Lately, I’ve found myself standing in the pothole of a complex crossroad where many facets of my life – job, apartment, relationships, money, writing – all seem to be converging on not just one point of question but at an intersection of queries that remain unpaired with any satisfactory answers.
I’ve felt myself sinking into the quicksand of my life’s uncertainty, unsure if this time, this time, this time I will have the ability to once again get myself back to standing on steady ground.
Two years ago, when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference for memoir writing, I was confronted by the words of Robert Frost, who once lived with great modesty (even more than I do in the garret) in a cabin on Bread Loaf Mountain, where nature inspired his writing. As his poem “The Road Not Taken” begins, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler, long I stood/And looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth.”
Last week, I found myself standing at a psychological stop sign, looking closely at the place where my life diverged. I began to examine a very difficult piece of “the undergrowth” of my history, and its fallout. I came to realize that, when I endured the sexual abuse of my childhood, a core part of me “went away” – that was how I survived. That was my choice: self-preservation. (I think of nature explorer Aron Ralston who cut off his arm in order to save his life.)
However, long after the traumatic times ended, as if a reflex located in my soul, that essence of me stayed “away,” hidden down deep within. I kept it under wraps as much as possible through my twenties and through what I’ve already lived of my thirties. Many articles and books have been written by experts in the field of PTSD explaining how trauma survivors narrow their lives as a way to maintain control and safety – I see it reflected at times in Hannah’s behavior, the way she allows me to pet her only in a certain “safe” place of her choosing. It is a way to stay sane, to remain able to function, to manage the threat of annihilation. The problem is, in the present, there is no more threat and such control or safety is an illusion. And for that illusion there is a price. In my young adulthood, I cut myself off from many of life’s foundational experiences due to my “reflex.” I did not see it then, but I do know it now. And now, as I stand at a place where it seems so much of my life’s structures are falling apart, I am trying to forgive myself for this kind of failure. I am also mourning the loss.
The other day, as I was coping with some difficult despair, I caught that once-censored core part of myself – a combination of innocence, affection, lovingness, curiosity, hope, wonder – becoming uncensored, unfettered. I saw it outside myself, in Hannah, as she rubbed her ears across the backs of my calves, one of her signs of deep affection, and as she threw aside her fear for a moment and played with abandon, batting a stuffed fish string toy she once turned away from, now engaging with it, an unbridled energy fueling her, as if she unlocked her prison door and walked away, free. And then there was Sam, galloping up to the back garret window with glee, chirping at the birds and turning his face to me as if he’d witnessed the most wonderful sight and was saying come here, come see.
In such ways, and in others, these two beings, who came from their own distinct traumas, have come to me, bringing back what I thought I’d lost.
I was never going to have a pet, but, almost five years ago I chose to adopt Hannah, and then, six months ago, Sam. I am grateful for my decision, because there are days when these two cats make (to quote Frost) all the difference. They are the life-affirming spirits who get me up in the morning, who keep me company late at night, who remind me I am not only wanted but loved. They reflect my deepest self back to me. They show me that the essence of who I was – am – is right here in front of me, to take in, to give away, to take back in again.
Note to the reader: some of you attended my reading of “Surf City,” a chapter excerpt from my first memoir, Personal Effects, published by The Southampton Review last July. A video of the reading was recently posted on YouTube. To view the reading, click here.
Has your pet gotten you through a difficult time in your life? Share your experience and comments below.