Of Alarms, Animals, and Awakened Hearts

When the fire alarm went off, feline EmmaRose and I seemed sure it had something to do with me. She gave me her usual look of what now? My thought was I had finally succeeded in leaving an empty tea kettle on a hot burner long enough to melt the kettle’s bottom.

Quickly, I realized it was not our smoke detector but the fire alarm for the entire building. It was someone else’s burner/pan/tea kettle. I went outside into the warm, North Florida midnight air as did the rest of the building’s residents.

I did not put EmmaRose in her carrier and take her with me for she has such dread of any interruption of our routine—it upsets her for days—and although she is not fond of the fire alarm, it is not an unknown to her. Was this not yet another human event occurring for no apparent reason?
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That seemed EmmaRose’s attitude, and she was correct. We never knew who pulled the alarm and probably never will. However, it would take 40 minutes before the alarm was finally silenced. Neither management nor the fire department could locate a key. This was not routine.

Within minutes, I decided the alarm was too much for EmmaRose’s ears. Standing among my neighbors, I heard myself say, “Well, I’m going to go get my cat.” I turned and walked toward my apartment.

Why I said aloud what I was thinking I have no idea but it produced another kind of human alarm.


My back was to the man who was bellowing. I knew who it was, Carl. He had been talking nonstop to anyone and everyone but no one seemed to want his opinion, especially the firemen.

Still garrulous with my thoughts I shouted, “I think a lot more of animals than I do of people.” His retort was a strong suggestion that I grow up. I offered he might do the same and walked into my apartment.

EmmaRose met me at the door, ready to get into her carrier, and together, we went outside and away from the building but still in the vicinity of Carl’s voice.Eyes Open 0513

“I’ve been on the battlefield! I was in Special Ops! This is nothing! We are all upset!” Then, he stopped and looked around. After a few breaths, he mumbled something to the effect that I was making it worse for everyone.

It seemed more residents were bringing their pets outside. Maybe I had made it worse.

I looked at Carl. “Well, I didn’t think I was but if I have, I apologize.”

“Well, I apologize, too,” he said, adding, “peace?”

“We’re done,” I said.

Both of us remained quiet for the duration of the alarm as did every dog and every cat.

The next morning, Carl and I found ourselves face-to-face, again. We rarely saw each other.

“Good morning,” I said to Carl and meant it.

“So, we’re okay after last night?”

“We’re fine, really.” I extended my hand to him, and he shook it.

“I don’t know why I said that about your cat.”

“The alarm is hard on animals’ hearing,” I said, adding “I didn’t need to say what I said, either.”

“No, that was all right.”


At this point, we actually heard each other; our own alarms had finally shut off. For longer than the 40-minutes at midnight, Carl and I acknowledged each other’s value—a traditional Catholic soldier and a Buddhist animal lover—each worthy of respect for the human beings we are, a veteran and a hippie.

Carl is a fine teller of stories and excels at revealing the punch line. We laughed a lot and genuinely. We found common ground in a thoughtful discussion on democracy, in our mutual disdain for both prejudice and the healthcare system.

As he started up the stairs to his apartment and I to my vehicle, I heard the limp in his step, something I had not noticed.

I called out to him. “How do you feel about acupuncture?”

“I believe in it. Why?”

“I know a good one. Would you like her card?”

He says he would. I return to my apartment for the card, and he comes down the stairs to get it.

He thanks me and adds, “When you make a mistake you just have to own up, don’t you?”

“Yes, and then let it go,” I say.

And so we separate with hearts awakened.

The quality of modesty, or humility, comes naturally when we’re attentive. When we see how reactive and unkind we can be, this humbles us considerably.

Instead of causing despair, however, this painful realization can connect us with the tenderness of bodhichitta [or, awakened heart].

Modesty, or humbleness, is the opposite of armoring ourselves: it allows us to be receptive and hear what others have to say.

Pema Chödrön

(No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, pp. 134-35)

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18 thoughts on “Of Alarms, Animals, and Awakened Hearts

  1. Thank you Karen, for another timely post. It reminded me of AA’s Tenth Step, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” I’ve found unless I admit when I’m wrong, the issue just festers and grows. Real connection between humans is, I believe, only possible through vulnerability. What a great example of the power of the human soul to want to connect.


    1. Thanks, Janet! I (and I suspect, “Carl”) knew I was wrong the minute the thoughts tumbled out. And I think both of us wanted to acknowledge it to one another as well as show another side of who each of us is. And we did that.


  2. We strive for balance, but increasingly I notice that it is the off-balance moments that provide the most important insights. In balance we sometimes migrate, without even being aware of it, to complacency and a calcification of beliefs that could do with a good airing-out. Wonderful post Karen!


    1. Yes, balance without constant awareness easily slides into complacency. For me, it is the moment I allow my head to override my heart–every time–as Chodron reminds, it is the heart that restores the balance for it opens us to where we actually are. Thanks, Adrian.


  3. Moments of crisis – even, perhaps, ‘unusualness’, often cast light on ourselves and on those we know. It seems to me, on my own experience – and, vicariously, through the experiences of those I write about across time in my non-fiction – that we cannot know how we will react in the moment until it comes. Chodron seems extremely apt in such circumstance. Thank you for sharing a moment with us!


    1. Obviously, I would have hoped a brighter light for me and perhaps the next time, it will be. I have grown increasingly disgruntled with humans–I include myself in my chagrin–this incident with Carl reminded me of our wondrous ability to forgive and to go on with life. It’s a remarkable ability, and it’s always within our grasp. Thanks, Matthew.


  4. We can learn from those we encounter every day — even when that fire alarm is blasting away. I really appreciate how you connect the external fire alarm to our own internal noise that sometimes prevents us from really hearing someone else. I needed to read this tonight as I’m just starting to help a friend with Alzheimer’s, and I need to “hear” what she says, even though she cannot remember conversations very well. Thank you, Karen.


    1. Oh, Beth, what a road you and your friend are starting to travel. It is a true friend who can hear the familiar over and over, and make it new. That fire alarm awakened a lot in me, obviously. As you say, my internal noise had most of my attention, and at best, that is a narrow viewpoint. Thank you, Beth.


  5. Excellent account of awareness, how to difuse a tense encounter, humility, and ultimate compassion and a human connection in tenderness and understanding. Love the Pema quote. Thanks Kay


    1. Hi, Patty! That Pema quote, like so many of hers, reveals it is possible to see “…the world in a grain of sand.” As for the encounter, both Carl and I gained a great deal in just hours. Thanks for stopping by.


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