It was midnight and I was in the thick of a serious conversation on my patio. Years ago when I was in a job that required a lot of one on one meetings, my boss told me the key to making someone feel like your attention was only on them was this: If a bird were to land on the head of the person you were talking to, they shouldn’t know. Your face remains the same. You are not bothered by the outside world. It is just you and them. So as I talked to my friend on the patio, and a pregnant, silky cat lept onto the balcony next to mine, I tried my best to remain locked into his eyes remembering the sage wisdom from my boss. Eventually, my listening skills gave way to the sweetness of her slow walk across the thin beam and I whispered “Eli, turn around…”
Everything we were saying dissipated and our attention was quickly redirected. In the light of the moon, we watched as she lept off my neighbor’s balcony into the shrubbery behind our homes. I ran into the kitchen and out the front door, around the house, and back into the bushes to look for her. I’m not sure what neurons were firing or what I thought I’d do when I got to her, but I was so curious. I felt transported to my childhood: a little girl in the hot Connecticut summer nights collecting various creatures and treasures with my brother. I am a searcher to my core. It sometimes gets the best of me, but I must look.
When I arrived at my destination behind the house, I found her. I crouched down and somewhere between her softness and my crooning, I fell in love with this cat. I asked her what her name was. I asked if she was pregnant (I know…I know). I asked why she wasn’t home safely tucked away in bed, it was obviously past her bedtime! We bonded in the cool early morning hours while my friends chuckled at me from my patio. And then I heard rustling behind me. She remained unscathed but I jumped up from my knelt position. I turned around to two sets of beady eyes no more than three feet away from me. Raccoons. I yelled a choice word and called out for my two friends who were watching on. She casually turned and walked directly towards them. I ran through the small shrubs and dodged sprinklers back to safety without my pregnant feline friend.
I rejoined my friends but was internally filled with sadness and defeat. Not the deep kind, not the memorable kind, the kind that fills you when you thought you might get a free pet cat at 2 in the morning. But as the days passed, the brief interaction with her stayed present in my mind. The way she so nonchalantly turned to these animals who were wild, who were not her best option that evening. Although to turn to them meant risking her well-being, I imagine that they were familiar to her and that the familiarity even though it contained potential danger was easier to stomach than the idea of me. Maybe she had passed them before, maybe she knew them as fellow members of the community of animals that come out when it gets dark. From an outside perspective, I knew I could offer her safety. Which, in my mind, would be the one thing a pregnant stray cat would want most. But I was a stranger and she had no reason to trust me or to believe that something different that night, could also be something good.
That’s how it must be for those who see into our lives clearly, for those who hold outside perspectives: parents, spouses, best friends, the divine. So often, our nature implores us to return to the familiar. It makes sense. It does. But more often than not, we outgrow places we know all too well and the familiar no longer contains what we need. We then mold ourselves to let the familiar meet small needs; we make less of what our lives could be to stay comfortable. Who knows if the familiarity of beasts led to any real sort of demise for her that evening, but it led to a deep rabbit hole of thought in my brain, and for that I thank her.
I think most of us are the cat, waiting to burst forth with life yet drawn back to smallness, drawn back to perceived safety. As a searcher and a curious person, I’ve spent the last several weeks since that interaction recounting the story in my brain and playing out scenarios where I am a different character. If I am the cat, what is my fear of something new? If I am the raccoon, what makes me so alluring? In what ways is life waiting to break through my fear? And why is life breaking through in theory so lovely yet so bone-chilling when the opportunity arises?
If I get really honest about my life, I can see numerous places where daily I am going back to old ways, old habits, old places. Our history can often come back in a twisted charming way, making us believe that it is better to go down that path. When I am afraid of something new, the fear is born from a place of believing that the things I do not have control over, the places I’ve yet to master are spaces where I could be hurt. I become vulnerable in uncharted territory. And in my vulnerability the attraction of old places, the faces I know and the pain I can maneuver with my eyes closed becomes all too appealing.
I go through these motions and cycles and I wake up disappointed. The cyclical life of two steps forward and five steps back becomes old. I long for more. I’m sure you do too. We are wired for movement in a forward direction. In fact, the world around us is too. Look at everything that rids itself of the old… trees, a buck’s antlers, snakes, the skin that holds you so beautifully. The list is truly endless. Our surroundings are announcing with every fiber that we are made to make progress, we are made to leave certain things behind, we are made for more. Sometimes forms, structures, relationships, and rituals are good for a time, and then we outgrow them. Knowing when we have outgrown them is not usually difficult. It’s having the strength to own it and make the necessary changes that prove to be challenging.
I saw my feline friend recently. She showed up in the same place, behind my patio. The same feelings welled up; for some reason I really loved this cat. By this interaction, I had begun this essay so I had already begun to process what our first encounter taught me. I think that made the love grow when I saw her for the second time. I took her picture, sent it to my friends from that first night telling them she was back. And then I went inside and continued on with my day. I saw her walk by my windows, and being curious to see where she was heading, I opened my front door. She was sitting right there, looked up at me, and walked inside my house. She walked into the first open door, and lept up onto my bathroom counter, and stared at herself in the mirror. I felt like I was witnessing some cosmic inside joke. The world knew I was writing this essay, and this was an amazing finish for my lesson. I didn’t call her, I didn’t force her, I didn’t try to bribe change. She had permission to go at her own pace. My friend came over and we spent the afternoon delighting in this bizarre encounter. She left after an hour and I haven’t seen her since. My divine lesson, in the form of a stray cat. I don’t always understand how the world works, but at that moment I was absolutely in love with its fickle ways.
In our own time, at our own pace, we will be able to muster up the courage to walk bravely into spaces that once terrified us. The front door will open and without an ounce of hesitancy, we will charge forth confidently. I believe that the natural course unfolds best when we do not force it. I say this because you may know there are areas of your life that need to be changed but you find yourself leading the process of change with shame and disgust for that place. Ease up. Go slow. Learn to lead the change with kindness, with courage…I promise it is so much smoother that way.
Regression is natural; our growth is not linear. And along the way, when you are open to the beautiful and unfolding processes of life, you may find yourself seeing lessons all around which will encourage your ever-changing process. I think the world offers itself to us as a mirror to the inner sacred workings of our soul if only we have eyes to see it that way. If only we allow ourselves to belly laugh at stray cats teaching us life’s biggest lessons. If only we allow ourselves room to grow intrepid spirits, trusting that at our own pace we will turn from the old and into the new.
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