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Friday, October 28, 2011

Rifty the cat - 2nd of his 9 lives

I have too many unfinished stories. I better complete this one - where our cat, Rifty, yielded at least another of his nine lives. By then he must have been up to six or seven.

  Rifty had failed to come in for his evening feed and to settle down in front of the fire.

  It was late winter and freezing cold, with the weather blowing in from the west, puffy snow clouds passing over. Snow clouds billowing overhead are easy to spot, but it was too cold for snow. If it's going to do that, it suddenly warms up just a little beforehand.

  It wasn't a night for a cat to be out, even one with the long soft fur Rifty had, but there was nothing that could be done about it. He'd have to take his chances. But it was a bitter one, with howling gusts of wind that rattle the flue and make you hope you built it well enough.

  Another day went by, and the wind softened. The temperature rose a fraction and large flakes of snow floated down. Through the night the snow continued, on and off.

  I don't know why it is, but if snow comes to the Tablelands, it often seems to be around full moon. Not always, I know, but on so many nights out there at Pangari, with moon and stars the only light in the blackness, a brilliant moon and a snowfall went together.

  We could look out on our hills covered in trees on snowy nights, the scene lit up by moonlight, woolly clouds chasing each other across the sky, racing eastward to the coast. When the moon appeared between the clouds, and there was snow on the ground to reflect its light, everything stood out with great clarity. The two-dimensional silhouettes of trees on dark nights became 3D with the full moon. It was a picture almost worthy of a chocolate box.

  Poor old Rifty was out there somewhere, alive or dead.

  The next night was still, clear and freezing, promising a heavy frost after the snow. The moon remained in the sky a couple of hours after dawn on the third day of Rifty's disappearance, heavy frost still on the ground at 9 am, when he turned up at the door.

  He was in a bad way. One of his legs had severe wounds, infected, with holes right through skin, muscle and tendons. He was exhausted and stank. Yet the fire was still in him. The leg bones seemed not to be broken. We got him to the vet straight away.

  I had no doubt what had happened, even before the vet confirmed it. Maybe he had been hunting a rabbit on a neighbouring property, but he had sprung a rabbit trap.

  He'd tried to fight his way out of it, then lay in what must have been ghastly pain, trapped for three days and nights by a cruelly wounded leg in the snow and sleet and wind, and finally the frost. I'd say that someone who came round inspecting his traps had discovered him lying there, had managed to release him, and Rifty had hobbled off.

  You'll readily imagine the vet's treatment - clean up the wounds, x-ray the leg, stitches, antibiotics, bandages, and a return visit a day or two later to check progress.

  Amazingly to me, in spite of the enormous damage to tissue and muscles, Rifty returned to a state where you wouldn't have known he had ever been injured. The fur grew back over the scars and it was if it had never happened. He walked normally.

  This left an enduring mark on me. Even the worst of injuries may be fixed, with good treatment, determination and a bit of luck.

  I think of it now, applied to myself, though I don't expect miracles. We fight with the weapons we have.

  As to animal traps that work like rabbit and bear traps, I have always regarded them as abominations. Their cruelty is hideous. OK, I know if I depended on catching animals for my livelihood, and this worked more efficiently than anything else, I might get used to the daily round of finding an animal in terrible fear and pain, releasing it briefly and wringing its neck, but frankly, I don't want to lose the ability to empathise. I don't want to be able to rationalise it.

  I try to imagine my leg clamped by the teeth of a bear trap, with no way of escape. The pain must be indescribable. Oddly enough, other illnesses more likely to kill you may not be near as painful as that of a healthy limb being torn apart by such a device.

  I don't want to get used to that. Humans can and do, and that allows us to stretch the boundaries. It lets us condone torture and violence, and it's apathy like this that allows even the President of the USA to let it be used on other human beings. Those who inflict it may even enjoy it.

  Call me a softie, but let's see how you go with a stint of your leg in a bear trap. If I wanted a rabbit, I'd take the .22 rifle, make sure I had it perfectly in the scope crosshairs, and that would be it.  And yes, I do know that a rabbit trap might be a great investment for some living on the poverty line.

  But humanity shouldn't be sacrificed for convenience when there are alternatives.

  Anyway, on the third day, Rifty rose from the dead. Maybe his middle name should have been Jesus: no disrespect intended. I wonder what He would have thought of traps like these. I can imagine what Gandhi would have said. 

  Or poor old Rifty.


  1. I've heard that animals will chew their own legs off in order to get out of a trap. Perhaps that's a rural myth. But we can trap animals in a more humane way, not that there is anything truly humane in trapping any living creature, and if we must eat meat, there are less sadistic ways of catching it than these horrible leg traps, or feedlots for that matter.

    If everyone gave up meat for 2 days per week, the level of suffering in the world would drop dramatically and our use of land and water resources would be far more efficient.

  2. Hi Joan - I'm sorry not to have responded to some of your earlier postings. Please assume, as in that great play, A Man for All Seasons, that unless otherwise stated, silence signifies consent.

    On this one, I have also heard this about animals (and that case where a man cut off his own hand with a pocket knife, hand trapped under a boulder!) and wouldn't be surprised if it were true about foxes etc.

    Humans do unspeakable things to other creatures if they don't value life. The Tao te Ching also has things to say about that, rather like sensible farmers. It's a matter of sane and healthy eating practices that matters, and if there's killing involved, some responsibility for awareness of how that is done.

  3. Thanks Denis. I just assumed that everyone was sick to death of me. I get sick to death of myself, going on and on and on. But the TTC is one of my favourite books, and of all the translations I have read, I keep coming back to D.C. Lau's. For some reason that translation really speaks to me, unlike the others, so there's no accounting for taste :).

    I think of the Tao as a state of mind, or a state of being out of which activity and choices emerge. To try to behave as though one were in the Tao is like trying to emulate Jesus. Love your enemy? I don't think so :). Not in my current state, anyway. And yet I can imagine that in a state in which you feel you are one with everything, that all beings are consubstantial with your "self", you would automatically act with compassion towards even those people who have harmed you. You would experience them as part of you, not separate, hostile beings. So they say. Roll on 70 more lifetimes for me.

    Back to my African tribal people. They only eat meat after a sacrifice of a chosen animal. The goal is to reconnect with their high god and restore balance, so they sacrifice a prize animal, a symbol of both their own self and their high god, and they eat the flesh in an act of communion. The Greeks behaved in the same way and ate meat only at ritual, group sacrifices. (Demonstrates the ancient pagan roots of Christianity) The Africans abhorred the slaughter of animals just for the sake of food. I'm sure all that has changed now. I suspect at the heart of the Muslim sacrificial rituals lies a similar connection to the divine or spiritual, hence their reluctance to change even though the meaning has probably been forgotten.

    Yes, I have heard of people cutting off their limbs to free themselves from fatal entrapment.

  4. No, Joan - it's never that anyone's 'sick to death' of you. Sometimes I think it's that I have to think a bit about my responses to your interesting comments, and that takes time. Don't stop writing them now though....
    The TTC is my favourite book of all. Just 90 verses of wisdom to be mulled over, to remind me how to approach everything and keep life and death in proportion. I want to write more about translations so that anyone who can't read Chinese or hasn't been raised in that tradition can get the best out of them.
    That said, D C Lau's was always my least favoured translation, but then, it occurs to me that it is decades since I read his, and maybe I will have changed my views if I read it again. One shouldn't be too set in one's prejudices and assume nothing changes in these things over 30 years. So I'll do that.
    More on translations another time.
    I like the first sentence of your second paragraph - quite a bit of it in fact. If we could 'love our enemies' - i.e., feel perfect compassion for them, then it would be a good starting point for solutions, but it's obvious that most people who claim to be Christians don't really have that level of compassion, especially in the face of the opposite response from the 'enemies.' Humanity has a long way to go before that state is reached, and is showing no evidence of progress in that direction on the whole.
    As to killing of any sort, it comes down to respect for the life that's being taken. To slaughter something (non-human!) and not make use of it as food seems wrong to me. It's as simple and as complicated as that. Awareness of how and why, and best practice. Awareness of long-term consequences. All that sort of thing.
    It's just as the TTC seems to me to suggest. Its wisdom, which doesn't interfere with religious principles anyone might hold, applies to any time and place.

  5. I think that each translation of the TTC has its special qualities, and my second favourite would be the Gai-Fu Feng & Jane English translation. But here's one example of why I prefer the Lau translation:

    Lau (TTC 10):

    When carrying on your head your perplexed bodily soul can you embrace in your arms the One
    And not let go?
    In concentrating your breath can you become as supple
    As a babe?
    Can you polish your mysterious mirror
    And leave no blemish?

    Feng & English (TTC 10):

    Carrying body and soul and embracing the one,
    Can you avoid separation?
    Attending fully and becoming supple,
    Can you be as a newborn babe?
    Washing and cleansing the primal vision,
    Can you be without stain?

    Richard Wilhelm (TTC 10):

    Can you educate your soul so that it encompasses the One
    without dispersing itself?
    Can you make your strength unitary
    and achieve that softness
    that makes you like a little child?
    Can you cleanse your secret seeing
    so that it becomes free of stain?

    Richard John Lynn (TTC 10):

    Stay where your earthbound soul is protected, and embrace integrity: can you do this with never a deviation?
    Rely exclusively on your vital force, and become perfectly soft: can you play the infant?
    Cleanse your vision into the mystery of things: can you make it spotless?

    To me, the Lau translation contains additional meanings to the others. I prefer "mysterious mirror" to "primal vision" or "secret seeing". Also, the opening lines of this verse in the Lau translation describe a state in which the busy mind can be lived simultaneously with the Tao. There's hope for us all :). The following lines in the Lau translation describe perfectly a state of meditation, while the other translators focus on outward activity.

    If I could read ancient Chinese, I would try to discover where Lau got the mirror metaphor from as well as the concentrating of the breath, which is either a yoga technique or one of the by-products of an inner state of effortless and innocent (like a babe) concentrated awareness. Not only, to me, does the Lau translation contain more levels of meaning, it is also more poetic than the others.

    Unfortunately, as you say, Christians rarely live up to the teachings of their religion. I just wish the Christian leaders would occasionally read their Bibles. Living in the Tao and in harmony with true Christian principles are ideals rarely achieved. If they were not such high ideals, these books would not have survived the centuries in order to keep reminding us of how far we have to go. I also prefer the King James translation of the Christian Bible for the same reason -- the poetic quality that strikes deeper into the soul than the more academically true translation.

  6. Joan: what you've written about understanding the TTC is very much in line with my views about approaching an understanding of it. You've saved me some time! Now you've spurred me on to do that - because it's important to me at any rate.

    As to your last paragraph, I'd say that about many followers of all religions. If there's one thing teaching comparative religions taught me, it's how ignorant so many people are about the articles of their own faith, yet will defend to the death what they imagine them to be. Let them at least read Huston Smith's The World's Religions before they defend anything!

    I agree also about the version of the Bible. Either it has to be that or a completely free retelling in modern idiom - the sort of thing that terrifies anyone wanting to calculate the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, as it were!

  7. I think Huston Smith is a good place to start for most people as he is not too complicated. When I first read his book on World Religions decades ago, I thought he was a bit blissy-eyed about religion in general as many religious texts contain a lot of justification for cruelty and violence.

    Some religious Isralies use this to condone what is happening to the Palestinians. After 9/ll, during a radio program, someone asked what Muslims should do, and the answer came "Read the Koran". I exclaimed outloud, "No! Don't do that!!" Unfortunately, Christians often dip into the Old Testament, where there is an abundance of condoned violence against innocent people. So yes, start with someone who leaves all that out.

  8. Yes, I think Smith was avoiding moral judgments about the religions he analysed. He wanted to try to explain and compare their ideals rather than get involved in polemic. It's a starting point - though funnily enough I prefer the older editions to the new. You are right that when you focus on what we see as the negative qualities of religions have become rather than their ideals, then the comparisons between ideals quickly get lost.

    I also object when the proponents of a particular faith slip between ideal and practice to justify a particular position. It happens all the time. If the canon for any religion is large enough, you can justify anything by being selective. Absolutely anything.

    This is version 2 of my response - sorry! It doesn't pay to hurry off to dinner without checking the text carefully!

  9. Yes I know about pressing the "send" button before the brain engages properly. After I'd posted that last bit, I thought I might have said "John Huston" instead of "Huston Smith". John Huston would have been mightily surprised to learn that he'd written a book on comparative religion :).

    I thought I might have said that because I'd recently seen his film "Wise Blood", based on Flannery O'Connor's short story of that name: a disturbing account of a young soldier recently returned to the American south from the Korean (or perhaps Vietnam) war.

    A professed athiest, he encounters fundamentalist southern revivalist religion (a work of art in itself) and finds himself playing out the role of the religious saint/martyr rather than an athiest. He dies after wrapping himself in barbed wire as penance. "Wise blood" refers to knowledge he has within himself without knowing it consciously.

    My conflation of Huston Smith with John Huston, I think, comes from the time I first recognised that religion was not all sweetness and light. The texts themselves have a dark side which cannot be denied, and, after deciding to familiarise myself with the myths of my own culture starting with the Old Testament, I was horrified to discover that the god of the Christian Old Testament, and therefore the god of both Judaism and Islam, is a fickle, vengeful, violent, cruel, demanding, jealous, and capricious god who inflicted unjust suffering and murder onto the people of Canaan (today's Palestinians).

    Realising that made me conclude that religion is just another product of the human mind and not the word of a loving, benevolent, all embracing, forgiving reality I had come to believe in through my engagement with Eastern thought. Not that Kali is anyone to contend with :).

  10. Religion can never be all sweetness and light because human interaction is always shades of grey, rarely black and white except in a few people's minds. The Semitic texts (of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) contain some fearful passages, many of which, on the grounds of compassion for the innocent, simply do not make sense.

    Yet someone will always find a way to rationalise the most horrific of human actions.

    This is why in my series on religion, philosophy and me, I'm not trying to reconcile the language of religion as that to my mind only creates nonsensical discussion, but to try to find what's common between them and with social theories as well.

    Even Kali, once she is understood symbolically, makes perfect sense, as you know and I know you know. The Goddess of Time, she brings humans into the world and she takes them out again, and neither of these are easy processes for humanity. This is because the body rages against both the creation of life, with childbirth (so it is right she's a female deity!) and rages against death because that's the biological imperative - to survive even beyond the point where it serves no genetic purpose.

    Sometimes I despair of making sense of all this in words, but they are all we have in trying to talk it through. Actions speak so much louder - and are still misunderstood. There are none so blind....

  11. I think Job had the same problem. At least the Semitic religions of Judaism and Islam are more honest about the powers that be; whereas Christians have always had a problem reconciling a God of Love, Mercy, and Forgiveness with how things really work. Thousands of gallons of theological ink have not solved this dilemma. At least Hinduism and the pagan religions don't pretend that God is not without temper tantrums and hissy fits.


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