What gives me joy, you ask?
I know you didn’t, but I’ve been asking myself this question during pandemic lockdowns. And the short answer is: Trees, books, words, sneakers, spring, and cats.
It’s a nice list, I think, because it’s simple. There’s one quirky joy though, which can’t be expressed in a single word. This one requires a bit more explaining.
It might seem weird to some, but I get effervescent feelings from collecting quirky books. Often small in size, but not exclusively so, and written by obscure authors, these are books hardly anyone has ever heard of, let alone read. I hold these books in a special place in my heart. They tell me stories about me.
MESSAGES FROM THE UNIVERSE
My curiosity about the wonder of books has led me, over a lifetime, to the deepest stacks of book stores in every city I’ve ever visited. Libraries, garage sales, book trades, flea markets, wherever books can be found, I am compelled to dig around. Something quirky and mind-blowingly relevant (to me) always shows up.
The Zen of Cat Walking: Leash Train Your Cat and Unleash Your Mind is one of those books.
Just from the subtitle alone I knew immediately I had to own it, since it brings all my joys together into one rectangular object: Trees, books, words, sneakers, spring, and cats.
LOOKING FOR CONNECTIONS
I stumbled upon The Zen of Cat Walking, by Clifford Brooks, while wandering around Google, rather than my neighbourhood. Because of, you know, lockdown.
Just to get outside, I’d been walking my cat Taco daily during the pandemic’s darkest days. It gives me joy, but it’s also an activity that invites a lot of strange looks. Despite the laughing reactions of people who walk past us as we linger, attached by a leash, in the front yard, Instagram tells me catty constitutionals aren’t that fringey. People do it.
The book’s cover illustration shows a guy in a park, surrounded by trees, hovering above a park bench. He’s meditating. An orange tabby, on a leash that runs up to the guy’s hand, smiles. It’s a cool late summer day, judging by the green trees and the guy’s clothes. If you look long enough, you can almost hear the birds twittering.
If you’re like me,” writes Brooks, “you see your cat looking out the window, separated from the natural world by a thin pane of glass, and you feel a pang of regret. You know he longs to be part of that world, to feel the wind and the sun on his coat, to stalk birds and squirrels, to eat grass, and to become a participant instead of just an observer. And you think, maybe, just maybe you have one of those rare cats who don’t bow to common wisdom, a cat who has never been told he can’t walk on a leash.”
Brooks provides simple and sensible instructions for fitting your cat with a leash or harness in a slow and generous way. It’s very detailed and helpful. But he doesn’t stop there. He also provides simple and sensible instructions for sitting Zazen. Colour pictures appear alongside clear, enjoyable prose that explains both processes in just the right amount of detail.
MORE THAN A HOW-TO
How-to writing is a unique skill, and Brooks has it. But this book is more than a useful instructional book. It’s also a meditation on our relationship with nature, and our relationship with the nature of being alive.
My favourite parts of The Zen of Cat Walking are the mini-profiles of actual human-cat couples. Brooks’ has done the work of interviewing and writing about real people who walk their cats, as well as how they do it and why. As a journalist, I can see how much time and passion went into his research and writing.
The Zen of Cat Walking has become a symbol for me of this strange moment we’re living in. Holding it in my hands will forever bring me back to the spring, summer and fall of 2020, when I stood out in the front yard almost every day, attached by a leash to my cat, meditating on my relationship to nature and the nature of being alive.
PETS ARE A REFUGE
Animals don’t know there’s a pandemic. They’re not anxious about climate change, and they don’t bring Trump into the conversation. They provide refuge from our inner storms.
As I type up the final paragraphs of this book review, it’s late on a Saturday morning. My cat Taco lingers around my laptop. She was hoping to go out earlier, but it’s too snowy today.
I gave her a salmon treat instead, and groomed her for a long time. As I swept the brush along her back, she crept over to her dish in tiny steps, so she could eat while I brushed. She likes to combine multiple sources of joy in one moment, too!
Now Taco has curled up on a blanket I keep on my desk for just this purpose. I sit quietly near her, writing, while snow falls outside and a pandemic rages on.
Come to think of it, I think I’ll add “writing near cat” to the joy list right now.
Next matter of business: Should I buy Brook’s first book? It’s called Toilet Train Your Cat, Plain and Simple. I’m not sure about the joy factor… but I don’t know, I wonder if Brooks might surprise me.