So you’re scared.
I have good news, whether or not you want to hear it: you are not scared to death.
Funny expression, isn’t it? We say it often: I’m scared to death of catching COVID-19. I’m scared to death of running out of toilet paper, especially since it bears the same initials as Tabby’s Place. (There are no coincidences.) I’m scared to death of losing touch with my friends. I’m scared to death of cutting my own bangs. I’m scared to death that canned mushrooms will be sold out forever.
But more often than not, I’d say we’re scared to life: fear makes us jump, or at least jump up and do something. We wash our hands; we order the burlap-textured TP from the shady website; we make the awkward, first-time-in-seven-weeks phone call. We go foraging for our own mushrooms. (We do not cut our own bangs. Repeat after me: we do not cut our own bangs.)
And if we’re feline, we find that fear almost literally electrifies us, making every hair stand on end and our tails poof out like magnificent bottle brushes. More on that in a moment.
Fear can be a friend in brief and rare moments (generally involving grizzly bear chases or toilet paper shortages). But long-term fear, low-level fear, a buzz of endless fear that sounds like snow on a distant TV, is nobody’s buddy. And we’ve all been feeling that fear for a little too long now. Seven-plus weeks of quiet, constant fear is enough to keep us scared in all the wrong ways.
We will have already died a little fear-death if we become scared of each other.
I can bashfully attest to this myself.
On my daily sanity-preserving/madness-minimizing walks around my neighborhood, I occasionally pass other walkers. We do that silent, smiling dance of “who wants to skitter to the other side of the road first?”, we wave, and, if we’re feeling braver than Captain America, we say “hi.” We’ve formed a funny little community of neighbor-strangers, and I’m not too proud to admit that my “friends” have acquired names in my head: there’s Jerry Garcia in his safety-yellow bandanna; Awesome Blanche, the octogenarian in better shape than I’ll ever be; and Huge Guy With Tiny Dog, whose corgi-chihuahua-alien mix I covet.
In a way, this fearful time has sent us into solidarity, like a room full of feral cats forced to band together against the Bad Humans.
But then there are the other people, the people I’ve never seen before — the new ferals to the colony, you might say. I was mortified to observe this in myself once, then twice, then many times: the longer quarantine continues, the more I’m a little spooked by strangers, strangers who aren’t “my” strangers.
Some of them wear masks; some of them power-walk through the rules of social distancing; one of them even yelled off his porch, “I see you an awful lot around here, you walky woman!” I think he was trying to be amiable, but I was scared. I am not normally scared by friendly older men shaped like potatoes. And therein lies the problem: all this fuzzy fear has changed me.
And this is not to mention the stranger strangers in RiteAid, at the post office, or spouting Things That Scare Me online. (The last scare me most, shouting angrily that we’re all a bunch of lily-livered scaredy pants who just need to get back out there and start licking doorknobs and kissing shopping carts and unlocking lockdowns this very minute.)
It’s inevitable that This Whole Thing is going to change us all. I have great hope it will make us more merciful, gentle and tender with one another, breaking through bravado to see the fragile miracles who walk among us. But I can see another possibility all too clearly, and I’m going to fight it with all my love and valor.
I must not, will not, shall not let This Whole Thing make me afraid of people.
Here, as usual, we are wise to turn to the cats. The cats, as noted above, get good and scared. Their very bodies scream their scareditude, all static-electricity poof and floof and sideways-jumping jitters. They get so scared, you can call them Laird. (Which would be a glorious name for a kitten, but I digress.)
But they don’t stay there.
And — unless given good reason (e.g. sharing a space with Fenek the Impaler) — they don’t stay scared of each other.
In fact, cats let fear turn them into friends, comrades, and co-belligerents in the war against delayed dinners.
So today’s post, and today’s vitamin shot of courage, comes to you and me and all the mushrooms by way of cats unafraid of cats.
May we follow their lead.
May we remember we need each other.
May we see the good in other faces.
May we moved from “scared to death” to “solidarity forever.”
And — when it’s safe again, may it be soon! — may we hug each other all a little tighter. Even the strange ones. Especially the strange ones.*
*OK, I do not necessarily advocate embracing potato-shaped neighbors who holler to you from their porches. But you get the idea.