Almost all the poets I love have one thing in common—they all admire animals. There’s Walt Whitman, who confesses,
“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained…They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins…not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things…”
Then there’s Mary Oliver, whose poems abound with praise for water snakes, goldfinches, alligators, hummingbirds, moths, wild geese and all her dogs named Percy. There’s the haiku poet Issa who befriends fleas and flies, Rilke who admires the panther, Gary Snyder who praises the bear. And there’s the 18th century poet Christopher Smart, who writes a long ode that begins:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him…
and goes on for three pages praising his cat’s cleanliness, dexterity, elegance, variety of movements and more.
I get it. We humans are a dubious species—think Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, Dick Cheney and my 3rd grade teacher. The animals know precisely who they are and are always wholly themselves. The snake is snaking around and never even thinks about smiling for the camera, the kingfisher fishes without worrying about getting wet, the lion roars without apology for raising his voice and the vultures eat road kill without washing their hands. We have a lot to learn from the serenity of the llama, the grace of the giraffe, the playfulness of the otter, the cleanliness of the raccoon, the majesty of the elephant, the affection and loyalty of our dog. In some cultures, animals are considered spirit guides and rule the mythology more than the flawed Olympian gods.
Now that I’m home writing five or six hours a day, I’m spending a lot of time with my cat Chester. I have the leisure to consider him, an opportunity to study at the feet of the four-limbed Zen master. But the more I hang I out with him, the more I can’t help but feel a startling truth—it’s boring as hell to be a cat! I mean, the guy sits here, lies down there, meows at me for nothing. His food bowl is full, water dish also full, his cat door is open. That’s really the extent of his meow vocabulary. And yet he woke me up this morning like Lassie announcing danger, would not rest content until I followed him down the hall to his food and water dish. Both, of course, were full. What the hell does he want? Don’t tell me affection, because if I lift him to my lap to stroke him, he sits there for five seconds and then escapes like a cat out of hell. (Or was that a bat?)
Do you know why I think he’s meowing? I think he’s saying, “I’m bored! It’s a drag being a cat! You get to play piano and type on that machine and play cards and go out and ride your bike while I just roam around from room to room and I don’t even know why I’m going there. There’s nothing for me to do! Especially since you sliced away any chance of a sex life and I’m too old to chase mice.”
I suppose it’s more interesting in the wild—things to hunt, things that are hunting you. I wonder if Chester is thinking: “This constant food in the food bowl is cushy, but frankly, it kind of takes away a lot of my motivation.” He does have free reign of the back yard, there are birds, moles and sometimes mice to attract his attention, he can choose to be in or out, and yet still he meows as if pleading, “Entertain me! Have they come up with cat video games yet?”
Don’t get me wrong. I love Chester in my own way—after all, we have spent 17 years together as roommates. I know I’ll miss him when he’s gone. But having admired his sphinx-like inscrutability, his perfect Zen meditation, his flexible Pilates cleaning routine, his occasional purrs of deep contentment, lately he just seems plain annoying and bored. Despite my constant disappointment in human beings who waste their incarnation on the top rung of evolution listening to Brittney Spears and reading investment portfolios, Chester makes me glad I’m a person. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put more food in his full bowl to get him to leave me alone (it works!).