What’s in the Box?

The crazy critter in this photo is Pam. Pam loves boxes. We have many many photos of Pam sitting in boxes. She currently has two boxes in play: an old box from a case of matzoh and a shipping box from some Christmas present someone ordered online for us. But truly, any box that comes in the front door becomes Pam’s box.

No matter how small.

We have to rotate the boxes because, love her though I do, our tiny apartment is already cluttered enough, and I refuse to trip over a minefield of boxes in the living room. So, as new boxes come in, old boxes go out.

Something in a cat loves boxes. Or I should say containers, because she will do the same with a bag – a paper bag, an empty lands-end canvas bag (the kind that stands up on it’s own). You’d think it might have to do with cats craving the safety of a cave or something like that. We think of cats as predators because of their ability to catch mice and birds and our feet under the covers, but I’ve lost enough cats to coyotes to recognize, as they do, that they are prey. So it would make sense that some part of them craves the safety of a box/bag-cave.

Except that it actually seems to be related to shapes. I’ve read that, if you draw a rectangular shape on the floor with masking tape, cats will make a b-line for it and sit in the shape. Which might explain their predisposition for window-shaped pools of sunlight – I had assumed it’s the warmth, but maybe it’s the square. When Pam was younger, I could sometimes get her to jump in my lap just by forming a circle with my arms (alas, no more, rebellious cuss) and you can literally watch thousands of videos online about cats climbing into fishbowls or getting their heads caught in kleenex boxes.

We may laugh at this habit of cats but we all have our own boxes, often boxes we draw around ourselves. Right now, many of us have retreated to our homes and drawn a box around our space — safe — to differentiate it from more public spaces like grocery stores or hospitals — not safe. When the pandemic is brought under control, what will it take to make us feel safe enough to leave our boxes?

Sometimes the boxes are virtual. (No, not the little box you appear in on a video call.) Sometimes, like a cat sitting in the picture of a box made with tape on the floor or occupying a square of sunlight, we create invisible boxes for what we can and can’t do. You’ve recognized these boxes when talking to other people about obvious solutions. Why not ask your teen to help prep dinner one or two nights a week so you can catch a break? Oh, no, I couldn’t do that. Why not order the groceries online and just pick them up, if you’re afraid of going into the store or are so overwhelmed you can’t squeeze one more thing in? Oh no, I don’t trust them to pick good vegetables. If you’re racing towards the deadline for a project that has been on your radar for three months and someone in another department drops an unexpected ton of work on your desk, why not offer to outsource it and tell them how much it will cost? Oh, you just don’t understand.

Oh, I understand. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. We all have. There’s a look we get, a tone in our voice, when someone challenges us to step out of the boxes we’ve put ourselves in, that we all recognize. Even the most self-aware, reasonable people get that look or that tone; we all have boxes.

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to gently point out your box — perhaps you should try letting people know what you’re feeling about your father’s death and see what happens — and that’s enough for you to recognize your box and step out. Sometimes we cling to our boxes and scream, You’re Not Getting Me Out of this Box! Or maybe we jump out of one box and race to another, like a hermit crab changing shells.

Climbing out of a box requires trust that the world is a safe place. It requires tolerance of a certain level of vulnerability. Without your box, you feel naked, at risk of being eaten by coyotes, and that fear is real. Sometimes that risk is real, too; or sometimes our mind or heart perceives one mangy coyote as a pack of ravenous wolves; or sometimes the coyotes are completely imaginary, reflections of our fears or limitations projected onto the inside walls of our box so that is all we see.

We won’t know until we step outside of the box.

What’s your box?

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