Friday, July 08, 2005

The Prodigal Hamster

Yesterday during my weekly date with myself, my cell phone rang. Kristiana was calling with bad news: “Buddy’s not in his cage.” Buddy is our hamster. Chubby little thing with long whiskers, round belly, and a short tail, he has become a much beloved member of our household. Our neighbors aren’t so crazy about him because when we were in England back in March and they were hamster-sitting, he escaped from his cage and, in what I believe was a courageous break for freedom, gnawed a hole in the carpet under the door of their game room. I was enormously apologetic for the damage he had done, but part of me was proud of his determination. After all, there is no place like home. This time was different, though. He was already at home. What on earth did he think he was going to find on the floor and in the corners of our house? I quickly came up with a plan for finding him. I gave Kristiana precise instructions: “Grab your brother and the babysitter and begin a room by room search for Buddy. Get down on your knees and look under every piece of furniture. Look in all the closets because, as we have learned, he can get under doors. Call me with an update in 15 minutes.”

After ten anxious minutes of waiting for my phone to vibrate, I called home. Kristiana answered and with triumph in her voice announced, “We found him. He was in the laundry room. He was covered in dust, but now he’s back in his cage.” Ignoring her blatant criticism of my housekeeping skills, I told her how glad I was that they had found him so quickly and sent up a quick prayer of thanks that he had survived his ordeal and that they had successfully completed a rescue operation and not a recovery.

What was he thinking, that crazy little rodent? First he had to scale his little wooden hut and leap up onto the cover of the clear Rubbermaid container that he calls home. His mansion is no shoebox; this is one of Rubbermaid’s 60 quart LatchTopper boxes. According to the dimensions on the label, the box is 16.4 inches from top to bottom, so he had to jump down 16.4 inches to the counter in the homeschool room on which his home is perched. From the counter top to the floor is another thirty-six inches. After going down fifteen stairs to the first floor, he had to wind his way around and under the kitchen table and turn left into the laundry room. I’m no daily sweeper, but this I know for sure: there is no food on the floor nor are there water puddles anywhere downstairs for Buddy to fill his pecan-sized belly while he was on the run. He must have been hungry and thirsty when they found him and put him back in his now tightly secured Latch Topper.

Where was my prodigal hamster going? Did he have a plan? In the middle of the night, did his little mind wander back to the comforts of his cage? Did he begin to think, like his Biblical counterpart, that if only he could return to his father (or in this case, his mother, Kristiana) he would be willing to eat the leftover nuts and seeds that were on the bottom of the bag? Did he feel lonely and scared down there in the dark? Did he wish he could lick himself clean in the cozy comfort of his bed – which had been fashioned from a Pringles tube? And when he saw Kristiana’s face peering down at him in the corner, was he glad to have been discovered? Will he now be contented to be a homebody, or will he attempt another run for freedom as soon as we all forget yesterday’s excitement and leave the cover off the box again?

Like Buddy, I know the thrill of escape. As a high school senior, I couldn’t wait to get to college. I would finally have freedom from television and radio rules, freedom from curfews, freedom from wondering what the neighbors thought of me, what the church people thought, and especially what my parents thought. For the next six years (four as a student and two as an employee of Williams College), I ran through the streets of Williamstown like a rebel without a clue. I ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I went to every party that I could get into and danced until the wee hours. I had several boyfriends. I tried several intoxicating substances, some legal and some illegal. I even became a leader of the campus Christian fellowship group. I wanted to be sure to try every possible escape route.

Like Buddy, I also know the agony of hunger and thirst and being coated with dust in dark corners in the middle of the night. With freedom came consequences. My soul’s hunger for love and attention and companionship wasn’t satisfied by the charms or in the arms of my boyfriends. With each guy I chose, I realized within minutes that they were as insatiably ravenous as I was, but none of us knew how to fill each other’s empty places. My soul’s thirst for laughter and joy and fun wasn’t quenched by White Russians or beer taps. A few dizzying walks back to my dorm room and one particularly gin-soaked birthday party in Madrid were all I needed to give up any hope that alcohol could solve any of my problems. And no bar of soap, bottle of body wash, or fresh scented shampoo could wash off the filth that always seemed caked on long after the boyfriends left.

I wish I could say that there came a time when I saw the error of my ways, when I stopped my senseless Houdini-esque escape attempts, and settled down. I wish I could say that I have stopped trying to drown my sorrows in alcohol on occasion and overfeed my hungry soul on junk food on a regular basis. But I cannot. The only difference is that now my escape routes are no longer clandestine; in fact, they are quite respectable. I travel internationally when I am looking for a break from my life, and not just under the East River on the subway. I drink one or two mojitos now and no longer stand near the drink table with cups in both hands. And I’ve upped the ante a little. Now I shop in better stores nowadays, but the desire is the same as when I frequented the flea markets of Greenwich Village in Manhattan: to cover the wounded places with fine clothing and funky jewelry. I eat fried calamari now not street-sold hotdogs, but the craving for fulfillment is still there. I watch foreign films and reality television in order to avoid the reality of my life. I read better books, thereby entering the mind of the author and the life of the characters, but eventually I must close the cover and follow the plot line of my own tale. I live in a better house with better windows and better locks than I could ever have dreamed for myself, but sometimes I think I set the alarm at night to keep myself in rather than to keep others out.

Nowadays we have to check on Buddy morning and night to make sure he doesn’t escape again. Nowadays I have to check on my own heart and mind morning and night, making sure I’m feeding myself well on The Bread of Life, drinking the Living Water, and enjoying the toys that have accumulated in my cage. But don’t let these lofty thoughts be misunderstood; I am no hamster, but my heart, mind, and body still want to escape every time the cover to the LatchTopper is left off.

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