|For I will consider our cats purr, its inhaling and exhaling rhythm. With our cat (whos named Wol; Ill tell a story about that later), her whole body vibrates, especially the throat and the stomach and chest. There are several layers of sound, and different mixtures of these as she inhales and exhales, plus different kinds of purrs (mixes of sounds) from day to day. Its cause: a pulsing vein or nerve-net inside the body, perhaps in the throat or chest? Yet a much larger portion of the body seems to pulse as well; as I said, it feels as if the whole body is being strummed. And her vibrations pass from her body to mine.
Purrs are not really explained in the cat books: we apparently understand neither what their function is or how they are produced, though everyone agrees they seem to express happiness and contentment: cats never purr alone, always in response to another being. Yet it also seems important not to translate the meaning of the purr into an easily identifiable human emotion, like affection or security. There is something wild, or bewildering, about it, that shouldnt be lost, as well as something domestic, humming the word home in the inner ear, making us feel it in our palms.
French and Spanish have a great word for purr: ronronear. The French r is sounded near the back of the throat, vs. the Spanish r, where you have to tip the roof of your mouth lightly, or the Spanish double-r, which is rolled. The French r means that the French word for purr wonderfully imitates the vibrations of purring; you cant say the word without purring yourself. In German, schnurren, purring sounds like snoring! It would be fun to collect the names for purr in many different languages, to hear the ways in which different languages cause us to hear and then to imitate the sound of purrs with different accents and shadings from one language to another (like purrs themselves). What should we say about a language that did not have an onomatopoeic name imitating the purr? Id be suspicious of it.
Wol often kneads her paws on my chest while purring, especially when she has just begun the purr. Is this tied to the paws milking the mothers teat when nursing, to increase milk flow? During the most intense phase of her purring, Wol kneads my skin with both paws together, in alternating sequence, while she rhythmically licks my neck, usually near the Adams apple. While kneading, the claws come out just slightly and pulsingly dig into the flesh, stinging just a little but not enough to hurt. She will also sometimes place her nose (usually cool and wet) in the nook at the base of my neck, or elsewhere on my neck; shes trained me not to yelp and flinch when she does this. This intense activity is often accompanied by a purr that has an extra high flute-like whistle, almost as if they are a series of running grace notes expressing utmost pleasure.
Wol will purr only for me, nurse only at my neck (other cats seem much less particular with their housemates). She purred for the other human in the household, Lisa, when she was very little, but early on (when she was maybe 6-8 weeks old; I cant remember exactly because we werent expecting it) while Lisa was away on a short trip she suddenly bonded with me one day, as if I were the mother she was taken from. Or maybe Lisas trip away had nothing to do with it; it was hormones and gender all along, and as the cat matured she suddenly bonded with someone of the opposite sex (?).
Some days bring numerous purrs, with Wol occasionally following me around and looking up wishing for me to lie down so she can crawl on my chest, settle in, and take a purr (Lisas affectionate and accurate and also mocking phrase for it). Sometimes in the midst of the purr she will get so excited about it that she stops, climbs up my shoulders, walks around my head, comes down the other side, and starts the process all over again. Other days she is much more distant, purring once only (often early in the morning or at bedtime) or not at all. Rarely does one days pattern reproduce itself the next day: days of heavy purring are usually followed by a day or so with few purrs, and vice versa. After the purr winds down (10 minutes or so), as after a feeding, Wol will usually snuggle down in my lap, facing away, or retreat a short distance away and sit and begin cleaning herself thoroughly (as if shes just had a feeding!) before settling down for a doze. Occasionally she will purr when being fed regular food in her bowl, or when I sit down near her and look at her, but more often she purrs with such close physical contact between her and me.
A purr can sometimes be started up again after it winds down, by stroking her. A purr can also be stoked, raised to a higher level of intensity, by stroking. Wol never seems to purr when outdoors, even though in other ways she can appear very relaxed, rolling in the dirt with paws in the air.
As I type this, shes just come in the room from dozing elsewhere and is sinking her claws into the back of the desk chair, demanding to be let up onto the desk. Up she comes. My arms are on either side of her as I work, trying not to get cat hairs in between the keys. Purring begins. I trill my tongue, unconsciously, while staring abstractly off into the computer screen.
Adults have a whole array of sounds and rhythms and tones that they use when talking with children and with their pets that are largely exiled by their adult speech. Its a kind of childs languageor mother tongueof hums and chirps and beats and other sounds that expresses affection and keeps the rhythms in play and says we are here together and who knows what other things. Julia Kristevas chora chorale, Meredith Monks remembering what it is like to lose control of your voice and your breathing in a tantrum or to be a child singing to herselfour deepest vocalese, the melisma and undersong hidden in all speech, preceding all speech.
Nursing Wol, I realize this may not occur with the cat we will get after Wol dies (shell be 16 years old soon, venerable by any measure, and lucky too). I also realize it may be the only time in my life when I will come close to what it must feel like for a woman to nurse her baby. The relaxed, dreamy state the purr usually produces in me creates a delicious blurring of maleness, all the body language and social roles Ive learnedboth the ones Im conscious of and the many more that circulate through me like my blood without my noticing. It is intensely pleasurable, almost like sex (or its aftermath), and much of the pleasure comes not from my own pleasure but from watching my effect on another body, from the ways in which the boundaries between two bodies and separate sensations, thoughts, and feelings, have begun to be (temporarily) opened. And its not even watching this, as if from a distance; its participating in it, causing it, being so enmeshed in the bonding that distinctions between cause and effect, inside and outside, draining vs. filling, my body vs. anothers, are pleasurably lost. I remember sometimes seeing something like this in the gaze of nursing mothers, who, after they have scouted out the place where they are to see if it will be OK to nurse there and after they have arranged their clothes and settled the child into its feeding routine, will gaze out away from their child with a look that is eerie and unfocused and utterly peaceful, though it may last only brieflya gaze that is not focused but is both open and opaque, as if they are not staring at something at a certain distance in front of them but looking inward, or backward in time.
Im shy about letting anyone other than Lisa see the cat doing this to me; occasionally she wants to when others are around. Im teased enough by friends because of how affectionately she sometimes sprawls in my lap, feet in the air, when shes relaxed with guests in the room and the airs warm enough.
Where does this shyness come from? Nursing is certainly not top-down male behavior, as Deborah Tannen likes to call itmales defining themselves as part of a hierarchy, either in charge or subordinate, with all the signs of language and behavior to show which is their precise place, either on top or subordinate. If maleness (or at least a very familiar kind of it) requires hierarchy, only the one on top can be fully male; the others whose presence is required to create maleness are necessarily female until they can overthrow the one in charge, if they ever can. (Consider the connotations of the French word domestique, the name for the subordinate members of a bicycling team who are meant to support the teams lead rider in a race---the word caustically links both female and servant status.) I dont go around signaling hierarchy with every move I make, and am put off my males who relate to others (men and women) like this. At least, I think I dont do this day in and day out. But if so, where does this shyness with my nursing cat come from? It seems not just that something private may become public.
Recently, Wols become quite deaf, at least to normal noises. Part of her suddenly seeming much older, and acting like it. She can no longer jump up on the bed easily, so weve placed a small stool half-step next to one side of the bed. And no more late-night frenzies running around the house, tail tautly askew and ears back; no more suddenly tapping us on our ankles with her front paws then sprinting to the next room; no more feints and side-ways hops on stiff legs, a fascinating form of attack-dance and challenge. I believe she can no longer hear her own purr. Can she feel it, feel her body vibrating?
When Wols gone, I will miss greatly this almost daily domestic routine of nursing. I will miss her weight, her shape, her rhythmssuch as how she sometimes suddenly lets her head and cheek fall against me when I touch her when shes sitting on my chest, her fur brushing my cheek, almost stroking it. I will miss the way she sometimes stops in mid-purr to mark me, rubbing my jaw with the sides of her face where her whiskers are. (I hear thats where cats have scent glands that identify things rubbed like this as theirs.) These marks dont last for long, but I imagine they do; I see myself with cat-lines on both sides of my jaw and on my cheeks marking me as hers, and causing a transformation as mysterious as that caused by applying Indian face-paint during a ceremony.
Wol is the first cat Ive ever lived with. We named her the day we brought her back from the rows of cages at the SPCA. Shes part Abyssinian, which means her fur is agouti fur (the word derives from a South American Indian word) with multiple colors in each hair, including gold, brown, and black. No two cats have the same agouti markings. Her name Wol comes from the fact that her agouti fur and tabby-like striped markings, especially around the face and forehead, made her seem owl-like when she was a kitten. Lisa and I had both loved Owl in the Winnie-the-Pooh books, especially because he thought he was so smart yet thought his name was spelled WOL. (I still vividly remember the illustration that came with the Milne volume; Owl wrote his name out carefully using a quill pen.) Lisa and I both hate giving human names to pets; theyre pets, not children. They are domesticated, but it may be that they domesticate us more than the other way around. Wol is rather hard to say, and impossible to call out, but then of course cats dont come when you call anyway, or rather they come when they hear the sound of your voice and think something may be up that is worth their investigating. We always get a puzzled stare at the vet from the latest young veterinarians-in-training at the sign-in desk when they learn her name; they think at first weve named her after a part of the house.