Recently the fabric of my universe got re-woven through the adoption of a pair of orange kittens. Today I wanted to write an update about them since so many of y’all were interested, and also to talk about something I was reading about wonderment last week that caught my attention.
Bumble and Bother are getting big so fast–life is hurling itself forward even in the midst of my recent loss. A week or so ago I jokingly stuck Bumble into Mr. Captain’s hoodie and told him, “One day we’ll laugh that there was ever a day that he could fit in there.” Bumble, meanwhile, just sat there and purred thunderously at us, gazing all wide-eyed and kittenish at the strange new humans he’d taken control of, sharing our wonder. (I was right, too; he’s already big enough that I don’t think he’d comfortably fit in there anymore.)
I’m thinking about this topic today because of that Pew report about atheists that everyone is talking about. This is part of their 2014 Religious Landscapes Study. A lot of folks (like our friend Neil Carter, here) are talking about the report’s finding about atheists who may believe in a god or self-professed Christians who may not believe in one at all, which I concede are both interesting, but to me what stood out was this:
In fact, atheists are more likely than U.S. Christians to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% vs. 45%).
The report itself makes it sound simply astonishing that non-Christians might feel wonder about the universe. The expanded report talks about how a whole lot of Americans are actually feeling that way nowadays–way more than felt that way just a few years ago. The funny thing is that as America moves further and further away from the rigid authoritarianism of evangelicalism, the more spiritually satisfied we’re becoming.* However you slice the matter, Christians can’t claim to have a stranglehold on wonderment–but they’d really like us to think that it should be simply mind-boggling that non-believers might ever feel this most human of emotions.
When Oprah Winfrey famously told Diana Nyad that she couldn’t possibly reject religious claims and still feel wonderment about the natural world, she was only echoing what Christians have been saying for years: that non-belief must be some terribly drab and lonely, dark and wintry little slog devoid of the rushes of transcendence that they think are the result of religious faith.
It’s not hard to see why Christians might want–even need–to spread that dishonest bit of false witness. It’s the same reason that advertisers work their asses off to find some claim that will make their product stand out from the competition, like Don Draper did for Lucky Strike in the iconic “It’s Toasted!” scene in Mad Men. If Christianity is seen, even falsely, as the only source of wonder humans can have, and even more importantly the only purveyor of the feeling of wonderment in the world, then people will hopefully feel that they must somehow figure out a way to buy into its claims to gain that feeling–and those who are already adherents will be doubly frightened to seriously examine those claims lest they lose that feeling forever. And I’m not talking out of my ass here–I’ve heard people confess this exact fear many times, and in those initial days of deconversion, when everything is so up-in-the-air, that fear starts looking like a possibility until things calm down again.
So I thought about wonderment as I woke up this morning and found myself gazing straight down into Bumble’s wide eyes. He’d taken up residence right under my arm in a way that didn’t seem remotely comfortable, while his sister had wrapped herself around my head on the pillow. That’s normally how I find them every morning–piled around me and my husband, squeezed into whatever nook or cranny they can find.
There is no stranger or more pleasing feeling than that of a furry body wrapped around one’s head stretching as hard as it can from nose-tip to tail-tip, or anything sweeter to hear than the chirpy, mid-yawn tentative mew of a kitten slowly rousing itself awake. Once the kittens realize that the humans are awake, though, it is ON.
It’s hard to hold anything against any creature this excited to see someone.
The first order of business is breakfast. (It was probably not my smoothest move to introduce them to cream cheese, on that note.) There is no force more insistent than a kitten that thinks it’s breakfast-time. My diabetic white cat doesn’t recognize most foodstuff as valid food and Monster didn’t eat anything that didn’t come in solid round kibble form. But these two will happily inhale anything–including stuff that is not actually food for any organisms. I can’t blame them. You can almost hear their bodies growing by the millimeter. But now whenever they hear someone go into the kitchen they swarm along behind that person amid little sharp kitten trills in hopes of getting a treat.
And damn it, they usually do.
Once they’ve eaten, they sack out somewhere convenient. Lately that’s been either the bed or my recliner. That’s when you can most clearly see the difference between them–as you’ve doubtless noticed, they are all but identical. Bother is perceptibly smaller by now, with rougher fur and a more dilute color than her brother’s brash in-your-face orange marmalade.
They have two speeds: ON OMG ON ON ON GO GO GO, and OFFzzzzzzzz. Bother still does that adorable “death from above!” kitten vertical hop, and at any given moment something might startle her into brushing fully out from ears to tail-tip before dancing sideways out of view. They are both still young enough to think that their tails are all the entertainment a cat could ever need. But they’ll settle for my mechanical pencils. Their latest stunt is somehow turning my computer on to run YouTube videos; I’ve come into the study twice now to find videos playing. I haven’t the faintest idea what buttons they hit on the keyboard to do it. I’ve learned to push my keyboard in so I don’t come back to find my posts turned into “Catlike typing detected.” I’ve been tempted a few times to just let it stand.
These kittens have never, in their entire lives, known anything but love, affection, and kindness from everyone they’ve ever met. It staggers me to see how trusting they are. Maybe we were all like that once, even people who are terrible today.** They even take their weekly toothbrushing like champs–if anything, they’re just a little confused about why I feel the need to do it, but once I’m done they’re off and running again. If I call, they’ll come bounding right into my hands–though their stated preference is for me to do this with cream cheese on my fingertips.
The white cat has gone from infinitely wary to cautiously accepting in these past weeks. He’s huge, about 20 pounds, mostly muscle–he’s just big-boned, with a head the size of a grapefruit, which is to say almost as big as the kittens themselves were when we got them. His tail is as thick around as their legs. They can’t help buzzing around him constantly. I caught him playing footsie with them the other day on the cat tree, and I’ve seen him put up with Bumble sniffing his face as if about to groom him–but he’s not yet ready to allow that liberty. I was never super-worried about his reaction to the kittens, but I’m still happy to see he’s adjusted so well.
When a Christian acts astonished that anyone who’s rejected his or her preposterous religious claims could ever feel wonderment, I have to ask how long that person’s actually existed in this universe, because gang, it is nonstop wonder out here. There is almost nothing in it but wonderment; by proportions and percentages, there is far more awe-inspiring stuff in our universe than there is petty malevolence. Even the jaw-droppingly awful stuff reminds us that behind “awful” is “awe” peeking through the blinds, waiting to emerge again.
One doesn’t need a god to be moral and kind to others; one doesn’t need a god to be smart. One doesn’t need a god to be honest. And one doesn’t need a god to feel wonder. Religion as a whole is 100% superfluous; its presence means nothing, and its absence means even more nothing (a fact that, in itself, is amazing to me). The most controlling Christians I’ve ever met were often the least wonder-filled people one could ever dread to find: banal, incurious, dull, plodding, authoritarian, pedantic. And the most hardcore atheists I’ve ever met have, if given the right kind of flammable liquid and a listening ear, gone on for hours about some astonishing observation or discovery they’ve made about our universe, our world, ourselves, and yes, our fuzzier companions on the journey. Fervency doesn’t always mean control-lust, but rigidity can often be mistaken for enthusiasm.
There are seriously awful things in our world, yes. Sometimes it staggers me that such beauty and playfulness, like these two perfect little creatures right now having what sounds like a sumo match in the bathtub, can exist in the same world as the terrible things that people are capable of doing. The world saw an example of that terrible side of humanity just this past weekend and that is why this update had to wait a bit. There was stuff that needed to be said; my anger carried me far past a place where I could meaningfully talk about kittens, or wonder, or anything else for a little while.
It was reading more about the aftermath of the Paris attacks that made me feel that wonder anew. One story concerned a Parisian bistro owner who had reopened for business right after the attacks in a neighborhood that had been affected by the violence. On his sign he wrote, “the light of the city must not be extinguished, even for one day.”
The author of that story, a CBS correspondent based in Paris, wrote of the sign: “It won’t, and it’s because those villages [within Paris], that sense of community, are what give Paris its strength.” Even in the aftermath of terror, just as people did with previous similar attacks, they are already doing what people do best: recovering, moving on, seeking justice, getting things open again, getting things moving, getting things fixed, and sticking together.
If someone can behold that beautiful human spirit, that amazing resilience, that power of strength in compassion and fortitude, and feel nothing: if such a person can feel nothing of the same wonder that one might feel watching a pair of activated kittens tear across the room or the dusky sky fill gradually with pinpoint lights and cloudy star-mist, then I’m not totally sure how to help. But for all the rest of us, enjoy some kittens today. It’s dinnertime, they’re informing me, so I’ll sign off here. See you Thursday!
* I realize that evangelicals themselves will likely splutter at this point about how obviously demons or “just wanting to sin” are behind this greater spiritual contentment, but that’s such a laughably ad hoc explanation that all one can do in response is offer the J-Laww “Okay yeah” thumbs-up:
** Sometimes I get this bizarre disconnect in my head, listening to one of them talk. I suddenly realize This awful person was a very little child once. And I’m transfixed, wondering how this terrible person could go from a trusting, sweet, innocent child to what I behold before me. I wonder what on earth happened to that person, what series of events made him or her like that. I don’t think that the “love of money” is the “root of all evil.” I think fear is. Fear makes us frustrated, angry, greedy, and most of all rigid. Fear freezes us; it makes us focus on ourselves to the point where we can’t even see the stars. I’m not immune to it, but I’m far and away a less fearful person than I was while religious, and even then my specific fears are very different nowadays from the childish and clearly contrived fears I faced once. That “easy yoke and light burden” bullshit didn’t last long any longer for me than it tends to last for any other fundagelical Christian.
See you next week! We’ll be talking about thankfulness and turkeys. Also, if you have pictures of your pets that you’d like to share, mi casa es su casa.