The rabbit stands motionless, balanced mid-step, a foot away from the cedar hedge. Its body stretching, lengthened, one front foot raised, as though caught in a freeze-frame, a thoroughbred mid-stride. The cat – my cat – lays on the back porch, seemingly relaxed. If you look carefully, though, you’ll notice her rear feet firmly grounded, the muscles in her hind legs taut, spring-loaded and ready to unwind. Her tail snaps back and forth. She stares fixedly at the rabbit. From the doorway, I watch the cat, then the rabbit, then the cat.
She’s not going anywhere though, the cat. She is twelve feet off the ground, trapped inside our glassed-in porch. The rabbit is in no danger – but I’m sure the rabbit doesn’t know that.
I don’t know how long we stay like that, one animal watching another. After a few minutes, I duck back inside the house, realizing that I can’t spend all morning bearing witness to this episode of Wild Kingdom, the Domestic Edition. I head for my desk but the moment I reach the office door, I am stopped by a sudden flash of insight. I grab my phone and turn around to go back and take one last look, maybe take a photo of the rabbit in its gravity-defying, frozen-in-motion pose. When I return, the rabbit is gone, and the second cat is now standing on the threshold of the porch. Maybe that was all it took to move the frozen rabbit into flight. Or maybe it figured out that those cats are in a glass cage and pose no threat at all and then hopped about its rabbit business without being further perturbed.
I doubt that. But one can hope.
My thoughts drift back to that rabbit all day long. There are so many bunnies in our neighbourhood, grey-brown cottontails sprinting at high speed through the yard, across the driveway, from this tree to that one, around the shrubs and through the garden. Sometimes they loiter in the yard, munching leisurely at the bluegrass and clover. Leisurely, that is, until they sense a predator. Then, they do one of two things: freeze or bolt. I haven’t yet seen a bunny engage the fight response, but perhaps I haven’t yet met the right one. I am bunny. Hear me roar.
In any case, watching that rabbit in the yard this morning, I had a sudden realization, a flash of shared experience, because I know what that feels like, to sense danger, real or imagined. Perhaps, mostly imagined, but it makes no difference. I react in the same way, freezing in place, my mind slipping into immobility, everything slowing down. Sometimes this happens while I am driving on the highway (and that is uncomfortable as hell, let me tell you, trying to rein in my mind with my hands clamped to the wheel, my palms breaking out in sweat, adrenalin spiking, my arms locking-up, all while driving a hundred km/h with no exit in sight). Sometimes it happens in mid-conversation when I feel as though I am about to be judged as to my knowledge or technical skill (and since I am a lawyer that happens, oh, daily). If it is a work situation, I will start rushing madly about feeling the need to respond to a demand as fast as humanly possible – a bad idea, I might point out – often doing double the work necessary to make absolutely sure I come up with the correct answer. As if there ever really is one.
I am a prey animal just as much as those cottontails are. Or, at least, I react like one. The only difference being that I might become aware of what it is happening to me, that I have been hi-jacked by my animal senses, my amygdale (that little gland that screams panic!). If I can just wedge open that small window of awareness, then I have a hope of eventually calming down enough to engage my full and higher senses, my ability to reason and respond to the situation with calm and equanimity.
Heaven help me if I can’t, because that wasn’t the only frozen rabbit that I’ve met.
In the middle of the wicked-cold winter just past, I would glance out my front windows each day and see what appeared to be small tumbleweed in the middle of the front lawn. I figured it was a bit of pine tree branch, or other plant detritus, that had broken off in the midst of one of the countless winter storms we’d endured. One morning, I opened the front door and looked a little harder. Was that – was that a rabbit? I retreated into the house, pulled on my tall winter boots, my parka and hat, and scrambled outside to investigate, clambering over the hip-high snow bank beside the front walk and wading through the deep snow into the yard.
Sure enough. It was a rabbit. Standing upright, frozen solid.
It too appeared to be in mid-step, one back leg raised slightly off the ground and pulled upward toward its belly.
I was stunned. And saddened. I couldn’t leave it there, exposed like that, not least of all because I didn’t want either of my daughters to see this bizarre statue of death on the front lawn. I gathered a shovel from the garage, scooped up the frozen rabbit with all the gentleness I could muster, and then carefully walked it over to the stand of pine trees in our side yard. I certainly couldn’t bury it, but I could find it a more sheltered place to rest under the trees.
I think of that rabbit a lot, too. Every time I’m in the yard.
I don’t mean to be overdramatic. I am not suggesting that if I don’t get a hold of my panic responses that I, too, might end up standing frozen upright in the front yard, but I do think that allowing these run/hide/freeze responses to run me ragged, might mean I’m killing off important bits of myself, especially the creative ones, the ones prone to bursting into spontaneous dance, or off-tune song, or words, words that become blogs and essays and, eventually, a book. Writing is something that exposes, makes one vulnerable, but writers can’t afford to freeze, and then bolt into the shrubs. If we did, nothing would ever get written.
So this is what I’ve decided. I don’t have a lot of choice about the freeze-hide-run response seizing me, and I’m not about to try to train my sensitivity out of myself either. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. I just end up broken and bitter and silent and sad. All I can really do is be alert to the fact that I get triggered once in a while, that panic may lasso me, and in those situations, to give myself enough thinking and breathing space to find my way back to two-feet-on-the-earth. And then? Then I’m going to write about it.
And maybe, I’ll keep looking for the third rabbit, the one that fights back. You never know. I am bunny, ladies and gentlemen, hear me roar.