Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just Ask

In which consider the virtues of asking for what we need, giving what we can, and saying "thank you" at all times.

Simba in the morning
"Cats seem to go on the principle that it never does any harm to ask for what you want." ~~ Joseph Wood Krutch via

The ThirteenCats are indeed masters and mistresses at asking for what they want. Sometimes, on a payday evening, the spousal unit will bring in a serving of Lee's Fried Chicken. It's a huge treat, and one of the few times I fall off the vegan wagon with a big fat "kersplat!" The housecats --Rikki, Simba, Sasha and Treasure--may have been soundly sleeping the sleep of the comatose, upstairs and in the back office, but just let the scent of fried chicken enter the house. They are very present and very hungry and very insistent. I hesitate to say they beg, for cats do not stoop to beg. They are, though, very clear in asking for just what they want....little torn up bits of chicken from our plates. And you know what, Gentle Reader? They ususally get it.

Likewise, the Colony Cats never hesitate to ask for what they want. In the long ago when they were very young kittens, Miss Kitty who is tall and black and sleek as obsidion, would lead her siblings around to the front of the house, whenever the front door opened. The brightness of her eyes, the quiver of her whiskers, her every mannerism said with perfect clarity "We are hungry. Would you feed us, please?" Feed them we do, five years later, to our great joy.

When Hades, the real life model for the Great Black Cat in "The Coming of the Cait Sidhe" , joined our lives, the colony refused to accept him. I can only guess it was because he was an unknown male, but for whatever reason, Skitter and Raven would not let him eat with the colony. And so he took to waiting patiently while I fed the colony, then speaking quite loudly and clearly to me, asking for his dinner in terms that were undeniably clear. Thus it was he came to take his daily meals under the maple tree, as you've read in that story. When he was wounded, caught by some dog or racoon or possum or human, when his foreleg was shredded and bloody, he came to the door crying, asking for help. And we helped him. How not?

Yet, thinking over these stories and many others akin, a question presents itself for mindful pondering:  Why are we so slow to ask for what we want, and so quick to condemn those who do?

Yesterday, rushing to meet a friend for lunch, I slipped on the ice and twisted my knee. It was painful; I knew it would be bad once the swelling set in, but this is a friend I haven't seen in several years and I was looking forward to catching up. On the icy, unshoveled sidewalks,  it took me a half hour at a brisk limp to cover the distance I normally do in a ten minute leisurely stroll. After a wonderful two hours of gnoshing on mediterranean treats like baba ganoush, pita, lentil soup and hummus, of laughing hysterically and catching up, I knew I would be hard pressed to stand, much less walk the half mile home.

We hugged goodbye; I made noises about wanting to do a little shopping while I was out, waved her off and out the door and then stood there by the remains of our feast, on my one good leg thinking, "Ok, clever one, how do you intend to get home?"

Would it have been so terrible to ask her for a ride? To let her know I was in trouble and could use a bit of help if she was willing? I try to imagine what I might have said. "Hey, Beautiful, I slipped on the ice on my way here and twisted my knee, and now it's swollen like a mother bear and hurts like hades. Do you mind dropping me off at the house?"

I try to imagine myself saying that, and I just can't quite picture it. But if I imagine someone saying it to me, well, it's a no brainer. Sure. No problem! Of course. Glad to! But I couldn't ask on my own behalf. I'm clearly not as enlightened as the cats.

Getting home was excruciating. It took me over an hour to make it that ten minutes back to the house. I could barely stand, and the footing, as I said, was treacherous.  I was about halfway home, concentrating with each step, looking for the best footholds with the intensity of any mountain climber, when I heard a youthful female voice calling. It registered that she was calling to me.

"Ma'am. MA'AM. Do you need help? Ma'am!" She had pulled her car over, gotten out, and was wending her own careful way across the sidewalks of glass. "Can I give you a ride?" I stopped and turned to face her. I put on my best smile; standing there on one leg like a stork, I waved cheerfully.

"No, no I'm fine!" I called back. "That's very kind of you!" It was indeed very kind. Cars and people had zoomed past, glaring as I hobbled across a street at a stoplight, taking more than the alotted time to cross. No one had honked, but they had wanted to. I could see it in their eyes.

"You just seemed uncomfortable!" We were yards away from each other, hollaring down the street like two hillbillies. Like two neighbors.

"No, really, I'm fine!" I shouted back. "Almost home now. Thank you though!" She looked dubious, but what could she do? Tackle me and kidnap me for my own good? I waved her off, and set off at as  brisk a hobble as I could manage. She drove away. Eventually, I made it home, to my own house. I practically crawled inside. I collapsed on the couch. Then I had a good howl.

So what is that all about? Why is it so hard to accept, much less ask for help? I can almost understand waving off the offer from the kind young woman. We are conditioned from a very early age, and rightfully so, to never get in a car with a stranger. Well, chalk that one up to early programming. She was probably a kind stranger, not a serial ax murderer. Still. Early programming is powerful. I can see that. But really? I couldn't ask my friend for a ride? It's one thing to ask for fifty-thousand dollars or for help in hiding a body. It's quite another to ask for a half mile ride home. Curiouser and curiouser.

With the economy the way it is, more and more of us are having to ask for help, at least from "institutional" sources: the unemployment office, medicaid (if we qualify), foodstamps, housing or mortgage assistance, foodbanks, the lingering tatters of state welfare programs.  And yet, there is a lingering reluctance. Unemployment benefits don't seem to carry the social stigma that some programs do. After all, we worked for those benefits; we earned them; they are owed to us; they are rightfully ours. Other sources of help carry more of a stigma. Just witness as the lines are drawn for the battle to repeal the Healthcare Reform Act.

I don't want to go on a political rant here. Once I was a Republican and now I am not. I don't know what I am. I say I'm a tribalist; I believe in all of us working together for the welfare of the tribe, the whole kit and kaboodle of us, not just for the benefit of ridiculously decadent special interest groups. I don't know exactly how that can or ought to translate into political action. What I see from the two established parties is two soulless machines entrenched and ready to roll over any opposition in order to protect their own power and priveledge, their own prestige and wealth. No help for the tribe there.

Let us return to the question of why we are so quick to condemn anyone who asks for help. If a neighbor is buying her groceries with foodstamps, why do we, deep in our heart of hearts, turn up our noses just a tiny bit? If we see someone headed into a free or reduced cost health clinic, rather than into one of the sleek, well apportioned suites where well paid doctors cater to the well-heeled and the well insured, why do our lips curl in the tiniest of sneers, quickly hidden perhaps, but there nonetheless. And why, when we happen to drive past a line forming at the neighborhood food bank, do we look away, feeling, if we were truly honest with ourselves, just the slightest bit superior?  What goes on here?

Indeed, Gentle Reader, I do not know. I have only questions today, I fear, no answers, even for myself.

What, indeed, if we happen to be approached by a panhandler on the street? The hand goes up right along with the nose; we shake our heads; our lips curl in disdain. We pass by disgusted, leaving a scorned and angry person in our wake. Of such anger and tension is born a host of repercussions and violence and social stress. Why are we so quick to condemn those who ask for help?

Are there abuses? Certainly so. Is abuse the norm? I don't think so. And in either case, would it really hurt us to can the disdain, to forego the self-indulgent scorn we heap on our fellow beings? Could we not simply respond with respect, looking the other person in the eye, saying with courtesy as we continue on our way, "No, I'm sorry, I can't help you today. Good luck?"

I once had the good fortune to spend a week and two weekends in Montreal, Quebec on business. The week was devoted to business for my corporate employer. The weekends before and after were my own: to see the city, to practice my French, to explore.

They say Montreal is a bilingual town, but in fact French is spoken almost exclusively. Try tromping up to a food counter and ordering in English; you will be met with a blank and a banal stare, with the unique and almost indescribable gallic shrug that can mean almost anything. Try instead to order in French; just try. "Je voudrais...."  "I would like....."  Before you stumble around too much, your host or hostess will reach in to save you from disaster, for he or she undoubtedly speaks much much better English than you speak French. But you must try. You must initiate the conversation with respect. You must not be the Ugly American. Like cats, the Francophones, both French and Quebecuois, have much to teach us about courtesy.

During my stay, in a colonial bed and breakfast in the old city, I encountered the beggars of Montreal. The word doesn't quite fit: beggars, panhandlers. I don't know what else to call them. They were not like the panhandlers I had encountered in the City. They were not aggressive. In fact, they were downright polite.

I noticed, also, these beggars of Montreal, that they were treated with courtesy, and with respect, by the obviously more well-to-do who strolled the cobblestone streets of the Old City. This was also unlike my experiences at home.

One man in particular I remember. The first time I saw him, I was walking, on my way to dinner at an expensive Morroccan eatery recommended by my host. The man was in the center of a plaza, riding a tall unicycle, balancing a rod on his nose and atop the rod something small and round, an apple I believe. A smiling, applauding crowd gathered at his feet, where a tattered baseball cap held some change, some bills. I watched entranced. People strolled by, stopped to watch. Some tossed a few coins in the hat, some not. All received a bright smile and a "Merci, monsieur, madame." It was a scene from another world, a gentler world.

Returning from my dinner to my antique bed and breakfast, I saw the same man again, this time sitting up against an old stone wall, playing a wind instrument like a flute, or a penny-whistle. The breeze off the river was cold; his tunes were melancholy. The same tattered baseball cap sat discretely just off the sidewalk, a few coins letting the passerby know that donations were accepted. Both times I gave him every coin in my pocket, receiving a brilliant smile in return.

One last time I saw him, early on the Sunday morning of my departure. I had wanted to attend mass while in Montreal, and had asked for advice from my host at the bed and breakfast. He had figured out quickly that this American business woman was really more interested in old stone things, in the taste and feel of the Old City and its old places than she was in business, and I am indebted to him for his advice. He steered me to Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, "Our Lady of Good Help", a chapel built in 1771. He made sure to have mass times and directions for me, this last day of my stay in his beautiful city. I was not disappointed.

You have never worshipped until you have worshipped with the French. This amazing chapel was not a cold, dark, puritanical thing. It was lush with colour and with light, with incense and with music to break the heart. Every sense was overwhelmed, invited to rise in prayer, in worship, in praise of the Creator. (Or Creatrix, if you prefer.) And all through it all the soft and beautiful sounds of the French language, the language of love par excellence. I have never before or since felt as refreshed after a service of worship, not of any faith tradition. And at the end of it all, there stood this beggar of Montreal; it was the last time I ever saw him.

He was standing on the steps of the church; politely and with great dignity he held open the massive door at the top of the centuries old stone steps. It was a service, really, for the door was quite heavy (as I had found when I arrived early to gawk and pray). And as he stood on holy ground, he had uncovered his head, as is proper. The tattered baseball cap he held in his hand, unobtrusively, discreet. A great many people dropped coins, and even a few bills, as they passed. Once again I emptied my pockets, out of a full and grateful heart.

So why are we so slow to ask for what we want, and so quick to condemn those who do ask for help? I have no answer. But as I sit here, thinking on that long ago visit to Montreal, jewel of the north, it is words attributed to a poor Jewish carpenter that float like a whisper into my mind.

"Ask and it shall be given unto you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened...Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again."
stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


  1. Reading your blog leave a lot of room for thought. Why are we afraid of asking for help. I'd gladly help a friend to asked, but hate to be the one asking.

  2. After walking home on this ice the last two days, I think you should have accepted a ride from the lady, not everyone is out to get us. A few years ago, Heather was in Houston visiting her dad at Christmas. her grandmother was there. She has a volatile relationship with both. She didn't feel well and both gma and her father told her she was faking it. She decided to walk to a clinic in the pouring rain. A woman stopped and offered her a ride, at first she refused (the don't talk to strangers thing)the woman had her daughter in the car and told her they were good Christians. she did finally accept the ride. They offered to stay with her at the clinic, but she declined and called her ex-boyfriend's mom instead. This damn ice is slick. I can't wait for it to melt for the walking, but hate for it to for the backyard mud pit it will create! It was light almost all the way home tonight!!!! the end is near!!!

  3. I think so, too, that I should have said "Thank you!" and accepted the ride. I'm still pondering why it's so hard to accept help. I'm so glad Heather got the help she needed! We have to work on that vulnerability thing, that, within reason, (don't get in the car with ax murderers) it's not only ok but good for us to be vulnerable. Still workin' on that, but I think it's true. A note on weather: yay! It "almost" made it to 60 deg today, light at the end of the tunnel. *hugs n snugs!*