A peripheral creature: Mindfulness, the broken cat and unconditional love

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O P I N I O N


One evening as I’m walking by my daughter’s bedroom, I peek in to see what she’s up to. She’s laying on her bed, coloring, half turned away from me; the side of her face lit up by her nightstand lamp, hair unruly, focused deeply on the image before her. 

I force myself to pause for a moment, despite the dishes that need to be put away and the lunches that need to be made for tomorrow. I’ve been making an effort lately – a conscious, full-on, taking account of the moment effort – to stop when I can. Just stop. Take a breath. To actively be wherever I am. 

This is complex, emotionally grinding work, and harder than I’d imagine it to be. In general, but especially this past year, life has felt at times like a treadmill with no off switch. We’ve had more time, but more worry. Less work, but working harder. Guilt comes at you fast during these times when it feels like we ought to be doing something – anything – to maintain forward progress. 

Like the very act of JUST DOING SOMETHING would actually make things happen. That’s not how any part of life works of course.

But now, as we appear to be clawing our way out of pandemic life and into (not quite) normal life, making an effort to take an accounting seems like a worthy quest. This isn’t a movie. Trauma comes at you in different, mostly legitimate, ways. And snapping back to the “way things were” is surely a fool’s quest. But what does have value? How can we use mindfulness and being in the moment to guide our way?

Well, to that end, let me introduce you to the newest member of our family, a white, gray and black mongrel tabby named Jade. My daughter had always made it understood that her first “baby,” a Russian blue kitten named Lavender would someday have a sister. That day has come. But my expectation was that the new cat would be another kitten.

Instead, Little Bean fell in love with a frightened, traumatized, 5-year old street cat with a killer side-eye and a chunk of its ear missing. I gave some lip service to dissuading her, but I didn’t try hard. This was to be her new child. She was determined to love Jade. So, we took her home.

Not always seeing eye to eye : Uma and Jade

How were we to know that Jade would become our true test of mindfulness, a workshop in patience and an example of the self as a wholly contained entity existing outside the reciprocity of connection. In other words, loving Jade, for my daughter, has become unrequited, and we’ve all had to learn to live with that.

“Daddy, Jade won’t let me pet her,” my daughter would moan during those early, first few days when the cat would find a small place to hide and stay there the whole day, frightened and depressed. 

“I know, baby, but it’s going to take a while for her to be comfortable, for her to trust us. We have to be patient.”

But she was eating from the bowl we left near her hiding places, and so far, there seemed to be no conflict between Jade and Lavender. So, we waited. And waited.

Some days, my daughter would sit near Jade, within earshot, as the cat huddled behind the washing machine or behind a box in the closet, and she’d just talk. On the rare occasion when my wife managed to pick up the cat to brush her, my daughter would pat her head cautiously, like touching a butterfly wing. Love it too hard and it will be gone.

I’d like to be able to report to you that after about a month, Jade has decided we mean her no harm, that she’s blended with the family and now enjoys my daughter’s affections. But that’s not the case.

Instead, this new cat is a ghost, an occasional flash behind the sofa or scuttling down the stairs. Jade is a peripheral creature, a friend you can only see out of the corner of your eye. Try to look at her straight on, and all you get are pixels. 

But we love her nonetheless. That’s the point. Awareness is a protocol of mindfulness. And with awareness, especially for a difficult family member, comes well-wishing. All my daughter’s energy toward her newest baby must be directed with no guarantee of a return on emotional investment. The cat is safe, fed and loved. That’s all. We accept her occasional company with no strings attached.

So it is with life. So it will or should be when we venture out of our cocoons in the weeks and months that follow. 

A few days ago, from across the house, I heard my daughter scream and then immediately burst into laughter.

“What is it,” I asked.

“Daddy,” she said breathlessly, “it was Jade! She just ran right between my legs.”

Connection can be hard work. But drop expectation from the equation, shake the burden of holding on too tightly, and there’s a freedom in that. That can have value. Can a frightened cat show us the way? Well, let’s just start with letting the cat be the cat, and go from there.