The Stray Cat

In California, I had two cats.

I didn’t intend to have two cats. I actually didn’t intend to have any pets. I lived in an apartment and didn’t want to pay the extra deposit. I didn’t want to lose the freedom to come and go as whim and circumstances dictated.

But someone moved out of our apartment building, leaving a half-grown cat. Past the cute kitten stage. Not fully grown. Of course, I didn’t know the poor thing had been abandoned. Neighbors don’t really talk to one another in California. I have since learned it has something to do with respecting one another’s privacy.

I watched the poor thing get scrawnier and scrawnier. It was pretty skittish, but I talked to it every day, and eventually it allowed me to approach it. I called the number on the cat’s tags, and was told by the woman who answered the call that she did NOT have a cat. The poor thing was nothing but skin and bones, so I headed for the nearest box store and bought food, litter and litter box. The first night I spooned out the food a bit at a time so he wouldn’t gobble it down and throw it back up.

The next morning, I put a sign by the mailboxes, asking the owner to contact me. After a week or so, I figured he was probably mine by default. At first, he was so grateful to have a home, he hid whenever he heard the door. I assumed he was afraid he would be cast out. Eventually, though, he got comfortable — and then neurotic, because with my commute I was gone about 12 hours a day.

I talked with a friend who did animal rescue, and she said she had the perfect cat for my situation — a kitten that needed socialization. I did not know that was code for “feral cat,” and blithely took him home. The cats bonded with one another instantly. The feral cat warmed up to me only slowly. He didn’t want me to hold him or pet him, but he liked to lay on my feet and would take treats from my hand.

Leaving them behind was difficult, but bringing them with me was impossible. I took them to a shelter that claimed animals were not euthanized, and paid enough to buy cat food and litter for at least 10 years. (Well, maybe not quite that long.)

Why am I writing about my cats? Because these days I am acting like a stray cat that someone started feeding.

I started working on a project for someone for whom I would do just about anything (except, perhaps sacrifice my firstborn child). It’s a memoir of sorts which has expanded beyond the original parameters we envisioned — simply because the story which needed to be told was bigger (in my opinion) than I understood at the beginning. To tell the story, I needed to spend some time on her family’s ranch.

I had visited only once before starting the project, and had felt on that occasion like I had come home. That’s an odd reaction to a new place, but it was mine. When I visited the second time, I fell completely in love — with the place, with the people. I left floating on cloud nine. I think the last time I experienced that kind of euphoria was after giving birth — which was sometime in the last century. I’ve gone back a couple times since then, joking the last time that I am like a stray cat that someone fed.

The creativity unleashed by this experience has almost overwhelmed me. I work on the project late into the night. I’ve started a new painting and envision the possibility of a whole series — which would be my first in two decades. I’ve done other paintings, but no body of work that was intended to hang together as a whole. I feel alive in a way I have not experienced since I was young.

So, is this going anywhere? Is there a point?

I doubt very much if my friend sat down one morning and said, “I think my next improvement project will be Mary. Now, what can I do to change her?” I think her genuine open-hearted kindness was just receptive to the possibility of allowing me to develop our project in the way I imagined, and all the rest was just icing on the cake, as the saying goes. That’s the point.

Kindness is life-changing. Faith in others is life-changing. Perhaps not everyone who receives those gifts will say, “thank you,” but I want to use this opportunity to do exactly that.

Thank you, Arla.