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Cats and Their Writers

What is about cats that tugs at the heart of writers? I miss my cats when I'm away. Are my cats indifferent to my absence?

“If you want to write, keep cats.” So said the British writer, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World.  I’ve been thinking about the relationship between writers and their cats. Maybe this is because I miss the three mischiefs who are still in our house in Baltimore. I haven’t seen them for almost half a year. Do they miss me? Or, like Alistair, are they indifferently snoozing?

You’d think that given all the fuss I had with Butterfly’s inappropriate elimination last year— trouble enough to prompt a series of posts on the subject—I’d be glad of the absence. Not so. I miss my furry friends and all their winsome and annoying ways. 

When I see them again, they will probably look at me with the, “And who would you be?” look that cats are so capable of giving. 

I’ve loved cats for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of cats. I remember finding them in the hay in Grandma Schoonmaker’s barn when I was a little girl. I draw on this memory in a scene in my forthcoming book that tells the story of Sid Johnson, a character who first appears in The Black Alabaster Box:

Crawling over the hay, Sid motioned the other two to follow. Serena lay stretched out in the hay to one side, near a large, shuttered vent that let air into the back of the hayloft where there was less hay. Four little kittens eagerly suckled. “How come they’re pushin’ Serena?” Cora asked.

“They push with their paws to get her milk flowing,” Sid explained. “Kittens do that.”

 “Look at their stubby little tails!” laughed Jimmy. “Can I pick one up?” 

 “Best let them finish breakfast,” said Sid. He held out his hand to Serena. She let him rub around her ears. “See, she’s purring. She’s proud of her little family.”

The relationship between writers and their cats is legendary. T.S. Eliot‘s enthusiasm led to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the inspiration for Andrew Loyd Webber‘s musical, Cats. According to Eliot, a cat ought to have three different names. (“The Naming of Cats”) Cumberleylaude, whose culinary taste runs to “salmon, duck, or expensive French wines” was unknown until 2006. A letter to Eliot’s friend Anthony Laude was discovered after Laude’s death. Eliot wrote that Cumberley was “a particularly fastidious eater without a doubt, but a dignified and beautiful cat. . .” He was so taken with the idea that he  “had to write a few words in honor of him.” In 2006 the letter was sold on eBay and appears in a collection of Eliot’s work published by Faber & Faber in 2015.  

But back to the question, “Do my cats miss me?” Probably not.  In The Inner Lives of Cats: What Our Feline Friends Really Think About Hugs, Happiness and Humans, Sirin Kaale writes: “Most cats do not long for their absent owners any more than they will fetch a ball on command, or embrace veganism. They are cats. They do what they want, all the time.” Kaale cites philosopher John Gray, “Cats are a window outside the human world. They are themselves, and they stay themselves. They adapt to human ways. But they don’t adopt human ways.”

I take heart in the fact that as Kaale points out, cats do remember. So when I see Butterfly, Alistair, and Luna again they will know me. After giving me a “look,” Butterfly will stretch out on the floor in a celebration roll. Alistair will purr all over, touch noses, and head for his food dish, while Luna will be hiding upstairs until time to report for dinner. 

Cats have their own way of seeing things. They adapt to us, but they don't become little humans. Here Butterfly has that "about to bolt and run for it" look. She is a lap cat as long as we both understand it's in her own time and on her terms.

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