I’ve just let the cats and the hens out with the usual instructions: Have fun. Be careful. Don’t get hurt. Don’t hurt anyone else (this to the cats, who have the usual unholy feline interest in wild birds).
They don’t listen: They are off to revel in the joys and risk the dangers of their own animal lives.
Their existence apart from me is largely a mystery: too simple to be apprehended by the endless machinations of a human mind and too complex to be appreciated by my relatively impoverished, under-utilized physical senses. When we are together, though, I feel nourished in a way I usually don’t with members of my own species.
Here I will avoid waxing romantic about unconditional love and otherwise anthropomorphizing animals, who deserve better than to be likened to humans. In truth, I have no idea how my cats and chickens feel about me.
But this much I know: My animals are masters of careful attention. When they choose to keep company with me, they see, hear and respond to me just as I am in that moment. They are not projecting their own fears and hopes onto me; they are not preparing a response to what I am doing or saying. They are not making up a grocery list while feigning interest, nor critiquing my appearance or mannerisms. They are fully with me until they turn that same, singular attention elsewhere.
This may seem a simple thing, and it is. But simple does not mean easy, and I have yet to meet a person as accomplished at paying attention as the most distracted animal. This matters. The poet Mary Oliver describes attention as “the beginning of devotion.” And in the human world, attention is surely the foundational act of love. When another attends to us, we feel seen. Appreciated. We feel as if we matter for just who we are.
More often than not, we humans fall short in this most elemental act of love; preoccupied by our own wants and needs, we fail, again and again, to truly attend to one another. How lucky we are, then, to have animals with whom to share our lives.