Archives for Relationships
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently finished reading a book by David Grimm called "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs." The book gave me a lot to think about on a lot of different levels. And while I expected to feel upset, especially while reading (or skimming, or sometimes skipping over) stories about the cruel things people have done to animals that is now prompting a push to give cats and dogs expanded "human" rights, I didn't expect it to become personal. As in, I don't think of myself as a cruel person. I have pets - my parrot, Pearl, and my tortoise, Malti - plus a puppy named Flash Gordon to whom I am a proud auntie. I have never deliberately harmed any creature...or at least I thought I hadn't until I read "Citizen Canine." The more I encountered stories of cruel animal abusers, the more everything inside of me began to revolt. To rage. I started questioning everything I thought I believed about how we are all connected....somehow....even though I couldn't begin to explain where my beliefs come from or how all that alleged connectedness might actually work. But I mean, how could I - gentle soul that I consider myself to be - have anything in common with those so-called humans who commit such horrific crimes against the non-human beings we share this planet with? How can those people - the cruel animal harmers - even be considered "human?" And if they are in fact human, then what species am I? I mean, I honestly think I have more in common with the garden rocks in our backyard than with those kinds of people. So I continued to ruminate as I continued to read. I continued to ponder, to worry and rage. This went on for days. And then one day, a small band of black sugar ants snuck under the sill of my kitchen window and onto the counter.
I just recently finished reading a book by David Grimm called "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs." I won't lie. I was expecting something a little....lighter. At nearly 300 pages and with a 2014 publication date, the book took me on a journey from our earliest interactions with companion animals all the way up to today. Along the way we hit a few (many) rough patches. This was especially true in the chapters addressing animal research, animal rescue during disasters, animals and religion and working animals. In the chapters detailing how dogs and cats' legal rights have moved increasingly closer to our own rights (what the author calls "personhood"), I found myself wishing the book included parrots and tortoises (and all other animals, of course). In the chapters reviewing all the horrific stuff we've subjected our canine and feline counterparts to, I found myself wishing to change my own species affiliation. People can be pretty awful sometimes. There is also an ongoing book-wide parallel drawn between how slaves became full citizens and the trajectory dogs and cats appear to be on now. This (at least as I read it) is not to downplay the significance of the end of slavery, but to signify how, when we change our mindset about the worth of any being, positive changes in the quality of life of that being tend to quickly follow. For instance, after quite a lengthy battle, pets can now legally inherit money left to them in people's wills. But canines working for the military are still classified as "equipment" themselves, and there are groups actively fighting to change that even as I type right now. Perhaps the most gripping part of the book is near the end, however, when one Rutgers university professor named Gary Francione makes an unorthodox suggestion - to do away with "pets," period. When I first read that, everything in me revolted.
Once upon a time, I made a new friend. Over time, we became very close. When we first met, she mentored me. As we got to know each other better, we mentored each other. Then things shifted and I began supporting her through some of the toughest times a human being can endure. During those years, she gifted me with a book by Shel Silverstein called "The Giving Tree." This book talked about a relationship between a boy and a tree. The tree loved the boy, and the boy loved the tree back. But whereas the tree's love was unconditionally giving, the boy's love was focused on getting. At first, this was so innocent - after all, the boy was little. He needed a lot from the tree, and the tree gave it all willingly. But as the boy grew up, he continued to take. The tree continued to give. At last, the boy had grown old himself. He had taken so much from the tree that only a stump remained. Then the tree gave him even this. The book ends with these words, "And the tree was happy."
So it is now early into month 5 of "The Year of Having Faith." This morning I had a startling revelation. I was contemplating one of my all-time favorite films, "Contact." In the film, Jodie Foster's character, a brilliant agnostic scientist, challenges Matthew McConaughey's character, a brilliant author and man of faith, to prove God exists. He asks her, "Your father - did you love him? She replies, "Yes - very much!" He says, "Prove it."
I learn a lot from Facebook. I mean, not from Facebook itself, but from the awesome folks I meet there. Recently, a sweet friend tagged me in a post featuring 17 slides. Each slide addressed an area of life where people commonly struggle. I scrolled through, and the slide that first caught my eye said this: Anger is a natural defense against pain. So when someone says "I hate you" it really means "you hurt me." This statement hit home like, well, (insert compelling sports metaphor featuring fastball + pro athlete here). And (just for clarification's sake) I don't mean to imply on any level that "I hate you" doesn't also mean "I hate you." But under that feeling of anger, rage or hate, more and more these days I am personally finding pain. Hurt. OUCH. To further complicate matters, I'm learning that sometimes, when I say "I hate you" to someone else, I really am talking to myself. Sometimes I am talking to both of us. Sometimes I am addressing the circumstances rather than any particular person, or I'm stomping my inner 2-year-old's frustrated little foot, because, after all, life isn't fair! Saying (or shouting, or even thinking) "I hate you" is sometimes the fastest, easiest, and most effective means of getting the e-motion OUT. So the hate-feeling often comes first. But then the pain hits. Then the grief process begins to unfold, with its denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and (if I'm lucky) whatever I needed to learn that can lead to an eventual acceptance and the ability to move along. Why is this realization so impactful for me? I would have to say it is because I used to hear myself thinking or speaking the words "I hate you" and I would immediately stop whatever I was feeling/thinking/doing to jump on myself with judgment and condemnation.
I'm not sure exactly when I began to believe I didn't have any surprises left in store for myself. After all, I still learn new things about other people and my pets each and every day. But at some point I guess I just stopped paying attention to myself in that way...like there wasn't going to be anything new left to learn about me. That ended last month. It has taken me a bit of time to wrap my mind around what I recently discovered about myself, but it has been time well spent. By that I mean, I've needed the in-between processing time to finish a big task I set for myself - constructing my growing baby tortoise's new habitat. My red-foot tortoise, Malti, is one and a half years old and nearly 4 inches long. She is growing fast, and her habitat must grow with her. This is more challenging than just buying a bigger enclosure for several reasons:
I have spent years searching for the "real me." Every so often I would catch this fleeting glimpse of someone - a free, funny, warm, spontaneous, creative, loving, laughter-filled being - as she moved through me. I would try to follow her, but she was very quick....so quick she often seemed to be formed out of sheer wishful thinking or my (always) overactive imagination. But I kept searching for her anyway. I kept searching because she was irresistible. She was marvelous. On the days she would spontaneously flit through me, the effect was not unlike finding out the FBI had just caught the real suspect and the handcuffs could finally come off. The jail cell door was opened and I could go home now. I was free.
Recently I read a fascinating book called "The Naked Ape." Written by zoologist Desmond Morris in 1966 - four years before I was born - it nevertheless reads like "breaking news" in the ongoing human-animal consciousness debate. Morris states quite matter-of-factly in his introduction that he has always both liked and felt more comfortable with animals than with people. He discloses that his work on "The Naked Ape" book is in part an attempt to help remedy that. His literary premise is therefore fairly simple: by stripping humanity of its rather glamorous "top of the food chain" status and simply taking a look at lifestyle, behavior, breeding, feeding, fighting, even anatomy from an apples-to-apples, ape-to-ape perspective, perhaps it will then become possible to feel more connected to the vast variety of non-human life that exists all around us. Maybe, in this sense, Morris's goal is to finally discover some sense of normalcy - a feeling that he, that we, belong here on this planet we are so intent on dominating and (these days) over-populating.
I can answer this question on my own behalf - YES. and YES. My 15-year-old parrot, Pearl, and my nearly-2-year-old tortoise, Malti, are two members of my closest support circle. I work from home, and guess who shares my tiny office with me (it is actually more "their" office that I share with them!). They come with me to most family events and all Sunday brunches at my folks' house (where they are pampered and spoiled while I occupy myself by doing the brunch dishes and documenting each occasion with multiple cute photos). In fact, in pondering this question further, I can honestly say Pearl and Malti are vital - essential - in terms of their ability to keep me on an even keel in what often feels like a very uneven-feeling world. Recently my brother and sister-in-law launched a crowdfunding effort to assist with training a service dog for my three-year-old nephew, FuMing. As it turns out, this is not an easy or cheap undertaking, especially if the child in question is under the age of 12. So here (and as my perhaps all-time favorite article on the topic clearly details) there is a different between a trained service animal (usually a dog) and a registered emotional support animal, or ESA. There are many differences. I think the most critical difference is the training aspect. Service animals are formally trained and certified, and many who go through the process don't make the final cut (I found this out when a friend of mine volunteered to train a candidate dog for a year, then was able to adopt him when he didn't qualify in the final round). Emotional support animals, on the other hand, go through no formal training process at the moment. The process to register an animal as an ESA basically involves two parts: a) stating you have an emotional issue or need, and b) forking over some cash.
As I've continued reading Dr. Emily Nagoski's "Come As You Are the surprising new science that will transform your sex life," I've happened across all kinds of very surprising new insights indeed. But very few have been about actual s.e.x. For example, an eye-popper that crossed my mind right before lights out last night: Why is normal the goal? What do people really want when they want to be normal? I think that to feel normal is to belong." What if our continual ruminations (individually and as a society) on the word "normal" have far more to do with our early clan and tribe days than with today's oh-so-independent and largely low-risk lifestyle? What if, to our ancient limbic/reptilian brain that just wants to help us survive, this is what "not normal" translates to mean: I'm not normal. = I am an outcast. = I must live alone with no one else to rely on. = I will likely be lunch for a hungry predator very soon.