Wolf cornered Early Man in a cave. Wolf bared his fangs, a murderous glint in his eyes. “I’m going to eat your face off!” he snarled. Early Man held up his hands. “Wait, wait!” he pleaded. “What if, and hear me out here, instead of eating my face off … blankets and peanut butter.” Wolf cocked his head to the side and started to wag his tail. “I’m listening…” he replied.
Barkley, my 22 pound cockapoo, was clearly bred to be a pampered pet. He is down for blankets and peanut butter, apparently has few – if any – wolf traits left. I used to say that canines were perfect teachers when it comes to being present to the now. But I’m no longer so sure. It seems that, at least for my dog, he’s becoming more and more human every day. And by that I mean that he might be living in the moment, but he’s also wishing the moment was somehow different. True contentment seems to elude him. He want in, he wants out, he wants to be petted, he wants the thunder to stop, he wants out again, he wants to be fed, he wants someone to retrieve the toy he lost under the couch, he wants out again, he wants you to stop paying attention to the cats and pet him, he wants a treat, he wants out again. He whines or barks or scratches to let the two-leggeds know what he needs and that he needs it right now. He’s loud, impatient, and constantly dissatisfied. Maybe I could do better when looking for a pet after which to model my own behavior.
So I turn to Cat Stevens, the tuxedo I adopted in 2015 on a whim from the shelter. Now Stevie is a true guru of mindfulness, the ideal model of living your best life. She’s curious but discerning. She knows and honors her personal boundaries and doesn’t shy away from asking you to honor them as well. She understands the healing power of a nap in a sunbeam. She stops eating when she’s full, not to try to lose two pounds by the weekend. She has self-confidence for days. She’s compassionate, seems to always know when her two-legged friend needs a lap full of vibrational purr to keep the darkness at bay.
Cats must pity humans, must wonder why we would need to go to a yoga class to learn to move our bodies or breathe correctly. Stevie is a yoga master by nature, able to effortlessly achieve the most flexible of poses. She breathes with every cell in her being, loud, proud, and enthusiastically. I read somewhere that the human nervous system responds favorably to a cat’s purr by slowing the release of the stress hormone cortisol and helping our brains enter a flow state.
A cat understands that hustle culture is for the birds (or the dogs, I imagine them sneering haughtily). In mindfulness training, I often instruct my students to use their so-called sense doors to stay in the present. Being awake to those things that we can currently feel, hear, see, smell, taste, and touch grounds us in the now. Even with her eyes closed, Stevie is fully present, ears pivoting around like radars as she listens to sounds around her, sensitive nose wiggling to scout out interesting smells, whiskers twitching to more fully sense her environment.
I’m so glad I’ve been watching Stevie be here because now she is gone.
I wrote the paragraphs above five days before Stevie quietly disappeared. She had been losing weight and throwing up a lot. We treated her for worms, but clearly it was something more serious. A capital-Q Queen to the end, she spent her last day purring in my lap while I meditated and then napping in the basket where we store the clean towels (sister loved herself a towel fresh from the dryer). Later that evening, she meowed insistently, demanding a treat. Then she sat patiently by the door until we let her outside.
Had we known we would never see her again, we probably would have kept her in a little longer. Had I known last week that this column would be her eulogy, I might have meditated longer that day. I want to remember the warm, purring weight of her, how she would alternately make biscuits on my legs or whack me in the belly with that self-pet, head-bang thing.
The thought of her dying alone breaks my heart. But I’m choosing to believe that she died on her terms, dignified and badass to the end. I hope I always remember what she has taught me about living my best life. Wherever she is now, I hope someone is pulling her ears and letting her lick the egg yolk off their breakfast plate.