Windmill Stumblebum … and Other CreaturesSorry I’ve been absent for so long, but I’ve been writing a book, and considering most of the 100 or so posts on this blog answer most questions I receive, I took a holiday from post-writing. Anyway, I thought I might write something different for this new post – the story of a much beloved friend of mine. I hope you enjoy it.
……………………………………Every so often in a life one meets an exceptional being, someone so unique and inspiring they enhance life simply by being who they are. There have been a couple of people like this in my life, but in this special case, it was not a person who astounded and inspired me – but a very small and emaciated kitten with paralyzed legs. Being a monastery kitten, one of hundreds that year, he had no name. So I called him Windmill Stumblebum. I found some photos of him the other day, and they reminded me of what an extraordinary creature he was, so I thought I’d write this post for him, because I’ve never forgotten him. I hope you enjoy this story of our short friendship and the magical place where it happened. I got to know Windmill over four months in 1992 at the Sorn Thawee Meditation Center in Chacheongsao, Thailand, where I’d gone for a four month meditation retreat – the second of many over the coming years. At that time, in a compound covering about 20 acres, there would have been, at a rough estimate, about 30 or 40 full grown dogs – and the same number of cats, all with their own territories mapped out. It’s like this in most monasteries in Thailand. In general, the Thai people are not kind to stray animals, so animals without homes tend to gravitate to the monasteries. There, the Buddhist monks and nuns, while not exactly encouraging them to stay, nevertheless give what they can to any animal that needs it. As a result the monasteries of Thailand are home to a large population of wildlife, all jostling and competing with one another for space and food. And the thing is, none of them are neutered – so in mating season, during the cool months of January and February, the monasteries are a screaming, fighting, cacophony of sex. Then in May and June, the breeding season, they all give birth at a prodigious rate. And that’s when I arrived at Sorn Thawee – at the end of June, the hottest time, the worst season to be in Thailand – a time when only mad dogs and stupid ‘farang’ like me were out in the sun. Sweating like a pig under the weight of a huge back pack, I wandered in through the gates of Sorn Thawee to find an explosion of new life. It was the end of breeding season, so the entire monastery was jumping with pups, kittens and chickens, squawling, tweeting, yapping and mewling from under stairs, bushes, everywhere. For most of these new-born creatures, life is very, very hard. Though the monks and nuns give what leftover food they have, the sheer number of animals competing for these scraps makes it likely that many of these new-born creatures will die or be killed off by each other within a month. Then, during August and October, it’s even harder. As the wet season gets underway, most of those who survived are killed off by the huge range of diseases that come with the extreme humidity of the rainy season. At those times the smell of death is everywhere as creatures born only months before curl up in quiet places to die and become food for ants, flies and bacteria. And the monks and nuns step lightly though it all. To them, this yearly drama of sex, birth and death is simply the cycle of karma and nature, so they don’t interfere. They give what food they can and that’s as far as it goes. The day I settled into the hut I’d been allocated, though the wet season had not yet arrived, I could already smell death coming in whiffs through the window. I looked around outside and found the swollen body of a dead kitten beneath the bridge that crossed the pond outside my hut. It was being consumed by a seething heap of red ants. Crouched next to the corpse was another kitten so starved and diseased it too was almost dead. It seemed delirious, swaying slightly as it idly batted at the ants with its paw. So voracious were these ants, I noticed they were already hard at work consuming its tail – and it wasn’t even dead yet. To save myself from the smell I decided to move the corpse of the dead kitten further down the bank of the pond. But when I went to pick it out of the mass of ants, they swarmed up my arm, biting viciously. Using two sticks, I finally managed to move the dead kitten further down the bank of the pond, and after a short period of confusion the highway of ants soon found the new location. And so did the sick kitten, who followed me and the body of its friend. I tried to coax it away, it seemed not to want to move, so I left it to its fate. With so much death around, and no resources to save it, there was nothing else I could do. The next day it too was dead and covered with ants. Over the following days I became fascinated with the slow, steady dissemination of these two kittens by all the organisms that were feeding on them. During afternoon breaks from meditation, I would go down to see how long it would take the ants to pick the two dead bodies clean. Then I noticed a fascinating thing. By the second day the ants had picked the legs, eyes and tails clean – but they left the torsos intact, which was strange, because both kittens were now seething with maggots. But the ants had totally disappeared. It didn’t make sense. I wondered why the ants were allowing maggots to consume their property. The other thing was, I would have thought the maggots would have been perfect food for the ants – so again, I couldn’t work out why the ants were ignoring them. Then, on the fourth day it all became clear. I came back to find a thick highway of ants carrying the fattened maggots away. Rather than go through the fuss of dismembering the kitten themselves, the ants had let the maggots do all the work, then took them – each one a perfect package of food. I could write a lot about the amazing ways of Thai ants, but maybe another time. Let’s go and meet Windmill. The next day, after the morning meal, I had just resumed meditating when I heard an adult cat snarling and spitting outside my door. This in itself was not unusual. The cats and dogs were in constant war over territory, and usually the snarling would lead to a full-on scuffle, then be over – just another cat fight in a day punctuated by many. But this time the growling and spitting kept on. Considering how hot it was, and the difficulties I was having staying awake as I meditated, it became extremely irritating. I managed to finish that session, but with the snarling still going on, I decided to investigate. On opening the door of my hut, on the bank of the pond outside, I found a ring of seven tiny kittens crouched around a large gray female cat, who I assumed to be their mother. I assumed this because she was pacing up and down in the middle of the ring of kittens, growling and snarling at them. And if one of the kittens dared move or even twitch, she’d clout it over the head with a paw. Like a chastened child the kitten would crouch penitently down, flattening its ears and glancing surreptitiously at its siblings as if to say, ‘We are sooo in the shit.’ Over following weeks I found this crabbiness to be her usual disposition when any of her brood were nearby. She seemed to hate the sight of them. Like a jaded suburban mother who’s absolutely had it with kids, she’d snarl and spit and slash if she saw them. Of course, the kittens, being very young, they were still in the habit of following her about, all perky and playful until she’d spin about and give them another piece of her mind, when they’d immediately crouch, eyes averted and ears flattened until she wandered on, still growling irritably. Then they’d perk up again. Thing is though, as irritable as Mama Cat was, it turned out she took mothering very seriously. On any typical day, around mid-day, after the monks and laypeople had been fed, a kitchen-woman would bring left over food for the animals – usually a large tray of left-over rice and vegetables from the morning meal. She’d cross the bridge and put it on the bank of the pond, close to my hut. Of course, a large collection of dogs and cats would have collected there in expectation of this event. They’d all be jostling around her as she came across the bridge with the tray. But this mob would never make it more than halfway across the bridge, because the area outside my hut was Mama Cat’s territory, and she was fierce about protecting it. She would position herself at the head of the bridge. With her ears tucked back and fangs fully bared she would slash at the air and yowl so loudly, putting on such a wild and ferocious performance, all the dogs and cats would stop in their tracks, thinking it wise to wait rather than to take her on. And right behind Mama Cat would be her seven kittens, and as the kitchen woman put down the tray, they would leapt headlong into the food, as she held her position on the bridge, where she’d stay until the last of them had finished eating. Only then would she back off off and, after taking a few bites of her own, saunter away, snarling wearily to herself as if to say: ‘Kids!!! Who’d have ‘em!’ This was exceptional, but her protectiveness went even further than that. Soon after I witnessed this, I too took to leaving leftovers in the tray for the kittens – but this time she behaved differently, attacking any kitten who got to it before her. At first I thought she was being greedy, keeping the food for herself. Then I realized she was checking the food before allowing the kittens to touch it, because she never took anything for herself. She would sniff at it, then wander off with the usual irritable snarls and growls, only then leaving the crew of kittens to dive in. Gradually over the next few weeks as the rainy season gathered pace, sickness and natural attrition whittled the group of seven kittens down to three. By this time they’d gotten used to me – so would gather outside my hut and wait for me to come out in the afternoons, when I took a break. I gave them names – Bum, Whinger and Butch – and Windmill Stumblebum who joined a little later to make the fourth in the crew. Bum had some sort of wasting sickness. She was all bones and skin and her fur was very thin. And she had some kind of distemper that had taken away her voice so she couldn’t meow – just croaked. I called her Bum because her rectum was so distended it poked out from beneath her tail – it was sort of a feature of the kitten. Strangely enough, as sick as she looked, like all the kittens, her grip on life was quietly tenacious. She was still alive when I left, when other, more healthy looking kittens had long since died. Whinger was a ginger kitten with a personality like her name. Though relatively healthy, she didn’t play or muck about like the other kittens – she’d just crouch beside the pond outside my hut, whining and whinging to herself all day. Butch, (black and white) was the strong one. The rare times Mama Cat wasn’t about, Butch was the one who would stand and fight no matter how big the assailant. Once I saw him stand up to a tomcat ten times his size – a huge scarred brute who’d wandered into the kitten’s territory. Butch put on a magnificent show, crouched with his tiny back haunches primed to attack, ears down, teeth bared – a minute puffball of fury spitting and swiping with barely formed claws. The tomcat paused for a few seconds, looking down in mild surprise. With a single clout it sent Butch spinning over the easement into the pond where he immediately began scrabbling his way back up to have another go. Such an impressive little thing was Butch – always quietly confident, and protective of his kin. But then there was Windmill. The first time I saw Windmill, somehow he had stolen, or been given, a small fish from the kitchen. He came bumbling over the bridge with it in his mouth and wouldn’t let anyone, not dog, human or cat, take it from him. Check out the look in his eyes. I never knew where Windmill came from. He sort of stumbled in from nowhere, seeming to have no family, no mother, and no territory. He just appeared, instantly noticeable by his strange gait. You see, Windmill had some kind of spinal injury – at least that’s what I think it was, because he had no control over the back half of his body. For that reason, he was filthy, because with his disability it was impossible to clean himself. Somehow, being the resourceful kitten he was, he’d survived the obstacle course of the monastery and taught himself to walk – an incredible feat on its own considering most able bodied kittens were dying just trying to survive. Bumbling along dragging his injured back half behind him, if he wanted to pick up the pace he’d get this set look in his eyes. Lowering his head and jutting it forward he’d just go for it, with his back legs wind-milling madly and his bum veering from side to side like a drunk sailor bouncing off walls. From that point until he collided with whatever he was headed for, it was a momentum driven exercise, directed by the set focus of his eyes. And what was most amazing was the blind obedience of his ruined back legs which, spinning madly, followed the brute will of his head, wherever he went. Hence the name I gave him, Windmill Stumblebum. The other kittens hated Windmill, because he didn’t belong. And yet he wouldn’t leave. Once he’d decided that this was the place to be (and it was, considering the constancy of food), he stayed on, regardless of the snarling, growling and slashing from the other kittens. Slowly, patiently, he insinuated himself into the crew over a number of weeks, simply by always being there, always mooching about in the background or scrabbling along behind the pack. As well as being the most persistent creature I’ve ever known, I think Windmill was the most aggressively hungry of the kittens I’ve known. He would eat anything. In fact, the first time I went to give him a pat, he began gnawing at my finger, obviously thinking it was meat. But whenever food appeared he’d go totally berzerk, darting about in front of the crew with lights in his eyes and back legs spinning impossibly, like: ‘Where’s the food! Where’s the food!’ Windmill’s tenacity and will at those times was stunning. As soon as food hit the ground, no matter that there were six or seven other kittens in before him – he’d plunge through the pack head first, and start chewing even before he’d even got a mouthful. Of course, this manic behavior around food caused the other kittens much aggravation, and they would attack him. One time I saw two kittens swipe him so hard from either side of where he was wolfing down food, their claws got stuck in his skull. As Windmill kept right on eating, the two kittens were in a panic trying to extract their claws – but they were embedded so deeply they couldn’t get them out, so in the end they gave up and set to eating with their claws still stuck in Windmill’s head. As inundated as the monastery was with animals and birds, other than leaving left over food, the Thais felt no need to care for them. To them animals and birds are like trees and insects – they fed them in the same way as they watered plants – simply because they were alive. But it was rare that anybody would pat a stray dog or a cat or play with them – they considered animals too dirty to touch. It’s fair to say that before I arrived, these kittens had never been touched by a human, or played with. So in my afternoon break I’d spend an hour playing with them. Result being, I awakened in their little hearts a thirst for affection that was almost unquenchable. One morning, my teacher, Phra Manfred, a very stern German monk, asked me why I was spending time with the kittens. I said, ‘Kindness. I’m giving them affection.’ He shook his head wearily. ‘No, this is not kindness,’ he said. ‘It’s bad karma. You are creating suffering for them, because you are creating attachment in their hearts.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because one day you will be gone. And what will they do then? They will suffer, and you will have caused that suffering. I could see he was right. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. And I could see that indeed I was guilty of sentimentality and self indulgence. But at the same time I figured it was too late now. The damage was done. The kittens had adopted the bushes around my hut as their territory and me as a friend. And considering it was likely they would not survive the rainy season, I figured I might as well give them what I could over the next months. I was meditating for about 10 hours each day, so I’d only leave my hut twice – once in the morning to go to my daily interview with Phra Manfred, and then, at about 4.30 PM, I’d step outside to stretch, walk and play with the kittens for an hour before going back to work. So the crew got to know that this was the time to party. About 4 PM they’d begin congregating around my wire screen door. I’d know they were there because Whinger would bat the screen with a paw, making it rattle, then start whinging – opening and closing her mouth, bringing forth the most extensive vocabulary of meows I’ve ever heard as the others sat waiting in a ring around her, as if listening closely to Whinger gossiping and griping about her day. When I eventually came out, the crew would start milling about, jostling with one another, purring and curling up beneath my hands as I stroked them. Only Windmill hung back. As disabled as he was, he was the most fiercely independent of them all. Never once did he exhibit the same anxious thirst for my affection as the other kittens, though eventually we became friends – but it was always on his terms. But in the beginning his interest was not in me as much as inclusion in the gang. He didn’t want to be patted. He just wanted to be accepted by the other kittens and play. So he’d sit back at a distance, watching them mill around me for a short while. Then, overtaken with a fit of brotherly enthusiasm, he’d try to get a game going. Crouching down behind the crew with a bright playful look on his face, he’d wiggle his bum for a bit, then leap ineptly onto their backs. He was always surprised by their reaction, when they’d throw him off with much snarling and slashing of claws. Repelled so abruptly, he’d immediately pretend disinterest – turn away and become fascinated with a nearby leaf, as if that had actually been what he was interested in. After batting it about for a while, he would bumble off to the side and wash his paws for a while. Having saved face in this manner, he’d then take to mooching about in the general vicinity until something else caught his interest. And something always did. Unlike the other kittens, Windmill was never at a loss for something to do. One day, after he’d been spurned by the crew once again, their reaction had been so violent, he lost his footing on the side of the path and tumbled down to the concrete rim of the pond. Having spent most of his life on the paths where the action was, I don’t think he’d ever been so close to water, because he immediately became fascinated with it, crouching down and gazing into it intently. As I sat on the step of my hut watching, he went still, and I realized he’d discovered the fish darting about just below the surface of the water. It was if he’d been given an electric shock, his captivation was so instant and so strong. As I watched, he edged over the rim of the pond and, teetering precariously, began reaching down to paw at the fish, totally ignoring the fact that he had no power or control in his back legs. ‘He’s going to go in,’ I thought. Sure enough, ten seconds later, plop, he disappeared into the water. By the time I got to him he was already submerged, front legs paddling in vain as his paralysed back end sank beneath him. I remember looking down at him looking up at me, his yellow eyes glowing from beneath the water, more from surprise than fear. Reaching in, I grabbed him by an ear and pulled him out, spluttering and sneezing, and placed him back up on the path. He sat shaking his head for a second, looking more pathetically scrawny than usual, then tried to shake the water off but only succeeded in falling over because his back legs collapsed. When next I looked he was stalking a leaf he’d found dancing in the wind. As the rainy season intensified, the wind, thunder and lightening came on like an invading army. And though the inundation of rain transformed the parched monastery into a verdant paradise, the accompanying humidity brought disease that killed off more of the animals. The remnants of the crew survived, largely because of the bad tempered care of their Mama Cat. Windmill, the interloper, was also a beneficiary. Though still filthy, he was now not so scrawny as he had been when he first began hanging around the crew. And though they still tried to ignore him, the other kittens now reluctantly accepted that he was a part of their crew – so they’d given up making a fuss over food. It took about a week of solid rain to fill the lake at the centre of the monastery, and it was amazing to behold. What had previously been a fetid, lifeless mud pit filled with new water, and voila, life appeared. Suddenly the lake was rippling with fish. But these were not like fish I have ever seen. These fish walked. It happened one morning after a particularly heavy downpour. For the last week, the surface of the lake had been exploding with fish, flicking themselves into the air and splashing down, as if in celebration. I was on my way through a moderately heavy rain to the morning interview when I found a couple of these fish wriggling on the path. Thinking I was helping, I picked them up and threw them back into the lake, only to find more fish further down the path, again wriggling about as if stranded. It was then I realized the fish were jumping out of the lake onto the banks and using their fins and gills to struggle up to the path – ‘walking’. They were everywhere, struggling along, seemingly set on going somewhere. The sense of celebration seemed universal – all the monks and nuns were out in the rain, stepping over them, laughing and giggling. I found the Acharn standing by the lake with his hands behind his back, and he too was laughing at all these fish promenading along the paths. “What’s happening?” I asked. “What do you mean?” he said “All these fish. Why are they walking?” He threw out his arms in the rain and said, “Because they are very happy fish!” I walked away, thinking in my ponderous Western way, ‘Can fish be happy?’ Then I saw another one – a big one, about three feet long. It leapt out of the water and landed on the bank, thump, then started scrabbling up toward the path. Whole families of them were flicking themselves out of the water to wriggle and flip their way along the bank and the paths, before rolling back into the water. I found some up to two hundred meters away, in the pine forest, either lost or extraordinarily adventurous – but strangely, still alive. It occurred to me that perhaps the Acharn was right. After all, human beings are happy to dive into water to swim in the watery world of fish – so it made odd sense that when fish are happy, they leap out of the water to walk about in the airy world of humans. But I digress … back to Windmill. A part of Windmill’s physical disability was, because his back part was paralyzed, he’d get constipated. But this didn’t stop him stuffing food down. So if he ate a big meal, for the next day he’d stagger about looking like a furry black balloon. Sometimes he’d be so painfully swollen I expected him to explode in a shower of catshit and fur, but he never seemed fussed by it. He’d go on bumbling about as if it was nothing exceptional. And though I never saw him have a shit, eventually, somehow, he’d return to his original shape. But those times I saw him try to take a shit, nothing ever came out. I’d watch him go through the elaborate prelude of finding a spot and scratching at the ground. Then after falling over and re-positioning himself a couple of times, he’d squat expectantly, concentrating, during which absolutely nothing would happen. Then he’d turn and check to see what he’d created and search fruitlessly for the results. Finding nothing, he’d turn around, squat, and go through the whole thing again. I realized later he probably had no sensation in his read end, so couldn’t tell if anything had happened unless he checked. Anyway, eventually he’d give up. But the lack of completion never deterred him from meticulously scratching a pile of dirt over the spot and giving it one more hopeful sniff before he left. By now, as I said, Windmill had finally been accepted by the crew. I think Butch, Whinger and Bum just gave in to his persistence, because Windmill never gave up. He always came back no matter how much they mauled, scratched, hissed and insulted him. But what was more extraordinary was, as months passed, I realized that Windmill was accepted everywhere. I’d seen cats get viciously attacked if they ventured too far from my hut – dogs would kill each other for minor transgressions. Every other animal in the compound only had a small area to move about in without coming into violent conflict with another animal. But Windmill, over the four months I was there, when he wasn’t mooching around my hut, I spotted him all over the monastery – up near the Acharn’s house, down by the rubbish pits, across the lake, over where the great hall was being built. He was everywhere. It seemed all territories were open to him – an impossible thing for any animal in a place like this, yet for this crippled little skerrik of life it seemed no boundaries existed. Not only that, but also unlike the other kittens, I kept finding Windmill playing with the dogs. One day I stopped when I saw one of the dogs following him as he bumbled across the kitchen. Suddenly the dog darted forward and knocked Windmill over with its nose. I was about to intervene, and retrieve Windmill, who was now lying on his back – then stopped. The dog had begun scratching Windmills scrawny little belly with its teeth. That in itself was amazing, particularly considering the dog was ten times the size of Windmill. But more unusual was the incredible trust Windmill had when the dog suddenly grabbed him in its mouth and started shaking him upside down. Somehow Windmill knew the dog wouldn’t hurt him, just as he knew he could go anywhere in the monastery and remain untouched. In the same way as the kittens had accepted him, so it appeared had every other animal in the monastery. Windmill was impossibly loved – or at least tolerated. This tiny, crippled kitten from nowhere seemed to create kindness and trust wherever he went. Windmill eventually learned how to get into my hut while I was meditating. There were two doors, one a heavy wooden door, the other a light, wire-screen door. Usually I kept the wooden door open all day for air, and the screen door closed with a sarong slung over it for privacy. Windmill discovered that if he took a running head-butt at my screen door it would slip out of its catch and open. So for the last month I was there, he came and went as he pleased. I’d be sitting meditating on the bench and I’d hear ‘crash!’ and know that Windmill had arrived. Then I’d hear ‘scrabble, scrabble’ as he crossed the floor … then ‘fall, slip’ as he struggled to get a grip on the edge of the bench … then ‘scrabble, scrabble, pant, pant’ as he pulled himself up onto the bench. Next would come the pungent odor of garbage as Windmill’s hot little body insinuated itself into my lap, settled itself down, then began loudly purring as he fell asleep. After four months of meditation, I left the monastery. I returned a year later to find Windmill had disappeared, presumably dead. Now another generation of kittens was fighting to survive. No-one remembered him except me. I will never forget him. That sublime little creature showed me something to hold close, and never forget – the worth of courage, persistence, a strong will and a good heart. For this I regard him as one of my teachers.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
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