On Sunday, May 4th, I had the privilege of being involved with the concert of my good friend Melissa Shriner. I have known Melissa for over 25 years! When I heard that she was going to have a Springtime in the Village Concert, I asked if I could share an original story.
Then I panicked a little bit.
I’m not really what you would call a “public speaker” type, so standing in front of a large group of people with a microphone is well… WAY out of my comfort zone. And so, since it scared me, I decided to do it. That’s how I roll.
The story that I chose to write about and share is a story of courage that I found in the most ordinary of places. My cat. Who doesn’t love a cat story?
Here it is.
I have a little black cat named Coal. If you live in Jordan station and walk around the block on occasion, you can see her curled up in our window seat, napping in the afternoon sun or watching the birds chirp in the butterfly bush, just outside. Many humans would envy the posh life that she leads, involving many down-filled pillows and hand-knitted blankets, a fresh supply of food, (sometimes tuna from a can) and lots of love.
It hasn’t always been like that, though. There was a time when Coal wasn’t happy, loving and well-balanced. “Neurotic” might be a good word to describe how she used to be.
Sometimes change happens suddenly and drastically in a way that leaves you in awe. Typically, those are the stories we remember and the ones we tell our friends at dinner parties and gatherings in the back yard.
At other times, change happens slow and steady, day after day, and year after year until finally, one day you stop to look at what’s there in front of you – and see it anew for the first time.
When change happens slowly, you don’t always know when or how it happened — just that it did. The transformation can be so gradual and so incremental, it’s almost too invisible to notice. But add it all up at the end - compare what is in front of you now - to what was – and the difference is undeniable.
That’s the kind of quiet story that tends to go unnoticed and exactly the kind of story that I witnessed in the life of Coal, my cat. Over the course of 7 years, she, slow and steady, evolved into practically a brand new creature. I can’t help but be impressed and inspired by what I have seen her accomplish, even if she’s just a cat … and even though it took an incredibly long time.
It was a cold November night when Coal arrived in our home for the first time. She was scarcely a couple of pounds… starved and skinny, her ribs visible beneath a shaggy coat of dull fur. Her green eyes were wide open and her tail puffed up like a bottle brush. The first time I scooped her up in my hand, she hung limp like a string of cooked spaghetti. She had given up completely and was ready to die.
As a new resident in our home, Coal maintained a safety radius of about 10 feet which she diligently enforced. Get too close and she would quickly creep away, her body hunkered low to the ground in some strange impulse to appear invisible.
Get even closer and rather than run, she got violent. We counted about 20 tooth sized holes pierced into my husbands skin after she ferociously and repeatedly chomped his hand when he tried to pet her. That day she earned a fearful respect from us, particularly when my husband’s arm was swollen up the the elbow. After that, we learned not to touch her – under amy circumstances.
Coal is a clever kitty who chooses unusual places to hide in a pinch. One time she disappeared into the mess of plumbing under the bathroom sink, her limbs stretched out like spiderman perched in a swinging chandelier. We pried her out of the pipes one paw at a time.
Her ingenuity and dexterity was impressive. Also, it was crystal clear she was willing to go to great measures keep her distance.
Coal had trust issues. Big-time.
Strangely, Coal never made a sound. Ever. I assumed her voice-box was broken. That she was mute. And so, she lived like that for years, silently eating and sleeping alone.
Coal was a hermit, and a freeloader, living like a teenager, rent-free under our roof, getting a fresh supply of food on a daily basis without so much as a thank you. It was difficult to not resent her for it.
But I wanted to love her. If she would only allow it, I would pet her black fur, let her snuggle on my lap. I imagined her quietly purring, so contented and happy. But, how could I love her if she wouldn’t let love in?
One thing was certain. We needed to work on the trust issue.
Over the next year we decided to honour her 10 foot radius of space, only ever breaching it to offer an occasional kindness such as a tasty chicken treat. Also, I didn’t want to get chomped by her razor sharp teeth, so actually, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement to live together – but apart. Even though she weighed only 2 pounds, I have to be honest, I was a little afraid of her.
Eventually, another year went by when I noticed her 10 foot radius was beginning to get smaller. She no longer darted away when someone entered the room. She still didn’t trust anyone, and would often peer at us in a sort of longing kind of way, peeking from around corners, too scared to approach, but too curious not to look. Still, should anyone absently sneeze or cough, or move ever so slightly, she would dart away in a flash.
As the story of change goes, each day the radius continued to shrink just a little bit. Then, one day, out of the blue she hopped up on my lap, just to test it out. Then jumped away. I was elated. That was a big step for her! Over the course of a several weeks, she tried out my lap for just a split second, jumping away immediately, until one time, to my delight, she stayed, perched on the tip of my knee like she was hanging from a tree branch.
One winter morning, our mute kitty cat squeaked out high pitched, almost imperceptible meow. She had finally found her voice, if ever so slight.
Now Coal’s voice is constant in the house. She has joined the daily protest for fresh food and makes her wishes known in a very vocal manner when she wants attention. She assumes she is welcome on the bed and makes a place for herself right in the centre, often crowding me out. In the evenings she routinely jumps on our laps, demanding affection, drooling excessively in big wet raindrops, often pushing her face into my hand, quite forcefully.
Petting has now become serious business.
Each day she has accepted a new challenge or a new experience, she has let more love into her world and into her life. Coal has been transformed in every way you can imagine.
Her effort has added up to something over time.
Yes, in order to do this, she needed some space. And she needed that space to be respected. She needed to know, once there in that sacred place of trust and vulnerability, that she would be okay and it would all be worth the risk.
She showed me that trust can’t be forced. Patience is the the only way. But she proved to me that it’s worth the wait, no matter how long it takes.
Space and time. That’s all she ever needed.
She taught me what vulnerability looks like. Coal was only able to receive love once she set aside caution. It takes bravery to drop barriers and put down defences. Courage, at it’s core is to do something that someone fears. I don’t know of anything more scary than opening oneself up to the possibility of getting hurt. But that’s what it takes to let love in.
There is strength in setting weapons aside and choosing love instead – even at the risk of injury.
I have heard it said that the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. I believe this is true. I would go so far to say that the most courageous act is in learning to be loved.
This is what I have learned from my cat. Now, I know what you’re thinking… she’s just a animal and she’s probably just acting on instinct and nothing more. Perhaps. You can say that … but if you do, there’s no story and there’s nothing learned.
When I look at Coal and see more than mere animal instinct, I have the privilege to witness what courage, vulnerability and love looks like. I see Coal as an inspiration and a daily reminder that it’s not just enough to learn how to give love… but it’s just as important to learn how to be loved.
P.S. Melissa’s concert was outstanding in every way. I had shivers, tears and a great big smile on my face the whole time. She got a standing ovation and left the stage while we were still wanting more. That’s the way to have a concert!