Sunday, 26 June 2011

Claws and Teeth

  When I was a little feller, we had a cat named Freddy.  I was taught that there was a God who'd designed the world, and people and cats and dogs and things like that.  (if you weren't raised that way, just imagine I said "evolution" instead of God in that sentence, if it makes you feel better)  I was fascinated with Freddy.  He was a large black cat with short soft fur, and he liked hunting.  And sleeping curled up in the bathroom sink basin on hot nights.
  So, I was basing my view of "What kind of worker is God anyway?  What stuff does He like to make?" upon His work in having made a three-year old's pet cat.  I was amazed at how quick and agile Freddy was, how he could hide in any room he felt like and you really, really couldn't find him, how he could end up on top of bookshelves and the like, sitting primly far above where I could reach.  And the way he could just ask to leave the house in the middle of the night and they'd let him go uptown on his own, and despite traffic and children and who knows what, he'd come back, often having killed and eaten something.  One time he killed a rabbit about as big as he was, and ate as much of it as he could and lay around blissfully for days with a bloated stomach. I was terribly impressed.  I certainly would not have been able to catch a rabbit, let alone kill it.
  My parents always had time for me, and always had to look after my needs when I was a toddler, but the cat was different.  If he got sick of us, he'd just hide where we couldn't find him, or simply leave and go uptown.  And one time he did something I was not prepared for; I was petting him more than he wanted, he tried to leave and I tried to pick him up, and he scratched my arm so that it bled.  Point made.
  I had to think about that one.  God made this warm, purring, fuzzy, acrobatic creature.  And He gave him teeth and claws enough to really hurt me.  And the more I got to know him, the more he seemed like a being designed purely to track motion and kill things.  All of his playing with yarn and balls of paper and sneaking around and pouncing on things seemed more like killing practice.  It was also clear that he found a deep and abiding satisfaction in using his teeth and claws on things.  That game he played where he'd grab hold of my teddy bear with his front claws hooked deeply into it to secure it while he raked it with his hind claws?  That was just practice for grabbing hold of struggling prey while he tore its guts open with his hind claws. (we had a German Shepherd too.  I didn't learn a thing about violence from her, though, as she was nothing but motherly to me)
  The thing about this was, all of this made him much more, rather than less, cool.  It meant when he jumped up on the bed purring, and wanting to rub his cheek scent all over me, he was in THAT mood, and when he wanted to go kill something, he was in THAT mood.  It meant when he was being nice, he was choosing that, and he had two sides to him.  Not like a Care Bear.  Not like the Jesus they told us about in Sunday School.  (He was described as being gentle, meek and mild and loving children.  Bit of a prat, really.  Samson was cooler.)
  Of course I learned that real people had two sides too.  My dad could hug me, but could also shout and hit and break stuff.  Made his kindness mean something.  And even socially, people were like that too. Compliments and generosity sometimes, slights and sarcasm at other times.  Dumb kids just thought that angry adults were mean.  I entertained the notion that losing one's temper was part of being a real person.
  Weird thing I saw: some people wanted to get hairless cats their kids couldn't be allergic to, get their claws and reproductive organs surgically removed, and then not let them out of the house, so they'd be "safe."  (Same thing with their cats.  For a few decades, vets have been routinely prescribing Prozac for cats who seem dissatisfied with their lot in life.  Any thoughts on reasons why?)  This just didn't seem right to me.  We wouldn't remove a baby's vocal chords to quiet it, would we?
  When I went to university and studied William Blake's poetry, he had a pair of poems that talked about "what kind of God would make a tiger, anyway?!"  They were in a book called Songs of Innocence and Experience.  The first one is about how nice and harmless and cuddly and innocent a thing a lamb really is:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

  Now THIS was Sunday School stuff.  "Thank You God For Making Peanut Butter!" and so on.  God is nice.  He's our Pal.  The lamb is nice.  God is nice.  I didn't like that poem one bit.  The Tiger poem, on the other hand, is quite a bit different:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

  Now that kind of thing wasn't really talked about in Sunday School.  Sounded a bit like Lord of the Rings stuff, actually, in places.  We were told not to listen to heavy metal music (the lyrics of which sounded quite like that) also.  And the thing is, we thought all that stuff was cool.  Fire?  Spears?  Hammers?  Chains?  Monsters in the night?  AWEsome!  And there were huge parts of the bible devoted to slaughter, whores, blood, fire and mythic creatures with teeth and claws.  We coloured pictures of peanut butter and letters which said "Thank You God For Making Peanut Butter!" instead, thereby learning the necessity of putting an exclamation point after every religious pronouncement!
  They didn't teach us kids that cool heavy metal, Lord of the Rings bible stuff.  And, unsurprisingly, when some of the kids lost siblings in snowmobile or car accidents, or to cancer, and when kids lost parents, the "lambs are nice/thank you god for making peanut butter!" faith they'd been given was manifestly not adequate to deal with the shake up their world views were going through.
  And I've been to churches that have a Sunday morning service that's almost all about "God's our Pal!  We sure looooooooove Him!" I've been to churches that tell the story of Jesus without one harsh, revolutionary, judgemental word spoken by the man, and no blood, no death, and no pain.  Or they skim uncomfortably over those bits so they can get back to singing "We sure looooooooove Him!" songs without being brought down too much, like a bunch of khaki pant and golf shirt wearing Care Bears, swaying with their kids in time to the cheerful stuff.  
  The world God made (or "evolution" if that makes you feel more comfortable) and the people and things in it, it turns out, have claws and teeth.  (Of course there are lambs too.  And peanut butter.  And if you can avoid getting kicked by their sharp, hard little hooves, you can hold lambs and stroke them.  If you don't mind getting mud and lamb shit on your khaki pants)