I recently allowed a cat under my roof. And I’ve made an agreement with this little ball of feline fur, that as long as she knows I’m the pride male and get to set boundaries based on where the photons emitted by our star’s nuclear fusion reaction make impact with our apartment’s interior*, then she and I can be friends in a mutually beneficial relationship. In other words, she’s an indoor cat. And being an indoor cat, we’ve been learning to share living space together.
As with any new addition to a household or family, once the initial “aw cute!” phase wears off, there is a trove full of lessons to be learned as we begin to adjust to each other. I believe that life is so much more interesting if I assume that everyone and everything can be my teacher, so I ought to be open to wisdom in whatever form it is packaged as a humble student. So in no particular order, I’ve been collecting some observations that Dinah, the cat, has helped me recognize and put into words.
- Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary. When my wife and I first began the process of adopting Dinah, we thought we would like to rename her Pudding. There was no particular reason why, beyond we liked how cute the name Pudding is. But on her first day in our apartment while she was doing her initial exploration, we learned that she actually recognized the name Dinah and responded by looking up at us and coming toward our outstretched hand. So she was never Pudding to us, she will always be Dinah. — I identify as some sort of Christian outside of American evangelicalism, call is more progressive or liberal Christianity maybe. And I’ve noticed within this particular movement, there is an interesting aversion to holding onto the traditionally used and accepted metaphors for God, such as God the Father. I’ve read and heard many critiques of “father” being overly patriarchal and misogynist, thereby we must wholesale reject that metaphor for God the Mother, All-Spirit, or Creator. All are metaphors that add and enrich my own conception of God, but I’m not so sure we need to throw out the Father because it makes some uncomfortable. Especially when literal millennia of the Church has operated under the baptism of our Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Renaming something isn’t always helpful or necessary.
- Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love. If you have a pet, you know that your pet is named something, and then there are the bastardizations of that name ad infinitum. Unfortunately, many of them for me quickly devolved into blatant insults toward the cat. So even disguised as a joke, calling my cat ugly names became my habit whenever I was feeling annoyed with her or chastising her for breaking our terms of agreement. This habit painfully revealed itself to me when I was attending to my two year old niece recently at dinner, my human niece (to be 100% clear, not my cat), who was trying to stand up in her high chair, and I accidentally slipped one of the many ugly names I’ve called my cat as I was trying to get my niece to cooperate with fun Uncle Stephen. At that moment, I knew I had to change that habit immediately. Even as a joke, I never want my niece or my own future children to be torn down by an ugly habit like name calling, especially from their uncle or father. And neither will my cat hear such things again, because habits do not discriminate, positive or negative. Negativity disguised as jest is just as much a habit as positivity in affection and love.
- Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce when they are breached. My one primary rule for Dinah is that she does not get to walk where human food is stored, prepared, and served. Cabinets, countertops, sink and table are strictly off limits. We quickly established this upon her arrival, by her being abruptly launched in an upward, airborne trajectory when she first explored the space. I did not intend to harm in the slightest, but we established that boundary early and forcefully. And we agree on it now. Healthy boundaries are okay to expect to be respected and enforce.
- Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity? Along with dealing with spacial boundaries, we’re finding that it’s a training and adaptation to get her to sharpen her claws on the designated spots instead of the back corner of my favorite chair. I understand that cats engage this ritual to simultaneously trim and sharpen their ever growing claws, and that perhaps, this offers me a chance to check in with my own sharpening practices? Do I exercise enough? Do I read and write enough to challenge my own preconceived notions? Do I have stimulating conversations on those ideas that I read and write? Do I allow pushback and critique from trusted mentors, partners and friends? Do I sharpen my metaphorical claws with enough regularity?
- A little mess is all part of it. A house that’s ready at a moment’s notice for that perfect Instagram shot is just not a realistic expectation. Perfect order is a neurotic utopia, which is hard for someone like me to hear and know. A little foreign smell, a little free floating cat hair is just part of my life now, teaching me to know that a little mess is all part of it.
- With the proper degree of openness, I can learn from anyone and anything. Life is most interesting to me when my default stance is that everyone is my teacher. And I’ve quickly realized that this cat will spend her entire life running me through doctorate level studies in patience. My cat enjoys two things, food and attention. Both of which she is not shy about asking for, loudly… at 0430 in the morning. Pet owners can relate to that moment when your pet makes it crystal clear that you haven’t fed them in, let’s say, the last 20 minutes. They either lightly paw at the food box and meow to win your pity and affection, or they glare at you from behind a dark corner with that look in their eye that can only come from behind the yellow eyes of an ancient, instinctual, only slightly domesticated predator. And this can really get on my nerves, which is slowly revealing to me that my patience wears thinnest where any unplanned inconvenience threatens my own agenda. I can learn from anyone and anything with the proper degree of openness.
- Curiosity is natural to the cat, while I am actively retraining myself in it. Curiosity could certainly eventually kill the cat, I totally get the cliche now. She is often looking into closets when we have them open, crawling under the couch, exploring window sills and desks, she is even learning how to pry open the bottom kitchen cabinets to get a peak. At first, this frustrated me. “There is nothing interesting here for you.” – Said the human, uninterested in the contents of a cabinet, to the creature that can find endless enjoyment inside a cardboard box. For her, every corner, door, and surface is potentially her new favorite place to hide, nap, or groom. That natural curiosity is expected and should never be discouraged, in fact, I am actively retraining myself in curiosity because of her.
- Adapting to a cat in the house is teaching me to use a slower pace and practice greater body awareness. When she’s looking for attention, she likes to nuzzle against our calves and ankles, which is usually never an issue if we are sitting down to read or watch a movie, but if we’re strolling into the kitchen at night for a drink of water, this fun habit of hers becomes dangerous to us both. Me, at risk of tripping, her at risk of flattening. She’s inadvertently teaching me to practice mindfulness in all my limbs, simply noticing the feel of the floor and the light brush of fur on my ankles. In addition, I’ve realized that I just need to be slowing down more often to give her a kind petting, scratch between the ears, or a playful belly rub.
- Cats are worth petting just by the fact that they are cute, soft, and enjoy it, probably more than you enjoy petting them. I’ll just leave this quick quote from Jordan Peterson’s rule 12 of his monstrously popular 12 Rules for Life book: “Cats are their own creatures. They aren’t social or hierarchical (except in passing). They are only semi-domesticated. They don’t do tricks. They are friendly on their own terms. Dogs have been tamed, but cats have made a decision. They appear willing to interact with people, for some strange reasons of their own. To me, cats are a manifestation of nature, of Being, in an almost pure form. Furthermore, they are a form of Being that looks at human beings and approves… Maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. [So] pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”
*(“Everything the light touches, is our kingdom”… Lion King quote for those playing along at home)