She fit her rhythms to his — me with Jim
To be with a beloved person is like having a blanket round your heart — from somewhere in Bridget Jones’s Diary, the screenplay
Dear friends and readers,
I have become friends with my cats. I pay attention, respond to their gestures, nudgings, eye contact, sitting on my lap, laying by my side, walking with me (sometimes in front); the boy brings strings for me to play with him with. Clary has this passion for dead leaves. They have very particular personalities: Ian loves to play, to hug, to put his paw gently on my arm and face to make sure I’m paying attention to him; he has come out of his shell over the past few months – this began when Caroline stayed with Jim for four days last year June. He will even growl at strangers when they come near the door. He has lost a whole pound since Jim died (I’ve lost nearly 30) and the Vet was worried. He is much more active than he once was and maybe he didn’t eat at first. For months afterward he didn’t hunt insects. Not that he’s anywhere as active as Clary. He can still sit still for hours. Clary, when genuinely up, awake, is a bundle of movement, trotting about, curious. She will make a cat loaf and sleeps deeply for hours too. When Jim died after the two day hysteria of his dying (when she ran back and forth from his bed, caw-cawing in the hall), she sat in his chair for two days and for weeks afterward seemed to be uncertain of herself. Only gradually did she transfer her deep attachment from him to me. Alertness, tenacity, interest are keys to her character. Jim would play with her on the bed. She licks away at me with her sandpaper tongue, forward, gentle, loving; she fits herself into the curvature of my shoulder and arm as I lie in bed in the morning. Both meow at me a lot. He hunts insects; she watches him. He tries to mate with her (though cannot) and she tolerates him for a while, and then she growls fiercely. They play-bite one another and wrestle when they are happy and comfortable.
Once a few years ago I came home from a long day’s teaching and rushed into my room and shut the door (partly because Jim insisted I keep the cats out of my study where the wires were). Jim came to the door and opened it and showed me a cat whose feelings looked so hurt. He said Clary seemed to have been waiting for me a full half-hour (I came home around the same time) and was so happy to see me, trotting after me, and then I shut the door in her face. How bad I felt. I sat in the front with her on my lap for an hour after that. And for weeks I tried to make up for it; in fact I never did that sort of thing again. Well I’ve made up for that now.
Now of course they have each a grey pillow for sitting on in my room right near me.
What a wild chase Yvette and I had putting them into their carriers for shots and nail trimmin at the Vet’s in July. We made the mistake of bringing down said carriers about ten minutes before setting out. They knew what they were for. Ian slipped out of his and then ran from place to place, and gradually we closed doors on spaces and cornered him. For Clary we had to take apart Yvette’s bed to get underneath to find her. Next time we’ll take out the carriers the day before and hide them in a closet. Ian mewed all the way there and back — and sometimes in the office too. Clary closed down into the smallest space possible wherever she was until we returned home.
I have this week read Olivia Manning’s Extraordinary Cats. It’s not as good as Doris Lessing’s On Cats. Indeed at first it seemed to me embarrassingly poor. Manning is a cat racist — when I bought the book I did not realize she meant by “Extraordinary Cats” cats that are inbred to be albinos (so-called Siamese) or with odd kinds of melanism (Burmese). Would she write a book praising aristocrats and making them superior to say working people? — it’s a precisely analogous stupidity. She also badmouths dogs and people who prefer dogs to cats, to which I say “If you meet a madman who says that he is a fish and that we are all fishes, do you take off your clothes to prove that you do not have fins?” (Milan Kundera).
After an initial section talking of how “mankind” has only begun to appreciate cats since it has become more liberal in spirit, less hateful and unselfish towards a small unbiddable, independent-minded animal, she launches into this eulogy on how superior Siamese cats are to ordinary cats. The reality is Siamese cats live shorter lives, are frailer, are in fact less fit (in the struggle for survival) than your plain tabbies and torties and so on. I know Siamese are said to be smarter, fiercer, more gentle and loving. Bosh. Some cats are to me more beautiful: I think my tabby prettier and more graceful than my tortoise but I do not derive moral qualities for him from his physical appearance and know I am being subjective. Would I like someone to value me because I sat more gracefully ….
I put the book down and thought about the problems of Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies: they are snobbish, hard and oddly cold. WW2 seen from the viewpoint of the art-y elite of England. But the photos interested me, I had sent away to England (Amazon.uk) to get the book, and I remembered this must be behind the thinking that leads people to go to cat shows — deplorable though it might be.
I read on. The book not only improved, it became as insightful as Lessing’s about cats but in a different way, especially once Manning begins to talk about the relationship of cats to people. Manning accurately describes how they are there very vividly, individual presences with their own thought and feeling processes, subtle reactions and will give you devoted love if you give love to them. Manning’s favorite cats showed the difference between the women: Lessing’s are magnificent survivors against great odds; Manning’s are tender sensitive creatures. I became aware how much projection there is in Lessing’s book because I see it so obviously in Manning’s. Lessing has tough cats, Manning has vulnerable ones. At the book of the book there is a poem by Ted Hughes’s on “Esther’s Tomcats:” he projects too.
Like Lessing, the central core of Manning’s book is a life history of specific cats she has owned and their personalities, how they interacted with other cats. She is (unexpectedly) more inward than Lessing. There are many fine deeply humane moments — a love of these animals that is deeply empathetic making the reader their valuable lives. Manning also offers real insights into the interrelationships of people and cats. I have good reason to see the truth of this in the last few months since I have given more of myself to my cats:
By now the reader may be saying, ‘This is ridiculous. She writes of cats as though they were humans.’ But are they so very different? The fact is that when an animal, any animal, enters one’s home, it becomes something more than an animal. The change is brought about not merely by human fantasy and human need: the animal itself is drawn out of its animal world and advances to meet our wider understanding.
I see this in both my cats — and observe their different personalities this way too. It’s in this section one sees why this book has some fame among cat lovers and those who value books on animals.
Manning’s genuine respect and love for animals emerges (it seems she inveighs against dogs and dog-people because she assumes dogs are elevated above cats as more worthy creatures). Her last section is on human cruelty to animals; she provides a history of prejudice against cats: how with old women they were seen as witches and when the woman was burnt, they were murdered carelessly.
The last third of Manning’s book deals with the cruel hostility to cats (shooting them) over history; one aspect is they are associated with ugly, lonely old women who keep them as companions (ahem). Another is resentment. Finally she is superbly accurate and right — an intelligent argument against animal experimentation; how animals are not analogous; how the cruelty of the cages and what is done to them shows how murderous and unfeeling people can be. This section at moments reminded me of Wiseman’s Primates. She demonstrates those who do these hideous things to helpless animals seeking love of doing it to further their careers. Like Goodall, she shows how little money is spent on animals and how the researcher lives in a comfortable house while the poor non-human is in a cold iron cage. I had a student once who wrote a paper showing how little is learned from rat torture. In this section Manning shows compassion for the rats too.
By contrast, Lessing opens her book with a ferocious chapter on how individuals and whole cultures shoot and drown cats with impunity. Lessing shows the wildness of those who hunt and kills; the sadistic enjoyment of injury and harm people feel. On the whole, Lessing’s book transcends her particular topic, the particular cat; she moves to be on the qualities her cats convey and manifest and so her book becomes about life itself. The quality the cat manifests is a quality other animals (humans anyone?) share. Manning’s remains on the quality as coming from a cat — she doesn’t reach down into that greater identification beyond categories (as I said she begins the book as an open cat racist, though by book’s end she has almost retrieved herself).
Manning’s book’s coda concludes with poems to and about cats. It’s too short. No TS Eliot, and she does not know the cat poetry of Elsa Morante and probably Marge Piercy is beyond her time. I include one by Piercy from her Memoir, Sleeping with Cats.
I am at once source
and sink of heat; give
and take. I am a vast
soft mountain of slow breathing.
The smells I exude soothe them:
the lingering odor of sex,
of soap, even of perfume,
its after-aroma sunk into skin
mingling with sweat and the traces
of food and drink.
They are curled into flowers
of fur, they are coiled
hot seashells of flesh
in my armpit, around my head
a dark sighing halo.
They are plastered to my side,
a poultice fixing sore muscles
better than a heating pad.
They snuggle up to my sex
purring. They embrace my feet.
Some cats I place like a pillow.
In the morning they rest where
I arranged them, still sleeping.
Some cats start at my head
and end between my legs
like a textbook lover. Some
slip out to prowl the living room
patrolling, restive, then
leap back to fight about
hegemony over my knees.
Every one of them cares
passionately where they sleep
and with whom.
Sleeping together is a euphemism
for people but tantamount
to marriage for cats.
Mammals together we snuggle
and snore through the cold nights
while the stars swing round
the pole and the great horned
owl hunts for flesh like ours.
Since I last wrote (about two weeks ago), I’ve kept as busy as I had the two weeks before. I go about 3 times a week in the earlier morning to the JCCNV, twice to a Dance Fusion workshop where I dance and do athletics in front of a mirror following a leader: imagine a bunch (35 or so) of women from age 40 to 70 attempting to do a passable imitation of a Michael Jackson video; once a week with a similar bunch of women doing water-arobics. I’ve walked in the evening with a friend twice (it’s not been that hot this summer); a few plays, a movie, again to the film club at Cinemart, this time to see Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon in A Trip to Italy — in which movie we at one point see a cat.
I met someone from OLLI at GMU at a building not far from the main campus at GMU where starting in later September I’ll be teaching a course in The Gothic; she took my photo for a biography on-line. I had lunch with a student friend. I’m still seeing a grief support person at the Haven, but am going to switch to see a psychologist or social worker at Kaiser and in September join another grief support group, this time for 8 weeks, at Kaiser (on the advice of these people). I’ve even called yet a third contractor, this time a handyman to see if he will for a reasonable price paint the silly fasciaboard on my house, clean the gutters, paint the dismal (tottering) back porch and replace a handle on my screen door.
Of course that leaves a lot of time for reading with others (on listservs) and alone, writing, watching movies on line. We finished our read through of Jane Austen’s letters on a couple of lists; a thin and feeble excuse for a course (MOOC) on “Literature of the Country House” (from Sheffield); I’ve read Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire’s Sylph (which I hope to blog about); another novel expanded my understanding of the varieties of rape, this in war time, A Woman in Berlin. I am still watching the remarkable Breaking Bad and began my movie project again, again reading about screenplays, shooting scripts. Finished takig down the screenplay for The Jane Austen Book Club (verbatim, with all the stage film business I could). I wrote a review of Johnston’s Unusual Suspects, and it is to be published this fall. This Thursday I’ll have my first piano lesson ever.
None of this matters to my fundamental state which I’ve not got words to describe: I feel such a deep deep sense of Jim’s absence in everything I do, everywhere I go. It’s so complete and continuous there’s no getting on the other side to encompass it. I had some insight this week to why when I speak of my state of mind and condition to others, some people seem to misunderstand me or assert utterly unreal ideas about me or widows & widowers, nonsense about leading a “new” life (the grief support person said as how that is a common misconception) when one can only continue the life one had only now alone utterly feelingfully transformed and silent; about a “rich” life for the person that the dead person would be pleased about (I shook my head at that one); solemnly about needing time (but not too much) for recovery (as if there were such a thing, as if I was sick — reminding me of how years ago people talked of my pregnancy as if I was in some special semi-ill state). These concepts are social lies. There is nothing you process through to get to a meaningful end. You just carry on living a half life, for me one soothed because I’m surrounded by the comforts and books we gathered in the nest of our house.
A while back I bought and read an anthology of poems by widows, The Widows’ Handbook: Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival, edited, collected by Jacqueline Lapidus and Lise Menn. Individual poems spoke all sorts of truths: I had not begun to imagine the very different ways men die, when in relationship to their wives or partners, and how they leave the woman. But there was imposed on these poems a structure which made the last section all about recovery, new lives, and so on. The anthology therefore exposed how the lie is done. It was an imposed structure. Therefore it’s not truly useful to a widow or someone who truly grieves for the death of a beloved central to her existence. These structures are put there to please those who have not had such experience (as yet or may not ever), do not want their complacency to be troubled, and the people making these books collude. Fictions centering on a widow often make them semi-hysterical: she is not getting better because she is half-mad. Again this is a distortion. The thing to keep your eye on is all the so-called sane behavior helps not one iota to change the fundamental reality of emptiness next to you, all around you, whatever you do, an awareness of this. All this reminds me of how when I was twice asked by reputable periodicals & blogsites would I write my life story, and I began to say what I would say I was told that unless I could produce something finally upbeat, they could not print it, not even on the Net.
It was suggested to me that people can make such comments because they assumed I was talking to them with their views about death and dying in mind and were responding with socially approved utterances in turn. It’s true one makes a funeral for other people: I learned that twice in two years as I have paid for two funerals in the last two year’s (my mother died in August 2012). But we talk to validate and express ourselves, to reach out and find friends, bridge, be with people. The giving of advice is another reaction. As Jim said about having cancer and dying from it, you are on another side of a divide no one but someone else with cancer might understand. A great chasm of nothingness. It continues to be desolating and meaningless to be alive without him.