When I was growing up, my mom and I would occasionally visit the cousins I thought of as our Dirt Poor Cousins. This nomenclature came about not because I was mean-spirited, but because, at one point, they literally had a dirt floor in their little home. There were a lot of kids, they all looked alike, and I was fascinated by their life. Jimmer was the one closest in age to me. I’m sure his name was actually some variation of James, but they all had hillbilly names and, until we ran into each other at college, I never heard him referred to as anything other than “Jimmer.”
(You’re beginning to get the picture, aren’t you? And for those of you who know me, no, these were not my West Virginia cousins. They were worse. Trust me.)
I liked playing with Jimmer because his games were always fun and imaginative. We’d scamper around the woods and the barn, pretending to be settlers, Indians, wild animals. We’d pick strawberries, jump in the “swimming hole,” and chase frogs. The kind of good, clean fun that you see on The Andy Griffith Show. But there was one game that I didn’t like. Jimmer called it “Cat in the Bag.” In this game, he and his siblings would capture the ornery barn cat, toss it into one of the canvas feed bags, and tie a quick knot. Predictably, the cat would screech and howl and thrash around inside the bag, as everyone laughed and I yelled at Jimmer to release him. “Aw, he deserves it!” Jimmer would counter. “He’s a mean old cuss!” True enough, but it was hard for me to tell whether he got tossed in the bag because he was a mean old cuss or if he was a mean old cuss because he got tossed in the bag.
The barn cat would fight mightily against the bag, claws bared, scratching and heaving itself against the bag, until eventually it exhausted itself, and then it would lie quietly. Jimmer would untie the bag and release the cat, usually receiving a good clawing for his trouble.
I hadn’t thought of that old barn cat in a long time, but the memory of it resurfaced the other day. Because there are times in my life when I am like that old barn cat in the bag. I heave and hurl myself against the constraints of my life, howling at the unfairness or sadness or sameness of my life, until eventually I tire and sink into it. My life, like the bag, resists but doesn’t fight back. It simply holds me, contains me, preventing both escape and mortal harm.
In the times I visited them, the barn cat never seemed to figure out that battling the bag was futile. It never once escaped the bag. It never once was released until it quieted and relaxed. And it never once seemed to realize that the faster it surrendered, the faster it would be released from the bag.
I am, I think, at least smarter than that barn cat. But perhaps not by much.
Because I am only now learning that when I have those feelings, those moments of thrashing around and screaming silently, the only way out of them is to surrender. To sink quietly and calmly and peacefully into them. To allow myself those emotions, being mindful of them so as not to inadvertently scratch anyone else with my bared claws and sharp teeth. To simply sit quietly and observe myself and the circumstances around me and allow that time to pass, holding faith that the bag will eventually open. Only after I have sunk into the moment and the feelings does the sweet release appear.
Having this knowledge is one thing; putting words to screen is easier than putting them into action. Sinking into it is hard. Acceptance is grudging. Acknowledging a lack of control is bitter. But it is the only way. We have to let go and relax and wait for some mystical hand to unknot the bag and let the sun shine on our face again.
It is the only way out of the bag. An ornery barn cat taught me that.