While watching a small black kitten socialize a grumpy old orange cat a few days ago—on a break from preparing my course materials for fall—I began to ponder the uneasy interactions between learning and teaching and the vulnerability that must underlie both if either is to be a success in common (or uncommon) hours.
The old orange cat, of course, is neither all that old nor in need of socialization. Per him, I am quite sure, this new once-lost kitty is a pain in the neck and other places, she’s the wrong color and wrong size and too busy by far, and the humans of the household clearly need their empty-but-for-rocks heads examined for rescuing her from a wheel well, toffing her up with fine milk and seductive homebaked treats and a shocking pile of storebought toys donated by generous neighbors, and then bringing her knock-kneed prissy little self home to bat at the end of his tail or chew on the tops of his ears or simply hop over him one way and then back the other four times in one row when he is trying his deadlevel best to get in his needed 22 hours of daily Zzs.
Orange cat thinks black kitty is trouble on four feet minus one boatload of good sense. Black kitty thinks orange cat is odd, long, and rangy, and possibly doesn’t mean what he says either (since the growls don’t match that come-hither switching tail when black kitty goes off to play with somebody else or her toys or nothing and nobody at all), and besides, maybe it’s way past high time he learns how to be in the world that will soon be run entirely by black kittens who know how it should go. “This learning equals teaching thing is bunk,” the kitty sometimes seems to protest (as so many students/teachers do), “for I know what needs to happen right now and he doesn’t.”
I have no new answers to the razor thin fences between these twinned practices of teaching and learning, but my questions have multiplied, fierce in their unending layers, and are thoroughly unwilling to lie down and play nice so I can make quick work of my syllabi prep. Lest any complaint be assumed in there, trust me on this: I do not wish to lay hold on shortcuts. I do not want comfort or any shred of confidence to mark my choices about what I ask students to do. I do not seek an end to my questions. Up until quite recently, though, I did want all that and more. Every time I prepped a course, I wanted to make it better, using the answers from last time to avoid any missteps again. Now, thanks in no small part to what I’ve learned from three stray felines, I know a little better and want a little less.
Old orange cat did not show up at our house alone. He came with his sister three years and eight months ago, both traumatized from having been tossed outside after the cute stage wore off and having to fend for themselves for too many weeks in a cold winter against local coyotes and bobcats and bad weather.
They were scrawny and skittish on arrival, and kept carefully to their new plush, warm bed, high above the microform reader in my office, eying our dogs and chickens and goats warily and venturing out almost not at all. The dogs, of course, knew the house rules where anything breathing (and not!) was concerned and were no threat. They watched from the doorway, polite and gentle, until the newcomers indicated a wish to approach. Cupcakes and Le Girl (named thus by the four-year-old child whose parents could no longer abide cats indoors) soon figured this out, settled in, and became full, willing members of our pack. We were better than coyotes or bobcats or high-desert snows, I suppose. We certainly all tried to be.
From the outset they were both a bit clumsy, cobbled-together kittens and Girl especially so, her back feet never quite following her front so well as she planned in her jumps. Often as not, she’d miss whatever she was aiming for and turn out nearby and askew, much more hannah- than cat-like in her efforts. This was no particular cause for concern. Sometimes it was even funny. She walked like me, just fine and even graceful out-of-doors but with a penchant for strolling into solid things at high speed in the house. But she and her brother were healthy and soon at normal weight. Into everything, they were each other’s shadows, traipsing about the place like natives born to it, and never far from us.
Then, a few months on—come to think of it, not too long after our female pet turkey Jukes took an abrupt and keen dislike to her brother Waylon one morning and went at him like a street preacher in a come-to-Jesus meeting in which she clearly intended to land Waylon at the pearly gates first, and she would’ve succeeded, too, had I not intervened and built separate residences for the pair—Le Girl had a sudden flash of a similar row with Cupcakes, and the two fussed and spat and took to opposite sides of every room they entered for three weeks running. No cuddling in the bathroom sink or middle of the bed or one on either side of the same human. No sharing treats nicely. It was knockdown dragout every time a tail switched or a hair moved and, let me assure you, that was often.
Nobody was more confused about all this than me, for, as it turns out, I know very little about cats, but Cupcakes came in a close second. His little ghost twin suddenly did not like him, and he mooned about after her like a teenager after a first love, following her everywhere and yowling for her to play, bringing their catnip toys and dropping them nearby to lure her into one of their favorite games, waiting patiently beside his food bowl for her to come sample his kibble: all to no avail.
For three weeks she would have nothing to do with him. She could be in mid-nap and if his feet touched the sofa, she would leave it. If she was headed for their favorite chair and noticed him already there? She’d hurry the other direction. On the few occasions he managed to slip up beside her unnoticed? She’d deftly stand up and move away. Cupcakes was openly lonely, vulnerable, and sad, and Le Girl, for those three or so strange and discomfiting weeks, was not. They eventually got to where they could be in the same room without a spat, but she was a different cat: she wanted her own space, to look at squirrels and birds through a window without him at her shoulder; to eat without company; to sleep without him taking up space on either side.
Cupcakes finally accepted her rules, but he seemed sadder, quieter, and he slowly turned more to us humans and complained less at her. Every now and then I’d catch him watching her with a quizzical look on his face, as if to say, “When did the world change and you turn out like this?” He would still follow her around, but from a long distance. She allowed this, and they built a new normal. And then it happened.
One night on the back patio, Le Girl took her last wobbly leap. Startled by something in the dark, I know not what for sure (but found fresh bobcat tracks outside the fence the next morning), she leapt off the top of a tall trashcan to the ground and that was her last step. All four of our dogs raced to stand between her and the dark night beyond, teeth gnashing in frenzied barking at whatever was out there, while I gathered her up and hurried inside. They followed, quiet and worried. Girl was still breathing, but otherwise paralyzed. Moments later I realized Cupcakes was nowhere around. The next hours were frantic, me racing from her side to the desert outside, calling for Cakes and listening in vain for his meow. He did not show up that night or the long next day, as I took her to have her back x-rayed—hoping against hope that the problem could be found and fixed—and then sat weeping and trying not to weep (for her sake) beside her for the long hours until our next-door neighbor (and vet) came home from work to bring the healing injection that would end her pain and life for good . . . and open an unhealable gash in ours.
There are no good words for goodbye, but I put her on my pillow for a couple hours that afternoon and let her lie in my hair (favorite previous spot for a nap) and tried to say in my heart all the lovely things I knew because of her so she could know deep in her now still bones what she had meant to us—as if cats might actually care about such small and unmemorable matters. I did reiki over her small frozen body in hopes of easing any pain and set aside my doubts about meaning in the afterlife to make a vow that, “If there’s ever any way to come alongside you beyond here, I will surely look you up soon and, until I catch up, you should check out our crew, for a small slew of us are already there.” When losing a loved one for good, there is no end to how vulnerable a human can be, it seems. And then the vet came with the syringe and the kindness to refuse payment and an explanation of what he thought had happened to her back (a congenital defect of the spine, which had likely rendered her clumsy and thus always susceptible to one severing fall), and I held her sobbing while her breath left that tiny ghostly body for good. It took me some dark hours into the night to get her grave shoveled out and her laid deep into it, wrapped in my softest t-shirt, and then covered over with the yearning earth and ringed with cholla cactus balls all about (predator proof), and I called and walked and looked for Cupcakes for the rest of that night and the next two days and nights, to utterly no avail.
Suddenly one morning I heard him, outside the fence, high in the pine tree by my window, and I tore out of the house and crawled partly up that tree as clumsily as Girl ever could have, and brought her brother down. Since then he has been sad a lot and sleeps way too much and, having gone entirely without water for more than three days and survived, cannot now seem to get enough fresh, running water. He loves us and spends time with us, yes. He is affectionate and talkative and occasionally even plays with the dogs. But he is sad inside and he does what he must, but mostly he just sleeps.
He sleeps on any horizontal surface—piano, bed, shower, yard, or lap—and only rouses for food, water from a tap, hugs and a nap next to mom or dad, and relieving himself. He sleeps in boxes, under quilts, in windowsills, and on laundry (preferably clean and folded).
He likes to be outdoors with us when it’s feeding time for the crew, yes, but if a coyote yips miles away, he hits the tin roof of my writing shed (12 feet off the ground) in nothing flat, and when I finally coax him down again, he heads into the house and sleeps and sleeps and sleeps some more.
But no kitten presented itself and, to be frank, I didn’t want Cupcakes to go through another rejection. He’s met two grown cats since his sister died and hated them both with an easy roaring passion, too, so there was always a chance that he would be the one doing any rejecting.
So sleeping big old orange cat carried on with his indolent self.
Until the day this summer when dad found a little black kitty stowed away in the wheel well of a neighbor’s car in Wisconsin and brought her home. And, well, you know the rest of that story almost as well as I do now. Mossi (little black Wonder kitty) and Cupcakes (big old orange grumpy cat) are beginning to reach an agreement of how things will be for their lives here. She’ll wake him up for no reason and sometimes no rhyme. He’ll grumble at her but switch his tail to get her attention when she wanders off to play by herself. She’ll pat both sides of his face (from above or below) with soft kitty feet and chew on an ear or two when he lets her. He’ll fall asleep with her wound up in his fur or, preferably still (but not by much), stretched out next to him in fine imitation of the big orange cat. They are both vulnerable to the other, learning and teaching alongside—not just about the great big world and all its tiny filled corners, but about the spaces in their souls that could stand some filling just about now.
And when I watch them, I rest easier on my teaching prep (I do not stand down, but I do rest easier). For I remember all my teachers, animal and human alike, and so many of the little quirks that made each one so unique and so memorable, and I think that, of all the great reasons to have teachers in the first place, the very first just must be precisely this lesson that I re-learned from Cupcakes and Le Girl. That every one of the best teachers I’ve ever had was as different from each other or me as the rivers are from the sea, and that—even when our edges eddied into one another for a string of moments in time and purpose—they and I, too, were already headed out for blue or green water, no telling which or when or for how long or how gone. And, notwithstanding that great standing wave o’er our heads? Still they all had one thing in common with me, and they owned that, made it clear—in their own individual ways—every day.
They were still learning, you see, still opening themselves to the fullness of this thing we call existence, this parenthesis of breathing in time we call life. They were vulnerable and honest enough to own their shortcomings and failings right alongside their strengths and passions, and that gave me the courage to be vulnerable and honest, too, and although all our paths have diverged long since—as teacher and student paths must do, if any of us are to answer our callings while here—from them I learned the lessons Le Girl taught her brother, and he and Mossi teach me. Nobody knows anything but how to walk the path at her/his feet on any given day.
We none of us are getting out of this gig—this ‘sexually transmitted terminal disease’ we call life—alive. We must make of it what burns in our soul, no other, every day, and, while we may well grieve (and sleep and weep and sleep) on every step forward, we must also remember to show up for lessons when it’s our time to be grumpy and orange and old and switching the end of that tail when our ear tips aren’t being chewed down or our cheeks swatted on by soft little paws. Stray black kittens do show up—they reliably show up, in all sorts of forms (some human, some not)—to put us back in school, to show us what we don’t yet know and aren’t sure how to find on our own. There are no shortcuts to be had through the pain of realizing that yesterday’s wisdom is today’s chopped liver, and to work in the world means you open up to that achingly vulnerable, unpredictable space where you either learn something else every new day or you quit. Like Le Girl, the little ghost kitty who stopped a while with us; like her brother, Cupcakes, who misses her as much today as he did on the day she grew into herself and even more on the day I had to lay her deep within desert sand and cacti; like Mossi, who along with a goodly number of my human teachers regularly makes it clear that I have an enormous amount of basic lessons left to learn: I believe I’ll lead with my chin and leave the quitting to the grave. For that will surely come soon enough on its own.
In memory of Le Girl, for her brother Cupcakes and us.