Monday, May 6, 2013

Life With Cats

I confess to being a cat person. 

A life with cats is a life of unfolding.  Forging a relationship with a cat is a complicated dance, requiring massive amounts of patience and a willingness to set aside your own desires.  I imagine the same is true with most any animal.  You have to throw out your expectations, throw out your imagined outcomes, throw out your preconceptions of cat-human relationships.  Like people, each one is different, and each relationship will be different from all others.  Sometimes, it takes work, compromise, sacrifice.  But the rewards, oh the rewards.  I cannot imagine a life without cats.  These are some of the most richly nuanced and satisfying relationships I have ever had. 

I have always been a cat person.  According to my parents, I had an affinity for cats that was evident even before I could properly form sentences.  Over the years, I have had a huge number of cats move through my life.  Like many cat people, I seem to have some silent beacon in my body, a signal to every cat in the vicinity that there is a 'cat person' nearby.  Through so much trial and error in building trust and growing relationships with cats, I've learned a number of things that have helped me to turn wily, wary, and sometimes downright aggressive strays and abandoned cats into loving, affectionate companions.  If you are looking to grow a relationship with an aloof kitty, these tips may help you as well.

1.  Patience, patience, patience.  This is paramount.  You must be prepared to invest a lot of time in gaining the cat's trust.  Without trust, everything else is irrelevant.  Now, that's not to say that every cat will take huge amounts of time.  Every cat is different, and some will trust more readily than others.  Especially if you're dealing with a stray, whose background is unknown, you can never predict how quickly your efforts will pay off.  But hang in there.  Don't give up.  Even the reluctant ones eventually come around.  *Note here that I'm primarily talking about cats who have been socialized with humans at some point.  True feral cats will never be your couch companion.  They may come to accept your presence (for providing food, shelter, etc.) but will most likely never accept your offers of physical affection.  Looking for resources for caring for ferals?  Check out Alley Cat Allies.

2.  Routine.  Establishing a regular routine for feeding and socializing has proven to be a very important element, in my experience.  Most cats don't like surprises, and even my docile housecats are upset by changes in their daily routines.  That stray that has been living an unpredictable and unstructured life may welcome the chance to anticipate your arrival at specific times.  Develop a schedule and stick to it.  Show up at your appointed time.  Stay for ten minutes or an hour, but stay, even if your stray doesn't appear or wanders off.  Strays have a fantastic ability to hide themselves, so you never know when they may be watching from a hidden location.

3. Pay attention.  Cats have been our domesticated companions for many thousands of years, and the species has developed remarkable methods of communicating with us.  We only have to pay attention to realize they have a lot to tell us.  When you're with your cat, give him your full attention.  Watch his face, his whiskers, his ears, his tail.  Watch how he holds his body, how he moves himself in response to your actions.  Listen for vocal emissions too.  You can begin to recognize his own method of communication and make correlations.  For example, one of my strays always reacted strongly (by folding back his ears, lowering his head, and lowering his body in a defensive posture) whenever I wore heavy shoes (like my hiking sneakers or boots) that made deeper, louder noises on the concrete patio where we had our regular meetings.  Once I recognized it, I could remember to avoid wearing those kinds of shoes around him.  Even more, it gave me a possible clue to his background: he had developed a negative reaction to that particular sound, maybe due to an abuse by someone who had a heavy gait or wore those kinds of hard-soled or heavy shoes.  Once you reach the 'petting' stage, where physical contact is allowed, this part becomes even more important.  Pay close attention during petting sessions - your cat will tell you with his body language how he prefers to be touched.  Don't be too aggressive in your attempts; rather, let him direct you.  A subtle nod of his head toward your hand may be his way of signaling permission, directing you to focus your attention to his head, ears, or neck.  By holding out your hand and letting him come to you, or waiting for his subtle permission, you are building trust by demonstrating that you won't force anything on him.  Once you get past the initial stages here, you'll be able to initiate the petting sessions rather than waiting for permission.  Later, we'll talk about limits how to set them.

I think these three concepts are probably the basics, the foundations for building a relationship.  Now, let me go into some detail on my process. 

It all starts with an initial meeting - the fleeting glance in the bushes, or the flash of fur as they dart through the yard.  While I don't always pursue every cat I see, I always want to.  I want to cuddle and love every single one, much to the frustration of my partner, who thinks two cats is plenty.  (We've passed that mark a long time ago.)  Anyway, the first encounter is always sort of an assessment on both parts.  Sometimes there's contact immediately - in this case I usually assume kitty is someone's pet, gone walkabout.  If he sticks around for any length of time, I'll assume he's lost and begin the process for trying to locate an owner.  Sometimes these immediately friendly ones turn out to be abandoned.  We've recently had one of these.  A shy, sweet, quiet little fellow that just showed up on our back porch one day.  Weeks of trying to locate an owner proved fruitless, and he's since become part of our family. 

The more reluctant ones - oh how I love that challenge.  The mystery and potential is thrilling.  I love this work of re-establishing a link that has been bent, broken, pulled out of shape and distorted.  I love the work of building a bridge to this little soul.  I feel as though I'm restoring this little soul's faith in humanity. 

Food nearly always comes first.  In most cases, the first sighting happens as a result of kitty searching for food.  I'm convinced there's a communication network at work, whereby one stray who finds food here goes and tells all the other cats around here that this is the place to find a meal.  Anyway, when I see that stray who seems to be looking for food, my first action is to take out a big smelly can of wet food.  Sometimes the cat will run off as soon as he sees me.  Sometimes he'll back off and watch at a safe distance.  No matter what, I always go out slowly, just to the edge of the patio, or part way across the yard, and tap the can while I talk softly.  Even if the cat runs off - we have a lot of brush and trees along the edges of our yard and the yard next door, so (as I mentioned above) I can't always tell if the cat is just hiding, or has completely vacated the area.  So I'll keep talking softly.  This helps, I think, to start the process of letting the cat get to know you.  Let him hear your voice right away.  Moving slowly, I'll set out a small dish and open the can, dishing out the good stuff with broad movements.  If he's still watching, let him see you (and hear you) open the can and go through the motions of dishing out the food.  We're establishing routine here, see?  The actions need to become familiar to him.  He'll begin to associate the pleasant act of eating that food with the acts, the sounds and smells, that came before. 

This post has already gotten longer than I anticipated - I didn't realize I had so many words in me.  So let's end this one for now.  Next time I'll go a bit further, and we'll talk about setting up that routine, creating anticipation, and setting limits.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 4, 2013


I've been picking up things.

When I first discovered the world of scrapbooking and art journaling, I read a lot of art journaler's blogs with jealousy.  All those 'found' objects and ephemera looked so cool and interesting.  Every little thing with a story, a previous life.  I'm curious about everything, so the concept of found objects really set me off.  But I didn't have any of that stuff, and every time I went out the streets seemed barren to me.  Why were other people stumbling over crazy neat things all the freakin time and posting artsy Instagram pictures of it on their blogs and here I am with nothing at all.  Ugh. 

But then.

I don't know what happened.  I don't know what changed in me, but suddenly I realized I wasn't really looking.  It was like all this time I've been walking around with the proverbial veil over my eyes, and suddenly it was lifted and I could see things I've never seen before.  Where did all this awesome stuff come from?  Had it been there all along? 

There was a shift, I think, in myself, that caused me to pay more attention.  Be more aware of my surroundings - not just the usual stuff I looked at every day, but the little stuff too.

Here's some stuff I found recently.  The red thing is a broken Lego.

I have a pretty awesome day job that allows me a lot of freedom to wander out of the office pretty much on a whim.  And the city where I work is a dense little place with lots of pedestrian-friendly streets and alleys and old buildings and nooks and crannies (remember that english muffins commercial?!).

So, when I get a whim, I take off.  Out the door, down the stairs, out the rotating glass doors that scare the bejesus out of me for no good reason.

What I  love about this city?  There's always something new to discover.  Some architectural detail in an old building I hadn't noticed last week.  A new crack in the marble facade of the building on the corner.  A new sticker on the parking meter in front of the deli.  Up on the sixth floor of a parking garage, I look out and notice some stained glass windows in the building across the street.

I have no idea what this is.  Its plastic, and very flexible, like a mesh of little plastic squares.  It has a ring on one corner, like it may have been part of an earring? 

This has become a new habit: walking around and just paying attention to everything.

At first, I felt sort of strange whenever I picked something up.  Like everyone was watching me and snickering, so I tried to be quick about it.  I'd see something that looked interesting and I'd swipe it up off the ground and stuff it in my pocket like I was making a drug deal on a street corner.  Most times I wouldn't even know what I had until I remembered to take it out of my pocket later.  I still do that sometimes, just for the surprise of it.  But now I'm not so shy about scooping up whatever catches my eye.  I've even seen other people doing it.  I love it when that happens.  Like I've just inadvertently caught another member of Fight Club picking at a scab.

So, do you pick things up?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Musings today

During lunch today I walked over to the mall and had some generic asian stir-fry stuff.  I took my tray into the eating area and claimed a table.  At the table across from me is a young woman, probably twenty-something, looking dejected and miserable and a little hostile.  From what I can see, she's fairly well-dressed in a semi-professional sort of way.  Certainly not jeans/t-shirt casual.  She's a little chubby, with a mottled complexion.  Her hair looks unkempt, and alarmingly unwashed, which is totally at odds with her manner of dress.  Her whole demeanor radiates unhappiness. 

All of this gets me wondering all kinds of things, like why she's so unhappy and angry looking.  Is she always like this, or just having a bad day?  I don't like to make assumptions about people.  But I can't help thinking that the hostile look on her face is something she wears a lot.  She reminds me of a kid I went to school with, whose clothing was always threadbare and unwashed, and inevitably was treated rather cruelly by the other kids.  Is this her story?  Is she accustomed to ridicule, and as a result has built up a mask that screams "unapproachable" as a shield?  Is she warding off the world by cultivating hostility?

And further, I wonder: could her story be changed?  Is she really just waiting for someone to be kind to her?  How would the landscape of her face be altered by a genuine smile?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Focus on Life, Week Three: Take Time

 A sincere and loving thank you to all you gorgeous souls who visited and commented last week.  You are all appreciated!

Here we are at week three of Sally Russick's Focus on Life project.  This week's theme was 'Take Time' - meaning, spend some precious time doing something for yourself.

I daresay I may be in the minority - my time is my own, for the most part.  I do have a 'regular' job and all that, but I don't have children, and my dude is not clingy or needy in any way.  So, aside from the standard household obligations, of which there are few, I get to take time for myself pretty much however and whenever I choose.  I do generally keep myself busy with projects of all sorts, and occasionally I feel the need to slow it down and take a break.  I love to read, so this is what I do when my body tells me its time to rest.

This is the chaise end of our ridiculously huge, flaming red sectional couch.  This is where I usually end up nesting, curled up in the squishy cushions with blankets, coffee, and cats.  This morning the cats were unusually restless, so I couldn't capture them in their typical posts by the big window.  Notice the wide, flat armrests that are perfect for stacking books!  This couch totally overwhelms our little living room, and the color is outrageous, but we got it second-hand (plus a matching armchair) for a steal from a military family that was moving.  It was so cozy and squishy we had to have it.  We love it, and the cats love it, even if it pretty much takes over the whole room.  On days like today, with the sun streaming in the windows, that spot is absolute heaven.

(snapped this photo this morning, then played around with the editor on

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Focus on Life-Week Two: your word

This is week two of Sally Russick's Focus on Life project.  The prompt for this week was 'your word' - what one word/resolution that is your mantra for 2013.  I've never done one-word resolutions or themes before; in fact, I've never really done resolutions at all until this year.  2012 was a year of big shifts in thinking for me, and I did a lot of things that were overdue.

There's definitely more to come in 2013, and I pondered over the word I wanted to embrace this year.  Several times I tried on different words, each of which felt good, but didn't quite fit.  A little loose across the shoulders; a little tight in the hips; a little too short in the legs.

But then I found it; or rather, it found me.  I opened my mind, my heart, my soul and asked the Universe to speak to me.  It suggested a word, and when I tried it on, I knew it was mine.  Putting on this word felt like slipping on a loose poncho, one made of furs and skins and tanned leather and ancient beads.  It felt warm and comfortable and sacred.  It felt right. 

My word for 2013 is WILD.

For me, the meaning of this word is well written by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves:

"When women reassert their relationship with the wildish nature, they are gifted with a permanent and internal watcher, a knower, a visionary, an oracle, an inspiratrice, an intuitive, a maker, a creator, an inventor, and a listener who guide, suggest, and urge vibrant life in the inner and outer worlds.  When women are with the Wild Woman, the fact of that relationship glows through them.  This wild teacher, wild mother, wild mentor supports their inner and outer lives, no matter what.

So, the word wild here is not used in its modern pejorative sense, meaning out of control, but in its original sense, which means to live a natural life, on in which the criatura, creature, has innate integrity and healthy boundaries.  These words, wild and woman, cause women to remember who they are and what they are about.  They create a metaphor to describe the force which funds all females.  They personify a force that women cannot live without."

To me, this word embodies a return: to a more natural life, to my own true nature, to remembering myself and what makes me shine, to an intention to be fully me and everything that means.

For many reasons, I feel as though the last bundle of years has been lived in a shadow, a deep shadow that hid my true nature.  I feel as though I'm beginning to strip away the layers of masks and costumes I have sewed to my skin, and in doing so I'm remembering who I really am.  Wild.

Thanks to all the beautiful souls who took the time to visit my last post and leave comments.  Know that each and every one of you is a treasure.

Visit Sally Russick's blog The Studio Sublime to visit the other participants as well.