EVERYBODY KNOWS what a coincidence is: “The occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident but seem to have some connection”—at least according to Merriam-Webster. But of course it’s not that simple: ‘real’ coincidences not only catch our attention, they resonate with us.
Real coincidences seem to ‘mean something,’ even if that meaning is just beyond our ken.
Also, coincidences seem to be unique—they feel special.
They feel woowoowy.
If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat.
They feel like God/Grommett or the Universe/Void are trying to call us out of our revery and pay attention!
They feel like they’ve never happened before . . .
“Though ‘What are the odds?’ is pretty much the catchphrase of coincidences, a coincidence is not just something that was unlikely to happen. The overstuffed crate labeled coincidences is packed with an amazing variety of experiences, and yet something more than rarity compels us to group them together.
They have a similar texture, a feeling that the fabric of life has rippled. The question is where this feeling comes from, why we notice certain ways the threads of our lives collide, and ignore others.” (The Atlantic)
As much as I would like to explore this deeper, I’m not going to—or I would end up discussing the many coincidences required to accept the official conspiracy theory regarding 9/11 and this is not the place for that either.
“Extremely improbable events are commonplace,” as statistician David J. Hand states in The Improbability Principle. Hand argues that extraordinarily ‘rare’ events rally aren’t all that rare—that most of them are, in fact, rather commonplace. He also believes that each of us should all expect a miracle a month—for the rest of our duration in this universe. 1
A simpler coincidence
I have a much simpler, kindler, gentler coincidence to address: last month I posted a piece titled “Happy Birthday, Mary Alice Umperdinker” as a tribute to my sister’s day of birth celebration. That title was temporary and scheduled for a change, and yesterday I made that change: I copied the entire contents of the birthday post and republished it as “Philosophical Mutts And Zen Master Cats.”
It is a review of a book that illustrated the relationship between man and his pets—specifically how dogs and cats ground our wandering “selfs” and thereby guard our “being.”
That done, I went about opening up some emails that had been sitting idle for a week. Among them was a recent edition of the Brain Pickings newsletter, whose main article was “The White Cat and the Monk: A Lovely 9th-Century Ode to the Joy of Uncompetitive Purposefulness, Newly Illustrated” by Maria Popova.
The article included a sub-heading: “A wonderful counterpoint to our culture of competitive self-comparison, reminding us that we can choose to amplify each other’s accomplishments because there is, after all, enough to go around.”
Yes, indeedy! thought I.
I did not know the story of the monk and the cat but my interest was piqued by the introductory paragraph of Popova, a quote by Muriel Spark: “If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat.”
Needless to say, the review is joyously positive and if you want to read it, click on over to Brain Pickings and read it! Here is a description of the story from Popova:
“Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled Pangur Bán.
[It is] an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.
The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat And The Monk by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith.” (Maria Popova) 2
For this article, I present four pages from the book. (Click on any of the images to enlarge them.) The Brain Pickings’ review includes eleven other illustrations of the book along with the six taken from the book that I have included here. (Not counting the cover).
The White Cat And The Monk was published earlier this year by Groundwood Books. The publisher’s cover price is $18.95 but is currently available on Amazon with a 33% discount and used-but-like-new copies are even less. 3
Pangur Bán by Flower
This is the English version of the poem Pangur Bán as translated by English poet and scholar Robin Flower (1881–1946). Flower was one of the most important translators of the old Irish language into modern English; among the Irish, he was known as Bláithín, or Little Flower.
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
Pangur Bán by Auden
Here is a dramatically condensed version by English poet Wystan Hugh Auden. It is referred to by Maria Popova above as perhaps the most famous version:
Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy. 4
1 I have darkened the white-on-white cover image of the book so that the design is readable. Mein Gott but who would buy a book with such a ghastly cover?
2 The publisher’s blurb describes the book this way: “A monk leads a simple life. He studies his books late into the evening and searches for truth in their pages. His cat, Pangur, leads a simple life, too, chasing prey in the darkness. As night turns to dawn, Pangur leads his companion to the truth he has been seeking.
The White Cat and the Monk is a retelling of the classic Old Irish poem Pangur Bán. With Jo Ellen Bogart’s simple and elegant narration and Sydney’s Smith’s classically inspired images, this contemplative story pays tribute to the wisdom of animals and the wonders of the natural world.”
3 “Groundwood Books is an independent Canadian children’s publisher based in Toronto. Our authors and illustrators are highly acclaimed both in Canada and internationally, and our books are loved by children around the world. We look for books that are unusual; we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial; and we are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.”
4 “[The Auden version] version catches the eye for several reasons. It includes the actual meaning of the cat’s name, White Fuller, i.e the cat has a white woolly coat. Auden is the only translator I can find to use the word ‘book’ itself as the pronounced object of the poet-scholar’s study.
In its brevity, Auden’s version attempts to summarise the reflective relationship in the final line as one ‘without tedium or envy,’ an idea never stated explicitly anywhere in the original, but implied throughout. This is Auden’s own interpretation of the poem itself and is telling in terms of his ethical ideas about the creative act.” (Carmelite Library)
Here is a photo of Gadji Booboo maintaining a constant vigilance guarding our being from behind a rock, her attention on our house and any possible interlopers. As I type this, she is lying on my left hand, protecting it from unseen forces—possibly calling on the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth to fend off grammatical interference from the Dread Dormammu (and requiring me to type this caption with one hand).