A few weeks ago I adopted a kitten. Bill is a little gray tiger with big hazel eyes who weighed less than a package of butter when he arrived, but nevertheless is giving me a refresher course on life.
Bill is a simple creature. When he's tired, he sleeps; when he's hungry, he eats. When I'm tired, I lie awake and watch Law & Order reruns. When I'm emotional, I eat. Point taken; I'm trying to live Bill's way.
With the kitten snuggled against my neck, it's easier to nod off at night. I'm trying to substitute play sessions with Bill for raids on the Häagen-Dazs. So far, this is more goal than reality, but I haven't lost hope.
The main thing about Bill is that he is fearless. "All guts, no brains," as my friend Christine says. There is no physical feat he will not attempt. Leap three times his height onto the sofa? Bill cheerfully gives it a go. When he bounces off and lands flat on his back, he hurls himself at the sofa again. And again.
As I watch Bill teeter along a razor-edge chair back, I think about my own life. I was once as fearless as Bill.
When I was in my 20s — and five months pregnant — I took a trip to Finland and had the opportunity to learn "ice driving," a popular Scandinavian sport. I accelerated too fast and slammed into a snowbank right away. I backed out, gave it some throttle and immediately spun into another snowbank. My husband, who was riding shotgun, was flabbergasted. "What on earth are you doing?" he said. I was all guts, no brains. And it was just fine. The car wasn't damaged, and by pushing the envelope, I learned a lot. I was driving like Bill.
Fast-forward 25 years. My daughter and I are rock climbing in the Tetons. I know one thing about this: It is a sport you should be giving up, not taking up, in your 50s. And you shouldn't be doing it with your 29-year-old daughter, who scrambles upward with the loose-limbed ease of a monkey. The last time I climbed, I fell off the rock on a difficult move. I was safe, but it broke my last shred of confidence. This time, I am uber-cautious. As our guide describes a tricky move on the third pitch, I decide to stop, congratulating myself on being wise enough to know my limits. The next time I climb, I reason, I'll approach the route with assurance rather than anxiety.
Looking back through Bill's eyes, I can see I was wrong. I wasn't making the mature decision; I was raising the white flag too soon. I could have finished those last two pitches. The guide knew it, my daughter knew it, and in my heart I knew it too. I wasn't being sensible; I was using my age as an excuse.
The other night, I was watching my guilty-pleasure reality show, Dancing With the Stars. Buzz Aldrin was sashaying around the floor. Here was a man who had flown to the moon, a man who deserves to rest on his laurels. Instead, at 80, he was taking a risk. Apparently, walking on the moon does not teach you to do the moonwalk. His dancing was stiff but the audience loved him. By putting himself on the line, he made us all feel better about ourselves. I held Bill up near the screen. "See," I told him.
"We humans aren't all weenies."
I promised him that next time, I wouldn't quit halfway up the mountain. I'd make Bill proud.