by Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - April 23, 2007) On April 11, 2007, Kurt Vonnegut died. He was 84. Three days later, on April 14, 2007, Bijou died. She was about 18, or in human terms, close to 90. This has not been the happiest week for our little household. Both Jan and I held Mr. Vonnegut in the deepest, loving, and respectful esteem. We also held Bijou in the deepest, loving, and respectful esteem. So did she in return. Both had much influence on our lives. Mr. Vonnegut, through his relentless efforts to abolish war, to banish violence from Pavlovian human consciousness, his deriding of our consumerist culture, and his outrage at the ecological ravages reaped upon Mother Earth by sheer human greed. Bijou's influence was more modest. She graced our daily lives from the very day she adopted Jan in 1990. She was fiercely independent, defending that independence with her sharp claws whenever she felt like it, and yet purring at a moment's notice when on Jan's lap.
What brings a famous writer and a stray cat together, besides their untimely death and our resulting sadness and mourning? What's the bridge between that human and that feline? One word that epitomizes what so many of us -- yet too few, it would appear -- strive to make a paradigm change happen: kindness.
I have not read most of Kurt Vonnegut's novels. Jan has read almost all. I've limited myself to his commentaries in various venues (e.g., In These Times) and his last published book, A Man Without A Country (Seven Stories Press, 2005). Yet, when we asked each other what we cherished most about the author we both came up with the same word: kindness.
I've read quite a few obits in the main media and in the blogoshere. None mentioned that attribute. They all reflected on his dark humor, his eccentricities, his pessimism, his grumpiness, his "curly hair askew," but none mentioned that aspect of his character.
It might look awkward, or tacky, or corny, or out of place that I would dare to associate Mr. Vonnegut and Bijou. Yet, they both shared that quality. They were kind beings. I'm sure he would not have minded the association. Bijou was delightful company to keep.
When she got empapaoutée (impregnated) by some alley cat, I helped her give birth to a stillborn; a little female; and a baby boy that we kept, Luigi, who's now an orphan, but for the home and love we've provided to him for some 17 years. Cats, like dogs -- two (Priam and Mestor) enhance our lives -- or chickens, and all the critters that surround us are incapable of harming us. They are all loving beings. They are kind and affectionate. They do not destroy.
Human destruction, Kurt Vonnegut knew all too well about it, having survived by the sheer strike of luck the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War Two. Then, he and the whole human construct witnessed Hiroshima and Nagasaki (I wonder how many cats, dogs, and critters perished in that double genocide -- we rarely mention them, do we?). He revisited the slaughterhouses time and again, from the Korean to the Vietnam Wars, from Nicaragua to Iraq, one and two, and so many more human exactions against our fellow humans and the entire natural habitat. He developed a shield not in the form of steel and bulletproof jackets, but of dark, trenchant satire.
He understood war making: The privileged few send the many wretched masses to the battlefields in order to enrich themselves further and keep their position of power and the control of the masses. He breathed that knowledge and exhaled it like he did with his unfiltered Pal-Malls. Kindness originated in the natural, unblemished streams, the deepest reservoirs of his voyages into horrific depressive darkness from which one can only pass away or encounter that magical, almost transcendent, state where love wins the day.
Thinking of wars and the abominations we wreaked on the Earth and onto The Others, both conditions he grasped all too well, Kurt Vonnegut would have seconded another very kind man, one who was wounded in Italy during WWII and lost the sight in one eye, Martin Murie, another octogenarian who regularly graces our pages.
In the April-May Edition of The Canyon Country Zephyr (Moab, Utah), Martin wrote:
We can quibble till the cows come home about whether certain wars are worth fighting. But one fact is clear, twentieth and twenty first century high-tech wars are clumsy, dumb-bomb systems, their killings and woundings more indiscriminate than ever before in the history of our species. That's one reason modern war has no moral standing. Furthermore, the war hawks of today are still on that age-old moth-eaten track, sending the poor and powerless to kill and die for ever more outrageous demands by the rich and powerful for control of Nature's "resources," and peoples' livelihoods and ways of living. [...]
Meanwhile our home planet has been suffering under wholesale plundering, from the southern regions where 12 penguin species are endangered to northern regions where polar bears, woodland caribou, and many others are threatened with extinction. It's not global climate change alone. It's reckless mining, lumbering, urban sprawl, chemical agriculture, plastic proliferation, over-fishing, over grazing, acid rain, mercury contamination of the food chain, crazy motorized recreation, lavish resorts for the rich, underpaid temp jobs for workers, and more, lots more. You know all this. Why repeat it? It bears repeating, that's why. ("Losing Solitude," Martin Murie, Zephyr April-May 2007.)
Martin advances that most of his thoughts are viewed as "extremist" in the bien-pensant, conformist society that shackles people's inherent kindness. Kurt Vonnegut too was an "extremist" -- so was Bijou, and many other fine inhabitants of that little place we call Earth. Think of Wendell Berry, Kathy Kelly, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Howard Zinn, Harry Belafonte, and the legions that in the midst of despair have never despaired. These were and are beings who do not take no for an answer. They refused and refuse to give up to the litany of hopelessness and abjection that surrounds us. They dug and dig into, drank and drink from, the marrow of a life that makes us congruent to its larger meaning whatever that meaning may be in all the cultures that sow the planet -- human and animal (is there a difference?) -- and reject barbarianism, extortion, destruction, pilfering, theft, material greed, killing, torture, enslavement, racism, all fundamentalisms, and, among many other expressions of negative, violent endeavors, nastiness.
What does it say about the state of a country and the insanity of its culture that war abolitionists and ardent defenders of the ecosystem -- unrepentant environmentalists -- are regarded and dismissed as "extremists" or "radicals" who more often than not face imprisonment, or worse, for deep convictions based on respect, non-violence, and kindness?
To cite Mr. Vonnegut, "We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife."
There's a small redwood grove near the house. I dug a tiny resting place for Bijou. Jan gently laid her body in it. Then, we placed yellow wildflowers on top of her, and after a few minutes of silent contemplation and reminiscences about all the goodness that little friend had brought to us I filled the hole with a rich earthy soil that had been nurtured by the redwoods for many moons.
And there, when I visit during a walk or a dog run, I will remember her and think of Kurt Vonnegut as well. He would have loved that peaceful, caring, and kind spot in Nature.
So it goes.
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