I sometimes tell my writing students "Start out with a clear purpose, but be willing for that to change in the course of writing. "
Well, case in point. In this post, sparked by an e e cummings quote, I set out to explore the idea of how one becomes lovable… and wound up writing, mostly, about a dead cat. (Disclaimer: not the "lovable" that's the usual saccharine, adorable puppies-and-kittens-pansies-and-plump-faced-babies; a much grittier one — becoming able, finally, to give and receive
The course-correction probably began this morning. I was halfway thinking about the post, having started it last night, but not yet being at all satisfied. I was also making breakfast.
I cracked two eggs into a small stainless steel bowl for an omelet. I began to beat them with a fork. This, of course, makes a certain sound, a light, distinctive rhythmic metal-on-metal clang. And as I heard the fork strike the bowl, I also heard myself calling, "Beanblossom! Bean-Bean-Bean-Bean-Bean!"
Now Beanblossom, my first cat, has been dead more than twenty years now. It's not that I've forgotten this. But I habitually call the name of that small dear calico when I beat eggs in this way. It's as automatic for me as unscrewing the caps of the small brown extract bottles and raising them to my nose and inhaling the vanilla or lemon or orange or anise, another habitual gesture. Whether it's sniffing the vanilla or calling the name of a dead cat, in my view, you take pleasure and joy where you find it, and never miss an opportunity to do so. Eventually, some of these opportunities become habits.
For Bean is, and isn't, dead. Yes, she's buried (in the back of my old house in Arkansas, under the mimosa tree; the daffodils Ned planted when he buried her are probably already blooming). But in memory as in dreams, where time and embodiment have little or no sway, Beanblossom is alive whenever I think of her. She is as quick and immediate as was her
spry scamper to get to the egg bowl. Licking the little bit of raw
egg inevitably left in it was one of her great delights. Even as I would call her name, the clang of the fork in that stainless steel bowl would already have brought her
running, however deep her sleep, from whatever part of the house she was hiding herself in. One favorite haunt was the top of the armoire, from where she could look down on us, blinking in surprise, as if to say "Oh? Who are you again? And what are you doing here?" Another much-loved Beanblossom place, in winter, was wedged into the small space between the end of the wood-stove and the brick chimney into which it vented. If you touched her hot tricolored fur while she laid there, you wondered why she didn't simply combust — and indeed, one December she did actually singe slightly, sizzling the edges of her whiskers so that they curled comically into great rococo curls. (I love that picture above left, taken one winter morning by our friend George West. Two great early lasting loves of my life, neither with me in form any more: Ned and Beanblossom. The picture was taken outside the little cottage that was my home for years, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.)
Although I've called Beanblossom's name when I beat eggs for years, it's always been automatic; I only really thought about it today. I guess that by calling her name in the same way I did when she was alive, I call all this — the curled mustache, the quick feet — up in memory. And there, quickly, I can revisit our adventures during
the years we were both alive in the physical sense simultaneously, and in connection with each other — in whatever mysterious way a cat and a human being are in connection.
As I've said, Beanblossom was my first cat. She lived to be 18 … a period that paralleled, in my life, the years from age 18 to 36. No one else on the planet knew me so intimately in a daily way that long, that closely, over that period of time. Though life is one change after another (why do we continue to cling to the illusion that someday it's going to settle down?) I think we can agree that for most of us, in young adulthood, the rapidity of change is stepped up.
Though I have had cats since her death — first another calico, and then two tabbies from the same litter (the current feline residents) — Beanblossom was, and I think always will be, the cat of my heart.
One night, alone (as far as human company goes), lonely in my bed in the little funky cabin Beanblossom and I shared, I fell asleep with a backache, my last conscious thought, "Oooh, I wish I had someone to rub my back." This would have been, oh, 1973, 1974, which would make me about 21, 22. The next morning, I woke up on my stomach. And Beanblossom was walking up and down my back, kneading my spine with her four small paws, and purring loudly.
to go on hikes with me; not on a leash, but following or leading, a few
steps ahead or behind. She also went camping out with me, both when it was just the two of us and at times when I went with friends. On one latter occasion, several of us were skinny-dipping in an Ozark creek, and
someone called out to me, "Crescent! Look at your cat!"
I looked up to
the shore and there, standing on a rock, was Beanblossom. You might not
think that a cat's face would be capable of expressing distinct feelings of distaste and resolve, but that's what I saw on hers. She stood there a few seconds longer,
looking towards me, gazing at the water, sizing things up, possibly screwing up her determination. Then it was: "Well, if I have
to, I have to."
And she jumped into the creek and cat-paddled to me.
Her dear resoluteness. The way she elongated her neck above the water. Her head canted up and back, her nose tipped up, as if she couldn't bear even the smell of the disgusting substance in which she found herself.
And yet, and still, she kept paddling to me.
When she reached me, of course I swam back to shore with her. When we got out, I tried not to laugh as I toweled her cat body, ridiculously tiny with
its flat wet fur, especially silly because poking out of that almost rat-like wet body was her dry, normal-sized head, with the
v of caramel-colored fur that slanted down to her nose.
For how could you laugh at a creature, so loyal and willing and brave and peculiar as that?
I remember these things; and that when I fell in love with Ned, Beanblossom did too. Though a generally friendly cat, she took to him truly exceptionally. So much so that when Ned… Well, Ned then worked for the Arkansas State Historic Preservation Office. He was hired to write a how-to book for use in the Quapaw Quarter district of Little Rock, and he did. It was called Fixing Up Your Old House, and it was published, as he never failed to say, by the Arkansas prison system.
He threw himself a publication party for it, and everyone from his office was invited, including Wendy, a woman he had dated a few times, not seriously, before meeting me.
We were then living in Little Rock in a rental apartment. I can still picture that living room and the dining room next to it, that night: filled with gaiety, people, food, friendly noise, laughter, the requisite old beige uncomfortable given-away couch, with which young people just-out-of-college (as Ned was, and as I would have been had I gone to college) invariably furnish their first living rooms. Now that I think of it, he proposed to me on that scratchy old couch. Beanblossom gloated in all the activity, more or less making herself the center of attention: making the rounds: lap to lap, person to person, socializing and being petted by all. All, that is, but Wendy, who arrived about an hour late.
And this is what happened: Wendy walked in, Beanblossom jumped down from whatever lap she was perched on, faced Wendy squarely, gave a single gigantic, dramatic hiss, and fled the room. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then the party went on.
Later that evening after everyone had left I came into the bedroom and there was Beanblossom curled up with Ned. He was stroking her between the ears and sweet-talking her, sotto vocce. "Noooo, Bean, it wasn't like we were even serious. Nooooo. You could have been a nice hospitable kitty, yes you could have been, yes yes yes, you could…"(Scroll back up and look at the picture above, of the two of them nuzzling each other. When I look at this one, what is so clear to me is a tenderness that was part of Essential Beanblossom and Essential Ned).
To think that all this story, it turned out, lay in the beating of some eggs this morning! I could have made and served omelets for a dozen people in the time it's taken me to recount this.
And as I say, I didn't even set out to write about Beanblossom.
Or Cattywhompus (a neutered male tabby, who embodies an almost dog-like mischief and playfulness), who eventually, with his sister, followed Z-Cat into my life. See his portrait below, also taken by David. I must add that the Whomp and his sister made short work, alas, of the couch on which Z is pictured.
Though Cattywhompus and Z do figure into the story I want to tell.The story I planned, and plan, to tell. About becoming lovable.
But I should have known that such a vast and audacious topic, deserves, at the very least, a couple of posts. Even if you're not writing abstractly, but specifically, as, in my view, you must, if you want to write well, about love or anything else.
As the Native American writer N. Scott Momoday once said, "The events of one's life take place, take
place." It is this second emphatic place, which in my understanding is not just geographical, but personal, sensual, historical, and spiritual, not just accurate and contextual, but above all truthful, which gives writing about any topic life.
This is why nothing is wasted on the writer: let the world in, be porous to it, and then, so long as you actually write, as opposed to think about writing, everything becomes the specific material of the place Momoday describes. There is no waste, all utility. (Cattywhompus, current resident, left).
I promise you Part 2, the post I thought this one was going to be, will be up no later than April Fool's Day.
For you can't hurry love, as Diana Ross told us, any more than you can the true disclosure of place.
And for me, it turns out that becoming able to love insists on beginning with a calico cat who had a v of caramel fur that tipped to her nose.