I love being in nature and observing wildlife; that helps me feel centered and connected to the cosmos. When wildlife comes indoors, however, inner peace flies out the window. I morph from a quiet, harmony seeking human to a frantic, freaking-out idiot. To wit: years ago a bat entered my third floor apartment when I lived in Somerville, MA. Although I understood intellectually that it wouldn’t hit me as it careened around, I still ducked and screamed like a lunatic before realizing that all that needed to be done was open the top half of a window so the bat could find its way out. Years later, in Boulder, my housemate’s sultry silver haired cat brought a live, flapping bird into my bedroom before dawn, the worst alarm clock ever. As the poor creature tried to escape its fate, I screamed and turned away. My panic became paralysis and glued me to the bed. My housemate, accustomed to the hunt, thought I was a total wuss.
Last week I had the good fortune to be house and cat sitting in a home outside Asheville, NC that sits half a mile up a gravel road in an idyllic, mostly secluded pastoral spot with trees filled with birds and periodic visitors of deer and possum. The owners (a Feldenkrais colleague and her partner) told me that her cats occasionally surprise their humans with gifts of dead animals, bringing them in through the cat door. I cringed.
“What should I do with it?” I said, trying to conceal my horror.
“Throw it in the compost pile,” she said.
That many days passed without such gifts filled me with relief. Yet, one morning as I ate breakfast I heard discomfiting noises – crashing, banging, flapping, squawking – from a nearby room, the partner’s photography studio.
I figured one of the two cats had caught a bird and was chasing it around, knocking things over. Since the sounds were dire, like a duel to the death, I decided to wait until the horror had ended before cleaning up the carcass. Indeed, a heavy silence descended moments later. One of the cats, an orange tabby, emerged from the room with a guilty expression and collapsed into a lethargic sprawl on the wood floor. I could have sworn its belly bulged with the body, or part of the body, of some poor bird. I imagined there would be feathers everything, maybe a torn wing or leg? Ick. I succumbed to resistance and procrastinated, figuring I’d do the dirty work later. For a moment, I felt tempted to just let whatever remained of the bird stay in the room, one I had no reason to enter while was there.
Who would know? said a not-very-nice voice in my head.
In addition to being highly sensitive to dead animals, most of the time (not always) I’m also sensitive to doing the right thing. Letting an animal decay for a few days would truly be ghastly, even for a squeamish person. As a meditator, I knew better than to identify myself with the thought, the product of a fearful mind that manufactures excuses and evasions to avoid challenge. Still, I left the house for the afternoon and figured I’d work up the nerve to dispose of the body later. Upon returning from a relaxing swim, I heard different strange sounds coming from that room. Were they distress signals?
The creature, whatever it was, was not dead. I could have sworn the cat looked fatter earlier in the day, or had my mind been playing tricks? It didn’t sound like a bird, either, at that point. What if it were bloody or missing a limb? Nausea swept through me. Briefly I considered waiting and letting the critter die. That thought made me shudder, too. Was I so easily spooked that I couldn’t witness a small creature’s suffering in order to save it, preferring to let it expire to minimize my discomfort? That would be callous and selfish; again, the reaction of a fearful mind.
Next I considered walking down the dirt road to the neighbors, an Evangelical Christian couple whom I hadn’t met, and presenting myself as an inept urban gal who couldn’t handle “the situation”. That scenario of being, um, “saved” didn’t sit well either. Was I truly so helpless in the face of an injured creature a fraction of my size? That’s not who I wanted to be. After pacing around the kitchen and front yard and giving myself a pep talk, I found a pair of rubber gloves, slipped them onto my hands, retrieved an empty cardboard box from the recycling bin and walked toward the room. I imagined picking up the critter, placing it in the box, and releasing it to the great outdoors.
Inside the studio, a rumpled and battered blue jay flitted around and, upon seeing me, began crashing into walls, deepening its disorientation and distress. I tried reassuring it that I was there to help, but it flapped frantically, freaking me out. My voice became high pitched rather than soothing which, along with my presence, probably terrified it even more. There was no way this bird was going to chill out, let alone enter a freeze state so I could put it in a box and usher it back to nature according to my serene visualization. Eventually I calmed down enough to raise the blinds and open a window, at least the glass pane. Still, with adrenaline and a sense of urgency pulsing through my system, I fumbled with the screen and couldn’t raise it. The bird crash landed and gripped the screen with its talons, head pressed against the mesh. Its chest heaved as it hyperventilated and whimpered as if uttering its last sounds. Needing to act fast before it flew off and bashed itself into something else, possibly fatally, I shoved the corner of the screen outwards, bending the metal frame in the process.*
Amazingly, the bird flew away rather than falling to the ground. I exhaled. Strangely, I felt more alive, the prize for facing fear. While I might not crash or bang my head against literal walls, the bird’s plight reminded me of how I can exhaust myself in frantic attempts to find answers for, or to escape, existential crises and difficult life moments. In those times, mustering the courage to stay calm and conserve energy might be wiser, even if it feels impossible. When a person is present, they can look around, notice windows of opportunity, open them, push aside the screen of resistance and find greater freedom. Many times, that is easier said than done.
*the owners forgave me