I read once that you shouldn’t be afraid of dying because it’s an illusion. If you were to look at one wave in the ocean you may be fooled into thinking that it has a beginning and an end. It curls out of the sea, rolls over and crashes back down into the water to dissolve into nothing. The wave was there and now it’s gone. But look deeper and you’ll see the wave is just a collection of water that has moved into a different shape for a moment. The wave was always just a re-arrangement of the ocean. The water is still there. It wasn’t born. It didn’t die. In the same way, it is a misconception to think that we are born from nothing and return to nothing.
Thinking about cats helped me make sense of this. For all the individual quirk of the kitties I’ve known they were also connected by a great sameness. Almost as if each kitten is a wave in the ocean of cat. You can see it in the way they claw at their scratching posts or sit in the classic front-legs together pose with their backs straight and their tails curled delicately around their feet. Cats purr and preen and sometimes give you unsolicited massages. They lick their paws and use them like little combs, carefully styling the fur that they can’t reach with their sandpaper tongues. It’s as if they all went to the same secret cat school. Or as if, like the waves are to the ocean, each cat is a temporary manifestation of the same eternal feline energy.
Our kitten will play soccer with a bottle cap by herself for hours. Or at least hours in cat time, which is about two minutes in human time. Once that’s finished she quickly finds something else to do. Tearing apart toilet paper, crawling inside a box, hanging off the curtain, lying motionless in the window, demanding scratches, leaping across the room for no apparent reason.
When you live with a cat you can begin to see aspects of yourself in it. I believe we love our four legged friends partly because of the way they caricature us, enacting pantomimes of human behaviour. They throw themselves at you one minute, needy for affection, before running away the next to gaze solemnly out the window, alone, lost in their cat thoughts.
They play, they sleep, they demand attention, they get aloof and don’t want to be touched. Their moods fluctuate erratically, much like ours. But unlike us, cats live out their rollercoaster of existence without constant neurosis and self-doubt. They move from one experience to the next freely without regret or analysis.
Just like the rest of us they don’t fit into a neat box. They’re not one thing or another. They’re baseless and fluid and difficult. They kill native birds if you give them half a chance. If you died in a house with one and weren’t discovered quickly enough your adorable little moggy would probably eat your corpse to survive. They watch you have sex. And they don’t care that it makes you uncomfortable.
It’s funny, given the egoless existence of animals, that we build our own identities through them, that we call ourselves cat people or dog people. We don’t just admire them, we absorb them into our idea of ourselves. Liking cats is one more facet of my identity. I place it neatly next to my music taste and political ideals, like bricks of personality around myself. I build a house of me, open the door to new friends, to strangers, say “look! What do you think! Look at all the things I am.” I build houses for other people too, concoct stories about their motivations, their loves, what they’ve lost, what keeps them up at night. I make a quilt from my judgement and wrap it around myself to keep warm.
Cats don’t need stories. They are what they are. There is something so delightfully unaffected and surprising in the presence of a cat. Just being near one can sometimes, momentarily, pull you out of the loop of your own mind. Sometimes you find that moment in sex, when you meditate, when you’re so drunk you forget who you are or so high you become everything, and sometimes you find it when you pat a cat.
It doesn’t matter who you are when you pat a cat. The cat certainly doesn’t care. Your story is irrelevant. Cats know when you open the food bag that those crunchy little pebbles are the only things that matter. When there’s sunlight pouring in the window, stretching out and warming the belly is the whole point of existence.
I’m sitting on my bed writing on my computer when out of nowhere my kitten leaps up onto my lap, rests her paws on my chest and pushes her forehead against my cheek. She squishes her little furry head as hard as she can into my face. She’s been lying in the sun and she smells toasty. She licks my nose and purrs and for a moment I stop thinking and stop writing and the whole world is still and brilliant.