Annie, my rescue cat, is one of a long line of beloved pets that I’ve been appreciating more and more lately. April 1, I’ll take off for the Appalachian Trail, a lifelong dream that I’ve decided can no longer be ignored. In the meantime, I’m trading cooking and cleaning with a friend in exchange for rent so I can save money for my trip. Annie had no say so in that decision. When I decided to go, I started worrying about her. If I waited until she died, that might be another 15 years or more. Should I put off an opportunity that might never come again? It hurt, and I went through days of feeling guilty as I packed my belongings and gave them away.
A good friend, the one who offered to let me live rent-free in exchange for cooking and cleaning, was happy to take in Annie-and keep her when I leave.
The move has been hard. I’m used to being alone, doing things my way and having complete privacy when I get home from work. My niece called to see how I was doing and I ranted for several minutes about my sudden lack of privacy, wondering if the decision I’d made was going to backfire. Finally I apologized and she said, “Hey, it’s a big adjustment, you need to vent. So how’s Annie handling it?”
“Oh, she hid the first day but she’s been exploring the new territory, claiming the little deck in front, and last night she slept with my roommate!”
It dawned on me that Annie was handling things a lot better than I was. Everything in her world changed overnight. She just coped. Instead of whining about the way things used to be, or the way she thought things were going to be, she coped. She looks at every day as a new experience. Like other pets, she lives in the present. She shrugs her shoulders, holds up her little paws and says “hey, it is what it is. We got any more fish?”
Shamed, I started asking my friends about their own pet lessons and have been pleasantly surprised that they all have a story. My friend, Jill, works for Animal Control and volunteers for an animal rescue group. Her own home is filled with purring, barking and parakeet whistles most of the time.
“No matter how cruelly they’ve been treated, most of the time they forgive as soon as you offer them a kind word and a comforting touch. We had a case recently where two little puppies were abandoned. They were tied to a tree in 100 degree heat with no food or water. The owners tied them up while they moved out. Left them. A neighbor saw them, heard them whimpering, and called us. They just huddled together, scared to death, after they’d been fed and watered. All day we petted those little guys, scratched their ears, and by the next day they had the whole staff crooning over them. We didn’t even keep them in the cage; they were running around the offices, playing and tussling like nothing had happened. If that had been me, or you, we’d have hated all people. We’d have to be in therapy. They forgive, they don’t hold grudges. All they really want is love. And kibble.”
Lesson one, I thought. Be present. This is the best day. This is the best meal. This is the best activity. I made myself pay attention to every minute of laundry that day. I noticed every towel, every sock. I appreciated how clean they were. I folded them carefully as I took them out of the dryer, inhaling their fresh scent. Put away gently in their proper place, I realized how little time it actually took and how different the experience was when I wasn’t checking my watch and wishing I were doing something else. Annie, helped, of course. She pounced on wayward socks and took a short nap on the folded towels.
Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, writes that our pets can teach us more about how to live our lives than we can ever teach them. His book “A Member of the Family” emphasizes how much our pets can teach us about living our lives with joy and purpose. By living in the present, not holding grudges, celebrating each day, giving and receiving love.
We need a purpose, a reason to get up and feel like we’ve accomplished something with each day. Like dogs want to work for their food, so do we. Making art, writing, working at whatever job will pay satisfies me, defines my purpose. I make sure Annie gets to go outside and explore, hunt, do things cats want to do. She needs that. And it’s not so much.
Animals don’t live for revenge or regret, they don’t hold grudges. They deal with an issue when it comes up and then move on. Show your pet kindness and compassion, affection and yes, food, and they will love you with complete abandon. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you open your front door after a discouraging day at work and someone jumps off the couch, purring and rubbing your legs, obviously happy that you exist. Annie and her predecessors always wanted to be petted before I fed them. Always.
And that’s the thing I keep coming back to, in all my research and reading. Love. Annie doesn’t care if my neck sags. She doesn’t care that I don’t make a lot of money, or that my car broke down again or that I’m not the prettiest, smartest, or richest. She loves me exactly the way I am. When I’ve been irritated or tired or depressed she has settled in my lap, purring and kneading. Sometimes she sits up and gently pats my face before she settles down. I love you, she’s saying. No matter what.
I’ve been in therapy-who hasn’t anymore? And it’s because I’ve held grudges, fretted that the past will strangle the future, felt frustrated because I wasn’t this or that. Annie says, you are who you are and that’s great with me. She thinks I’m swell, so maybe I should, too.
My neighbor, a vet, smiled when I asked him about his own menagerie, an assortment of animals left at his clinic.
“The only agenda our pets have is loving us,” he said. “Oh, sure, they want to be fed but even that’s greeted with cheerful enthusiasm.” He laughed and said, “Well, with the exception of some picky cats!”
Now, when I find myself irritated with someone’s careless behavior, or when I’m feeling sorry for myself because my life hasn’t been as successful as I wish it had been, I think of Annie. I think of the pets that loved me before her, of all the animals that share our lives without complaint. And I remind myself to be grateful.
I try to savor every bite of everything I eat. I lift my head during my daily walk and look closely at the colors of the leaves, of the patterns in the clouds. I work through my daily chores and appreciate that I can do them, that I have what I need to live, to work toward my goal of hiking the AT in the spring. Annie has given me unconditional love and that, somehow, frees me to love myself the same way.
It’s empowering, this love. It allows you to love others in a richer, more profound way. Try it. Love yourself the way your pets love you, and watch it keep flowing from your pets to you to those around you.