July 31, 2014

Don’t Tell Me They Don’t Know

I was sitting at the airport in Denver, on my way home to the City of Angels. It was an hour before boarding, so I slouched in a comfortable cushioned seat and watched the passersby. The great migration, it seemed. Backlit signs everywhere: to “Baggage Claim,” “Ground Transportation,” terminal directions, concourse arrows, a mishmash of chaos with somewhere to go. I watched a surge of passengers make their dif€cult journey to a terminal farther beyond the one in which I had settled. They seemed hurried and anxious, battling with luggage and purses, small children and departure deadlines, while others about them strolled casually, luggage-free, to meet arrivals.

I wondered about the secrets hidden inside the hearts and minds of all those people passing before me. I wondered about their hurts and dreams, their broken hearts. Victims of a supreme alienation from the natural world on one hand, perpetrators of indescribable, seemingly unconquerable suffering on the other — bulls in inescapable arenas, tormented literally to death; furbearing animals caught in steel traps, agonizing for days before being bludgeoned or stomped to death; panic-stricken cows kicking in their death throes to meet that “60 billion served” mentality. Perhaps none of us deserves to escape the pains we have wrought upon ourselves, that emptiness that haunts all of us who have truly lost touch with the forests and the skies and the great mountains. I was reminded of that when that Lockheed 1011 took off and brought Earth up so close.

She is but a tiny, lonely planet — even from 37,000 feet. Her curve is perfect, her skies milky white and frothy. And I marvel at how humans have mastered it: this bus with wings, hurling across her plains and over her mountains at 600 miles an hour, constructed of steel, with the weight of several hundred human beings. And their stuff. And I know I’m not supposed to be up here. I mean, it’s not, well, natural. Despite living among them, I don’t feel I belong in the human world.

But, then, belonging to Nature may not be my life, either. I stood on a wild mountain in Colorado during a storm that had broken while I was photographing a herd of elk — animals who, never having been hunted, knew no fear. We shared the same misty, pouring rain, listened to it caress the forest and the tree leaves — the only other sound outside the lightning and thunder cracked and boomed around us. I lifted back my head, welcomed the cool downpour into my eyes and face and reveled in this unexpected connection to Nature. Until I remembered the elk. When I lowered my head to meet their gaze, their unalarmed curiosity reminded me how far away I was still. And loneliness echoed: It doesn’t help much, an acquaintance once observed, that the animals don’t even know you’re on their side, does it?

When I arrived home three cats were sitting on the staircase inside, waiting for me. They must have heard me pull into the garage because there they were, without fail, waiting. The Welcoming Committee. I say hello, and two of them wait for their scratches; just Black begins her running. She starts at the bottom of the stairs, then races into the kitchen, around the corner, up the counter, down to the floor, back into the living room, onto the light table, down to the floor again, around the banister, across the foyer, up the stairs — and then back down again — to start all over. It’s what I call “Crazy Time.”

I think she does it because she likes to make me laugh, wants me to know she’s glad to be alive, and she thanks me for saving her life. I’ll quote Aesop: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Or unappreciated.

After my cat, Mouser, died in 1989, I took a two-year-old cat off Death Row at a local animal shelter. She was scheduled to die that evening because she wasn’t very friendly (but then who would be in a place like that?). She was a purebred Manx cat, jet-black with yellow eyes, fat, and stand-offish. She fought hard when they went to get her (Mouser would have been proud). But within two days, I awoke to find her in the doorway of my bedroom, heaving, frothing at the mouth, and stumbling into a neighboring wall. I rushed her to the hospital to discover that she had contracted a serious respiratory virus while locked in the shelter. Within two weeks, she nearly died.

I called her “Black” because I thought anything more personal would bond me to her more than I had already become — and I couldn’t handle another animal dying.

She stayed in a carrier here in the office beside me, so dehydrated she couldn’t move, so feverish she was delirious and disoriented. I had to forcibly feed her, medicate her regularly, and inject fluids under her skin to fight off the fever and dehydration. For days this went on, and for days she didn’t improve. I found myself preparing for the worst.

I’d leave the carrier’s door open so I could peer in on her regularly to make certain she was alive, to talk to her, sometimes to sing, with the hope she would understand some universal language of prayer. But she would barely lift her head to notice.

A group of us were taking inventory in the back room one evening, counting Animals Voice Magazines and logging them, when I saw a movement in the doorway. In shock and disbelief, I met Black’s yellow-eyed stare. She had come to find us. My outburst caught everyone’s attention and we ran over to her, dancing around her, laughing and crying at the same time while she looked at us as if to say, “Hey, like, what’s the fuss?”

I couldn’t believe how quickly she had recovered. Only an hour earlier she was fast asleep in her carrier, curled in a warm blanket, close to dying. Suddenly, she appeared, wheezing still, but sleepy-eyed. I carried her back to her carrier, telling her she should rest still, that being that close to death was nothing to jump around about.

I returned to the back room, took a seat on the table and picked up my clipboard. Black joined us a second later, determined to be with us, it seemed, despite how ill she still appeared. She walked painfully across the floor, stood a moment at the foot of the table and then rose on her hind legs to paw at its top, too high for her to jump onto just yet.

I leaned over and picked her up, and this otherwise aloof cat crawled very high onto my chest — so she could press her face tightly to mine — and began to purr.

I barely knew her, but I finally understood.

Like the cottontail I had nursed back to health and released in a protected refuge, who ran a short distance, stopped and looked back at me for a moment to say farewell, Black had had something to say, too, and wasn’t about to rest until I heard her. “You’re welcome, Black,” I answered her.

It may not be Colorado. I may never know bioconnectedness on a grand scale. But in my little corner of the universe now, every night is Crazy Time.

Don’t tell me they don’t know.

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