I stayed home for probably five days—achy, bad stomach, weak. Didn’t feel like going out, not even for lunch. So I haven’t seen the white dog. Even now that all has returned to normal, I still haven’t seen her. Perhaps this is just chance, or maybe she’s shifted her routine. The weather is cooler and even the dogs don’t feel like getting out of bed these days. I don’t either, and sleep until seven. (Although some of that has because of the watchman. He’d gone to his village for two weeks, and the man who took his place didn’t make froggy noises brushing his teeth.)
But there’s another white dog in my life, although this one isn’t all white. She has spots. Her name is Chintu, which means small, and she is small. She’s only about two or three months old.
In the last few days, Chintu has figured out how to get into the yard of the guesthouse where I’m staying. She found one way, and they blocked it off. She found a different way and they blocked that off too. Then she realized she could squeeze through the bars on the gate. And now, until something can be done about that, she comes in whenever she pleases.
So Chintu has chosen to live here. There’s a mat in the garden she sleeps on all day, and in the afternoon she plays with the other dog. But the major appeal (or perhaps one of several) seems to be me. For as long as I’ve been outside—and I spent most of the day under the bougainvillea—she hasn’t strayed more than two meters away.
She slept in the garden on her mat, and she played with the other dog around my feet, and she chewed a stick under my chair. And now that I’ve gone inside to escape the vicious mouths of mosquitoes, she’s come to sleep outside my window.
All this is to say that I think a dog likes me. And I find this a little strange. Not just because I’m really a cat person, but because this means I’ve passed a test: if children like you, and dogs like you, then you’re a person who can be trusted.
I don’t feel like someone who can be trusted. I feel like a dangerous person, a frightening person. But I don’t know where I got that idea about myself. I could speculate it came from the many times I’ve needed to take strong measures to protect myself, or maybe only my mother and her pernicious sense of being threatened are to blame, or it could even be the extreme reactions I used to have to certain triggers (having to separate myself from important others being one of them). Perhaps all three.
But I also know that view of myself is either a distortion or no longer relevant. And all of this just makes me sad.
I may or may not have mentioned this, but my cat is 17. She’s in remarkably good health, but she’s old. She’s got some of the same problems she’s had since she was a young cat plus some new ones. (As I will have also when I get to that age.)
She had an accident when she was young that involved falling off a roof. I know cats are supposed to survive falling just fine, but it turns out a lot depends on what you land on.
I’ll spare you the details, but the poor thing has had fecal incontinence and mild constipation for the last 11 years at least. (It turns out this is mostly a good combination.) It’s a little like living with a deer.
And now that she’s 17, she’s developing a tiny, tiny hint of bladder incontinence. If I had no sense of smell, I wouldn’t notice this. Unfortunately, I do.
Consequently, the bed is swathed in an easy-to-wash polar fleece throw.
There are some other annoying things she’s too creaky and arthritic to do anymore. For example, she has overcome her obsession with water, and I can now for the first time in more than a decade leave a water glass anywhere in the house that I feel like.
The knick-knacks on the upper shelves are safe as well.
My cat, in other words, is really, really cute. And a bit like living with a deer.
I love her to pieces.
She is not, however, anyone’s idea of a trophy cat.
I’m not a trophy person either. Although, so far, I seem to be able to stay away from the top shelves, and restrain myself from knocking over vases just to see where the water will go,
But I do have my issues. Some of them make me hard to live with, even for myself. (Luckily, none of them involve washing the sheets more often.) But they aren’t by any means all charming.
Just like the cat. And like the cat, I don’t really adore everything about myself. If you lined me up next to a bunch of other people, some of them might have fewer issues than me, some of them might be more beautiful or more socially adept. Some of them will probably know how to dance or how to play sports well. Some of them might be doing more to benefit our world. If you had to spend 24 hours a day with someone, it’s possible there might be better choices than myself.
But there’s this thing called unconditional love. If you practice it enough, you might learn how to do it. You might even figure out how to give it to yourself.
Unconditional loves means you might get annoyed sometimes. You might get frustrated. You might even get really, really angry. But day in and day out, you continue to care and to take care. You continue to think that in the larger scheme of things, this whole business might be worth doing. And you keep doing it.
As I mentioned in my last post, dogs have very much been on my mind these days.
Isn’t it strange that we are so gregarious as a species that we have actually invited other species into our worlds to live with us? We think it’s remarkable that ants keep aphid farms, and yet we have invited in more than a dozen species. We keep cats, dogs, rats, mice, birds, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes, spiders, turtles, and frogs. And those are the ones we keep mainly for the company.
I could add the animals we keep for food, but I think you get the idea.
I am increasingly convinced that nearly all of our psychological ailments arise from unmet needs for company. Nearly all anxiety and depression are really the result of loneliness.
Trauma has its own problems–mostly to do with memory–but the greatest problem is what it does to our relationships. Difficulty managing our emotions makes us difficult to be around. If the trauma was human-caused, as the most debilitating traumas are, we often find ourselves unable to form or maintain supportive relationships.
And if our traumatic experiences began in childhood, then we usually lack important skills needed for relationships: perspective-taking, assertiveness, even turn-taking (because, growing up, it was never our turn for anything).
Put another way, what we usually develop are the skills necessary to maintain relationships with uncaring and harmful people.
Unprotected, vulnerable, and lonely, we feel anxious and hopeless.
And this leads us back to dogs, and cats, and gerbils. Get one.
The cat used the litter box 7 times in two hours, which clearly can’t be a good thing. Also, she seems to have made friends with a small alien and left it in there.
The gray gunk on top is cat litter. I am keeping the alien in the fridge for the vet to examine and possibly send off to the FBI for further analysis. No, today is not a good day to drop by for a snack. Or dinner. Or any other meal that might involve taking things out of the fridge and giving them to you. Even if the alien is in a plastic bag. You won’t want anything else in there either.
So I am not in a good mood.
It is not just that I don’t want my cat to be harboring small aliens. And not just that I am not in the mood to take her to the vet–and neither is she. It’s also that then they will give me yucky medicine that she won’t want to take and will probably have some kind of unpleasant side effect that will make her feel even worse. And I will come to think that I am ruining the last few weeks of her life.
In other words, I don’t want her to be sick because I don’t want to feel guilty. Yes, I am in therapy. No, it’s not to work on my relationship with my cat. Perhaps it should be.
Nonetheless, I intend to persevere with a post.
Which, as it turns out, will not be about cats or aliens, but about bullies. I’m on a roll.
The reason a belief that the world is made up of winners and losers is so important is that usually, along with that, is a belief that it is acceptable to treat losers differently than winners. It is, in fact, acceptable to treat them badly. They are, after all, losers. Who cares about them?
On the one hand, those beliefs, taken together, cause some people feel entitled to harass others just for being who they are. And it causes others to tolerate poor treatment because they think they deserve it.
It isn’t low self-esteem alone that puts us in the line of fire. It is the belief that it is acceptable to treat some people with less respect, courtesy, or kindness just because of who they are. Because they are annoying, or overweight, unfashionably dressed, emotional, overweight, disorganized, have bad breath or bad hair. Or because you just don’t like them.
Actually, it shouldn’t matter.
Although as a species we seem to still be of two minds about this, for the most part we do not punish people for who they are. We punish them for what they have done.
We do not punish bad people. We punish people for doing bad things. And everyone, absolutely everyone, has the right to courteous, humane, respectful treatment no matter who they are or what they have done.
Old age has made her weirdly docile. You’ll see there’s a stuffed elephant there also. That’s because I tried the elephant first.
In fact, the fire alarm went off twice in my building–they’re doing some work and messed about with the wrong wires, I guess. Anyway, it was screeching away. I didn’t know if it was a “real” alarm or not; the guy who used to put things on the stove and then wander off to sleep or shower or have sex seems to have moved out, and they hadn’t warned us about testing anything today, so it might have been.
So I picked her up, covered her ears with one hand, and set about putting on my shoes with the other. That’s when the alarm went silent.
But in earlier days, she would have been under the bed in a heartbeat. With a loud noise screaming in her ears, she would have clawed her way right around my neck and down the other side of me.
It’s totally unfair of me to see what stuffed animals she’ll let me put on her back.
But I don’t feel bad. I’ll tell you why. And I told this to a friend of mine yesterday after lunch, after her cat hissed at me and fiercely batted my hand with her right paw. My cat hisses at me every day. Sometimes, several times a day.
I know exactly when she’s in pain or even just irritated, because she tells me. And if don’t stop–because, for example, I’m trying to get that nasty hangover-like feeling to go away with a little syringed food and water–she bites me. Not hard. Just enough to let me know I should cut it out. And if I still keep at it, like I did when injecting subcutaneous fluids seemed like a good idea, then she starts seeing about how to remove one or both of my hands.
Which is why we have that deal about needles. I won’t stab them in her neck, and she’ll let me keep all my digits and limbs.
In other words, my cat sets boundaries. She tells me clearly and in no uncertain terms what is not okay. She tells me when she thinks I’m causing her pain as well as when she’s deeply annoyed. And that means I know when she isn’t.
That is the foundation for trust between us. That is what boundaries do.
I’ve heard boundaries explained as knowing the difference between ourselves and others, and I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But it doesn’t work for me. I am pretty sure my cat knows the difference between us, but I also thinks she’s not smart enough or social enough to have a self-image that might be separate than mine.
I do think she understands rights. Because part of being a cat is sometimes negotiating one’s rights with other cats–when there are other cats around. Whether you have the right to eat from all of the cat dishes, or just your own. Whether you have a right to sleep in the favored spot in the sun. Cats work that kind of thing out. No, they might agree. Someone else can only eat out of my dish when I’m finished with it. Or, they might agree that alpha cat can eat out of whatever dish she damn well pleases, whenever she feels like it. It depends on the cats.
But rights are rules we agree on. Sometimes they are fair and reciprocal, and sometimes they are not. But they have to do with with our security, our well-being and our comfort.
I’ve taken my cue from my cat. For one, you don’t need to jump all the way to drawing blood if someone challenges your boundaries. Try hissing first. Use your words.
Months back, I was sitting on the bus next to a young man who had that familiar problem with his knees. You know, that difficulty young men seem to have in keeping their knees anywhere within 3 feet of each other. He was all up in my space.
Irritating. And I didn’t have brothers, so I’m not all that great at dealing with it. I have a tendency to assume that someone who violates normal social boundaries (like you don’t touch people on the bus if you can help) does so because they don’t care. Which is sometimes the case. But sometimes people are distracted, or just a bit stupid. You know, like me thinking it was a good idea to put stuffed animals on my cat’s back.
And I asked him, “Would you move your knee please?”
“Sorry,” he said. And did. Just like I would have taken the elephant off the cat’s back if she’d hissed at me. I was a person just being a bit stupid, but not malicious.
And I wonder if that’s part of why it’s so difficult for abuse survivors to trust. Our rights have been violated so often and so profoundly, that we don’t know how to stand up for those rights. We don’t know what they are or what we would want them to be. We don’t expect to be allowed to assert them if we knew.
And when we have set boundaries, no one listened. If we started at the hiss, we had no choice but to move onto biting, and then to drawing blood. Often enough that maybe now we start with drawing blood. With an end result that then we both are hurt afterwards.
That process of developing trust doesn’t have a chance. There is never that moment when someone we are starting to care about violates our boundaries and we tell that person to stop, thereby getting to see that he will stop. And this person we are beginning to care about never gets a chance to see that we will tell him when to stop before he’s really hurt us.
You end up with one person who feels continually trampled, and another who is a bundle of nerves wondering when he is going to put a foot wrong. That isn’t trust.
That’s an attempt at mind-reading, and regardless of our amazing capacity to transmit emotions just like looking at each other, we just aren’t that good.
I have been playing recorded bird calls this morning, mainly because I had no idea we had more than one species of sparrow in this region. I had assumed that all of the native species had been over-run with House Sparrows. Not so, as the birding walk I went on over the weekend claimed we could see up to four if we kept our eyes peeled.
I have no idea if we did or not because, frankly, I am just not really any good at birding. But I am completely fascinated. Now, I want to see all four.
They are just sparrows, but I live in a major city. If we hadn’t been colonized by exotic parakeets, I don’t think we would have birds at all. Except pigeons. Pigeons are everywhere. Pigeons are inescapable.
A fact made painfully clear by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Same birds. Other side of the world. There is something actually a little bit wrong with that. Nonetheless, this brings me to the point of today’s post.
The cat, who displays no interest in recordings of cats and dogs whatsoever, is completely taken in by recordings of bird calls. She looked out the window first, since that seemed logical, and then later at the speakers. I’m afraid by now she may have sorted out that there are no birds in the house. But I am not sure. If you have cats, it is a really spectacularly fun game. Fool the cat.
You should try it.
That said, I must add I am not suggesting this out of a cruel desire to tease my cat. However, having spent a lot of time in zoos over the years (because I’m weird like that), I am quite convinced that keeping our minds busy makes us live longer and better lives. That goes for cats too.
Oh, and she seems to be entertained by this as well.
I tried syringe-feeding my cat this morning, because there is no longer any kind of food she’ll eat in enough quantity that it’s going to actually keep her alive. She growled at me.
And most of the food went on the side of her face.
I might try it one more time with a few switch-ups to see if that improves my success with it. But if she growls again, I’ll call it quits.
She was not even this docile or understanding.
I realize, as I watch her to see if she’s still enjoying life at all, that I’m looking for the wrong thing. I’m imagining she’s like some other cat. That at some point, she will look at me with a sad kind of vulnerability that means she is done with this business of living. It simply hurts too much.
She isn’t that kind of cat. She speaks the language of irritation, not vulnerability. The greater her discomfort, the more pissed off she gets. When it’s time to go, she won’t look at me with big eyes that speak of suffering. She will just be mad. She will stop chewing the cat grass and watching the traffic out the window. She will look at everything with baleful hate.
If I had to pick a sitcom character to represent this cat, it would be Diana Trent.
She is not actually a grumpy cat when she feels well and when you aren’t trying to shove things in her mouth. Just as Diana was not grumpy when she could do what she enjoyed: ride around in helicopters, photographing war zones while weathering enemy and possibly friendly fire.
Which is why I won’t persist with syringe-feeding, even if it would add months onto her life. Or possibly years. What she objects to is the loss of control. And if control means more to her than food, she can have it. She’s an old lady, and she has earned the right to make that choice.
Addendum: so it’s the towel that she particularly hates. She’ll tolerate a certain amount of shoving things in her mouth so long as I don’t force her to stand still. Good to know.