On Presence

By the time I leave work on a Thursday I can expect a few missed calls, usually accompanied by voicemails left by my friend Ashley.  She disguises her voice and does funny accents, always with the same message, “This is your cat lady, Ashley, just wanna see if you’re coming tonight, soooo…give me a ring back!” Over the last two years, with these weekly calls, Ashley has been one of the most reliable people in my life.

Ashley and I met through Starfire.  I was still new to this world of community and inclusion, and Ashley was embarking on planning her collaboration project, a party to benefit local cat rescue groups.  As someone who liked cats, I joined her committee, and quickly went from being someone who liked both cats and Ashley to someone who loved both cats and Ashley.  During the planning process, we toured a local cat shelter and even though it was just a couple hours out of weeks of work, we both remembered it all year.  When the project drew to a close, Ashley asked if I remembered that shelter and if we could go back again, and thanks to her suggestion, two weeks later we were attending our volunteer orientation and picking out a weekly shift.

I have to admit, it wasn’t without some trepidation that I started volunteering with Ashley.  I’ve heard people use lots of words to describe Ashley: party animal, hilarious, thoughtful, sweet.  All qualities that make her an amazing friend, but not quite encompassing the same qualities you might say describe a good volunteer: hard-working, full of initiative, focused.  I was nervous as we went into our first shift, and it didn’t take long to see that Ashley and I weren’t going to fit any more perfectly into the volunteer mold than I expected us to.  She didn’t want to scoop cat litter,  and she would open doors to rooms and cats would run past her and escape into the common area. While other people zipped around with food and cats and brooms, she would sit down, and talk to cats, or quietly sit in a room and look at them. I cringed at every thing I thought was a mistake, worried that we wouldn’t fit in, or look like slackers. After a few weeks of worry, though, I realized the other volunteers barely took notice of things that seemed like big red flags to me.  Instead of everyone else judging us for the things I knew we weren’t very good at, they were really just happy to have us there to help at all.

Over time Ashley and I settled into our roles.  As we became regulars and I eased up a bit, we found things we were good at doing. We made friends with other volunteers, and started to feel really connected there.  We passed our 6 month mark, our one year mark, our two year mark, and all the while, even though all signs pointed to us being included there, a nagging part of my mind still focused on the imperfections.  Ashley’s job every week has been to change out the water dishes in the rooms, and she often leaves little drips and puddles on the floor that can get pretty slippery.  Nobody’s ever complained, or really even brought up it was her spilling, but every week I would see our imperfection in those drips and think “If I can get Ashley to keep from spilling, we’ll be able to be real volunteers here.”  On the way home, I’d agonize over the balance between meaningful self-improvement and impossible standards.  I’d rationally think that everyone makes mistakes, and we’re entitled to a few here and there, and I should just focus on the fact that we’re there and we’re contributing.  The next week we’d get to our shift and my emotional thinking would take over, and a voice in my mind would tell me we were imperfect and that was a big deal, and I would look for evidence to confirm my fears and I would question if we were really good enough to be there.

After a couple years of volunteering, never once having been to the shelter without Ashley, one night I found out she would be unable to make it.  I decided to go without her, even though we had pretty much been a packaged deal up until that point.  About halfway through the shift, another volunteer walked past me and mentioned how much it helps to have Ashley do the water every week, and how much time that one extra task can take up when she’s not there to do it.  And with that one simple comment, all my fears about Ashley’s imperfections went away, and I suddenly believed everything I had known up until that point.  Ashley has a disability.  She is not perfect.  She spills water, she lets cats out of their rooms, she refuses to scoop litter boxes.  And nobody really cares, because she is present and she is contributing and we love her.

While nothing on the surface changed that night, my perception of Ashley changed, and that made a huge change in our relationship.  Instead of seeing her imperfections as flaws that made us stand out, I saw them just as imperfect parts of a whole, real person. I freed myself up from fearfully trying to predict why people might not like her, and just focused on loving her for who she is.

Back in September, Heather, a fellow volunteer on our shift, was preparing to move out of state.  We had talked for weeks about her leaving, and how much we would miss her on our shift and around the shelter.  I checked my email one day and saw a thread of emails from the other women on our shift, which started with the following message from Heather:

I got the sweetest message through Facebook from Ashley. It took me a minute to figure out who it was because it came in under a different name. I almost cried when I figured out it was her.

Here it is –

i will miss you you will be missed very much thanks for helping out this is your cat lady ashley have a great week see you thursday

The next several emails were all about Ashley, how sweet she is, how to friend her on Facebook, and how she was part of a master plan to get Heather to stay.  It was so small, and felt so significant.  For years, in my mind, I had been fighting against Ashley’s “problems” to get people to like her, and nobody knew it but me. And nobody needed it but me.


I have always been someone who has let my fears get in the way of things.  When you’re afraid someone you love will fail, or look bad in front of friends, it can be so easy to fall into the well-meaning trap of wanting to fix them. And once you start to see that as your responsibility, it can be really hard to figure out how much fixing they need before they’re done. My relationship with Ashley has made me realize how easy it can be to let your fears get in the way not just of yourself, but in the way of someone else, too. Ashley never needed me to fix her. She was fine all along. I thought I needed to fix Ashley to quiet that nagging, fearful voice we have when we love someone with a disability. The voice tells us, “Society won’t want this person until they’re done being fixed.  They won’t belong until they’re perfect.” It’s a voice that’s quiet, and pervasive, and argumentative, and convincing. And once you stop listening to it, you realize it’s really, really, really dumb.

Over the last couple years, I’ve wondered if we were capable enough, if we were dedicated enough, if we were making too many mistakes, if people really wanted us there.  We’ve made plenty of mistakes.  So has everyone else.  And nobody has been fired or asked to leave. Because we all know that nobody’s perfect.

Allie Nordman