Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Feline Certainty

Dear Prof. Bouldrey,

I took your Fundamentals of Prose class the first semester that you taught at Northwestern, and the first assignment, if I remember correctly, was to write a five-page essay about cats.  I think the purpose of the exercise was to prove that a writer can find meaning even in an arbitrarily chosen subject, and a seminar room full of writers can therefore find twelve different meanings.  I can’t remember exactly what I wrote about, something about the grace of cats.  I know that the grade you gave it was probably overly generous.  And I know that if I were rewriting it today (and perhaps this was your point all along), it would be a very different essay.

I’ve decided that my best shot, if the Buddhist worldview turns out to be true, if we really are stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth, is to hope that I come back as a cat next time around.  I decided this when our friend Savuth came to our house for lunch last weekend and told us that most monks want to be reborn as monks, since they will never reach enlightenment in this lifetime and their best chance is to keep getting closer, life after life.  Being impatient, I found the idea of hundreds of future lives as a monk sort of a downer.   There are other options.  You can be reborn in paradise, but I think too many nasty things about people for that to happen, or you can be reborn in hell, though since I don’t make a habit of killing people or stealing things, I might be able to avoid that one.  Or you can be reborn as an animal, which I have heard is mostly reserved for humans who are lazy in this life.  (Am I lazy?  Possibly.  Even though my brain is wrung thoroughly dry at the end of every day from working on a book about Cambodia, even though I have not been this mentally tired since the days when I was in your class and stayed up late writing papers about renaissance drama and 20th Century British cinema, I still feel vaguely guilty about the fact that I sit around for long periods of time, thinking and staring into space and calling it work.  I even found a name for this phenomenon in a Paul Theroux book—K├╝nstlerschuld, or artist’s guilt.)  At any rate, I am angling for what is supposedly the most fortunate of animal births, that of the housecat.

For anyone who has ever had a housecat, it will not be hard to imagine why Buddhists consider them lucky.  Even in Cambodia, where animals usually lead a fairly dismal existence, our two cats, Bissou and Soma, have managed to hit pay dirt.  When their original barang owner couldn’t keep them anymore because of the landlord’s dogs, she convinced us to take them in for the duration of our stay.  They are scrappy and lovable.  They hide dead lizards under our rugs and piss on our pillows if we’re away too long, and we still find them entirely adorable.  I find myself watching their movements, mesmerized, for long periods of time, a phenomenon my friend Narisa calls Cat TV.

I envy their lifestyle, one of rest and close observation.  I envy their purring, which they do loudly and often.  When they squeeze their eyes shut and purr, it looks as though their entire beings, both body and mind, have been given over to concentrating fully on the pleasure of the present moment, something I have always had trouble doing.  Some experts have speculated that purring is like meditation or prayer, since even the act of purring seems to soothe sick or stressed cats. 

I envy most, though, how snug an evolutionary niche they have found.   When they open their mouths, gaping pink yaws of toothy weaponry, it is easy to imagine that they are only a few genes away from panther.  They are tiny killing machines—all fangs and claws and stringy muscles—and they exercise this predisposition by terrorizing the insects, spiders, rodents, lizards and birds of our yard.  The other day, I wandered onto the porch and witnessed Soma staring down a coiled snake.  Worried it was poisonous, I tried in vain to call her away from it, until she threw me a look as though I was insane, slit its throat with her claws and began to pulverize its skull with her teeth like some sort of feline Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.  And yet, despite this inborn stealth and brutality, cats have managed to appear as something wholly different to a specific species of mammal, ingratiating themselves to the humans who can make their lives easier.  Soma and Bissou can widen their teddy-bear eyes and curl up like little furry doughnuts in my armpit in the middle of the night, and I feel as though they are tiny, vulnerable creatures, reliant on my petting and kibble, even though they have already proven otherwise.  It is nothing short of genius.

What of my own evolutionary niche as a writer?  I am a nervous journalist, an immature novelist.  Sometimes I think that my niche is the bizarre life I have right now, living in a place long enough to love it and hate it in equal measure and trying to capture the whys and wherefores of that duality on the page.  I wonder, though, if that will even turn out to be a niche at all.  And if it is, do I (and Jason, too, especially with me in tow) have the fortitude to do this all over again?  Reading Paul Theroux or Jonathon Raban or Robert Kaplan, I have a hard time imagining myself at fifty-something traveling the Mediterranean and beyond by myself.  When that fantasy fails, I find myself worrying that I have missed my niche altogether—maybe I would have been an excellent carpenter or dental hygienist and I have gone to all this trouble for nothing.  The only comfort is that I might still have some time in this life to figure it out, and that next time, in feline form, I might be better equipped to find a secure place in the world.

With fondness,

Shannon Dunlap, School of Communication ‘03


Andrew and Emily said...

Are the cats coming back to the U.S.? I'd offer to take them, but it sounds like they'd stalk (and kill) the chinchillas.

Shannon Dunlap said...

We've been tempted by the idea of cat immigration, but I think they're a little too wild to adjust to indoor life in the U.S. Imagining an encounter between the cats and the chinchillas makes me shudder.