Once upon a time, I lived with a cat named Katie. Katie came into my life during a freezing cold blizzard one winter in Indiana when she was around six years old; she left it on a warm summer night sleeping quietly under the stars in South Carolina when she was about 21.
Katie was a beautiful, long-haired calico who spent those 15 years with me providing a vast amount of affection and entertainment. She was loving, funny, loud, opinionated, and scatty as a bat. Especially as she got older.
In her later years, Katie used to sing at the top of her voice to music only she could hear, with a sound that could peel wallpaper. This was typically in the middle of the night (a rather startling way to be awakened). She would often take naps in the dogs’ food bowls. She would only drink water outside (rain puddles, bird baths, and water hoses were her favorite sources). She would only eat the right half of her food. She constantly forgot that she lived with dogs and other cats and was startled (albeit pleased) whenever she noticed them.
But her most mysterious habit was to sit for hours on top of my dressing table peering deeply into the mirror – at “the room on the other side.” And she would try repeatedly, with great determination, to enter it. She’d poke at it with her paws, press her nose hard against the glass, make loud vocal calls into it. No matter how much I tried to gently show her that it wasn’t real, that is was only a reflection, she persisted. To Katie, it was another, entirely separate, reality. A reality she wanted rather desperately to cross into.
Now there is new-dog Liam – a rather large brown hound mix, fresh from the orphanage. And he has brought with him ghosted messages and memories of Katie and the mirror images. More poignant, more complex, perhaps. But no less reflections of reality.
Liam suffers from a sort of PTSD. I don’t know the cause. But it’s connected to humans and triggered by strangers. And it has left him with debilitating fear and anxiety. Typically, he runs away from his discomfort. He ducks behind bushes, or bluffs his way out of scary situations with frantic yet empty barking. He watches faces and studies body language. He refuses to be touched by anyone but me. He crouches low and turns away. He leaves the room. He misses opportunities. He hides from possibilities.
I understand that kind of fear. I see startling mirror images of my own sensibilities in him. Different causes … different triggers. But an undeniably shared intensity of feeling. With frighteningly similar outcomes.
Like images in a mirror, our fears tend to put hard edges and enclosures around each of us – woeful limitations that entrap our lives. And it creates a unique kind of emotional claustrophobia. I see Liam pressing his nose hard against it. (Just as I try to press my will against it.) Sometimes he hesitatingly takes a step forward, reaching out over the gap, and then he immediately wants to retreat back to safe ground. (I often accept the kindness of invitations to “go with,” to “join in the dance” … but then I immediately want to change my mind, and I leave the party early.)
Liam sees a long stick or a folded newspaper and fears he’ll be beaten again. I feel a new lump or an unknown ache and fear it’s cancer again. He cannot trust. I seem to trust with my fingers crossed. He’s quite sure that someone or something will break his heart when he isn’t looking. I have my own shards and sharp edges lying in wait.
Our fears and insecurities are both real and not. Our reasons are both rational and not. But they’re ours, our realities – perhaps just too raw or too scarred or too interwoven with the fear of what might be to allow us to be fully present for the truth of what is.
Author Jack Canfield said: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” And I’m beginning to suspect that fear may be rather like a mirror – a turned-around reflection of the truth. Perhaps Liam and I are on the wrong side of the mirror at the moment. And we’re both trying to gather up our vulnerabilities and break free, trying to step across that claustrophobic barrier into the reality we want to know. The selves we want to be.
Perhaps Katie, in her quirky, infinite, animal wisdom, had it right all along.