The Power of Giving (or, Why Tuna is a Gift Book)

The Power of Giving (or, Why Tuna is a Gift Book)

The Tuna book grew out of a gift from Francis to me. I’d known Francis (and admired his art) for 15 years, though until a few years ago, I’d known him mostly as ‘Dianna’s husband.’

Three days after Hedda died, Francis sent me a sketch of Hedda with a note that read: Dear Sarah, Hedda is telling you: Our love is giving you strength to go forward. That is what love is about, right?!”

Then he wrote, still in Hedda’s voice, “p.s. I love you more than tuna.”

I cried, of course, and in the midst of my tears, the writerly part of my brain thought, “That would be a great book title…”

When I received this heartfelt gift from Francis, I felt seen. In the gesture, I implicitly understood that he was saying, “I know how much you loved this being. I know this relationship meant a great deal to you, and I understand how sad you are.” He validated my grief, which is something that bereaved pet guardians often need after an animal’s death.
 

The power of being witnessed when grieving a pet

I was extremely fortunate, in that when Hedda died, I had multiple friends offering support of all kinds. I never once felt misunderstood or judged for my grief. This allowed me to accept that the loss had happened, which was key in my ability to process my feelings and continue living my life, even with sadness and without Hedda.

Pet loss is often considered disenfranchised grief, meaning that our culture does not recognize it as a major life loss. This can contribute to prolonged grief and even complicated grief, a form of grief that doesn’t ease up over time. Over the past several years, I’ve seen just how many people have had absolutely no one validate their grief, no one to talk to or cry with. And often, that does seem to make grief interminable.

Being witnessed in grief, having another recognize our very personal loss, goes a long way towards healing. Or at least, towards the first step of healing: Accepting that the loss happened.

Experience the joy of giving

Back in 2011, I had been off all daily mood medication for a year and was working intently to rewire my brain for inner peace.

I discovered a community called 29 Gifts, based on book by the late Cami Walker, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. The premise was to give something away every day for 29 days. A “gift” doesn’t have to be material. A gift could be giving someone patience, or directions (or forgiving the person who cuts in front of you at the grocery store). Over the course of 29 days, something shifted profoundly in me. So much so that I continued to do “rounds” of giving for four years, until the original community was dismantled. Over the course of those years (and ever since), I’ve continued to “practice” on my own.

I’ve maintained this giving practice (which Buddhists might call a “generosity practice”) because giving was, and is, the best antidepressant I’ve ever found. When I can stay present enough to recognize someone else’s need and then meet that need in the moment, I feel so expensive. Truly joyous.

As I write in the essay linked above, I grew up with a father who asked me every night, “What have you done today to justify your existence?” I was taught that I wasn’t deserving of others’ attention, and my early life experience bore that out—so much so that I believed it to be fact. So for a long, long time, I didn’t want to give gifts. I wanted somebody to take care of me, and if my parents or other caretakers weren’t going to do that, I would do it myself. Discovering the joy of giving was an absolute revelation.

And it continues to be.
 

Tuna as a gift book

I want people to experience the joy of giving something meaningful to someone else, because simply reading about it doesn’t confer the experience.

Ultimately, Tuna has a couple of different purposes. The first is to help people heal from their cat’s death. Anyone is (of course!) welcome to purchase it for themselves. Yet I really, really hope all of you reading this will gift the book to friends, family members, colleagues or clients. Because then you will fulfill my second vision for Tuna: To help people discover the joy of giving.

I see the “gift book” aspect of Tuna as a positive for both giver and recipient—even in the midst of a very difficult situation. Or—thanks, 2020—two, three, ??? difficult situations: The first, that someone is grieving their cat; the second, that right now, chances are that we can’t offer that person a hug. As Ingrid King of The Conscious Cat wrote when she first read Tuna, “This little book is like a warm hug from a friend who understands how much your cat meant to you.”

There are so many ways I hope that Tuna will bring healing to the world: For bereaved cat-lovers, comfort. For their friends, the book buyers, I wish the expansiveness that comes from meeting another person’s need. For Best Friends Animal Society, to which I’m donating 10% of my share, hopefully enough to contribute to one part of their work: helping to match low-income pet owners with resources that allow them to keep the pet in the home. And for Sounds True, the book’s publisher, hopefully enough to contribute to the Sounds True Foundation, which donates their books and audio programs to people living on low incomes and those who are incarcerated.

And, of course, I hope some will flow back to Francis and me! But if I’ve learned anything over the past seven years, it’s the truth of the phrase, “It has to flow out before it flows in.” 

How to Deepen Your Bond with Your Cat

How to Deepen Your Bond with Your Cat

 

“Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are.
We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”
From Coraline by Neil Gaiman

One of the most heartbreaking truths about adopting a kitten or cat is that we will probably outlive them. Most cats have shorter lifespans than most humans. The silver lining to this knowledge is that we can make the most of the time we have with our cats. What we lack in length of time together, we can make up for in depth of bond.

Many of us would agree that part of the feline mystique is, well, the mystique. We think we know our cats, yet there is so much more to these beings than we are capable of perceiving through our ideas about them. The word “cat” is a human label, a construct. Cats aren’t “cats” just because we call them that. When we begin exploring the being behind our label “cat,” to understand ourselves and our felines as expressions of the same mystery, we can deepen our bond even more.

We humans are so accustomed to labeling our experiences that often, we don’t even realize we’re creating labels. While labels are necessary for navigating life—like asking someone to pass the salt or turn left at the gas station—they can also be barriers to truly seeing another.

Thousands of articles offer conventional advice about bonding with your pet. Most of them cover topics like engaging your cat’s intellect (e.g., clicker training); giving a cat scratching posts and/or cat trees, so they can de-stress and sharpen their claws; providing hiding spaces and perches; giving them visual stimulation through windows; playing and feeding in a way that’s aligned with how they play in the wild (hunt-catch-kill-eat); and letting them take the lead in snuggle time, rather than smothering them. These are all crucial to our companions’ physical and mental well-being.

What I’m getting at here, though, is an experience of pure connection. Without the conceptual labels humans have imposed, what are these beings we call “cats”?

All of the below suggestions require removing concepts from the mind. In order to do that, we have to learn to notice that we’re thinking and pause our thoughts. That’s easier said than done, yet in my experience, the practice pays off in a much deeper connection between human and cat.

Step 1: Observe the “raw cat”

Jackson Galaxy uses the phrase “raw cat” to describe cats’ authentic nature, how they would naturally live in the world were it not for human interference. Cats are outdoor creatures, yet we humans have built a world in which it’s largely unsafe for them to go outdoors. (This is the North American perspective; in the UK, it’s often considered cruelty to keep a cat solely indoors.) To see our companions as they truly are, we have to release everything we think we know about cats in general and our cats in particular. 

One way to do this is by using treat puzzles. You can create one from an empty toilet paper roll. Take an empty roll and poke a couple of nickel-size holes in the sides. Place a few treats inside, then fold up the ends. Hide it somewhere that isn’t visually obvious, such as inside a bookshelf, the “cubby” of a cat tree, or a box. Watch your cat hunt for it. Most cats will love this game. Notice their ears and whiskers swivel forward. Does their tail curl? Maybe it even quivers with excitement. Does your cat open their mouth to use their vomeronasal organ (an area of the soft palate that enables them to smell exponentially better than humans)?  When they find the treat, how do they approach it? Do they hold back and then pounce in one sweeping motion? Do they approach it and bat it around? Observe even the tiniest motions as they figure out how to access the food inside.

Step 2: Look without labeling

Humans are visual creatures. From infancy, most of us are taught that the words we know are an object. Yet labels are not the things themselves; labels are sounds that we agree reference a given object or being. Sometimes these words are called “pointers” because it’s impossible to capture the experience in language. The word “forest,” for example, points to the fragrance of warm pine, and the sound of leaves crunching underfoot, but the word itself is neither of those things.

Choose another time when your cat is resting quietly. Notice all the labels you associate with him or her: tabby, tortie, tuxie. Male/female. Young/old. Aloof/affectionate. As you notice each concept, release it. What do you experience? What do you see? How does it change your perceptions of this being?

Step 3: Touch without naming

This is a sensory exercise. Choose another time when your cat is calm. Place your hand gently on your cat’s fur. Now imagine all the energy in your mind gathering into a tiny ball and moving down your arm, to the place where the palm meets fur.

Release all words and thoughts that come to mind—keep re-directing your attention to the palm of your hand. Focus intensely on the sensation. Notice when you’re tempted to label it, then consciously release the label and come back to the sensation.

Step 4: Make eye contact (gently)

Now let’s go even deeper. Cats’ eyes are the stuff that myths (and novels) are made of. Anyone who has ever lived with a cat can attest to the mysteries contained in their eyes. As a cat reaches maturity, their eyes take on a fractal-like quality, as though they simultaneously contain and reflect all the mysteries in the universe. We’re going to take a look without those concepts.

For this exercise, it’s very important to use a soft gaze; never stare down your cat. Cats, like most mammals, interpret a hard stare as a threat. Instead, soften your eyes as though you’re about to slow-blink. Choose a time when your cat is resting peacefully but awake on your lap. This works best if your cat is facing you. Soften your gaze and look into their eyes, and again, release any concepts. Look without naming. Allow your cat to stare into your eyes without interpreting their gaze. Take in what you see, and let it quiet your mind. What do you notice? How does this change your experience of your cat?

Zen teacher Adyashanti has a line I’ve quoted before: “That which is looking through your eyes is also looking through mine.” In my experience, “that” is also looking through Ariel’s eyes, and Hedda before her. Experiencing “that” created a profound shift in how I perceive Ariel. Of course, I still give Ariel belly rubs and often use a high-pitched voice to praise her (cats prefer higher frequency sounds), yet I’m aware that what I perceive—what I’m capable of perceiving through a human brain—is only a fraction of her whole being. And honestly, it makes me wonder which of us is really the guardian.

In my experience, these exercises lead to an awareness of our cat’s being-ness, their essence as a sovereign expression of nature. For me, it feels like a brief, intense “Oh wow” moment. As a writer, it’s very hard to put this into words. When you experience it, you’ll see what I mean.

In the comments, please share your experiences of these practices, and any others you’ve found helpful for connecting more deeply with your cat. 

The Fragility of Life

The Fragility of Life

We are all such fragile beings. From the vast perspective of space, our lives appear shorter than that of a cherry blossom. We live on a planet that spins 1040 miles per hour and hurtles through space at 67 times that rate—yet we share the illusion that we are standing still (or driving, or walking). We really have no idea what this planet, this life, is all about—and the bond we form with companion animals is a portal to that mystery.

These are beings with whom we don’t share spoken language, who have no concept of human constructs, yet they can hear, see and smell things humans can’t. Cats don’t know what “time” is, yet they’re more reliable than any alarm clock. They can’t use GPS, yet stories of cats walking hundreds of miles to an old home aren’t uncommon. They don’t understand our specifically human challenges, like breakups, yet every one of us has experienced a cat’s extraordinary compassion—a word more often attributed to dogs and horses.

The feline lifespan, and that of most non-human mammals, is shorter than that of most humans, which means that most of us will outlive our animal friends. Yet even when we accept that inevitability, we still grieve the being and the relationship.

We grieve because we are here as fellow journeyers on the planet; we know the joy of embodiment—the scent of pine (or catnip), the feel of the earth beneath our feet. We grieve the unconditional love they gave us (and if they gave us semi-conditional love, we grieve that, too.) Losing a member of the household, of the family, is a significant disruption to our inner and outer lives. We call out, “I’m home” when there’s nobody to hear; we wake up with a start at 7am, afraid we forgot to put out breakfast. There’s a bittersweet moment of amnesia, and then we remember… and we grieve.

Learning to Surf

Learning to Surf

Grieving a cat—or any kind of grief—is not a one-size-fits-all experience (as though any experience or emotion were?). Some people can’t stop sobbing, while others reflect quietly. Some are comforted by hugs and rituals; others need solitude to process their loss.

There’s no “right” way to grieve, and there’s no “right” length of time. In fact, I don’t see a loss as something we “get over,” but rather something that becomes a part of our life experience. When our skin is gravely injured, it doesn’t go back to looking the way it did before; it heals, and we have a scar. .

Loss changes the fabric of our lives; it changes the way we perceive and interact with the world. And like a scar, walking through grief (not trying to circumvent it) makes something in us stronger, more resilient. Grief is something to be healed, not to transcend.

Grief is nonlinear, too. Our human minds would love to make grief into a process that has a distinct beginning, middle and end…but in my experience, that’s just not true. Grief, like life, is messy and unpredictable. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

We all grieve, and for each of us, our grief is as unique as a fingerprint. If we try to avoid grief, it will redouble its strength and burst forth anyway. However you need to grieve, that’s the right way for you.

Navigating Emotions After Pet Loss

Navigating Emotions After Pet Loss

Grieving a cat—or any kind of grief—is not a one-size-fits-all experience (as though any experience or emotion were?). Some people can’t stop sobbing, while others reflect quietly. Some are comforted by hugs and rituals; others need solitude to process their loss.

There’s no “right” way to grieve, and there’s no “right” length of time. In fact, I don’t see a loss as something we “get over,” but rather something that becomes a part of our life experience. When our skin is gravely injured, it doesn’t go back to looking the way it did before; it heals, and we have a scar.

Loss changes the fabric of our lives; it changes the way we perceive and interact with the world. And like a scar, walking through grief (not trying to circumvent it) makes something in us stronger, more resilient. Grief is something to be healed, not to transcend.

Grief is nonlinear, too. Our human minds would love to make grief into a process that has a distinct beginning, middle and end…but in my experience, that’s just not true. Grief, like life, is messy and unpredictable. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

We all grieve, and for each of us, our grief is as unique as a fingerprint. If we try to avoid grief, it will redouble its strength and burst forth anyway. However you need to grieve, that’s the right way for you.

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