Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.
The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.
Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.
I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.
Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.
Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.
The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.
Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.
The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.
With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?