My previous post was meant to be about the experience of getting pet rats, but it took an unexpected turn. In this stage of my life, after several years of not writing consistently, I have learned to allow myself to write whatever bubbles to the surface. When I attempt to be rigid about what I am writing, the result is awkward and forced. When I let the creative part of my brain take over and write whatever it feels like writing, the finished product is incomparably superior. Most of what I know of other writers suggests that their process is very similar. You think you are going to write x because that’s the idea you had, and that’s what you sat down to do. But instead, you write a, b, and c out of the blue, and x hangs out on a list of things you know you eventually want to get to. This is what I find exhilarating about the process, this uncertainty of exactly what you’ll create until you’re in the thick of it and suddenly what you have generated is so much better than what you had set out to make. That said, I want to tell you the story of my boys, how they came to be part of my brood, and where we are in our lives at this moment.
It took over two months to convince my boyfriend that getting pet rats was a good idea. He wanted to, and it seemed plausible in theory. But even after I had purchased a cage and set it up, and even after he got me a book about rat training for Christmas that year, he was still reticent. Hesitant. Afraid to take the plunge. He often got inside his own head about decisions and had a tendency to over-think them, and I knew that was what he was doing here. After about a dozen arguments, I finally decided that with or without his support I was going to the pet store and I was picking up pet rats. I had already visited the litter of baby fancy rats, and had bonded with an off-white baby boy who had curiously, gingerly spent some time playing with me in the visitation room. I was terrified they would sell that sweet boy and I would miss out on a critter relationship that was meant to be. So late in an evening between Christmas and New Year’s, we trekked to the pet store just before they closed to pick up a pair of brothers from the litter of baby rats that was in the cramped room at the back of the store with chinchillas and bunnies and ferrets and gerbils and snakes and spiders and turtles. We were flushed in our winter coats, standing among the heat lamps and the tiny breathing bodies, the birds in the next room chirping and squawking a soundtrack.
The little boy with the off-white coat and the diamond on his forehead was still there. So was his hooded brother, the boy who was more outgoing and curious. We had spent a little time together, too, and though ours wasn’t as strong of a bond, he was the only male left at this point and everything I had read implored the rat owner to only buy pet rats in pairs. So we paid a few dollars each for the boys and picked up some supplies while we were there and just like with the feeder rats, they stuck the baby boys in a paper bag. They stapled the receipt to the top of the bag. I grinned from ear to ear as we emerged into the cold winter night, eager to race back to our apartment a few blocks away and set about getting to know our new critters. I was already in love.
The cage was set up and our place was warm and inviting with two Christmas trees twinkling, glowing lights wrapping the huge banister all the way to the top of the stairs, and a Vince Guaraldi Christmas station on Pandora playing over our large sound system. The warmth of the space we shared always belied the tumult that pervaded the relationship, and that relationship would end for the first time a month later. But on this night there were new critters and an inquisitive dog and I had not a care in the world except tending to my little nest of mammals. In my ideal world, I live in a homey but modest space with lots of critters and I work from home, writing professionally. Or maybe I am a web designer. Or maybe I am a psychic. Or maybe my “job” is to be married to a zillionaire or come into some magical inheritance or win the lottery, and to be a stay-at-home-mom to a pack of beasts, including the tiny human kind. What matters is that the existence is comfortable but humble, and it involves a swarm of critters.
At that time in my life my future was uncertain. I had just graduated from college and anticipated going to graduate school, though I had severe misgivings about that path. My relationship with my family was strained. I drank too much and too often. I lived with someone who I did not believe had the same life ideology as me, and I was furiously trying to hold together a relationship with a significant other who seemed unmoved by those efforts and unwilling to meet me even close to halfway. I had lost my faith in God. I had lost my faith in love. I had lost my way almost entirely. This was not the first time I had lost my way, and it wouldn’t be the last. It is entirely possible that it won’t be the last. But one thing has remained constant and steady throughout my life: the unconditional love of an animal is the most splendid and unfaltering love I know. I don’t doubt that the love of a child is similar, and I do know that love from my nephews. But there is nothing as straightforward and uncomplicated as the adoration that can be found only in the simplicity of the love of nonhuman mammals.
As an awkward child in the south, I spent most of my time holed up in the neighbor’s barn talking to the horses. I built such an unbreakable bond with that stallion and mare that when they foaled a pretty little paint filly the spring before my family moved away from there, I had access not typically permitted to humans. A twelve-year-old mess of an adolescent, I couldn’t sustain conversation with people my own age and I made most adults uncomfortable, but I could wrap my arms around the delicate neck of that baby horse and her protective mother did not question or challenge me. When the neighbor lady discovered our unusual relationship and challenged me to a series of trust tests, that sweet filly and I sailed through each one. The relationship was not unusual to either of us. It was normal, simple, built upon a mutual trust and an unfettered and uncomplicated desire to be close to one another. Those three horses would stand at the fence and wait for me for hours, whether I had treats for them or not. My touch, my attention, my unbridled love was reward enough. Their acceptance and reciprocated love was their gift to me in return.
As I emerged into adolescence and then adulthood, with all its confusion and unnecessary complexity, with the egos of humans mucking up the simple concept of love, I became increasingly disillusioned with life. Most of my teenage years were spent in a depressed haze, and my early adulthood wasn’t much different. I was bursting at the seams with love, and had no idea how to give it away correctly. I would pour it out too early and too often and would be chided for it, ridiculed by my peers, burned by any potential object of it for being too raw, too naked, too open. In defense I would shut down and turn mean. Lashing out from a place of bottomless fear, I became closed off and callous at some point. Perhaps not unrelated, it was during this phase that I had no pets for the first time in my life. There was no touchstone of wonder and innocence to keep me grounded, to fan the flames of love.
This was the first time I lost my faith. We lived – I realized – in a world of selfishness, despair, greed, hatred, cruelty, sorrow, death. With nothing to remind me that for all of that wretched darkness there was an opposing light three times as powerful, I drifted away. It was only in the face of my own mortality that I came back to what I knew to be true, a truth that existed regardless of the trappings of our self-serving culture. In picking up pet rats that cold post-Christmas night, I was seeking to supplement the critter love that existed in the enormous space that I shared with a partner who couldn’t get out of his own way enough to fully let me in. Joseph was there, filling that space, but it was vast and we needed the warmth of new babies to reinvigorate our world.
While it did nothing to save the romantic relationship that I knew would fail, the introduction of two energetic and snuggly little rattie boys into my world imbued my existence with a renewed sense of unabashed love. It reminded me that pouring all that you have to give down the open drain of someone who will not or cannot reciprocate is not the only option we have as human beings. We can choose to whom we give away our love so big that it can’t be held within the confines of our own hearts. We can choose to give our love to those who choose to give us theirs. And we can love the nonreciprocal in a way that removes us just enough to keep from being damaged.
When I was fifteen and struggling to have my love returned by a boy who had no interest in me aside from keeping me on a string, my best friend told me that love is not quiet and discreet. I know this now, that true love explodes from your pores in a storm of rainbows and sunshine and glitter and joy. True love is not ashamed of itself, not embarrassed by the intensity of its existence, not deterred by difficulty. Real love is bright and giving and natural and easy. It does not fight against itself, it is not compelled by selfishness or anything external. It took two tiny rodents to remind me of this reality, and bringing that love into my life was a turning point that set me back on a path toward a life that I knew I wanted, a dream that I had given up in tiny pieces and large chunks along my stumbling way.