Have you ever asked yourself why it is so difficult to trust? Is our hesitation based on fear of the possible outcome of putting ourselves in another’s hands? For many of us, it is more difficult to trust God than to trust people. The problem is made worse by how much different we are from God, the lingering alienation of original sin and an infinite power differential. Those same factors create a similar distance between humans and animals.
Years ago, when I was in my twenties, I was staying with my mother in the same house I had grown up in. It was on Southampton Drive in a quiet neighborhood called Windemere. It was our first house in Anchorage. My parents had bought it when I was only four, just two years after our arrival in Alaska. At the time, the neighborhood was in an outlying area. Now, however, after years of oil development and a soaring population growth in Anchorage, it was smack in the middle of the city.
One day, I walked down to the edge of the neighborhood, where a set of train tracks ran underneath a highway overpass. The walk down required cutting through a couple of back yards, most of which weren’t fenced. No one had ever objected to my shortcuts. The spot by the tracks had been a favorite retreat for me as I was growing up. I must have gone down to those tracks a hundred times over the years to recharge in the solitude. It was almost always quiet. Occasionally, as I sat on the gravel looking down at the tracks, I would be rewarded when a train came through, blaring its horn.
As I arrived there this particular day, the usual quiet was broken by sounds of distress. After looking around, I finally glanced up to where the huge concrete pillars joined the steel bracing that undergirded the overpass. There, in the exact middle of the structure, sat a very unhappy black cat. Once he had my attention, the cat began meowing in earnest.
Clearly, the cat was stuck. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t even know how to begin. My first clumsy attempt at rescuing him involved trying to climb across to the middle by gripping the flanges of one of the steel braces and going hand-over-hand toward the center, as though I were on a set of monkey bars. My forearms were on fire before I was even halfway there, and I let go, dropping down to the gravel. My arms and wrists would hurt for days afterward.
For some reason, I didn’t call the fire department or some other emergency service. The idea of firemen climbing up ladders and coming back down with wriggling cats seemed quaint. Instead, I went home and asked my mother to come down to the train tracks with me, which she did, if for no other reason than that she loved cats and probably hoped that between the two of us we would be able to come up with a plan. But we couldn’t, so in the end we just went back home. I still hadn’t called the fire department, but I didn’t forget about the cat.
The next day, as I thought again about the trapped animal, it came to me: by climbing up the embankment and crossing over the highway, I could climb down the other side where the embankment met the undergirding. From there I could get right to the center of the structure. I grabbed a flannel shirt and raced down to the tracks. Once across the highway, I made the somewhat perilous climb down to the center bracing, at times climbing down backwards, hand under hand. I was now actually standing where the forty-foot pillars were topped by a two-foot-wide slab of concrete that stretched end to end. Resting on the slab was the steel bracing that held up the entire works.
The cat was aware of my presence and was howling away. I walked toward him along the concrete slab, hunched over by necessity (there was not enough room to stand upright). The cat, eager to be helped but not quite trusting me, walked in the other direction, still meowing piteously. Finally he reached the extremity, and having run out of walkway he turned around, forced to face me, his quivering tail high in the air.
He was jet black with bright green eyes and a shiny, flush coat of fur. He was perfectly healthy and sporting a new-looking collar. Someone was missing him. I gave him a few strokes to reassure him. Then I gathered him up and made for the highway. However, I had a problem: in order to climb up to the highway, I needed both hands. One was already occupied holding on to the cat. I attempted to stuff him into my flannel shirt, next to my t-shirt, but he balked at the plan. After several attempts, I was beginning to be irritated. “Just who do you think I’m doing this for anyway?” I asked him. At that, the the inflection of his voice changed to one resembling apology. He seemed to be saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m a cat. I can’t let you twist me up and jam me somewhere I don’t want to go.” I resolved the problem by taking off my flannel shirt, wrapping it around him (with much struggling), buttoning the buttons about him, and knotting the sleeves around my neck. Now with my hands free and the cat dangling from my neck, with nothing but his head and front paws protruding from the shirt, I began the climb. Up I went, quickly reaching the embankment, crossing the highway and descending the embankment on the other side.
Once on the ground, I untied my reluctant passenger and set him on the grass. I half expected him to bolt as soon as he felt the earth beneath his paws. But instead he glanced around, sniffed the air, and looked straight up at me. I saw a glint of recognition in his green eyes; he was aware that I was responsible for his making it back down to the ground safely. Now, having been thrust into my intimate care through no choice of his own and emerging whole, the gauntlet of trust had been cleared. He stood next to me on the grass for a few moments, unconcerned. Then, his food bowl calling, he sauntered off into the warm afternoon.