Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Other Outside

Lee and I went hiking three times in the first week of the new year, twice at the Greenbelt and once at McKinney Falls.  It felt wonderful to be outside, to be in the woods, to soak in the sun of a few perfect-temperature days.  This is my new year's resolution, I thought to myself as we walked, to get outside more, to go for more walks, to enjoy the nice days of Austin's cool season before the brutal days of summer arrive.  And, while I was in the woods, walking down a trail, breathing in the earthy smells of recent leaf fall and post-rain regrowth, and appreciating the fact that each species of tree has a characteristic branching pattern and shape, like a visual fingerprint, that allows me to recognize it, even in winter, especially in winter, even without leaves, my intention was very clear and direct: I enjoy being outside and I want to spent more time here.

Bald Cypress in winter

Back at home, where broccoli and bok choy need to be harvested and cooked yesterday, and post-rain regrowth means that winter annuals (better known as weeds) threaten to overtake every non-mowable corner of the yard, and I find myself dressing for work by pulling jeans, washed and dried two days ago, out of the tangle of underwear and socks that is still sitting in the dryer, my mental resolution list becomes more muddy.  I want to get outside more, I want to go for more walks, I want to keep up with all the vegetables in the front yard and cook more meals from scratch, and, while I'm at it, I want to weatherize the house and replace the dead shrubs in the yard and read more books and write more and do my taxes before April and keep the house clean and spend more time with Lee and on and on and on...  Until, eventually, it is hard for me to distinguish between what I want and what I think I should be able to do with my waking hours.  Between being outside and the Other Outside.

I learned of the Other Outside from Benji, our cat.  At 17, largely retired from the territorial life of neighborhood kitty politics that goes on in our yard and garden, she is content to rule the household from inside, curled up on a couch pillow or stretched out in a sunny window.  But as the household ruler, she reserves the right to go outside when she wants, to smell the wind and find out what's up in the larger world of the backyard, to supervise my garden projects, or to interfere Lee's or my attempt to leave for work.

Benji checks out this year's kale

Though Benji is the most vocal (and loudest) cat that I have ever known, she always asks to go outside in silence, by queuing up at the back door.  I'm not sure how else to describe it, because, though she only a forms a line of one, she knows how to sit in such a way, with her nose pointed so purposefully toward the back door, that there is simply no doubting her intent.  She plans to go outside and she expects that one of her humans will promptly open the back door for her then hold the screen door patiently while she considers whether she really wants to step outside and, if so, whether she might like a moment to rub her cheek on the screen door before exiting.  When she is leaving home in protest, because I am doing something despicable like running the vacuum cleaner, the expression on her face as she lines up at the door is only subtly different, yet unmistakable.  If she had possessions, her bags would be packed, including letters of disapproval addressed to all the proper authorities, citing violations of Kitty Code 3-B: No Vacuum Cleaners Shall Be Run in The House.  Be sure to send us postcards, I tell her as she slips out past the vacuum cleaner.

The problem with the outdoors is that it is not always what a kitty imagined it would be.  For much of the year it is too hot, the back steps being one of the parts of the yard that is heated into submission every afternoon of the summer.  Other times of the year the outdoors is too cold, or too wet, or too windy for a kitty to linger.  And, even on the nicest of days, unless one of us humans steps outside as well, the outdoors is filled with cats, those annoying creatures that Benji wants little to do with since reaching the age of what my parents call "the entity," or the older, opinionated, female cat who no longer wishes to consort with all those lowly felines.  So, inevitably, and very often quickly, within a few minutes of leaving the house, Benji wants to come back inside.  This time, because we can't see her lining up outside the door, she yells and we come running to repeat the process of opening the back door then holding the screen door patiently while she considers whether she really wants to step inside and, if so, whether she might like a moment to rub her cheek on the screen door before entering.

Ideal for kitties: an open door

Most of the time, after trotting back inside with a How could you put me out there in that heat/cold/wet/wind? meow, Benji resumes reign of the household from one of her sleeping spots.  Occasionally, though, shocked by the inhospitable weather in the backyard but still wanting to go outside, Benji decides that she will instead go to the Other Outside so she queues up at the other door, the door leading from the kitchen to the carport.  Seriously? we ask her when she sets her nose in the direction of the Other Outside, Doesn't a kitty know that when it's cold and windy in the backyard, that it is also cold and windy in the front yard?

But I can't really find fault with Benji for insisting that the Other Outside, the outdoors that conforms to her idea of how the outdoors should be, exists, given how much time I spend gazing out of windows and thinking about my own, human version of the Other Outside, or what Cheri Huber describes as the alternate, parallel reality that exists simultaneously with this reality, and in that one, everything is as it should be.  In other words, the land of shoulds.  Where I know what I should know, I do what I should do, I feel what I should feel, and I always make the right decision.  The problem with the Other Outside is that, while it seems helpful, like a map or a guide toward what I want for my life, it is actually a constant reminder of all that I am lacking and all that I am not.  Because, in reality, I can't work full time and get enough sleep and take care of myself and be a good girlfriend to Lee and get everything else on my to-do lists done.  I can only do a few of those things on the list.  And I'm hardly going to feel good about getting those few things done if I am constantly thinking about all of the other things that I could also be getting done, if only I was living as I should be, as I do in the fictional Other Outside.

So, this year, I resolve to spend more time being outside, working in the garden with Benji or walking along our local Boggy Creek or hiking in the woods with Lee, and less time thinking about the Other Outside.

Barton Creek in January

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