Sometimes, before we can go forward, we have to look back.
Before we can roll, we need to rock back and forth.
Or, even better, pile up rocks like pancakes.
You do not need me to tell you that the last twenty months have been peculiar.
You’ve endured agonies and oddities, globally-shared and exquisitely-personal, that 2019 You couldn’t have expected.
That’s probably a good thing for tender little 2019 You. If that wee little You had known what was coming, You might not have expected to survive.
A global pandemic. (We have grown used to these words. We should not.)
Loss writ larger than any words, even too too many words, will ever describe.
Losses so technically “small,” you could carry them in your pocket, but so heavy, they make it hard to keep walking.
But here you and I and the stalwart, triumphing, tireless cats are.
I think of this whole phenomenon sometimes, after some minor inconvenience temporarily swallows my world and my patience and what remains of my sanity. A days-long power outage, or a flooded basement, or a hateful sinus infection can level the sturdiest among us (and let the record show I am not even in the top 80th percentile of The Sturdiest Among Us).
But we fare forward, and we do what needs to be done, and then reality in all its underrated radiance returns.
This applies to the bigger business, too. The collapse of a friendship you didn’t think you could breathe without. The loss of a job that you thought was your planetary purpose. The slumping of a dream into a puddle of “what next?”
The pains come calling. The callings to rise come calling. And like a river of music you’d never heard before, you come rising out of the mire and find yourself standing again.
You made it. And it — the whole sloppy sea of it — made you better.
Cats, creatures stitched together of stardust and the present moment, do not look back and forward in the same way we do. But they, too, are carried by a current that keeps them safer and makes them stronger than they could ever expect or predict.
2019 Toulouse, toastily ensconced in a comfortable, if raggledy-taggledy, outdoor life, could not and should not have expected that her caretaker would die, and autumn gold would tarnish into winter’s whip, and a Place called Tabby’s would become her peculiar, perfect (did I say peculiar?) haven.
She was terrified. She was thrown for an entire roller coaster of loops.
And then she was tenderized and splendorized by the experience, made merry in spite of herself.
The terrors of 2020 smuggled in great Trojan horses trundling gifts, burlap sacks stretched threadbare by their unexpectedly excellent contents: dental procedures (aren’t these on every child’s list to Santa?) that resulted in liberation from pain; painstaking socialization that yielded a yearning for uncharted affection; blankets and beds and sunshine in such abundance, you couldn’t blame the old marmalade gal if she thought she hadn’t survived, but rather been promoted to heaven.
She made it.
Just like us.
As autumn 2021 carries us into its second act, I don’t know exactly what you’ve endured this past twenty months. Far less do I know what will be asked of us in the months and years ahead. That’s as it should be: if we saw it coming, we’d underestimate our 2022 and 2026 and 2051 (heaven help us) selves.
Instead, we should be stacking rocks.
You may have noticed, along some hiking trail or in a quiet garden, a small stack of stones. These micro-monuments are called cairns, and they’re piles with a purpose. From the ancient Israelites to the Celts to Patagonia-clad peacemakers in 2021, human beans have felt the need to mark where they’ve been, to remind themselves that they can get where they’re going, to look to a rock of ages that will roll them onward and homeward and hopeward even when life howls.
I made a cairn of my own on the harrowing hinge between grad school and “adulthood.” Terrified of leaving the warm bath of academia, I needed solid reminders of all the impossibles I’d survived.
I assembled a miniature mountain of river rocks, inscribing each one with something I’d done or endured or — most accurately — been carried through, against all odds: Learned To Drive (at age 22, but better late than eternal Uber, oui?). Got A Real Job. Preached To 500 People. Managed Type 1 Diabetes For 15+ Years. Drove A Cargo Van To Canada. Drove A Cargo Van Back From Canada. Survived The Cancellation Of “The West Wing.” Survived Seven Years Of Campus Life Without A Cat. Grew Out An Ill-Advised Pixie Cut.
Your stack will be different, of course, as different as Toulouse’s is from fellow former-feral Agnes‘s. But as the future glowers at us with a gaudy mix of kindness and chaos (and sometimes looks like it’s leering through Cletus teeth), we need to remember the past.
We need to remember the saints (canonized and earthy, across the veil and across the street) and angels (overhead and unawares) and creatures of all kinds (cats chief among them, but don’t forget the sheltering salamanders) who have been our lifeguards and life ropes and loved us lightwards on the darkest nights.
We need to remind ourselves and each other that we’ve been carried over the waters.
We need to remind ourselves and each other that our joy has always been resurrected.
We need to remind ourselves and each other that we are stronger, more resilient, bendier, and — this is the real truth — more securely held than we remember.
We will forget.
But the mercy that brought Toulouse and Agnes and Guy Fieri and Queen Elizabeth II and you and me this far will not forget us.
Rock and roll, kittens.