Tuesday, February 21, 2012

hello darkness my old friend

It's confession time. I'm ashamed, but I'm going to tell my story anyway. It has to do with writing. I promise.

This is Tiger. He's our shy kitty; seven-and-a-half years old and we got him when he was 6 months old, a rescue from the Humane Society. As a kitten, we were told, he was trapped under a porch--his mama and siblings let themselves be rescued, but he was the runt and too scared to come out. And the longer he stayed under the porch, the more the old lady who lived there tried to shoo him out with a broom. And so whether constitutionally or because of the trauma, he's always been a little skittish. We adopted him at the same time as Molly, who'd already adopted Tiger as her baby in the foster home they shared.

Andrew and I knew we'd be a good forever home for Tiger because we're so patient and quiet and give him room and lend him affection on his own terms. In the six years we've had him, he's been our darling. Our "special cat." He loves to get on the back of the couch when we're reading or watching a movie and rub up against the backs of our heads. When we pet him he gets overexcited and won't sit still. He'll stand up and tuck his head to the ground between his front paws, like he's going to do a somersault. He doesn't like to be held or sit in our laps, but he loves to get petted. As long as there's an "out." And we never force him past his comfort zone.


Tiger has a bad cold. Or at least what we think is a cold. For the last five days he's been sneezing a lot and his nose runs and all he does is sleep and--delightfully--want to cuddle. (He sat in my lap Saturday for a whole hour while I read.) But we're concerned. He seems to have a hard time breathing. He snorts and wheezes. He doesn't seem to be improving, and while we've seen him nibble once or twice at the dry food, Sunday night he wouldn't even accept the wet food I set in front of him. He'd sniff it then turn his back and walk away. When he sat down I'd place his bowl beneath him again. And once again he'd sniff and walk away. [Repeat several times.] I worried that I hadn't seen him eat all day and I remembered hearing something like if cats don't eat in a 24- or 48- or 36-hour time period, they can do serious damage to their kidneys and even die. That's what the voice in my head said. I'm not even sure it's true.

Then I got the bright idea to try to force-feed him. We have a dropper/syringe thing specifically for water and liquid medicine, so I thought I'd try to get nutrition in him that way. I got a little wet food in the dropper, sequestered the two of us in my study, and picked him up and laid him upside down on my lap. Since he'd been so lax lately I thought I could get away with this.

He was okay at first, but as soon as the dropper came near his mouth, he flailed. Kicked my hands with his back claws. Ripped at my shirt and my pants with his front claws. I let him go, then tried again. Worse. I tried again. This time I didn't let go when he flailed. I held him tighter, even though my mind was telling me--this is making it worse! I let him go. I petted him a little, but only with a show of tenderness. I don't normally lose my temper--I'm an even-keeled person--but I wanted to shout "I'm doing this for your own good!"

I picked him up again and tried to restrain him, overpower him, keep him from clawing me up so I could get a little food down his throat. In a flurry of failed attempts, his feral-fear, and my feral-frustration, I wanted to yell and grab him and make him let me feed him. At one point, after I let him go to prevent him from tearing my hands to shreds with his back claws, I had to stifle the urge to throw something at him. I'm glad I resisted, but it felt like I was one variable away from doing serious harm. What was the variable? Food? Sleep? Would I have acted out if I knew Andrew wasn't in the next room?

I wanted so desperately for him to eat--"please, don't waste away!"--that I took my frustration out on him . . . as backwards as that logic is for any situation. I know I can't expect him to understand. I know I can't hold him responsible for the scratches he gave me. I know that the first time force-feeding didn't work I should have quit. But I forged ahead anyway, and when I finally let him out of the room, he headed straight for the bed and didn't come out from under it for two hours.

And I had time to consider the dark possibilities inside me. I hated myself for those 15 minutes of futile anger. I'm an animal lover. A vegan. A proponent of treating all living things with care and compassion. Who was this person with the fury and the desire to bear down on another creature to impose my will?


I make this part of myself public because I just read in From Where You Dream that true artists are those who acknowledge this nasty, chaotic nature, who allow their unconscious to go to those dark places, those white-hot centers, searching for the truths that can only be reached by acknowledging the whole spectrum of human experience. Chapter one of the book starts with a quote by Akira Kurosawa: "To be an artist means never to avert your eyes." And chapter two starts with this quote: "All good novelists have bad memories" -Graham Greene. These statements describe the artist more than they prescribe what someone who wants to be an artist should try to manufacture. But there is an element of intention in this way of seeing.

"Artists are intensely aware of the chaos implied by the moment-to-moment sensual experience of human beings on this planet. But they also, paradoxically, have an intuition that behind the chaos there is meaning; behind the flux of moment-to-moment experience there is a deep and abiding order. ... If the artist sees the chaos of experience and feels order behind it and creates objects to express that order, surely that is reassuring, right? Well, at some point maybe. But what do you have to do first? And why is it so hard? This is why--and this is why virtually all inexperienced writers end up in their heads instead of the unconscious: because the unconscious is scary as hell. It is hell for many of us. ... But this is the tough part: for those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot place...whatever scared the hell out of you down there--and there's plenty--you have to go in there...and you can't flinch, can't walk away." *

We all--for survival--have learned to stuff, ignore, avoid, those places in our psyche. We want to believe we are smarter than they. We are kinder than they. We are better than they. But if I as a writer hold myself at arm's length (or further) from those real or imagined people who most need to be shown, and shown within, the meaning and the order behind the chaos, then I cannot empathize with them. I cannot reach them. I cannot love them. I cannot write about them.

I see now that I could write about a character who goes all the way--who abuses an animal. And I hope I wouldn't lose this simmering empathy, that I wouldn't be the judgmental, moralistic author. That I could see the humanity even in the inhumane.

*from From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler, pp. 11, 18.


  1. Poor Tiger - and poor you! I've been similarly frustrated with Ellie in the past. It's so hard to let it go when you know you're just trying to help them, and what you're trying to do will be over so quickly if only they'd relax, and there is no way to reason with them.

    How is Tiger now?

    1. Thanks for asking! Tiger saw the doctor this morning and got a shot of antibiotics. He's now under the bed again, but I'm sure he'll feel better soon. Last night and this morning he seemed less lethargic and ate a little bit. So I think he'll (and I'll) be fine. :) Sometimes I wish we could explain things rationally to animals and have them explain themselves to us.