The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.

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The image of God

What makes people different from animals? The first chapter of the Bible reports that the first man and the first woman were both created in the image and likeness of God. “Image” and “likeness” are synonyms in this verse–Biblical Hebrew frequently uses two words to convey the same idea. But what does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Some people believe that the image of God is an immortal soul. They go on to say that animals do not have an immortal soul, since they were not created in the image of God. However, the new creation is described as including animals, such as lions, wolves, lambs, and even snakes. If God can have these creatures in his new creation, surely he can also restore our favorite cats and dogs and horses. Whether or not he will do so remains to be seen, but there is a passing reference to the spirits of animals in the book of Ecclesiastes.

God’s attributes include omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. In other words, there is nothing God cannot do, no place exists where he is not present, and there is nothing God does not know. Men and women do not have these qualities; there are limits to our power, we exist in only one location at a time, and we do not know everything. Like God, though, we have intelligence and wisdom that surpasses that of animals. Perhaps our thinking ability is part of the image of God that exists in us.

God created, and people create. Beings that create have a sense of beauty which is shown by their creations. Beings that create also express a sense of humor in their creations. Beings that create are able to use objects as tools to accomplish their goals. In all of these ways, men and women are more like God than like the animals made by God.

When God created, he spoke things into existence. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God works through words, and men and women also communicate with words. We do not have the power to cause things to happen merely by speaking, but words remain useful, even essential, to our existence.

God is holy, righteous, and just. Men and women also know the difference between right and wrong. We might not always do what is right, but generally we know what is right. Our moral sense may also be part of the image of God that exists in us.

God has power, but God is not power. God has knowledge, but God is not knowledge. God has righteousness, but God is not righteousness. Only one quality of God is described as God, and that quality is love. Twice the apostle John wrote, “God is love.” Love flows among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Even if God had created nothing, God would still be love because of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

To be created in the image and likeness of God, then, means to be created so we can love. We were created to love God whole-heartedly. We were created to love our neighbors as ourselves. All the rest of the commands of God tell us how to love, but the basic command to love teaches us our purpose. When we love, we are God-like. When we fail to love, we fall short of displaying God’s image. When we fail to love, we fall short of our Creator’s purpose for our existence.

The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is selfishness. The more we love ourselves, the less we can love God and our neighbors. True love is sacrificial love. It gives to others and does not demand repayment. True love allows others to be important rather than insisting upon being at the center of attention.

Animals have intelligence to varying degrees. They can solve problems, they can reason, and they can learn. Some animals are creative. Elephants doodle, birds sing, and some fish redesign their environments for purposes of beauty. Many animals create tools out of materials at hand. Animals use language and communicate. Chimpanzees have been taught sign language. Cats and dogs understand dozens of words that they hear men and women speak. Even some insects are capable of passing messages to one another.

Some animals even have a sense of right and wrong. Dogs know when they have done something their owners did not want them to do, and they can express guilt for their wrongdoing. Cats also know when they have broken the rules, although they do not express guilt as frequently as dogs do. Other animals can be trained to do various things, and they know when they have met expectations or failed to please their trainers.

I find it hard to believe that my cats don’t love me. Our relationship is defined by more than food and fresh water. My cats like their people. They like to hear the sound of our voices, even if we are talking to each other and not to them. They like to be pet and scratched, and they have their own gestures to show the love that they feel for their people. If I have been away all day or asleep all night, they greet me when they see me again. We have a genuine relationship based on love, even if I bear the image of God and they do not.

It seems that animals that spend time around people pick up some human characteristics. We teach them to have a moral sense because the distinction between right and wrong is important to us. We teach them to love because love is essential to what we are. When our ancestors were told to rule over the animals of God’s creation, God’s intention was that we be caretakers and not abusers. When we take good care of the creatures entrusted to us, they become a little more like us. That reflects the wisdom of the Creator who put us in charge of his world. J.

Animal behavior

Animals in our neighborhoods do curious things. Often the assumptions we make about their behavior are wrong. We are wrong because we assume these animals think as we think. Animal thinking is different, which is why we often misunderstand the animals around us.

When an emergency vehicle goes down the road sounding its siren, many of the dogs in the neighborhood begin to howl. I used to think that they were howling because the sound of the siren hurts their ears. I recently learned that they are responding to the siren on an entirely different level. To them it sounds like a message. By howling, they are helping to spread the message. Their howling is in no way an objection to the emergency siren; it is assistance in doing the job of the emergency siren.

Sometimes woodpeckers pound on the metal standpipe on the roof of my house. I used to think that woodpeckers were stupid birds-they could not tell the difference between wood and metal, and they could not learn the difference even after days of pounding on the metal. I recently learned that the woodpeckers are sending messages when they bang on the metal standpipe. They are announcing their presence to other woodpeckers and claiming their territory by their sound. In a natural setting, woodpeckers find hollow trees that amplify the sound of their pounding so they can claim their territory. We have made it easier for them to announce their presence and claim their territory by giving them hollow metal pipes to pound.

Mrs. Dim uses a blower to clean the deck behind her house far more frequently than necessary to keep it clean. Every day, several times a day, even when it is wet, Mrs. Dim runs her blower. I used to think that Mrs. Dim was just being annoying because that is her true nature. Either that or she had some kind of compulsion to make noise. After learning about dogs and woodpeckers, I began to understand Mrs. Dim. Like other animals, she is using noise to claim her territory. In a canine manner, she is making sure that the rest of the neighborhood knows where she is. The sound of her blower has nothing to do with keeping her deck clean. It is simply an announcement to the neighborhood: “Fear me, all you neighbors, for I am Dim.”

Animal behavior is endlessly fascinating in all its forms. This has been your educational essay for today. J.

 

Strive to be…

I have seen a clever saying: “Strive to be the person your dog thinks you are.” While that would be good advice for many people, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a dog; I have two cats. I don’t know if I should strive to be the person they think I am. Sometimes they think I am a piece of furniture. Sometimes I distract them when they want to sleep, and sometimes I sleep when they want to be distracted. I provide them with food and water, and I clean their litter boxes. If it wasn’t for that, they might not notice my existence at all.

I do not need to strive to be the person they think I am. I already am that person. They see me as a bundle of contradictions. I leave the house for hours at a time, and always at the best times for getting a few naps. Then I sleep through the best times for exploring the house and having fun. I prepare food and eat food off of surfaces so disgustingly dirty that I won’t even allow my cats to walk across those surfaces. I spend long periods of time staring at objects in my hands instead of batting those objects across the room and then chasing after them. When they want to greet me in a natural way, I turn them around so their heads are facing me.

Maybe I should strive to be the person my cats want me to be. It would take effort, but I’m sure it could be done. I would have to develop ESP so I would know, without having to look, that their food dish was nearly empty, and I would rush to fill it again. (“Nearly empty,” by the way, is defined as, “the bottom of the bowl is visible in at least one place.”) I would walk around the house every hour flushing all the toilets so they had a ready source of fresh drinking water. I would open the windows every day. (The air is always fresh and near the ideal temperature every time I open the windows, so why don’t I do it more often?) I would let the songbirds into the house so the cats could play with them instead of just watching them through the screen. I would stay home every day, take frequent naps, and be ready to play at night. I would help them figure out how to catch that red dot of light that bounces around the walls and floor and never seems to stay captured, no matter how cleverly they trap it with their paws.

No, I will never become the person my cats want me to be. They will never understand that my hours away from the house somehow make it possible for me to put food in their bowl. They will never convince me that the best conversations are not conducted face to face. But we seem to have a working relationship, and that may be what matters the most. As in so much of life, vive la difference! J.

 

The sense of scents

Dogs and cats rely on the sense of smell far more than people do. In fact, people often overlook the importance of scents, because we pay far more attention to what we see and hear and touch. Being blind or deaf is a serious problem, but not being able to smell seems to make very little difference to a person.

Our awareness of scents is often more subliminal than direct. When I was in college, the psychology professor described how she had struggled with depression in her college days. While she was enduring several weeks of depression, she had classes in a building with fragrant flowers blooming outside. Even years later, she reported, smelling that kind of flower made her feel a twinge of depression due to the olfactory reminder of her college darkness.

On a recent Saturday a member of my family was preparing food right after breakfast to cook in a slow cooker, and my thoughts drifted to the Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood. Soon I established the connection—my mother made a stuffing with onion and celery that she chopped on Thanksgiving morning, and I believe that was the only morning of the entire year that she chopped those vegetables. She often cooked with them, but usually she only chopped in the afternoon. Smelling chopped onions in the morning immediately evoked my memories of Thanksgiving mornings from years ago.

The mind can work the opposite direction as well. I was driving to work a couple of mornings ago, listening to the classical music station, and a piano piece started to play. Instantly I thought I smelled faintly the aftershave lotion that my uncle used to wear. My uncle taught me how to play the piano when I was a child. I had not remembered the scent of that aftershave lotion for years, but a piano piece on the radio brought it to mind.

Early this year, I took my family to one of those towns where people have restored the old buildings to make the town look like it was more than a hundred years ago. The restaurant where we ended up having lunch was in one of those restored buildings, and it had a wood-burning fireplace. The entire south end of the town was permeated with the odor of the burning logs. Days later, when I was looking at pictures of the same buildings, I smelled the wood smoke again, and that happened several times over the following days whenever I had reason to glance at those photographs.

I know that I am highly sensitive to scents as well as to sounds. I haven’t had trouble with migraine headaches lately, but when I did struggle with migraines, I usually knew one was coming because I became even more sensitive to odors. What a woman considers an appropriate amount of perfume can send me into a coughing fit that makes me have to leave the room. If one person has spent time with another person who smokes cigarettes, I can smell the smoke in that person’s clothing even if the other person didn’t smoke in the company of the first person. I am not fond of the odors of plastics and other chemicals—I’ve never understood the attraction for some people of a “new car smell.” I would far rather breathe the air of a farmyard or a zoo, odors that other people find offensive but I find mildly comforting.

The sense of smell is more a part of our lives than most people realize. Much of the taste of food and beverages comes from the odor, which is why food tastes different to a person whose nose is congested. Odors can be a warning of danger, such as smelling fire in a house or smelling gasoline in a car. Odors we do not consciously notice can still influence us, as is the case with pheromones, which can attract one person to another person although neither person knows why. When people shop for a house, they can be influenced positively or negatively by scents; some homeowners cook a batch of chocolate chip cookies when they know that a prospective buyer will be visiting.

Near where I work is a vegetarian restaurant. Some days when I walk by, they are cooking onions, caramelizing them for soups or sandwiches. I cannot smell onions being cooked in that way without thinking of pork chops the way my mother used to prepare them.

What scents carry the strongest memories in your life? J.

Fan of a cat

Some people are cat people, and some people are dog people. A few like both, and a few like neither. My parents fit in the “both” category. When I was growing up, the family generally had one dog and one cat, and they played together nicely. For a few years we had two cats, but that was because a stray cat adopted us.

I like most dogs. As for me and my house, though, we serve the cats. They can be trusted alone in the house when we are gone all day—or even are on a several day trip. (Yes, we do have a sitter stop by once a day to give them food and water and to clean their litter box.) Cats are quieter than dogs, and they demand less attention. Yet it means something to win the approval of a cat. Dogs are pack animals; they will admire anyone who takes leadership in their lives, tells them what to do, and provides them with food and attention. Cats are more particular. They choose their friends by a process known only to other cats. Food and attention are not enough to make friends with a cat. When a cat approves of you, you know that you are a special person. Most cats like me.

A year ago my daughter came home from Walmart with a cat. She had not gone to the store to buy a cat, and in fact she did not buy this kitten. It came to her in the parking lot. I know this happens a lot; people leave unwanted kittens in the Walmart parking lot, expecting that they will find a new home. This kitten must have come from a fairly nice home. She is friendly, she likes children, and she clearly had received good care and enough food until she was left at Walmart. A year later, I still wonder if some boy or girl is wondering what happened to the special kitten they were raising that disappeared without explanation one day.

The kitten is now a cat. I’m usually the first person awake in the mornings, and when she hears that I am up, she comes looking for attention. She wants to be pet and rubbed and assured that I have not stopped loving her overnight. This lasts until I sit down for breakfast or until she hears that someone else is awake. When I come home from work, she wants more attention, because I’ve been gone all day. I might want to check matters on the computer, but she needs her time with me too.  In the evenings she enjoys being a lap cat. She sits on my lap and purrs; I scratch her behind her ears while reading a book.

Some days, especially Saturdays, I feel anxious for no reason. At times, this cat is my best medicine. Time spent with her is the best therapy I can find on a weekend. Even if I have to wake her up to get her attention, she is quickly forgiving, ready to show me that I still matter to her, and peaceful assurance that not everything is wrong in the world.

Cats are not for everyone. Some people have allergies, and some have phobias, and some just don’t like having animals around the house. Even the best-behaved cats will sometimes sharpen their claws on the sofa or weave around a person’s legs to trip that person in a dark hallway at nighttime. They do not understand the human habit of sleeping for several hours and then being awake for two or three times as many hours. My cat does not understand why I hold books and stare at them for long minutes of the day; it’s an odd habit she has come to accept. Family television time is another mystery to her, but she is happy to be with us when we are all staring at that noisy box with the moving pictures. She is generous but fair—if the show is long enough, she will have spent time on each lap in the room.

Of all the people in that Walmart parking lot last October, I am glad this cat found my daughter first. We have taken good care of her, and she is taking good care of all of us. I am delighted that she became part of my family. J.

The dog and Mrs. Dim

Here is my side of a conversation I would like to have, but probably never will have:

Good morning, Mrs. Dim. You know, we’ve been neighbors for several years now. One thing I’ve noticed all this time is that, when you let your dog outside, he comes out of the house barking, and you always scold him. I suppose you don’t want his barking to bother the neighbors. If so, I appreciate your concern; but, let me assure you, your dog’s barking is far from the most bothering sounds we hear coming from your property.

They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I guess it’s probably true. I think your dog enjoys hearing his name every time he comes out of the house. It assures him that you like him and that you are paying attention to him. He barks, and then you bark back. Yes, it’s tough to train an animal, but one of you is well-trained. The other one is getting what he wants every time he goes outside.

I don’t expect this little conversation to change anything. I just wanted to let you know how I feel. Your dog’s barking doesn’t bother me in the least, so please don’t worry about it anymore.

Have a nice day, Mrs. Dim.

J.