|Our beloved Bonnie|
One summer afternoon I was walking across the backyard when I passed my blue heeler, Bonnie, walking in the other direction. “Hello Bonnie,” I said and continued on my way through the shut gates that separated the front yard from the backyard. When I got to the front yard, Bonnie was lying in the sun, sound asleep. Now that she is buried in the backyard, I sometimes look toward her grave hoping to see her.
|Scully and Ollie|
Yesterday I awakened to Peggy threatening to strangle our kitten, Scully, for wrecking her Christmas decorations. Peggy has always been able to have a perfect “Christmas house” despite many dogs and two other cats, but Scully has put an end to that. We can’t even keep her out of rooms, cabinets, and closets by shutting their doors because she’s so good at slipping past us and hiding until we’re gone. Ollie and Brewsky have done less damage in their entire lives than Scully can do in a day. “If you weren’t so beautiful,” I tell her, “you wouldn’t have any good points,” but I don’t really mean it.
|Sassy and me with Mother’s shadow|
When I was seven, my parents and I were in the front yard raking leaves when a car turned around in our circular driveway. My dog, Sassy ran at the car and got under its back wheel. As the driver sped away, Sassy ran to me and died in my lap while gazing into my eyes. I lost so many pets to cars that I came to expect it. My father was forever bringing abandoned litters home from a roadside dump (my mother would feed them with a baby bottle), so we were never short of dogs.
One day, a stray dog came into our yard, and my father lured him to a bowl of water and bashed his head in with a galvanized pipe. Dad alternated between kindness—as when he rescued puppies—and cruelty—as when he gave me a .22/.410 and let me wantonly kill small creatures when I was eight. He also had me decapitate roosters with a butcher knife every Sunday. Because I was so little, it took me awhile to saw through a rooster’s neck, but when I was done, my father would cast the bird a few feet away and blood would fly while, to my delight, the rooster “danced.” My transgender father was a walking contradiction, and since he was my only role model, I became confused, and it didn’t help that I grew up in the Deep South, which was itself a contradiction between Christian charity and racist cruelty.
The first creature I ever killed was a songbird that I shot out of a pecan tree within an hour of getting my first gun. I felt so guilty when I saw its shattered body that I tried to justify the killing by asking my Granny to cook the bird for me. Because, as she sometimes said, she loved me more than anyone she had ever known, she painstakingly removed the shotgun pellets and fried the tiny bird. I felt like Daniel Boone as I sat at the kitchen table all alone eating my quarry. After that, I left the creatures I killed to rot where they fell.
A few years ago, I wrote about killing dogs as a member of a humane society (I’ve written about many of the things in this post before because they’re so often on my mind), so I won’t go into it again except to say that there is nothing I have ever done that I feel worse about. I have since avoided humane societies because if I were constantly exposed to the neglect, callousness, and brutality that my species shows to other species, I would become so angry that I would want to turn my gun on us. My highest respect doesn’t go to those who help people, but to vegans who help nonhumans, but I’m not a vegan, and I do little to help any creature.
Most of what I do to make the world a better place comes from my resolve to be kind to humans and other animals. I talk to strangers; I tell store clerks that I appreciate their help; I praise employees to their supervisors; I open doors for people; I say hello to those whom I pass on the sidewalk; I offer to help people who are having car trouble; I let other drivers change lanes or exit driveways; I give money to panhandlers who play music or sell homemade greeting cards; and I try to remember to listen more than I talk. It doesn’t matter if someone strikes me as admirable or despicable, I’m going to be kind to them because I can never know what’s in a person’s heart or what burdens they’re laboring under. I have sometimes judged people harshly for their ragged clothes, nose-rings, facial tattoos, or saucer-like earlobe rings , only to have those very people do me a kindness.
I also rescue lost dogs when they’ll let me, and I pet nearly all dogs, but my greatest satisfaction comes from winning the trust of a dog who wants my affection but is afraid to receive it. Such dogs’ people invariably thanks me for this, the story usually being that it was an abused rescue animal who needs people like me to convince him that the world isn’t so bad after all.
Cats tend to be either off or on when it comes to being petted by strangers, and many is the time that Peggy and I have fantasized about stealing an especially friendly cat because it worries us that such cats are vulnerable to cat haters. I suspect that it would be for such cats’ benefit if, instead of petting them, we rebuked them, but we never do.
I started my kindness project when I finally accepted the fact that I’m never going to be a Big Gesture person, so if I’m going to make the world better, I have to do it through small gestures. One advantage of this is that I am forced to pay attention to people other than myself. I don’t doubt but what suicides have been prevented through little kindnesses but, at the very least, energy and optimism can be restored to someone who is drained.
I only remember two occasions—out of hundreds—when I was rebuffed. On one of them, a man resented me opening a door for him, so he stood back and refused to go through it; on another, a woman seemed offended when I joked about how long a check-out line was. Usually, the worse that happens is that someone doesn’t thank me for something I do for them, although I have a friend, Jake, who was called an asshole when he opened a door for a woman. This was years ago, and I sometimes wonder if the woman ever felt bad about it. By showing goodwill, I nearly always receive goodwill, and doing little kindnesses is surely a gift from which I get more than I give, there being almost no cost to myself.