One of the most comforting tools in my Buddhist toolkit, I find, is the phrase from the teachings about the “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows” that humans are presented with as they navigate their way through life on earth. It helps me when I want to hang my head in sorrow at the dark cruelties of our world: Yemen, Syria, immigrant children at the border, voter suppression in the South, Neo-Nazi fervor against an established order, young black men being gunned down in our cities, and so on… Instead of hanging my head, I can lift it up and think of some of the joys present in my long life: my family, my beautiful home, my animals, my piano, and my good heart and mind that still work at telling the truth. To include the joys means we see the human journey for what it is: a path of many twists and turns, gifts and challenges. And in seeing this, we can utter the words: yes, just so. And as we say those words, we are fortified to go out in the world and make a difference.
I have been blessed to live with a variety of furry four legged creatures for most of my years on this planet. And I realize that most of my animals have lived long and relatively comfortable lives. Since I was a little girl of about six when my parents gave me a Siamese kitten, I have known the mysterious and sweet connection with cats in particular; my mother was enamored of felines and she passed that on to me. When you exist in the moment with a pet, you have the opportunity to love unconditionally and to be loved in return in an uncomplicated way. We all want this, don’t we? It turns out that we humans find this unconditional affection very difficult to experience with one another.
I’m looking across my dining room table now at a very old cat whose name is Jackson, a lean and elegant Maine Coon who has lived alongside me for over twelve years. Despite his shining fluffy Maine Coon fur, he is showing his age. He moves very slowly and cautiously now, and I often catch him staring out into what I would call the abyss, seeming momentarily lost. Then of course I remember that I’m in my early 70’s and can become frequently muddled in much the same way! Or is it that we’re just slowing down, he and I? Jackson and I are definitely old, and in our “elder hood” we go forth gently, treat one another with deference and kindness. Though I catch myself worrying here and there about how much longer this gentle cat will grace my life, I am filled with gratitude for having this beautiful fellow as my roommate.
It’s easier to love a cat than to love another person, isn’t it? People demand so much more, and too often they make us feel that we’re not good enough the way we are. I’ve been haunted lately by how difficult it is to love another human, even though we tell ourselves it’s what we want more than anything. My past feels littered with a series of what I would call “impossible loves.” This theme has been bubbling up in my brain lately, and of course I find myself wondering if there’s another book here… There was the romance with a young Sicilian man six years older than myself when I was only 13 – yes 13. There was the love I tried all my life to find with my narcissistic mother, as I hungrily worked to have her see who I was and adore me… There was the love of a man I fell for during my first months in college whose charisma and bright mind blinded me to any sense of reason. We married because a baby was on the way, and I had no problem loving this beautiful little daughter – that came organically … but I never succeeded in finding reliable love with my husband. There was the love of a man later in life who promised me adventure, excitement, and freedom from all constraints, only to withhold love selfishly and break my heart. Through these disappointments (the 10,000 sorrows) I found things to love (10,000 joys): food, beautiful wine, travel, JS Bach, literature, and exploring my various creative gifts. I went after these things zealously and constructed quite a character.
I was always accompanied on this journey by my four legged friends, mainly cats. Eventually I found a dog friend whom I named Francesca. She was a reddish gold retriever who looked up to me with complete loyalty and affection and traveled with me through many dark incidents. She didn’t require me to be a certain way and she didn’t punish me for being imperfect. Much the same as Jackson, my ancient cat who simply loves me and wants to stick around. This dog Francesca and my cats have been present in my life to teach me one thing, I’m sure of it: love is what matters. Love and closeness and safety. They make it easy in a way, while human beings are far more complicated and carry way too much baggage.
I realized recently that my halfhearted efforts to find a companion on internet dating was a false and hopeless one. False because I wasn’t convinced I wanted another “partner” for life, a person I’d have to negotiate with, figure out, accommodate, worry about, yearn for… And hopeless because the standards I had set for myself were so high that most of the candidates I was presented with didn’t stand a chance of fitting in with my artfully constructed life. There’s a lot that I wish for in a mate: he must love beautiful things (art, music, books), must value peace and equanimity, cats and dogs, must stand up for his (left-leaning) beliefs, must wish to travel the world and eat interesting foods. The likelihood of finding such a fellow does not seem so great. While I’m not a pessimist, I believe I’m running out of time…
So, with the time that I have — and who knows how much that is — I will return to my loving relationships with my four legged creatures, my two cats and one small, very grateful rescue dog, who look to me as though I’m really “it.” We can all take care of each other’s needs pretty well here in my house on a quiet dead end alley in San Francisco, and there’s something to be said for that! We will grow older together, and it will be relatively peaceful and rewarding. It will be enough. Just so.