I’ve just come from visiting friends on Facebook, which always includes plenty of postings of people with dogs, cats, birds or other creatures prominently positioned in their yards, on their laps, draped on their beds or perched on their shoulders. This always makes me happy: I heartily approve of animal lovers who have critters prominently located in their lives.
Not THAT many animals, of course – I don’t admire the hoarders or those whose entire lives become overtaken by the mongrel horde. But a friendly connection with other species seems to me part of what makes domestic life sweet.
I know that an intimate, familial relationship with animals isn't everyone's cup of tea. Some people whom I love deeply simply are not animal people. These folks tend to fall into categories. One group is made up of those who didn't grow up with animals and therefore remain strangers, vastly aware of the differences between themselves and animals and barely aware of the connections. I harbor a romantic hope that someday, each of those people, if they only spend some time with an animal, will see that the charms mostly outweigh the minuses. I harbor this hope despite direct and painful evidence to the contrary.
The other group seems to comprise people who have had some traumatic encounter with an animal – through loss or fear – and now keep their distance to protect themselves. I feel sad for these people and hope for them some healing.
A third possibility occurs to me, that there may be people whose brains simply aren't wired to reach out and make contact with other species.
Trying to get inside a mind like this is near impossible for me, though I try to suspend judgment. I have to admit, I can’t imagine having that kind of brain, any more than I can imagine not hearing melodies incessantly, dreaming in black and white, or encountering intense aroma and flavor without an internal swoon.
From experience I can say rocks on the path can appear when someone simpatico with other species forms a heart alliance with someone hardwired to indifference or even hostility toward animals. Imagine yourself trying to convince someone by word and deed to see your favorite color or appreciate your favorite scent. At some point the conversation breaks down, the objective impossible. The color or aroma doesn’t live in that other brain and all the talking you can do won’t make it so. If, at the very least, the other person can appreciate that you appreciate, sometimes that’s good enough.
In things that really matter, like sharing your life with animals and children, the tension between those who do and those who don’t can create insurmountable odds. If accommodations can't be made, one or the other eventually is going to have to go.
In my case, a long time ago, it was the guy. I'd like to say that after realizing the depth to which he really didn't care for animals I said, "OK, I'm so sorry this didn't work out. I hope the next person you try to love is wired the same as you." I did not.
I kept trying to find some way of having it work: Dogs can stay in the basement with a doggie gate unless he's in the mood for them (which never happened). I can keep the animals in the back yard while he’s in the house. I’ll compensate my butt off and it will be OK.
It wasn't. It honestly was Hell. I would be comfortably ensconced on the sofa in front of the wood stove with the cat on my lap and both dogs at my feet. This is at least one of my definitions of The Good Life and I would be savoring it like a rich Bordeaux.
He would come in, sit in the rocking chair beside the sofa for a few minutes, fidgety and uncomfortable and I'd say, "Come sit here ..." and offer him the space I had been saving for him, the Man Space in the corner of the sofa, with me and the cascade of pets stacked up like a row of dominoes.
He would wave his hands and say, "No … I needed to read anyway," then he’d sit in the chair, fidget a few more minutes pretending to read, then he’d come up with a reason to leave. It took a few of these episodes before I finally realized that it was the presence of the animals that put him off. When I asked, he said, "There's just always this wall to get through to be with you. There's always ... them." He said it with such a combination of perplexity and disgust that the awareness hit me like a thunderbolt: He will never, ever really want to be around animals. And I will never, ever not have animals in my life. Neither of us could ever be one hundred percent happy or even completely comfortable with each other. For him, there was me and these things, for me there was me and three other beings, ready to welcome a fifth being into our circle.
Because God is merciful, this man conveniently met another woman and broke my heart very soon after that conversation. I was spared.
Sometimes, like this afternoon, I see my friends' postings on the Internet, photos with captions like, "Saturday morning at our house, LOL," and "Think we have company …" The common ingredient is animals all over the place, looking like my definition of home, and I feel intensely grateful for the home wrecker who took that man away from me.
As we grow older, a certain serenity comes when we realize who we're not and what we will never do. The river is created by its banks, who we are is shaped by what we can't do or be or have, as much as what we can.
I know now that a connection to animals is fundamental to who I am and I will never, ever be able to give my true self to anyone for whom animals are not an important part of life.
The animal in me would never be able to relax.