A Helpless Devotion to Pets

“I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency. Then he subtly lets me know he understands I am trying to reach him, reach cat, essence of cat.”
Doris Lessing

Pets unravel carefully constructed personas and threaten deeply-formed maturities. In some sort of inside-out abandon we welcome these fuzzy ears, tails, feathers, even fits into our lives and hearts and unabashedly share that part of ourselves, that vulnerability even, with the world.

Because it is vulnerability, to love something so deeply.

Why do we do it? Never mind the expense, the occasional smell, the inconvenience and, for those of us who own cats or roosters, the early morning petitions to “get the hell out of bed right now!”

Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

Fortunately, to explain all this madness, there is a relatively new science called anthrozoology that studies the relationships between pets and their humans.

“Despite sometimes suffering due to our misunderstanding of their requirements,” writes John Bradshaw, biologist, pet owner and pioneer anthrozoologist, “cats and dogs were obviously benefiting from their relationships with people – there are far more of them in the world today than there are of the wild ancestors from which they emerged thousands of years ago.”1

Drawing from biology, neurology, anthropology, and psychology, Bradshaw dispenses with cosmetic arguments “dogs are cute” and the like and argues for deep cultural and neurological reasons.

For example, those who have pets as children are more likely to carry on “petting” as adults. This playmate bond, once formed, continues for life. My daughter’s best friends are our cats, they have taught her to bark, to scratch furniture, and to pace the kitchen at five PM when it is treat-time.

The youthful life-force of writer Gerald Durrell was developed in the affectionate company of many (many) pets. In one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in ages, My Family & Other Animals, Durrell notices all the little details of his beloved turtle, “Achilles”:2

The fruit that Achilles liked best were wild strawberries. He would become positively hysterical at the mere sight of them, lumbering to and fro, craning his head to see if you were going to give him any, gazing at you pleadingly with his tiny boot-button eyes.

When Achilles had an unfortunate meeting with a poorly-covered well, Durrell adopts a pigeon who promptly refused to sleep outside and often perched on the faces of his family members, “cooing loudly and lovingly.”

The frenzy of young love. I remember the moment I became a cat owner. I was six, we picked out siblings from a litter of Siamese cats. We carried them home in pillow cases and I sat for what felt like hours in front of a heater with the male one curled in my short legs gathering the courage to poke his foot pads. I wanted him to like me, I wanted to be his favorite.

A Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

The first domesticated animal is thought to be evidenced by a dog buried with a human in modern Israel, dating back about 12,000 years. Whether one died after the other is unclear, but their lives were intertwined in afterlife.

Many of us love and appreciate pets to the point of invasion. Moving furniture, house, even homes to accommodate.

My favorite great aunt is in her late 80s and still ventures out in Michigan winters because her Siamese must go out. “He keeps me young,” she often says. I imagine her bounding across the yard after him, I know she does. And gets him unstuck when he attempts to clear the chain-link fence and fails. The precious things we keep nearby are often alive.

Evidently, pets bring something into our lives that we miss, long for, and often don’t even recognize until it flies in our faces, in our laps and on our arms.

While grieving over the death of her father, writer Helen McDonald bought – and promptly fell in love with – a goshawk.3

The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angle.

As McDonald withdraws her presence repeatedly in order to lure the hawk she reflects that “nineteenth-century falconers were projecting onto their hawks all the male qualities they thought threatened by modern life: wildness, power, virility, independence and strength.”

We project onto our animals aspects of ourselves that we most admire, whether those aspects exist or not. The animals become our extensions, perhaps we give them the adoration and forgiveness we cannot self-give.

When people speak of their pets, I cannot help thinking that these individuals are speaking of themselves.

Like John Steinbeck who, the year he won the Noble Prize, traveled with his dog, Charley, around America. When Charley desires to “salute a tree”, Steinbeck writes lovingly:4

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He cannot read, cannot drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow imperial selling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide am I?

Travels with Charley was written post-illness and when Steinbeck felt a particular homesickness to “know” his country. Steinbeck’s mood, clearly, indulged a bit of self-pity. Pity he extended to his dog, almost as if they were one and the same.

Animals enact on us a sort of relationship that is completely unique – pet and master – and yet, we treat the relationship in the manner of the relationships we already know and have well-worn; parent, child, friend, colleague.

That is because, Bradshaw argues, a love of pets imitates our most primal relationships: “Stroking the warm fur of a dog may tap into our primate instinct to build friendships through grooming” elevating both endorphin and oxytocin and that “testosterone, with an established role in child care, might reasonably contribute to the more tough-and-tumble interactions that many men have with their dogs.”

A Helpless Devotion to Pets
Luna. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

A less-theoretical case: the many cats in British writer Doris Lessing’s numerous cat-themed essays appear like people in her life, meaningful, forcing from her a sort of engagement. Did Lessing, who famously said “I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up” when she abandoned her own children, find an untapped maternal love for her cats?5

I think so, especially when her “young grey,” who had no interest in being a mother herself, was reluctant to stay and nurture her kittens. It is a rather humorous account of man vs. beast while Lessing seems to use psychological know-how to trick her cat into acting like a mom. The mother Lessing herself never was.

There is pity in our relationship with pets, a form of empathy. Empathy for someone who needs something, needs us. It is often solidified in that first meeting. E.B. White’s acquisition of a dachshund, for example:6

I bought a puppy last week in the outskirts of Boston and drove him to Maine in a rented Ford that looked like a sculpin. There had been talk in our family of getting a “sensible” dog this time, and my wife and I had gone over the list of sensible dogs, and had even ventured once or twice into the company of sensible dogs…. But after a period of uncertainty and waste motion my wife suddenly exclaimed one evening, “Oh, let’s just get a dachshund!

Turns out they had a particular one in mind. So many well-laid plans ruined by a pair of searching, liquid eyes.

Although domestication was more recent, our affection for animals in our communities, dates back at least 50,000 years. For 50,000 years we have had some sort of relationship with these beasts, more than needing them for food and fur, and to us they have brought some level of pleasure.

Of a particular cat, Doris Lessing mused;

I sit down to be with him, it means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and the urgency. When I do this – and he must be in the right mood too, not in pain or restless – then he subtly lets me know he understands I am trying to reach him, reach cat, essence of cat, finding the best of him. Human and cat, we try to transcend what separates us.

What a beautiful concept, “reaching-cat.”

It is exactly what McDonald sought of Mabel, her goshawk, and to get there, McDonald knew she had to disappear: “you must learn to become invisible.” She explains goshawks are motivated by food alone and the only way they eat is if they trust the hand that feeds them.

I have owned cats, mostly Siamese, ever since the first one whose feet I couldn’t bear to touch lest I frighten him. One now circles my ankles on the off-chance I have a sudden craving to brush him or open some yogurt. I invariably give in. I have a helpless devotion to cats.

The weaker our wills the more cats demand. And love.

My own thoughts on pets – every single pet owner ever has their own thoughts on pets – are that they give us something we lack, whatever it might be. Peace, comfort, calm, sure – but also, love. Perhaps love most of all.

Film-critic Roger Ebert said it better (he said everything better).

On Ebert’s list of the ten greatest films ever made is a little-known documentary called “The Gates of Heaven.” This 1978 film was about a pet cemetery, the cemetery’s owners, and its patrons. I’ve seen it many times. I was, like Ebert, quite blown-away by the compassion, reality, and devotion captured. It’s like a Hemingway short story. Markers on the various graves state simply: “I knew love; I knew this dog”, and “For saving my life.”

“These animal lovers” writes Ebert, “are expressing the deepest of human needs, for love and companionship.”7

In the emptiness of the post-religious modern era where we have become distanced from nature, extended family and saddled with aching self-awareness, is it any wonder we need pets so deeply?

The Gifts and Grace of Old Age

“Age might sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.”
Penelope Lively

The gift of age is evidence of an even greater gift: life.

When he was thirty-three, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman,” a three-stanza poem that captures what we expect old age to be like:1

“In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay; When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.”

Yeats, who lived to be seventy-three, imagined old age to be a place of pain, of solitude, comforted only by memory.

Life brings a settlement into self, surely. A retrenchment of the most necessary kind. As we question our post-death existence, we withdraw a bit from the life that will soon cast us off.

And yet, I’ve found when reading what I call “views from old age” that far from being an ending, a closing, or a silencing, old age can often be the height of expression, expansion, life.

“I am now face to face with dying,” writes neuroscientist and humanist Oliver Sacks, “but I am not finished with living.”2

Maya Angelou agreed, and in her eighties, she welcomed a march of tomorrows: “Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”

Marcus Aurelius, a true philosopher king, was the last of Rome’s Pax Romana emperors. He wrote Meditations when he was about fifty-five. It offers penetrating insight into humankind, nature, and our eternal connection to a deeply spiritual universe—what Emerson would call “heavenly worlds” nearly 2,000 years later. Aurelius writes:3

Your death will soon be on you: and you are not yet clear-minded, or untroubled, or free from the fear of external harm, or kindly to all people, or convinced that justice of action is the only wisdom.

As well as allowing imperfections, Aurelius urges against trying to make meaningless distinctions during life: “All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time—it will all be the same.”

Therefore, according to this Stoic, a universe-worthy existence rests on seeking clear-mindedness and focus. Aurelius continues:

If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth.

Like Aurelius, Oliver Sacks wrote a series of essays right before his death, which were collected in the slim volume Gratitude. Sacks believed that age changed the cadence of time and delivered unexpected freedom:

I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was forty or sixty. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of lifetime together.

British novelist Penelope Lively—one of my most cherished writers—longed for an unreachable child self and believed that memory anchors us in existence. (She also once noted that love for gardening is genetic, which deeply endured her to me).

Like Sacks and many others unable to enjoy every active activity of an earlier age, Lively found what remained to her at eighty nevertheless provided vigorous comfort:

Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel. But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions […]. […] Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind.

On the dual gifts of age, Lively offers this intelligent couplet: “Age might sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.”4

A removed position allows empty space necessary to gather thoughts and perspectives. Like taking moments of break and play. From that comes great energy, even vitality.

Twenty years following the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant penned his Memoirs while dying from esophageal cancer.5 They are widely considered to be the best presidential memoirs ever written, full of insightful, empathetic details. My father gave me a copy years ago, and I’ve in turn given it to so many people I’ve lost count.

The shining moment in the book is the surrender of General Lee and the end of the War. Grant begins the anecdote humbly:

I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly […].

When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and, after shaking hands, took our seats. What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result and was too manly to show it. […] I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly […].

There is no bravado, no ego-boosting, and no circling the victory. Grant wrote in what Marcus Aurelius called a “language that rings true.”

I often wonder how the account might have been different if Grant had written sooner after the War, and when he wasn’t facing his own mortality. Would he have extended the same dignity and grace? Grant died a week after he completed his memoirs (which was edited, incidentally, by his friend and mentor Mark Twain).

Sequoia tree "General Grant" estimated age, 1,650 years.
“General Grant” sequoia, estimated to be 1,600 years old, Sequoia National Park, California. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The humility and forgiveness of age stands even more boldly against a backdrop of considerable hardships, like Maya Angelou’s loving and confident Letter to My Daughter, written when she was eighty:6

I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.

The collection is a series of letters to an imagined daughter or, rather, the collective daughters Angelou cultivated over time. One often imagines it is to Angelou’s own young self—so perfectly sketched in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings almost fifty years earlier—that she offers the most love.

Young Yeats believed that in old age we’d be surrounded by memories, and those memories alone would bring comfort.

When he was but twenty-eight, Yeats wrote another poem on his suspected view of old age “When You Are Old”:

“How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true.”

How different is Yeat’s imagination from the reality of Marilynne Robinson, who was veering towards seventy when she wrote the following:7

I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance—I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them.

Robinson, who has written so beautifully in her fiction on the alienation of returning home, carries an open heart to the new and even the future.

Hopefully, my own age won’t pass too quickly (there is so much more to be done!), but if it does—and it will—I intend to keep my eyes forward and extend nothing but grace to those in my past.

“There is always tomorrow.” wrote Maya Angelou when she was 80. “Today I am blessed.”

The Alienation We Feel When We Return Home

“To revisit one's roots calls from an upside-down posture which too often proves that the plant is broken.”
Laurie Lee

The gravitational force of our childhood home hooks us persistently with taught lines. Perhaps it is the promise this home will receive us. (Even if it didn’t in the past.)

Or perhaps it is because home is the place we exist in what physicist Alan Lightman calls ‘a mind of play.” (Home is where someone else does the laundry.)

Whatever it promises, home—may it be a house, a street, a city, even a country—is coiled around our existence. Maya Angelou felt this binding relationship and expresses it beautifully:1

I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

British novelist Graham Greene went even further, suggesting all he ever was and would be was fired and hammered by his home:2

If I had known it, the whole future must be lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets. […] Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse. One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses as from the lines of the hand; one’s evasions and deceits took their form from those other sly faces and from the hiding places in the garden, on the Common, in the hedgerows.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Photograph courtesy of American-Australian photographer Andrew Wurster.

If, as Angelou and Greene suggest, home is where we were forged, then it also must be where we are known. The streets and buildings have memory of us; we’ve left footprints and echoes. We shake the equanimity of place, and they ripple against us in return.

Of this mutual imprinting, Angelou writes:3

What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise? The answer must be the experience shared between the unknowing majority (it) and the knowing minority (you). All of childhood’s unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there. Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment.

Angelou’s words reinforce a notion I’ve long believed: our primary guidance to life comes from home. How do people act towards one another? What should we expect from authority? What does pain feel like? What does our future hold? Even What does a home look like? We answer—often unconsciously—based on our earliest memories, our earliest knowledge. To acknowledge and question those answers takes a lifetime of skill, self-awareness, and, as Maya Angelou finds, resounding forgiveness.

It’s no wonder we often return home or feel adrift without it. We return home in search of something. Maybe in search of everything.

When John Steinbeck set out with his dog Charley to drive across America in 1962, a few years before he died, he sought familiarity. He wrote of his westward adventure like a man lost, even homesick:4 “I just want to look and listen. I have not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage.” And later in the journal he writes: “What I’ll get I need badly—a reknowledge of my own country […]. It’s long overdue—very long.

However, when Steinbeck arrives to Monterrey—the heart of his past, the place he wrote and philosophized on notions of brotherhood that informed his entire body of work—he finds they’ve renamed the downtown theater “John Steinbeck Theater.” He is devastated. One can imagine the visceral ache of a man who often wanted nothing more than to be left undiscovered and uninterrupted.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wurster. Wurster’s work features unpeopled landscapes of his home town, Melbourne. Common motifs include walls, closed doors, shut windows, barred gates and striking capture of suggested – but not seen – lives. His images evoke questions of home, community, childhood and the psychic nature of place.

Although we long to, we cannot go home again. When we do, home feels alienating.

Why? Do we desire so much from this place it buckles under expectations? Or is it merely the inevitable clean sweep of time? We simply fail to recognize this old friend, and he us?

British poet, novelist, and essayist Laurie Lee was a profoundly elegant writer of our notions of home, its trappings, influences, and, most achingly, its disintegration into our past. After twenty years of never leaving his Cotswold Valley, Lee departed (on foot to London and abroad) and did not return for two decades. Although he didn’t realize it immediately, his departure left an unmendable fracture:5

They remember me best as I went away, more than a quarter of a century ago. I left as a turnip-faced grinning oaf, and returned last year, a bag-eyed poet […]. Of course one should never have gone in the first place. It is never really forgiven you. And to revisit one’s roots calls from an upside-down posture which too often proves that the plant is broken.

After twenty-five years I find the main changes in me and in the villagers’ view of me, but the village itself has come through the revolutions of that time with fewer abrasions than I would have expected. […] The village and its lore are still the world’s centre, the beginning and the end of truth, and everything that comes from outside is rung on the local stones before its genuineness can even be considered.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wurster. Wurster left Australia as a teenager to live in America but returned “home” in his 20s. Spending one’s formative years in a different country creates competing images of “home” and often means neither feels exactly right. This alienation is evident throughout his work.

We are drawn to home because we are drawn to the parts of home we carry. Memory, images, and precious things we keep nearby and have endowed with meaning.

Except, the home we carry doesn’t change. We keep precious reminders of who we once were and what we did. We remember fondly. When we physically “go home,” these memories pale against brilliant realness. Lee remembered home’s warm acceptance, but he returned to find himself an outsider. Steinbeck, too, found America like he wished; he just didn’t like it.

When a fracture grows between what is remembered and what is, maybe alienation is the palliative. Like water to a wound, painful but without which injury would be mortal. A warning: Don’t come this way again.

Maybe that’s why some stay away. Home is in memory alone.

Lee, ultimately, stayed away. Although, he remained a perfect nostalgic and wrote of his childhood memories throughout his life. “Today is the winter as it always was, and when it wasn’t, it was not remembered.”

Memory isn’t everything, but sometimes it’s all we have.