Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sleeping Cat

Sitting at my computer in the middle of one of my projects, I feel at home. I think it’s like maybe a farmer, out in the field on his tractor, doing what a farmer does, and feeling at home and in control of his life. I know my life is only marginally under my control—even I am only marginally under my control, but for the moment my back isn’t hurting and the sun is shining outside (in Michigan in February, that’s a biggie) and I’m focused on some content inside this machine. One of our cats, Shawna, is curled up on top of a heap of papers on my desk, sleeping.

I never cared much about cats. I was never attracted to them, nor they to me. But after a few years in daily contact, I come to notice even a cat. She’s beautiful, of course, and her fur is soft. She’s ultra curious about everything, being only about a year old, and that and her energy give us a lot of entertainment. Except at 5:30 in the morning when she’s noisily exploring something under our bed, like this morning. I finally enticed her out of the bedroom and closed the door. She didn’t start complaining until almost seven, so I got my sleep. You can ignore a cat only when they concur, or when they are asleep.

Shawna has an interesting face, white with gray-brown markings around her eyes and up her forehead that give the effect of frown lines. Sometimes she strikes me as sinister-looking, the way her eyes slant just a little. In dim light, or when she’s aroused, her pupils dilate into two enormous black globes. She watches us—watches our eyes in particular, alert to whatever we might be thinking about doing. I sometimes play peek-a-boo with her when she does that, moving just out of her line of vision around a corner; she almost always has to move to where she can see my eyes again. She’s taught me a lot of little games like that.

It’s when she’s asleep close by, like now, where I can watch her and marvel, that I feel the connection between us. I know, it’s an anthropomorphic feeling. Still, she does find places close by me to sleep, particularly when Judith isn’t around. So does her adopted brother, Comanchi. He’s eight years old and is a lot less energetic. But I don’t have the same feelings, watching him sleep. He’s just a sleeping cat. Maybe it’s because she’s female; I don’t know. I used to feel a strong connection with our old retriever, Tasha, who died last year. She showed a lot more affection toward us than either of the cats, but that’s what dogs do.

Judith frequently picks up the cats to hug them and stroke them. It’s a woman thing, I guess, or maybe a grandmother thing. I’ve seen her do the same thing to babies. Never mind whether or not they are interested at that moment. I tell myself that I try to respect them and what they want. Like right now, I’m tempted to reach over and stroke Shawna’s coat, but I won’t. She’d just get annoyed, and probably leave.

A sleeping cat, like a sleeping woman, is rather wonderful to watch. They are not doing anything, just lying there with the slightest rhythmic movement revealing that they are alive. And yet I know that inside their heads there is a whole world going on. They aren’t like this computer when I shut it down, totally stopped, holding its breath, not dreaming or anything, not even waiting for me to turn it back on. Inert. All its memory still holds whatever nonsense I’ve put into it, but when it’s off it’s totally off. Not the cat. She is still there. I suppose that’s what is so wonderful.

We take for granted our need for sleep, as much as a third of our lives, spent unresponsive to outside events (up to a point), but inside our brains and our bodies, everything else is busy, busy, busy, being—whatever it is. A cat sleeps a lot more than a third of its life. Any time there is nothing going on in the house, she curls up and goes to sleep. A sudden but light sound will cause her ears to perk up and rotate without any other part of her body moving at all. Some part of her brain is awake, monitoring the environment. If anything important happens, the officer of the day is roused, and she stands, stretches, and goes off to investigate.

Cognitive scientists have guessed lately that there are a few species besides ours that might possess the kind of self-consciousness that we do. They probably don’t include cats. Shawna doesn’t think about the future. She almost certainly doesn’t think about thinking. Our dreaming, they say, probably serves the function of organizing all the experiences we have while we are awake, helping us make sense of our world and our lives. Cats don’t need to make sense of their world. Their responses are all hard-wired. They don’t need to anticipate things that aren’t impinging on their senses at the moment, for their instincts are designed to let them live moment to moment. When Shawna is lying here under the warm lamp, half asleep, half awake, and I put my face close to hers and make some kind of cat-sound (I think), she lowers her eyelids slowly and opens them again, she’s acknowledging me without feeling the necessity to respond in kind. That’s different from old Tasha, who would go out of her way to come to me and nuzzle me or lick the air between us (she knew that licking my face would not be welcomed).

Shawna is a good lesson for me in accepting other creatures as they are, without expecting to have my needs met by them. So I’m satisfied to just watch this sleeping cat and wonder what marvelous things are going on inside her, without making our relationship be only about me. If only I could get to that point with other people.

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