A cat’s-eye view

This blog post will be as long as a cat’s tail…

(and it has taken its sweet time getting to you, just like a cat)

We’ve been in Granada for a couple of months, and Jewels the cat is eager to get out and about.

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Really, it’s not fair that we get to explore and she doesn’t. We’re careful to keep the doors shut, but one day after sundown, we notice she’s gone. When I hurry out onto the terrace, I think I hear the faint tinkle of her bell. Am I only imagining it?  Scanning the roofs around me, I catch sight of a cat on a neighboring terrace, peering down a dark stairwell.  Her silhouette is just like Jewels’ and she looks eager to explore.  In just a moment, she’ll disappear down the steps into someone else’s home. Whose home, I have no idea.

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In the photos here, you can see, on the one hand, the landscape of terraces behind our house, and on the other, our front door, set in a long white-washed wall.  It is impossible to see both at once, and as you walk along the narrow streets, you have no idea what lies behind each door.  It might be the entry to a living room. It might be the courtyard of a carmen, a home with fountains and fruit trees.  Carmen comes from the Arab word carm meaning grape arbor or garden, one that is both ornamental and useful. Water is often at its center, because of its symbolic resonance for a  culture with its roots in the desert….

But more on carmens later.  To return to Jewels, I left her poised on the threshold to a dark stairwell. Needless to say, I did not wait for her to make up her mind.  I began straddling walls, stepping delicately over clay shingles till I finally felt her soft belly in the palm of my hand.

Which reminds me of another moment in the life of Jewels, the escape artist. Her adventures began before we even landed. Just thinking about it, I find myself transported–back to the plane that took us across the Atlantic from Washington to Madrid. Some moments are forever. Moments of communion and friendship. Moments of revelation…

“Mamma, Jewel’s is gone!!” Dahlia stares at me in shock. We’re side by side on our flight to Madrid. I lean over her legs, rummaging around in the carrier stowed beneath the seat in front of her, but there’s no doubt it’s empty, as light as air. Part of me wants to applaud, like I’ve just witnessed a feat of magic. It seems so much more likely–that I’m in some theater watching a show, rather than seated in a Boeing 757 with a cat on the loose.  It’s what I would prefer.

Moments later, I’m moving down the aisle, hunched over, scanning the floor, right, left… A man three rows in front lets me know he sighted a cat moving forward. Thirty rows later, two Spanish kids, a tall, slender girl and her much younger brother, step into the aisle and tell me in hushed but excited tones (almost everyone is asleep in the darkened cabin) that a cat slunk between their legs and continued onward.

Together we prowl the plane, up and down the length of the craft, our cell phone flashlights illuminating Jewel’s new territory. I keep my beam low, but I feel like a voyeur moving among passengers who lie sound asleep, unaware of the searchlight raking their ankles and feet, their purses and backpacks. A mother, who has finally got her baby to sleep, shields its face with her hands.

I’ve been postponing telling the stewards but can’t delay any longer. “It happens all the time,” says the most matronly one. “Please, don’t apologize.” “Those wily cats,” says another. “What does she look like? How big is she?” I describe her—a tabby, with tan and black stripes, on the small side—I indicate with my hands. Now, there’s a posse of us moving about the cabin.

But no Jewels.

It’s suggested that we return to our seats. Once the cabin lights are switched on and the passengers wake, we’ll continue our search. All the stewards except for one are calm and reassuring. “God forbid someone is allergic!” she says. Later, she lets me know that the pilot has contacted the station master in Madrid and when we land, he will come aboard to search the plane. She says that a cat could get through the vents along the floor and get stuck in the walls of the plane. When I shine my light on them, I see holes the size of rice grains–it doesn’t make sense, but I spend the rest of the flight rigid in my seat, imagining various scenarios. Suppose Jewels, desperate to find a passage to our house back in Seattle, pries a vent loose? What will the station-master do? Ground the plane? Dismantle it? Or will the company insist on continuing with all flights? The cat languishes… Eventually, the plane flies about with Jewels’ skeleton rattling inside its walls….

Luckily, Dahlia did not hear the stewardess’s fears and falls asleep, stretched across my lap. I try to keep her comfortable; I draw the blanket over her, adjust the air coming from overhead, and wait. Eventually, it’s time for breakfast. It’s about three in the morning east coast time and we’re in the middle of nowhere, but suddenly, all the cabin lights pop on, and stewards are bustling down the aisle with their carts. An announcement is made about our arrival time, and then it is noted that a passenger has been lost. “It is a cat. Please everyone, could you take a moment to look around your feet and baggage?”

Finally, now she will be found. Someone will call out, “Here!” or the little red light above their seat will pop on. I scan the plane eagerly.

Nada. How is it possible? This disappearing act is too good.

I have an idea. As elegantly as I can, I step up onto the armrest of my seat, rise to the tips of my toes and stretch. I don’t want to worry the other passengers, so I balance gracefully, hoping they’ll see I have the poise and control of a ballerina and won’t come flopping down on them like a flightless bird. I hover for the time it takes to scan the small space above the overhead bins—front to back, the length of the plane–no longer than the time it takes to do a pirouette, and I’m down in my seat again, harmless passenger that I am, enjoying my beverage.

No cat.

More announcements. Now, we’re close to landing. We’re told about the temperature in Madrid and given varous instructions. Please be careful as baggage may have shifted in the compartments, please scan the area and make sure not to leave any of your belongings, and then: “Please check your bags and make sure a cat hasn’t crawled into them.” This possibility had occurred to me too, so I’m grateful for the announcement. Unfortunately, it is not repeated in Spanish. Most of the passengers are Spaniards, so I start imagining Jewels being lugged off in some oversized handbag. At what point do the unsuspecting travelers discover her?  Will she make her presence known, struggling to escape? Or will she just relax and then step out elegantly onto the kitchen floor of some downtown Madrid high-rise?

It comes to me that I should just call to her to come. What could have prevented me before? She’s remarkably responsive for a cat, almost like a dog. I guess it just didn’t seem right to roam through a shadowy cabin packed with comatose, slack-jawed passengers, calling out “Jew-els… Here kitty, kitty, kitty. Jewwww-els….”

I formulate my plan. As soon as the fasten seat-belt sign turns off, causing all the passengers to jump to their feet and start rummaging through the overhead bins, I will race (calmly) towards the front of the plane and start calling to her to come out from whatever den she has found for herself in the wilds of this cabin.

Until now, I have not entered first class. Now I part the curtains and cross over. I begin to call softly, and immediately, a young man tells me he heard miauwing from the corner. He points to a spot behind the last of the first-class seats. Sure enough, as soon as I crouch and call softly, our little cat emerges and takes her mincing steps towards me. “Miauw,” she says.

Everyone applauds when the announcement is made.

Now, the aisles are crowded with passengers eager to disembark.  I can’t get back to Dahlia so I stand with one of the stewardesses in the galley across from the plane door.  The young Spanish boy cradles Jewels in his arms.  Passengers file past, smiling at the stowaway in his arms.  Several stop to take photos.

What I find most interesting is that so many people sighted her or heard her and yet said nothing. They seem to live in a magical world, where a cat meandering through a flight cabin is perfectly natural. Or perhaps there are reasons for keeping mum that I have yet to learn about. Either way, our adventures have begun. Jewels made sure of that. Sweet, innocent Jewels.  She’s a live bit of baggage.

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This bull is actually the logo for a brand of sherry.

Once we get spit out of the airport in Madrid, suitcases and animals in tow, we pile into a rental car, find a spot on the floor for the litter box and water dish, then drive four hours south to Andalucia. Since I didn’t sleep a wink, I’m happy to discover that every gas station along the way stashes cans of espresso in its fridge.  Caffeine fuels me as I navigate the Spanish freeways, passing through an arid land with a stark beauty and a monumental, two-dimensional steel bull every 60 km or so.

Now here we are, enconsced in a labyrinth of narrow streets and jumbled houses in the old Moorish quarter of Granada. If you don’t hear from us in a while, send someone out onto the rooftops.  Jewels will be out there, and we won’t be far behind…

First Days in Spain

I really don’t know where to start so I’ll just start with where I find myself right now.

IMG_0464This is the small, “viewing” terrace on the roof of our house, here in Granada.  With every word I type, the sky is getting a shade darker and the glow of the setting sun a deeper shade of rose.  There’s a light breeze, very welcome after several weeks of intense heat.

We live in the medieval, Moorish neighborhood of the Albayzin, and what with trudging up the hill every day after our morning activities, we’ve come to understand the importance of the siesta, and why Spaniards here disappear into their homes for the greater part of the afternoon.  If we venture out to eat at 8 pm, we find the restaurants still closed.  I like these surprises.  It’s why we came, after all.  To be surprised.  IMG_0440

When we came across this man, he was motionless.  When a coin clanked in his pail, he abruptly changed position, then froze again.  I couldn’t help yelping each time.

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Actually, I know where I’d like to start.  With the kindness of the people here–that is my favorite surprise of all.  The warmth and generosity I encounter with the most fleeting of interactions.  I don’t know that any one example will quite convey it.  The fact that my daughter can take a week of ballet classes or Spanish language classes, and they still haven’t asked for payment.  They know it will come.  Or when we ate at the restaurant and it was time for them to bring us the rest of our meal to take home, they gave us fresh servings instead.

I have always liked to say to people, when something they tell me gives me a surge of pleasure, “That makes me very happy.”  Here it is a common expression.  “Me alegra.”  I have the most surprising sense of homecoming whenever I hear it.

Now, the sun has set, IMG_0469and the Iglesia del Salvador, a converted mosque from the thirteenth century, is starting to glow.

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The famous Moorish palace, the Alhambra, over to my left, is also magically illuminated.  Still, what I like best is the terrain of roofs and terraces spread out below me.  No streets are visible because they are so narrow (most of them pedestrian alleys), and a cat can make its way across the city, going from rooftop to rooftop.  Or a person, especially if she’s chasing after her cat who has escaped and is finding her way back to Seattle.  But that’s another story.  It’s actually getting chilly now so I’ll head inside and say bye for now.

Why We Read

So often writers sacrifice their characters so that we, the readers, may experience a different outcome.  In David Jauss’ story Glossolalia, the protagonist is consumed by regret.

“Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day… and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes…”

I think of E.M. Forster’s urgent plea, “Only connect.” Again and again, writers show characters missing their chance and make us experience the depths of their pain.  They sacrifice their characters so that we may learn and do differently.  Connecting often takes courage.  It requires awareness.  So many of the stories we read and the poems we hear teach us this lesson.  And I learn and relearn it.

Jauss’ story keeps going, and the ending is complex, heartbreakingly so.  The son turns from the grief and regret of his relationship with his father towards some sort of redemption through his son.  And yet this was the very problem which caused the heartbreak in the first place.  He does not realize it, but as the reader, I see his blindness, and I find myself wondering, How may I be doing the same?  How much do I think I am doing things differently even as I pass on what I received from my parents, that which was passed to them…

I have a discomfiting awareness of my blind spots. I sense them without being able to see into them.  What do I know of their size or location?  This is another reason I read—to remain in touch with what eludes me, surpasses me.  The young father in Jauss’s story sits on the edge of the bed beside his sleeping son in the wan glow of a nightlight…. What about the light of my awareness?  How far does it reach?  And what lies beyond?

And what about my need for salvation? Where will it take me? And where does it take any of us? We can never know what we don’t know, but we can feel how immersed we are in a world made complex by need, grief, and love. I came away from Jauss’ story suffused with a sense of this complexity, humbled by it, softened…

On Tone

Have you ever wondered how many ways there are of saying Oh…  The following poem give us an exquisite lesson on the subtleties of tone.

OH 

As if she were to bump her shin in the night
and utter a small, audible oh,
the doctor says, “Oh,”
as in:  things don’t look good, or
the baby that’s growing
there inside
is no longer the baby
there, growing.  Like Whitman’s O,
O gossamer thread, O filament, filament, filament….
Or the Oh that comes into a room
after the wind has filled the curtains
and emptied them again.  Just
Oh.  What causes it?  Causes
what is, not to be?  Whichever O
in theology you prefer, the same way
“Sweetheart, I love the sex
but I don’t love you”: equals:  Oh.
Or maybe the Oh in Oh what the hell—
it’s nothing dramatic,
not the Oh of a funeral
but of a year later
when you simply look up from your work
and remember that she’s gone….Oh,
like omission.  It’s nothing
I can put my finger on, nothing
that can be grieved for or raged against—
to miscarry, to put the lame collie down,
and how many years now
since your friend passed away?  So
I lose my wallet or the tip
of my index finger. With everyone else,
I’m standing on this continuum
of fairly average losses, all
supportable, shrewd blows,
O’s, zeros, noughts.  An absence
of something so profound
it bears down on the soul,
                        as if I were to take some nails
                        and hammer them into the water—
                        just small nails,
                        driven deeply. 

                                       from Wind Somewhere, and Shade by Kate Knapp Johnson
                                       permission to reprint, Miami University Press and The Sun

Oh.  It is hardly a word, more a tone.  Each time it appears, we don’t so much read it as hear it sound within us.  Oh.  With its halo of silence.  Johnson takes us through a range of intonations, covering a range of losses, each profoundly unique even as they converge.  The beauty is in the precision; it is what gives those small nails their painfully sharp points.  I’m reminded that one of the tasks of writers is to instruct us how to read what they write, never to leave it neutral or indeterminate.

Tone can seem secondary, even dispensable, but for fellow poet Tim Seibles, it is fundamental.  He says that before he can start a poem, he must first establish its tone.  The tone precedes the words; it dictates them.

Finding the tone is really a way of rooting oneself in the essential emotion.  After all, tone is vibration, the voice shaped by the body and the emotions it contains.  I’ll never forget the instruction I got in a theater improv class:  we were advised to connect, before we stepped out onto the stage, with a specific state of mind or emotion so that, from the first instant, our words and movements would have a clear source; they’d have an impetus, like water rising from a spring.  The alternative is to step onto the stage as a blank and flounder…  I know what that felt like!

It can be useful, before you enter a poem or scene to hover in the wings.  I love that moment before a choir bursts into song, when the director sounds a tone into the silence, that moment of listening and attunement.  When we take a moment to tune in, our character or persona, instead of appearing as something amorphous that only gradually finds its shape, will be fully present from the first note; the very first utterance will be vibrant with life, even it’s hardly a word but more a sound, a zero, a word as simple as “oh.”

The Syntax of Cats

Every move a cat makes is elegant, deliberate.  The moments of awkwardness are so rare, and the cat appears so discomfited when they occur, that I have to laugh, unkind as it is.  What if we as writers, in the pacing of our own writing, mimicked the cat’s exquisite self-control?  What if the syntax of our sentences were just as aligned with our intentions?

   Dogs don’t notice when they put their paws in the quiche.  Dogs don’t know where they begin and end.
  

   Cats know exactly where they begin and end.  When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it.  They know you have to keep holding the door open.  That is why their tail is there.  It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.    

                                                                         Ursula LeGuin, The Wave in the Mind

How vividly the cat appears in this short passage by LeGuin.  Even the way her sentences move–or rather, stop moving–gives us the cats’ intentions.  Her language starts to get repetitive:  “They know it,” she says.  “They know you have to keep holding the door open.”  “That is why their tail is there,” she explains, then adds, “It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.”  For a moment, you wonder about these statements, sounding so abrupt, almost awkward, after the elegance of the initial sentence, but then you realize it’s not what the sentences say so much as how they land, stopping the flow–it’s the pause at the end of each that starts to become insistent.  A stillness is being enforced, and for as long as the graceful cat decides to linger, maintaining her connection, the door must be held ajar.

As LeGuin moves us along and keeps us reading, I can’t help but feel that she herself is the cat, intent on maintaining a relationship, as all of us are when we write, standing before the open door of our reader’s mind.  With all our passion and our art, we look for the sentences that will keep that door open, from one moment to the next.  And the next.

And syntax can help.  It never ceases to fascinate me:  the power of form.  The syntax we choose—the way we arrange information into clauses and phrases, creating sentences that are simple or complex, long or short—is itself communicative.   Our sentences are malleable as clay, and there’s no reason not to make them as expressive as possible, shaping their contours to fit our message.  Sentences can pirouette.  They can soar.  Or they can point straight up like the tail of a cat, hovering in the doorway, creating a point of focus, a moment of shared understanding.

Virginia Tufte’s The Artful Sentence is the best book out there if you want to get intimate with the English sentence and all that it can do (and the book is chockful of examples).  Even if you find yourself skimming certain sections, make sure you get to the final section on mimesis.