Friday, November 13, 2015

Regret and Gratitude

When I visited colleague and poet Medrie Purdham to meet her new son, Victor, conversation turned to...well...babies.  Victor seems to be sleeping fairly well, but we remembered commiserating about the fact that neither Rowan nor Veronica slept through the night for several years.  Both of us tried everything, and both of us were the recipients of advice that sometimes ran counter to the strategies we were trying.  "The secret," Medrie wisely observed, "is to have no regrets.  To know that you tried the best inside whatever constraints, whether the temperament of the baby or what we know about best practices for sleepless babies."  

I thought that having no regrets was excellent advice, not only for parents but also for retirees and, most recently, for the owners of sick cats.  Medrie's words kicked around in my brain so that about a week later, when we had a glorious Thursday afternoon--likely the last truly warm day, since November approached--I thought about regrets.  Would I regret having Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement slowed down by two hours, asked the workaholic, or would I regret not kidnapping my daughter from work and taking her, her camera, and my bird glasses, for a walk.  The answer was straightforward.  The reward for deciding to play hooky was quite spectacular.  We saw a Great Blue Heron and a Double-Crested Cormorant.  And while Veronica took the time to frame, focus, and light the wonderful photographs she took that day, I simply stood in the sunshine, watching the last of the aspen leaves flicker golden in the light against dark pine trees on the boreal island, watching small waves on Wascana Creek flicker with a silvery light in one of those not-quite echoes nature sometimes offers to reassure us there is some order, some coherence in our chancy world.  Standing there, I felt what I can only call a kind of ecstasy, enveloped as I was in the minor key of late autumn beauty.

Then my gentle, companionable cat, Twig, stopped eating and ran a temperature.  Since he had pancreatitis a little over a year ago, I took him to the vet immediately.  There followed a course of treatment that was rather expensive for someone on a fixed income.  He got better quite quickly, until he stopped eating Wednesday night, and is now back in for more fluids and IV antibiotics.  No regrets is my mantra.  It led me to conclude that I have only two jobs here:  one is to see that he gets all the treatment he needs (though I must decide responsibly when treatments fail while he suffers from an inflamed pancreas, liver, and gall bladder), and that no love for him goes unexpressed.  (I am sadly aware that my decision to try every reasonable treatment is a privileged one.)  In turn, his illness has pushed me to say what it is about our animals that is so valuable.  We know lots of things about how they promote our physical and mental health:  how imagining their lives makes us more empathetic and how communicating through touch, since we don't share a language, promotes a sense of well-being.  Dog walkers, in particular, not only get exercise but connect with other dog owners and so have better social lives.  But these explanations didn't quite get to the core of my relationship with my cats.

We know one another in a way no one else does.  Bill is incredibly attuned to my moods and is always supportive, but Twig picks up on other clues, particularly around the small ebbs and flows of my writing life.  He knows when to ask for a cuddle, when to hang out nearby, when to guard the thesaurus, or when to distract me.  He seldom meows at me, something I used to think was sad, as if he had no needs he wanted to talk to me about.  But I've since learned that cats save their meows for owners, training them in that cat's particular language.  Since then, I've noticed Twigs substitutes for the meow a look, a stance, body language.  We talk a lot without words.  That means I'm intensely attuned to his aliveness, to his moods, his delights, his pleasure.  I would almost say there's an uncanny intimacy between us, if that didn't make me sound like the cat lady.  He isn't a pet, a kind of lesser being in the household (though if I had to trade between him and another human being, I know exactly what I'd do):  he is one of life's denizens.   So "no regrets" is my principle here.

But we often do have regrets, particularly around things we didn't see coming, or around decisions with consequences we couldn't anticipate.  For these, I turn to Rebecca Solnit, who writes in The Faraway Nearby, "Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional" (14).  I remember learning to say, sometime in my thirties, "Okay.  I'll try not to screw that up quite so badly next time," realizing that "try" and "not quite so badly" were important caveats.  Regrets, then, are opportunities for generous reflection that seeks to understand rather than judge, for evaluating or re-evaluating everything from priorities to world views to values. That ineffective choice I made:  what motivated it?  What was I thinking at the time and how might I understand that thinking?

But Twig has taught me something else about regret:  its opposite is gratitude.  As he was last time, he will be in the vet's office for three days receiving IV fluids and antibiotics in an attempt to kill off the infection that is inflaming his pancreas and liver.  Because it's important to get him to eat, I'll pick him up and bring him home late this afternoon, only to turn around and take him back tomorrow at 8 a.m..  When I open his kennel this afternoon, he will twine around my legs in gratitude.  

Regret grounds us in the past, and sometimes careful reflection on the past is important.  But reflection can't change what has already been:  to be useful, regret can only change how we frame or understand our past actions or decisions and how we decide to proceed.  Gratitude immerses us in the present.  It is only after we face difficulties and losses, perhaps, that we regret not being more gratefully present in our daily lives.   We may have failed to do X, but here we are at Y, and doesn't it have its compensations, its rewards!  Lately, I've been thinking about gratitude and mindfulness as sisters.  Gratitude is a spiritual practice--however you define spiritual; mindfulness a mental one.  Both insist that you plant your feet firmly in the present moment, look around you, and explore this time and space.

Gretchen Rubin--not nearly the calibre of writer or thinker as either Medrie or Rebecca Solnit, but she's done her research--writes about gratitude:

"Gratitude is important to happiness.  Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives; they even feel more physically healthy and spend more time exercising.  Gratitude brings freedom from envy, because when you're grateful for what you have, you're not consumed with wanting something different or something more.  That, in turn, makes it easier to live within your means and also to be generous to others.  Gratitude fosters forbearance--it's harder to feel disappointed with someone when you're feeling grateful toward him or her.  Gratitude also connects you to the natural world, because one of the easiest things to feel grateful for is the beauty of nature."

I've set up my computer at the little writing table at the back of my living room so that I can watch the birds at my backyard feeders.  Today, I've had a raucous blue jay and a downy woodpecker, though I'm most grateful for the nuthatches who chirp like small squeaky toys and can walk down trees:  their antics keep me endlessly amused--but then I'm easily amused.  I will not go so far to say that I am grateful for Twig's illness, for the opportunity it's given me to reflect--for the way it has demanded that I reflect.  I am grateful for Medrie's fortuitous advice; I'm grateful for the fact that I can afford to give Twig the treatment he needs; I'm certainly grateful for the support of Bill and Veronica through this time.  At this moment, I'm most of all grateful for Twig and his extraordinary companionship through the last fifteen years.  I'm grateful for the knowledge that should this be the end of his time with me, there will be few regrets to trouble my grief.

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