A few Sunday mornings ago, we went outside to the deck for our coffee and found a familiar sight: The two cats, Brian and Panda, were sleeping under the chairs in the warm, bugless morning air. A little earlier they had eaten their complimentary canned-food breakfast. The bear-cublike orange one, Brian, who shows all the signs of Maine coon cat ancestry, was stretched flat on his side, eyes asquint, claws kneading slowly in and out, purring.
“These cats must have done some really good deeds in their past lives to be living like this now,” I said.
“Brian probably did,” Bonnie said as she settled into her sunny chair with her coffee, “but not Panda.”
Brian, who’s 5 years old, has the reputation of being cool, calm, collected and kind (except to small creatures like the unfortunate vole whose body was offered before sunrise to square with Bonnie’s feet). Panda, who’s about 3 years old, is the household equivalent of the village idiot. He was so completely untroubled there among the pots of plants with his dreaming feet that his fur might as well have been black and white pajamas.
“You mean Panda’s cashing in good karma he hasn’t earned yet?” I said.
“No, it’s not that,” she answered. “Brian appreciates what he’s got. You can tell. When he lounges around like this and rubs against your leg and comes to greet you when you drive up in the car, he’s spreading around gratitude. When Panda does it, he just wants the pats.”
“But Panda’s not mean,” I said. “He’s just a fool.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Panda doesn’t know how good he’s got it. He just expects it. He thinks this is just the way it is.”
“But Panda seems so happy to see you when you drive up. He rolls around in the dirt just like Brian.”
“But Brian understands he’s being provided for, and Panda doesn’t. Brian’s an older soul,” she said.
Now part of what she meant was that Brian had a life-changing experience when he was about a year old. He was stalking in the trees partway down the driveway when Jack drove up with one of his buddies. They must have startled Brian, and he leapt straight into the car’s grill. When I saw him lying there, I thought he was dead. We took him to the vet even though he seemed beyond salvation. Long story short, after an overnight stay he came back to life, but with a headache that appeared to last for months. We think that old catastrophe still encroaches on him in the form of the recurring headache and being excessively jumpy at sudden noises. But he also turned into a very affectionate and knowingly intelligent, and seemingly — if anthropomorphization is allowed — appreciative cat.
Panda on the other hand has never seemed to understand how good he’s got it, or anything else for that matter. Jack rescued him from a cardboard box under a counter in a scroungy pet shop. He was red-eyed, dirty, bone-skinny and bug-infested. He had terrors for days after he arrived at our house, and Brian was none too happy about him. But eventually he settled into the routine of breakfast, sleeping, prowling abundant woods, and also witlessly doing every possible ridiculous thing a cat can do — scratching to come inside 12-30 seconds after you’ve settled into a chair in the living room; or repeatedly failing to make corners and crashing into walls; or slipping one body part at a time off the deck railing and finally splattering on the ground; or sleeping in the middle of the driveway forgetting that cars do not go around him.
Panda, in other words, does not seem to have learned anything. Brian, on the other hand, seems to have deep-seated cat wisdom. What this leads to, in Bonnie’s cosmology, is gratitude on Brian’s part and complacent greed on Panda’s part.
“Panda’s operating on karmic credit and is going to have to pay for it, is what it seems like to me,” I said.
“It’s not that simple,” Bonnie said. “You can’t make a balance sheet of karma. It’s not like a checkbook with one-to-one expenses and credits. It’s a whole complication of factors that interplay among themselves over long periods of time.”
“Over cat lifetimes?” I said.
“Who knows. What you do comes back to you, my grandmother used to say,” she said.
She sipped her coffee and cut up an orange. A green-glinting hummingbird buzzed our heads, and a squad of mourning doves suddenly scattered on beating wings into the firs and cedars. The cats looked up, then went back to their rest.