It’s high time I came out and admitted it: the most important teachers in my life have been decidedly non-human. Much of who I am and most of what I’ve authored grew out of the experiences and lessons of nature. I’ve been instructed by the rootedness of plants and the parable of a fallen baby swallow, armed and empowered by my growing connection to the land, humbled by a sometimes flooding river, and transformed as well as informed by the poignant examples of our fellow creatures.
Not all of my numerous critter mentors, however, have exactly been what you’d call “wild.” Pumpkin-Sigh was a particularly fine teacher and role model for me, a veritable furry buddha, a fuzzy feline soothsayer if dressed in a rather ordinary orange-tabby coat. He was the last of a long line of backwoods canyon cats, his every need tended and every insight recorded by the man-who-writes. Like those venerable masters who preceded him, Pumpkin-Sigh brought forth a special joy we’d do well to emulate, and an ageless wisdom that we too can share. His instructions for a satisfying and honorable life were simple, imparted through evocative wordless example. I’ve been privileged to translate, as follows:
1) Focus on the present moment, or else it might get away.
2) Live as if there’s no such thing as the future, because in a sense there really isn’t.
3) You know full well who you are. If you find you can’t relate to the names that some people call you, simply ignore them!
4) Pretense is a disease of the masses, tool of the controllers and strategy of the weak. Who the heck cares what most humans think? Be your true self at all costs.
5) You’re a cool cat, so refuse to be pigeonholed.
6) Be wary and suspect, without sacrificing your cuddliness.
7) Freedom is more important than even sex or food. Fight to keep anyone from ever sticking you in a box.
8] Pester whoever is in authority until you’re allowed to go outside.
9) Insist on what is most real. You darn well know the difference between genuine water-born fish and so-called “fish-flavored”!
10) Believe in what you can see and taste, and not what people seem to try so hard to tell you.
11) You’re capable of learning from your mistakes and moving on. If you happen to have swallowed any hair-ball lies, simply hack and spit ‘em back out.
12) You are a wild-willed creature, perhaps a companion but never anyone’s pet.
13) Getting dragged to a behavior modifying school, doesn’t mean you have to behave.
14) Though you don’t need to be mean spirited about it, a degree of disdain is natural… and to be expected of any individual with discernment, taste, and even the most elemental standards for our coinhabitants on this planet.
15) Never waste your waste products on a perfumed litter box, when they can be put to better use making a political statement or avenging some perceived indignity.
16) Self defense is an act of self respect.
17) Never fake affection.
18) Indulge in the nourishing comforts of life, whether that means treating yourself to a bowl of warmed milk on a chilly day, or taking a break from all your worthy activities to catnap in the sun.
19) On the other hand, doing the unplanned or the scarily unfamiliar can be a real character builder, and greatly enrich your experience of life. Risk discomfort for the sake of adventure.
20) If you have something significant to express, by all means sing it out. Otherwise, you will experience and learn more if you walk silent and keep quiet.
21) Purr to indicate you’re happy with your meal.
22) Always play with your food!
23) Balance out all the good eating by running up and down trees.
24) Chew on a few flowers like afterthoughts, and then enjoy gazing at the rest until you’re cross-eyed.
25) Explore the ordinary, as though it were infinitely fascinating — because it is!
26) Life is precious, finite and fleeting, so don’t let a single butterfly go by unnoticed.
27) Maintain self awareness and pride, even when acting as silly as you feel.
28) And whenever not busy making a statement, playing with your food, running up and down trees or exploring fields of wildflowers… curl up tail-to-nose with a loved one and sleep.
Pumpkin-Sigh died of old age over a decade ago. He was not replaced with another cat, much as my family and I love and even sometimes crave another feline in our lives. This is in part because of the no-pet covenants that are part of the sanctuary being designated a wildlife and botanical refuge, with the beautiful lizards and ground pecking birds clearly relieved. But mostly, it is because he was irreplaceable.
May you all find in your animal companions not just love but but a connection to the natural world in all its wonder and with all its faithful instruction… and through the natural world, the nature of your own truths.