You Are a Beast
Until the pandemic began, I practiced hot yoga for almost a decade. One day after class a young woman who had been practicing near me approached me in the locker room. She leaned toward me and brought her face close to mine. “You are a beast,” she said. Laughing, I thought, Maybe I am a beast.
I grew up with a variety of animals in and around our household. We had a dog — who once gave birth to 14 puppies — a couple of cats, and for periods of time guinea pigs, chickens, a sheep, a pony. I was strangely indifferent to those animals though, and, sensing it as a character defect, I pretended not to be. One of my sisters was madly in love with the pony, and all my other family members showered love on the dog. But I was more interested in the humans who surrounded me.
Now I begin each writing morning sipping coffee as I wait for my brain to kick into high gear and gazing out the French doors of my study to the front yard, where animals are already well into the business of the day. The squirrels snare my attention first, busy and quick as they are, leaping from grass to wall to stepping stones, bushy tails always in motion. They look as if they’re being pursued. Various birds are at work too, hopping and pecking here and there, sometimes coming up to the windows of the French doors and peering through just as humans might look at a museum diorama, another world separate from them. Occasionally a bird will fly into the window, usually recovering quickly and flying off. Hummingbirds jet by on their way to the feeder on the front porch. In the past, before we put up a fence, deer and turkeys would come through, along with the neighbor’s chickens. The deer, too, would bring their noses right up to the glass, unfazed by my presence just a few feet away.
The bold, insouciant deer were an exception, but all the other animals have been striking to me for the anxiety they appear to be gripped by. (More debilitating, it appears, than that of some of my anxious friends!) Nervous and quick, they’re always alert to the possible presence of danger even when humans are not threatening them. From an anthropomorphic perspective, they look like Type A personalities, primed for an imminent heart attack.
It is only in recent years, as I’ve worried about climate change and its decimation of the natural world, that I’ve started to take an interest in these animals I’ve always taken for granted. In writing Weather Woman and some of my subsequent novels, I have learned about the truly remarkable skills so many animals have, seeing and hearing and smelling so much more acutely than humans and using stunning navigational techniques far beyond our capabilities.
I’ve also grown more sensitive to our truly exceptional cat, Shogi — I guess everyone’s cat is exceptional — who collapses on the kitchen floor each morning, displaying his beautiful body for us to pet. He knows how to lure us and we respond, lavishing him with love. I had eye surgery recently and was told to stay away from the cat for a while. I can hardly stand to watch his disappointment when I pass him by. After trying to coax me back, he gives up and saunters off, dejected, but never holding it against me later.
It was heartrending to watch so many animals — kangaroos and wallabies and snakes — fleeing from the infernos in Australia a few years ago, many of them getting caught in the blaze and burning to death. Watching the Afghan and Ukrainian refugees moving en masse to escape the violence and destruction of bullies, I think of those Australian animals, and I am reminded of how we humans are animals too, driven by the same primal needs of other species to survive and procreate and live somewhere safely as part of a tribe where we feel valued and loved. The fancy developments of our “civilized” species — such as language and law and technology and art and science — do not change the facts of these basic needs which we too often try to mask, as if our intellect and philosophical concerns obviate those needs.
I spent the first year of the pandemic writing a novel whose title as a work-in-progress was The Animal Novel (now Unleashed). I was feeling a strong sense of my animal nature and my kinship with other animals. Part of this was due to the fact that I was losing my ability to speak (due to ALS which was, at that point, undiagnosed). The more garbled my speech became, and the less able I was to communicate with the people around me, the more I understood I might end up to be mute (as I am now), and the more I began to identify with Shogi and the deer. This sense of becoming more animal-like imparted to me an unexpected calm, the privilege of moving through the world without being expected to hold forth. In being mute, I could just be, which is the way the cat and the deer seem to approach living.
The more you study animals — whales, octopuses, bats, albatrosses, elephants, and so on — the more you question the notion of human superiority. I am not proposing that animals are superior to humans — they fight for resources and supremacy just as humans do — I am simply arguing for a recognition that we are more similar to animals than we are different. We harbor instincts toward aggression and bonding in equal parts. We can all be pushed by circumstances toward one or the other. Our needs are as basic as theirs are. If we can consider animals enough to understand and feel our kinship with them, we might also appreciate that we are all in this life endeavor together, co-dependent in a way that is dangerous not to recognize.
I am enraged at Putin these days as most people are. His behavior reminds me of a documentary I saw about a community of chimps. The alpha male was a bully and fought one of the other males to near death, for no apparent reason than to demonstrate and maintain his status. It was eerily reminiscent of the human behavior we abhor and try to punish with laws, but are so often helpless to control.
The proximity of death has prompted some of these thoughts, the understanding that all living creatures of any species are composed of cells, biological matter that functions beautifully for a while but has a shelf life and eventually breaks down and decomposes. This is true no matter how many books we write, how many children we raise, how much acclaim we achieve, or how many people love us. There is a dead skunk who was hit by a car and whose corpse has been lying by the roadside near our house for the last few months, gradually decomposing and losing recognizability as a skunk. When all my cells have given up and I am no longer recognizable as the Cai I have been, I hope my soul will depart having some memory of having been part of the biological matter of a happy beast.
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