© Janis G. Wick March, 2019
Too physically ill to do anything else, I listened to a man with a lovely deep voice read the words of a manuscript centuries old and I listened to these words and to this voice as if they were God himself, and yet thoughts assailed me, even the thought that I must share some of this manuscript right HERE, but I kept listening and I heard and I kept listening and I heard and, it must have been at least two hours later, I awoke from a deep slumber to the sound of the cat scratching his post! Ahahahahahaha
Having lost the ability to read after giving up cigarettes eight years ago and by now also chronically ill from a mysterious and confounding illness, I have found a wonderful and primary source when seeking knowledge, that is YouTube. On a recent night, I was lying somewhat uncomfortably in bed listening to a three-hour lecture given by the great Alan Watts, the man credited for bringing Eastern religion to the West in the 60’s and 70’s who became a very popular “philosophical entertainer,” a label he coined himself. Anyway, deep into this lecture he is describing nature as a grand sort of network of interdependent nodes, and he seemed to be arriving at how man and woman fit into this grand scheme. At this point, my cat jumped up on the desk and began knocking papers off of it. This is my cat’s way of indicating that he wants to eat. He can meow with the best of them, but he prefers this method because he knows that it really irritates me and that I will immediately get up. But feeding my cat is no matter of putting out a little food and lying down again, job done. Oh no. It is an entire ritual which involves trying a little of this and my starting Alan Watts up again and lying down for, oh maybe five minutes, after which my cat returns to knock more papers off at which point I stop the video and get up once again and go to his bowl and realize that he hasn’t eaten a bite and then I try something of that and I go back to the bedroom and start up Alan Watts again and he’s getting into some really good stuff but, in no time, my cat reappears and knocks more paper off the desk and so I get up again and try a little of this and that and put down his bowl again and this time I watch to see if he eats and he does and then I really watch and I suddenly realize that it is not what I put in the bowl; it is rather that I put something into the bowl, each time. I listen to Alan Watts late into the night and my cat joins me at the foot of my bed and we conclude that Alan Watts was brilliant and quite a visionary and full of amusement, mostly at himself, and also, at least to me and my cat, quite crazy in some respects. But what do I know? I’m just beginning to know my cat and we’ve lived in intimate relationship for over five years.
A subsequent evening, I was lying in bed again, listening to the fascinating Gabor Maté, physician and writer, who for many years was physician to addicts, the HIV-infected and the mentally ill on Vancouver’s version of “skid row.” This work subsequently led to a best-selling book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, a book in which Dr. Maté lays the cause of addiction at the feet of childhood trauma. He is quick to point out that that trauma may, yes, be from parenting that had the worst of intentions—sexual abuse, physical abuse—but it could also come from parenting that had the best of intentions but was woefully misguided by the very unfortunate popular parenting thoughts of the 21st Century such as “time out,” thoughts for which there is simply no good scientific evidence and some evidence, at least, that it is deeply harmful. Anyway, I was listening to Dr. Maté suggest that when we feel “uncomfortable” feelings as adults such as anger or sadness or just irritation that we stop for a moment and ask ourselves, “Who is this who is having this feeling?” and often that question will plunge us straight back to childhood and we will discern that the feeling or thought we are having towards a current situation or person has absolutely nothing to do with that situation or person but rather everything to do with a moment or time of childhood. And he argues, at least, but the argument is very convincing, that he believes this because he has experienced such moments himself and among his patients, he a Canadian Jew whose family was gassed or incinerated in concentration camps, who had to flee when a small boy with his parents from Hungary as Soviet tanks rolled in in the 50’s. He whose mother arrived in Canada as many refugees do with children, unable to speak the language, and with, understandable but considerable anxiety. And he begins to make so much sense to me. I have my own story and had a nearly lifelong addiction, cigarettes. So I’m listening intently and I’m fascinated by all this and by how he ties his story and the stories of his patients to the science. But, just then, my cat sits down on the computer keyboard and, in this way, manages to stop the video to which I am listening. And I get up and put anything in the bowl and return to the bed and listen again. By now I am irritated, and, as usual, my cat sits down on the keyboard yet again and stops the tape, and by the third time I’m up I am totally exasperated and close to anger and I put down my cat’s bowl and say to him, “Now this is your last chance. Eat it or else.” I have no idea what the “else” is, but I lie back down in bed and try to listen, but I can’t. I just can’t. And finally I ask myself, “Who is this who is so very annoyed?!” And immediately a child pops into my mind, me at about eight years of age. The memory is very clear. The entire family, mom and dad and four daughters, are piled into a spectacular 1956 Buick Super and we are on a road trip from just south of San Francisco headed straight across the Continental United States on Route 66 to Langley Field, Virginia and parts beyond, which will take us to Washington, D.C., New York, New England, Quebec, a dairy farm in Michigan, Lincoln’s home in Illinois and all the other possible “educational” stops along the way and back again. But at this one moment in time, we are stopped beside a white-washed adobe house of a Pueblo Native American family. (We rarely stopped at the ubiquitous roadside stands where Native art and crafts were sold for pennies, that would now sell for thousands; no, we drove straight into the reservations and my father would ask if he could take photographs and we girls would get out of the car and would apparently disarm the astonished and, yes, guarded Native people but the Native people were invariably kind to us.) Anyway, on this particular occasion, I didn’t want to get out of the car. I had no interest in the adobe house or the family. I had no interest because I was stoned. I was in a deep pleasant stupor of indifference and rest induced by the wonderful drug known as Dramamine and I didn’t want to be disturbed. If you think I’m exaggerating the effect of Dramamine on a child’s brain, think again. We took quite a number of extravagant road trips, including one from south of San Francisco to Mexico City and that was around 1960, and anyway, I was stoned on all of them. Much later, when I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 60’s, at a time when street and prescription drugs “of choice” were ubiquitous and cheap and their use was actually encouraged or rather celebrated, and memorialized in art, music, style, architecture, spirituality and so on, at that time I was petrified of drugs. By that time in my life, I was deeply depressed, and that’s another story for another time, but I had a strongly held belief that arose from a deep intuition that it was “all or nothing” for me. Either I soldier on with my studies, and my activism, or I “drop out” completely and become an addict on the streets, not because I wanted to get “high” or expand my mind but because, by then, I simply wanted to escape. I chose to soldier on. Not only did I not inhale, a joint, as we called it then, never even touched my lips. I now believe that I was able to make that choice only by God’s grace, a God I didn’t believe in at that time. And I confess to a lifelong pleasure in the time of post-surgery either local or general when one is provided those lovely pain-killing drugs, a brief time for me, but a time when I go straight back to childhood in the back seat of that Buick Super riding the highways and byways of the North American continent stoned out of my mind. Once, in adulthood, I suddenly, without"t any thought or memory, asked my mother, “I didn’t get carsick. Why did you give me Dramamine?” She laughed and laughed and said, “I know you didn’t, but it sure kept you kids quiet.” (I believe this gives new meaning to the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.”) Anyway, this is a very long way of saying that, when I recognized “who” was irritated to the point of anger at my cat, I got up out of bed and went into the kitchen and said to my cat, “I’m so sorry. You interrupted me and wanted me to move, you interrupted my brain when it was doing something very pleasurable and didn’t want to move. Listen, from now on, feel free to interrupt me at any time if you need me or just want me. Okay?”
P.S. I have a whole lot to say about my parents, but that is for another time and another place. For now, I’ll just say that, when I think back to those trips, where my father was often combining business with pleasure and which my parents considered “educational” above all else, I am astounded at the amount of sheer courage and some kind of incredible faith, though my parents were both atheists, that it would take for two parents to stick their four young daughters in a car and drive across the Continental United States for educational purposes. Are you kidding me???!!!! Who in their right mind would do that???!!!! I’m not a parent, but I’m asking parents out there. Seriously. Would you? Wow.
My cat is black with a tuft of white on his chest. I rescued him from a shelter where he had languished for months, as so often happens with black cats due to the silly superstition. I named him Nelson Mandela. Some of you may find that offensive. I mean no offense. I had a deep regard for and respect for Nelson Mandela. I have a deep regard for and respect for animals, in the wild and in the home. I am not saying that animals and human beings are the same. My Nelson, though, does know right from wrong. It is wrong to pick him up. It is very, very wrong to pick him up and put him in the cat carrier. Nelson is not a pacifist. He fights back. Although, I have to say that, once in the cat carrier, he appears to be quite content and rides along in the car without complaint and, if we are headed to the vet, which we probably are, once before the vet, he is the epitome of a gentleman and puts up with every indignity and intrusion without complaint, so much so, that the vet frequently exclaims, “This cat is so docile!” and the vet exclaims this while I’m actually holding Nelson with hands that are clearly bloodied. However, ninety-nine percent of the time, everything is very, very right as far as Nelson is concerned. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Nelson is a total Zen cat. Since I am lying in bed most of the time, he is content to lie at the foot of the bed with an occasional walk up on to my chest to stretch out, expect and get a petting, and just purr away. He is an indoor cat only, but he enjoys a visit to the garage on occasion to sniff out the vents in the garage door. He finds this quite entertaining and, once in a while, he will suddenly race from the garage through the house to the sliding glass door in the living room and back again trying to see what I do not know. And, on rare occasion, a great howling will break out, and Nelson lunges at the sliding glass door and I actually encourage him, “You get him, Nelson!” I have to stop right here and say that I confess to being a member of a Facebook group entitled “Black Cat Appreciation Group,” which is exactly that. In that group, we black cat owners post photos of our cats and ask for advice about behaviors and so on, but here’s the thing, almost all the black cat owners in this group refer to their cats as their “fur babies.” Now that offends me, on behalf of all cats and all human babies. Note the definitions of baby as a noun according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
ba·by | \ ˈbā-bē \
Definition of baby
(Entry 1 of 3)
1a(1): an extremely young child especially : INFANT
(2): an extremely young animal
b: the youngest of a group He is the baby of the family.
2a: one that is like a baby (as in behavior) When it comes to getting shots, I'm a real baby.
b: something that is one's special responsibility, achievement, or interest The project was his baby.
Now, notice that in only one of these definitions is an animal even mentioned and in that definition the animal in question is “an extremely young animal.” We might say, “an elephant baby,” but it is much more likely that we will call it a “baby elephant,” thus using “baby” as an adjective, not a noun. I am trying to argue here that using the term “fur baby” for a cat is a complete misnomer. Yes, pet ownership comes with responsibility, considerable patience, and love that is beyond description, and it comes with a deep respect for an animal as an animal. You simply don’t punish it for what it is meant to do as an animal, especially a cat, for example. However, and this is a big however, pet ownership in no way compares with giving birth to and parenting a human baby into a child and into adulthood and seemingly forever. Human parenting comes with enormous responsibility, enormous patience and a love that simply defies description or appropriate adjective; the now popular “unconditional” doesn’t cover it. And I’m not speaking as a parent. I haven’t been one. But I know how I feel around a baby and I’ve seen dozens of parents care for two-year-olds in the midst of crisis and I’ve seen dozens of parents deal with teen-agers or not deal with teen-agers and somehow both the parents and the teen-agers survived and many of them not only survived but thrived. And oh the loss of a child. I won’t even go there. But listen pet owners, and I am one, I know for sure that the loss of a pet is hell but a new pet eventually comes a long sooner or later and you fall in love all over again and, though you certainly never forget the pet or pets you’ve lost and you continue to grieve for each one again and again throughout life, you really are somehow made whole again with the love of another animal. Not so with parents, or so I know from the many I’ve listened to. Just a pet peeve of mine. No offense meant. Simply put, an animal is no more a “fur baby” than a human baby is “a very young animal covered with hair.” And I’m probably stating the obvious to those who are both parents and pet owners.
Having said all that, I definitely do think that animals have feelings, even the apparently ever aloof cat. I have rarely doubted this in all my years of pet ownership and, in fact, watching animals in the wild, admittedly from the lens of a television set. While I think it is very dangerous to anthropomorphize animals, I am nevertheless aware of the acute sensitivities of animals. Since I have known Nelson, there has been only one occasion when I doubted his deep affection for me, for want of better words. That was when I had been hospitalized and was essentially forced to go straight from the hospital to a “skilled nursing facility.” And let me just give an aside here. “Skilled nursing facility”: Doesn’t that sound reassuring and somehow comforting? I think it is the word, “skilled,” like you would say a “skilled” surgeon, i.e. way better than average, someone with considerable expertise, and so on. “Skilled nursing facility,” in any case, is a very odd and generous phrase to use for the establishment I ended up in known as Webster House, a medieval hellish institution, run by, I believe, the Episcopal Church, and shame on them! I won’t go into the full horrors of literally being imprisoned there. I will just say that, to my eternal gratitude, my youngest sister managed to get Nelson safely housed at a friend of hers and she reported to me that Nelson was quite “happy” there. This hurt my feelings. “Whoever feeds him …” I thought. I missed him terribly and his absence just added to my misery and one day I was missing him so terribly and was so miserable in general that I took the only protest action available to me and that was to pull the covers over my head and refuse to come out. Under the covers, I sobbed, for me and for Nelson, and I understood then that Nelson without a doubt wasn’t the least bit happy. I spent an entire day like that, under the covers, sobbing, only coming up for food and meds.
In the end, I got out and, a few days later, Nelson was returned to me, and my understanding was confirmed. Nelson raced from one end of my tiny condo to the other in absolute joy. And my sister confessed that he had been miserable. Her friend finally resorted to a pheromone diffuser to calm him down, at least a bit. Don’t get me wrong, though. I am deeply, deeply grateful to my sister and to her friend for caring for Nelson so kindly as they did.
Nelson displays his most profound feelings in what I can only describe as a state of pure bliss. For an animal, their belly is the most vulnerable part of them. When Nelson is in his state of bliss, he curls over onto his back, his belly fully exposed, legs sticking out, in a position of complete rest and surrender. He does this on my bed, right before me, and he does it often.
One day, as I’m lying in bed, I say, “Dear Lord,” and I say it to the ceiling because, I think, we Christians think God is “up there” somehow, or at least I do in my weakest moments 😊 so I say, “Dear Lord, I am unbearably lonely.” It’s not a prayer. It’s a statement. Just then, Nelson jumps on my chest, stretches out and starts to purr. The Lord seems to say, I rest my case.
The next day I am lying in bed and I say to the ceiling, “Dear Lord, I am so lonely I don’t feel quite real, I mean, how do I know if I’m real? I haven’t spoken to a soul in days and, Lord, I haven’t been touched really in probably over a decade. And I’m really quite, well, quite, oh I don’t know, I’m really—oh---oh—oh wait--this feeling—this feeling--And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding—wow—this is better than drugs—sorry—oh thank you—thank you for this, Lord—and hey listen, Lord, I really don’t think I’m going to be a mystic by any stretch and quite frankly I don’t think I’m ever going to be in the NOW either; in fact, I’m pretty sick of the NOW right now, and I’m also pretty fed up with being “mindful,” too, especially since the people who tell all of us in the Western world about mindfulness most often and most prolifically seem themselves to be ever so mindful of one thing in particular, their bank accounts, and I’ll keep the past, thank you. It shaped me and it is a big part of who I am. And the present, however challenging, continues to be, well, interesting; I simply never stop learning, and it has its difficult times and You know just how difficult but it has its joys, too. As for the future, I leave that entirely up to You, Lord. I’m 72-years-old and I’ve survived breast cancer, so far, and I was a two-pack a day smoker for years and years and I imagine that will get me at some point, and I’ve seen a lot of people and children go before me, so if I die in the night tonight, I’ll die happy. I’ve had a heck of a run at it and I thank You for that! And if I’m granted more days, Lord, I’ll just keep alert to see what needs learning, and maybe even loving. 😊 So thank you, Lord, and if you’ll just permit me these chats with You and a listen to Elvis sing “How Great Thou Art: once in awhile, I’ll be fine.” At this point in my little speech, Nelson jumps up on my chest, stretches out, and begins to purr, and I shut up and Nelson and I enjoy the Peace.
11 pm: me and Nelson. I get up to refill my diet coke (oh don’t even start!) and I’m walking from the bedroom through the living room to the kitchen and Nelson is batting at my ankles all the way and actually jumping on me, trying to stop me, and I’m laughing at him, but I keep going, until I get to the kitchen. I put my glass down and turn to look at him. “You just want to play, don’t you?” I ask him. “You just desperately want to play.” He listens, alertly. I take a step closer to him and crouch down. In a whisper I say, “So you want to play?” He’s got it! I stamp my feet. He’s off. In a sprint he crosses the living room and hides under an end table. He’s in full view, of course. I go after him. He’s off again. This time into the bedroom and bath. I’m after him. Well, this goes on for a few good runs, until Nelson gets bored and goes into the garage and contents himself with checking the garage door vents for new smells wafting in. Mind you, I can barely walk with a cane … Mind you, Nelson doesn’t play with toys. He has no interest. But give him the end of a belt from a robe worn by a human or, better yet, the ankles of that human, and he’s on.
"A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere." ~ Groucho Marx
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