self-deception. I strongly suspect most of us are; I simply acknowledge this truth because I want to live with greater integrity and authenticity. My suspicions are based on the simple fact that I’ve observed in others discrepancies between words and actions.

For example, last year about this time, I was working for a woman who told me two things about herself on the first day we worked together: (1) I am one of the kindest people for which you will ever work. (Actually, she did not express that sentiment in a grammatically correct manner, but most people wouldn’t.) (2) I am not a micromanager. However, as we worked together, I learned she was a micromanager – the worst sort of micromanager: one who becomes a bottleneck impeding others from accomplishing much, and then expecting others to bear the brunt of blame when deadlines are missed due to her inability to delegate and prioritize.

I don’t work well in that type of work environment, and wasn’t sorry when she decided not to hire me for the permanent position. However, when she told me of her decision, she also terminated me as a temporary employee – without the standard two-week notice. She supervised me as I cleaned out my cubicle and then escorted me out of the building so that I could not speak with anyone. As we exited the building, she said to me, “I don’t want you to feel that you are being terminated because your work was unsatisfactory. I just find it uncomfortable to work with temporary employees after I decide not to hire them.” My definition of “kind” does not include behavior that deprives others of their only source of income in order to alleviate personal discomfort.

From these actions, I conclude that either she is deceiving herself, or she believes that she can craft the impression she gives others with words rather than actions. Neither is acceptable to me.

So, when I fantasize about winning the lottery, if I find myself mentally getting even with others – drafting polite refusals for solicitations and citing the individual’s past conduct as my reason for failing to support their cause –  I know I am feeling vulnerable, disposable, insecure. I know I need to pray for the grace to trust God with the circumstances of my life and his unfolding will.

And, if I find myself fantasizing about doing great works – starting a homeless shelter that successfully transitions individuals into more traditional roles within our society, starting an art center that also grants emerging artists a place to live and a stipend to develop their voice – I know that I am feeling a need to do something meaningful. I will look for a volunteer activity with which I can become involved, or will disciple myself to move forward on a project that has personal meaning but was set aside.

Most revealing, though, are my fantasies about my family, because I could not win the lottery without sharing it with my girls. Sometimes, I just give them a percentage; that means all is well. At other times, my gifts are conditional; those conditions tell me that I’m worried or angry or hurt. As a single parent, with no back-up if I handled a situation badly, I learned to set aside my feelings, to step back and to look at the big picture in order to make the wisest decision of which I was capable. The habit of denying my feelings is so deeply ingrained that even now I do it intuitively, which isn’t always healthy. Fantasies help me to recognize this.

So, what would I do if I won the lottery? Heaven knows, because I don’t. The first thing I would have to do, undoubtedly, would be to find a new way to uncover what lies hidden within me. If I didn’t, I couldn’t trust that any decision I made had personal integrity.