When you say that you’ve ‘lost’ your cat – you need to first qualify whether this means that the cat is dead, or whether it’s wandered away out the back door and failed to come home. It’s the latter in our case. Our Todd left home one week ago today, and grieving for him has brought me face to face with where I am. This is a place where a cat can lost their way. We are living in an urban environment – and there is very little wilderness within a couple of kilometers radius. I know this, because I have spent a week of sleepless nights putting up 100 laminated posters, and delivering 100 leaflets into letter boxes.
I have never lived in an urban environment for any length of time before. I have learned that this is a comfortable place to live, and very little else. The spaces for wilderness are nowhere to be found. I want the wild places because it gives a different meaning to my loss – and it also gives more places where my cat might survive in different ways. Along the way this week I have found (or re-found) the ideas about wilding of environments that are expressed so eloquently by George Monbiot. We need these ideas and this reality as urban dwellers. We need to have the wild around us, in all kinds of ways.
At the moment, my only hope is that someone is wooing him to their door bit by bit, and that he will ultimately come home safely to us. There are some drainpipes where frogs live, and some waste ground around the building sites – of which there are many. But the building sites are too active for a cat to feel safe during the day. The thing about living in a completely urban environment is that the meaning of pets becomes so much more important. Every little cosy part of our lives becomes precious. We build a cocoon around our comfortable lives, and the animals become an essential part of our eyes and ears and senses. They are what we live through in a way that I never discovered before.
I have loved and lost pets before. Most notably when I was 14 I lost my little jack russell (Barney). He was poisoned, so it was the ‘dead’ kind of loss, not the navigational kind of loss. That afternoon I set off on a journey around the hills of my home then, and after several hours I came back a vegetarian. I can’t exactly tell you how that happened in terms of reasoning. I knew that I did not want to add to the sum of suffering the world, and that this was my reason for never wanting to be involved in killing animals again.
Back then there was not even a word for ‘vegetarian’ in Ireland. I hadn’t heard of Robert Cook (1646-1726), who was a vegan farmer – but back then he called himself a Pythagorean. However, he wouldn’t have entered the family narrative, on account of being a protestant. And apparently there was a vegetarian restaurant opened on Grafton Street in 1891, which lasted for a respectable 20 years. Nowadays there are wonderful Irish vegetarians – and George Monbiot has written “Reg. However, in my world there was no such thing as a vegetarian – but it was my way of confronting what was a reality that has been consistent for nearly 50 years. I like to think that it was my way of discovering a deeply atavistic strand in Ireland – where we identify with animals and have an identity that is closely connected with how we treat and live with animals.
Anyway, the point is that I have lived with and loved other animals who have been lost to me since then. Usually, I am prepared to weep and move on. This time however, I can feel a deep change unfolding within the grief. Partly it is because I realise that this foreign land is where my cat is now lost. I have to ask the earth to care for him, and I don’t know much about this particular patch of earth. However, my friend Tonja has a sacred relationship with the soil and so her thoughts about my cat are useful.
“Soil behaves like Dust in a Philip Pullman novel: it organises itself spontaneously into coherent worlds, yet we treat it like dirt.” (Monbiot, 2022)
Maybe the soil will nurture him. Yet, the soil needs to not be treated like dirt.
Then I got invited to a Kadampa buddist prayer ceremony yesterday. The chanting was all well and good – hardly scary at all, and I found myself beginning to become the cat and to see the world from his perspective. I think that there was a new element of compassion brought to my grief, but it didn’t really make it any easier to live with – and I reached for the whiskey when I got home. But this beautiful practice was brought tenderly from Tibet, by a monk who took the trouble to make it available. I am grateful for this puja, which was offered for my cat.
Another layer to the grief has involved wandering the streets of Woodville West feeling mad and bereft and identifying with Heathcliff walking the moors in search for his Cathy. The nature of grief also involves ‘place’. The reason why ‘lost’ is such a terrible thing is because we want to be able to locate all our loved ones. I’m fine as long as I have an idea where everyone is – even if that is 12,000 miles away. What’s terrible about ‘disappearance’ is that there is nowhere for the grief to locate itself. I believe that love is mapped into our brains, and the ‘where’ pathway must be a very important one. The bereft can never really rest when they cannot know the final location of their loved ones. This is evident in all the countries where families of the ‘disappeared’ continue to search for decades. In Colombia, for example, the number of disappeared is 120,000.
So much human suffering. This is what grief opens you up to. There are traditions, like the Lakota, where a person who is grieving is considered most wakan, most holy. There’s a sense that when someone is struck by the sudden lightning of loss, he or she stands on the threshold of the spirit world. The prayers of those who grieve are considered especially strong, and it is proper to ask them for their help. This begins to make sense to me. The loss of Todd feels as though it has stripped me of a layer of protection that this comfortable urban environment has wrapped me in. But I recognise that this comfort is a complete illusion. It is an illusion covering up the reality of suffering and loss. There is a groundless openness to loss. There are so many different colours to this sadness, so many different ways of being as every day is faced with the loss of something precious.
At the same time as losing Todd, there has also been the loss of the wonderful Quaker friend, Roger Keyes. Before he left, he said to pass on a message to us that he loved us. Part of my mind is also dealing with the vacuum that this great human has left behind. It is as though the loss is felt most deeply for my cat, but the shaping and filling of the space is coming through what Roger would have said. And of course, he would have used this as an occasion to reach very deeply into the nature of how we connect with the suffering of the world. Even in his 80s he had causes that did not let him rest. His deep and abiding affinity for the Aboriginal people meant that he was hungry to find ways to help; his constant advocacy for Julian Assange put the rest of the country to shame.
I also heard of the passing today of another wonderful NZ man. That was Colin Dunning – the dentist professor turned catholic priest. Something that he said really resonates in this space for me:
“We’ve got this choice … in our lives we can carry our skills and the tools of our trade in front of us on a tray – that separates us from people. Or, we can put them behind our back and bring them out when they’re needed, so that we end up face to face with another human being.”
So it seems that the liminal space that Todd has opened up has woken me from another long sleep. It is always that case that we are on a spiritual journey. I consciously made this my choice when I came to Adelaide, but this gets forgotten at times. I cannot be grateful on his behalf, I must feel every part of his loss. But I can be grateful for the opportunity to reflect and to think about grief in the context of this comfortable life.
Now it’s time to follow up another lead that has come from yet another wonderful caring community member.
Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet by George Monbiot, published by Allen Lane. 2022