Furry Friend

So. I’ve started a practice of “cataloging delights” as I make my way through Ross Gay’s marvelous collection of short essays (“essayettes”), The Book of Delights. I recommend this book, this practice, and the author’s interview on the On Being podcast. It is sweet medicine for the turmoil of our times. In the book, Gay describes how, a few years ago, he decided to write daily essays about “something delightful.” He’d write them every day for a year, starting and ending on his birthday. He’d write them quickly and by hand. What he found was that writing about his delights, and sharing them with others, made them grow.

What I love about Gay’s delights, beyond the wonderful, conversational style in which they’re presented, is that they mingle with his sorrows:

It astonishes me sometimes – no, often – how every person I get to know – everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything – lives with some profound personal sorrow.

A moment of physical affection on an airplane leads to a commentary on racism. And so on, as though recognizing the sorrow amplifies the delight. The interaction between our sorrow and our delight is what Gay is getting at, which reminds me of yesterday’s delight, rereading Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, which examines the relationship between the two “deepest things inside” of us: sorrow and kindness. Maybe I’ll transcribe that delight here, too.

Anyway, if you do read the book, forgive me if my ramblings here mimic Gay’s prose at times. I had just been reading the book last night, falling deeply in love with his witty, lovingly self-deprecating, verbose stream of consciousness. And as a writer, I suppose I’m still in that impressionable phase of absorbing and remixing as I eke out my own voice. But these words are true, straight from my journal to this screen. On to today’s delight!

Our fluffy orange cat is just over a year old. When we took him in from the street, separated from his litter and crying outside our neighbor’s apartment in the cold, he was the size of a smartphone. We kept him in a big cardboard box with a blanket at night while we slept and while having friends over to play Dungeons and Dragons, a choice to which I attribute his incredibly sociable and human-friendly nature. He was too little to walk then, but he was always a squirmer.

The first time kitty emitted a low, steady rumble and placed his right paw into his mouth, we reacted with surprise and concern. What on earth is he doing? we thought. Is he…he is…he’s sucking his thumb! A quick web survey confirmed that kittens removed from their mothers too early may develop self-soothing behaviors. Another such behavior is the suckling and consuming of wool; had I known that, I’d have hidden my nice wool dresses and shirts and gloves from him. Alas, goodbye, fineries! I loved you so! Of course, the “thumb” sucking was so cute we immediately grew fond of the moments in which kitty would nestle against or upon us, start up his motor box, and go to town, always on the same paw, the right one.

Our cat still enacts this ritual daily, at specific intervals: at night, if, after he’s fallen asleep, I go and get him from his spot on the floor, delightfully warm from our Korean underfloor ondol heating – or if it’s so cold he’s already on the bed with us (rare). His ears point upward, creating temporary little bald spots on his head, his purring mixes with a gentle squeaking sound, and sometimes he’ll open his eyes slightly and look in our direction, though it’s clear that he is occupied entirely by the delight of it.

And again in the morning, this time aggressively, on my husband’s chest, the one who wakes early to fill his majesty’s food dish. The morning ritual involves a louder purr and an incessant kneading of the neck and chin. “Wake up, human!” he is saying, in his obscenely cute way. If I stay in bed leisurely, he may return several times to my chest.

And finally, the moment during the day which speaks to the soft tragedy of it all: when my husband and I have been away at work or running errands, and one of us comes home to him. Should we swiftly deposit our belongings onto the dining room table and make our way to the living room sofa, he will plop himself onto our lap and enter his happy little place, but with a hint more desperation, the purring faster, in time with his beating little heart, gasping and gulping sweetly to keep up with himself. I sense the anxiety of our separation. Poor, sweet baby.

This morning, he’s on my chest, sucking away on his paw, as I awaken to a message from a friend who is leaving Korea. Our friendship had all but dissolved over the past year, for reasons I couldn’t identify until this very moment when, unwrapping the gift of long withheld yet now unfiltered and brutal truths, they dawn on me, the ways in which I contributed to our downfall, how I’d clung too tight, expected too much, and how some friendships just end when there is nothing left to give. And, sadly, perhaps even wistfully, I realize how I am like this little babe of mine in some ways, re-enacting my own losses and griefs, desperate for the comfort of others to soothe away my hurts.

When I was a child, my father, for his own hurt reasons, left my brother and me, all but removing himself from our lives after a bitter divorce. I have never been good with endings. I don’t do well with not knowing where I stand with people. Rejection? That cuts me deep. I am like my mother: reactive, vulnerable, unable to hide my feelings. And these qualities, I now see, can lead me to over-attach, to cling for closeness and comfort and to flinch and suffer at the construction of boundaries. For my hurt little self, distance is a cruel rejection.

What a delight, then, to live with an animal, with his softness – literally and figuratively – and vulnerability. The joy of returning to him after work, of filling his dish, of being a lap on which he settles and is soothed. And in return, an unambiguous love that comforts and delights, when our hearts ache, when we lose people and things, when our vulnerability and our pain is revealed to others and that feels so damn scary and fresh, when the little child inside us cries out for affection and love, we have our furry little friend to return home to.

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