Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Meditation: Hedgehogs, Dead Cats, & Pope Francis

Eternity: for all its invisibility: we gaze at it.

--Muriel Barbery

Intelligence is not enough to enter into the mystery of God, but what is needed is "contemplation, closeness, and abundance."

--Pope Francis

As I climbed Lulani Road on my bike the other day, I saw the first dead cat. It was lying beside a truck on a driveway where I once saw a litter of tiny kittens and picked up the runt to move her away from the road. I heard music from a radio (did it come from the truck, or the house further back?) There were people somewhere nearby.

The cat had been dead for a while, I thought as I took the picture and got back on my bike. Had it been moved there from the street? Had it suffered? Why was the anole so interested in the cat's body? The leaf?

Soon, I saw other dead animals: a toad, a couple of birds. Flattened on the black asphalt. But it wasn't until I got back on Kahekili that I realized that my day's meditation so completely focused on death. I saw my second dead cat, huge with bloat, on the grass beside the highway. More birds. The ride had taken on a weight that my rides do not usually assume. I saw a man carrying a girl on his shoulders, and said "excuse me!" as I went around him. At the moment I did so, one SUV next to me smashed into the SUV ahead of it. The man with the girl kept going. From the front, as I turned around, I could see that his face was impassive and that she also lacked visible affect. I asked the driver of the first car if I'd caused the accident by creating a distraction and was told no.

I crossed the intersection across from the local sewage plant and headed home. Then I saw the third cat, small, long-haired, dead beside the road. He looked very like one of our new kittens, Thurney, except that Thurney's face has more white on it, with a round black spot on his chin.

There are Buddhist exercises that ask you to consider your own death, regard your own corpse, and bear the image with equanimity. Look long enough at these cats and their stillness ceases to remind you of the violence of their deaths by the road. The road, if you attend to its edges, devotes itself to death. Everywhere, there are shrines by the road to traffic fatalities. Some shrines come with photographs of the deceased; we learn their high schools, their sports teams, their family names. The weathering of the markers measures time's passage since they were first remembered at (or near) the place where they died. On this day I didn't need to sit on my cushion; it was as if the road were meditating for me.


The dead cats are not Vermeers; they lack the distance paint would offer. The photographs only hint as such distance--at least for me, as I took them. While the photographs have made a pattern (three dead cats on a single 50 minute bike ride), pattern is often as much accident as it is structure. As my husband says, "that's just the way of the world," meaning that I simply saw what always happens. But seeing what is there already is one way to define an education.


Muriel Burbery has her closeted intellectual concierge, Renee, write about a Dutch still life: "It is a still life, representing a table laid for a light meal of bread and oysters. In the foreground, on a silver plate, are a half-bared lemon and a knife with a chiseled handle. In the background are two closed oysters, a shard of shell, gleaming mother-of-pearl, and a pewter saucer which probably contains pepper." She describes her reaction as "an esthetic blackout. I no longer know who I am." Renee, who is obsessed with Beauty, embarks on a long discussion of the meaning of the still life, finding ultimately that, "In the scene before our eyes--silent, without life or motion--a time exempt of projects is incarnated, perfection purloined from duration and its weary greed--pleasure without desire, existence without duration, beauty without will. For art is emotion without desire." It's been cleansed of the artist's desire and offered to the spectator as a kind of vaccination (a dead virus that activates the body's response). Desire comes of all manner of infections (ambition foremost among them), but art heals the infection. We receive beauty in its purity, not its toxic but alluring stew.


Yesterday, Radhika's cousin marveled that small children talk about objects as if they're dead. Art, Renee would add, is what takes the dead object and gives it life, by way of the viewer's eye. But you need the object and the painting of it; over the course of several bitter pages, she dismisses Husserl's phenomenology. We don't create the world, except insofar as we can see that it exists outside our perceptions of it.


Richard Rohr writes in Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi: "the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death." Consider that the still life has survived the death of itself into art. But I still want to know what to do with the cats, the toad, the birds on the road. I know that their deaths were likely caused by cars driven by people who weren't paying enough attention, especially during the recent heavy rains. These cats are not art (nor do my photographs make them art). My response to them is very different from my response to a Vermeer. They do not open me up, these dead cats, at least not in the way that a work of art does. Insofar as I feel a surge of empathy, it mixes with disgust, horror's grace note. They are more complicated than beauty.

In Barbery's book, the event of the still life is followed by that of a remembered camellia. Her epiphany about beauty cedes to one about another person's survival. She'd given the name of the flower to a young man killing himself with drugs; later, he returns to say that the flower, and its name, had saved his life. Beauty mitigating pain again. Her communication of the word is as powerful as the flower's beauty. By the time the young man returns, the flower is dead, but not its name. (I hear a Keats' poem revving up in the near distance.)


To offer up a name is an act of generosity. It brings the speaker closer to her listener. This closeness is important to mystical thinking. Pope Francis writes: "The image that comes to me is that of a nurse... healing wounds one after another, but with her hands." Renee dies at the end of the book as she tries prevent a homeless person from wandering into the street; an oncoming van hits her. She has reached out with her hands. She doesn't know what people will see when they bend over her broken body. "But inside me, the sun." Only a novelist can imagine a character's dying perceptions, write for her, "And then I died." Could she do something similar for a cat? Maybe Murakami could, but that would be fantasy.


Closeness precedes pattern, does not promise it. If grace (as President Obama put it) comes arbitrarily and by accident, and if moments of caring prove fatal because a character acts before she thinks, then perhaps to find pattern in these events is too much to hope for. They are accidents, not rules. They are moments without superstructure. The Pope, like Renee on the subject of universities, attacks thinking that isn't infused with feeling: "Faith passes through a still . . . and becomes ideology. And ideology doesn't share. There is no room for Jesus in the ideologies: his tenderness, love, meekness. And the ideologies are rigid, always."


Yesterday, I drove home the back way from Kāne`ohe, along the route where I'd seen the dead cats. They were gone, the grass by the highway freshly mowed. Everything was clean and trimmed. I was safe in my car. It was as if habit had closed back over the eye of exceptions disguised as pattern. Evidence of death had been removed by the road crew and taken into memory. I'm reminded that the term for "still life" in French is "nature morte," or dead nature. I had seen it so.



Muriel Barbury, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Europa Editions, 2008.

Pope Francis, Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday, Random House, 2015.

Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, Franciscan Media, 2014.


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