The Blessing of the Animals

They bring you solace in hard times. They crave your touch and quicken to your smile, and they make you want to give and give and give. Four writers share how their significant animal others inspire and heal

by Catherine Newman, Lauren Slater, Mira Bartok, Jo Ann Beard
cat lying on couch image
Photograph: Phil Toledano

Recently we have moved from the city, where I’ve lived out all of my adulthood, to the country, where we have five and a half acres, meadows flecked with flowers and sudden pools in waterlogged earth. Watching my daughter ride and realizing that some remnant passion still stirs inside me, I consider the suddenly reasonable possibility that we might buy a pony, something small enough for my young son yet with enough verve and power to satisfy my daughter and her need for speed. As for me, any horse would do—portals, all of them, into a past I thought I’d left behind, only to find, in my middle years, that I want once more to sit astride, to gallop backward toward a time when I spent every spare minute on a broad saddled back. Or perhaps there’s some need to show off for my girl, as in Look what I can do or I can do it, too! But I’m too quick to call my longings sentimental or even silly; maybe my desire to have horses again in my life, as I near the end of my fifth decade, has to do with a need now for majesty, which I crave as I age, as my body changes, as my bones thin, as my hair goes gray. I’m still strong, and I can see my strength reflected in the large pools of the equine’s eyes, in my desire to rise and gallop, fusing my body with the horse’s as we wend our way. I have recently read that horse-loving girls often return to their passion in their forties, in their fifties, finding both solace and strength in the barreled body and the whiskered muzzle that searches the outstretched palm for fruit. Down the hill, I can hear my daughter’s speed, her instructor calling out commands as she races around the ring, “Heels down, chin up,” and I think yes. Chin up. One should age with spunk. One should find for herself a new grand name, a name as big as the sun, the solar system, the penetrable yet impenetrable space beyond the moon; it is time to redefine. It is the horse who brings me here, to this new space inside my mind where my increasing frailty goes head to head with a sedimented strength built up over decades of experience. Later on, I walk with my daughter to the car. Her lesson has ended. Not mine. I feel infused. I breathe big. Anything is possible.

LAUREN SLATER’s work has been translated into more than 17 languages.Her most recent book is The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals.

Love in the Time of Spiders

By Mira Bartók

I have a secret. I used to see spiders when they weren’t really there.

In that elusive place between sleep and waking, some frightened part of my brain conjured visions of them. I saw spiders only when my schizophrenic mother was at her worst. Every few weeks, after one of her psychotic episodes, my waking dreams returned.

It was always the same: In the dim light of early morning, a spider the size of my hand would creep down from the ceiling and hover above me. I’d scream and switch on the lamp, but the little monster would still be there, its legs reaching for my face. Then, moments later, the image would evaporate into thin air.

Sometime in my late twenties, I saw a neurologist for my secret affliction. Secret, because I didn’t want people to think I was sick like my mother. I knew I wasn’t mentally ill, but something was certainly wrong. After I explained to the doctor my difficult childhood, my mother’s increasing violence and my fears of her suddenly showing up at my apartment, he told me my hallucinations were probably trauma-induced seizures. People were beginning to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder in the mid-1980s, but it was still a relatively new diagnosis. The doctor suggested seizure medication, but I said no. Then, in 1990, when my mother broke off contact with me, the spiders suddenly disappeared.

First published in the Decmeber 2012/January 2013 issue

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