Nursing the Cat

For I will consider our cat’s purr, its inhaling and exhaling rhythm. With our cat (who’s named Wol; I’ll 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 shouldn’t 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 can’t 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? I’d be suspicious of it.

The Egyptians revered cats. What is the “hieroglyph” for “purr”---is there one? (Can such a visual language have any names for sounds, or for “sound” itself? Hmmm....) Another thought: in what ways does the word “purr” cause us to miss all the multiple sounds in the noise, training us to “hear” it only in terms of the sounds indicated by the 3 letters p, u, and r? This question is relevant for how we’ve translated other animal sounds, such as “bark,” “caw,” “meow,” etc. What is lost in translation, that we’ve become deaf to as we humanize their voices? Cats never purse their lips to make a ‘p.’! Yet we cannot not translate.

Each cat’s purr seems to be as distinct and individual as their fur markings, or as a human fingerprint or a snowflake. Each cat has a different mixture of overtones and undertones to its rhythmic pulse, as well as different habits for when it purrs, that are not identical to any other cat. And each cat, once you get to know her well enough, seems to have a whole repertoire of different kinds of purrs, some loud, some soft, some rough, some smooth as velvet, so you must bend your head down sideways and lean your ear to the cat’s side to hear (feel) it.

Not to mention the other cat noises, the meows and chirps and yowls. One book I read (I don’t remember which one) I think suggested that mothers can identify their own offspring from others cats’ offspring by purr alone, as well as distinguish one of their litter from another. Useful at night (but cats have great night vision), or as an identifier more foolproof than sight or smell? Dogs and cats have ears that pick up different spectrum of sound waves than the human ear, allowing them to “hear” what we cannot. Do purrs sound different to them, perhaps even more filled with detail and operating on both higher and lower frequencies than we can hear?

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 mother’s 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 Adam’s 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; she’s 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 can’t remember exactly because we weren’t 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 Lisa’s 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” (Lisa’s 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 day’s 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 she’s 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, she’s 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. It’s a kind of child’s language—or mother tongue—of 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 Kristeva’s “chora” chorale, Meredith Monk’s remembering what it is like to lose control of your voice and your breathing in a tantrum or to be a child singing to herself—our 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 (she’ll 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 I’ve learned—both the ones I’m 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 it’s not even “watching” this, as if from a distance; it’s 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. another’s, 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 briefly—a 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.

I’m shy about letting anyone other than Lisa see the cat doing this to me; occasionally she wants to when others are around. I’m teased enough by friends because of how affectionately she sometimes sprawls in my lap, feet in the air, when she’s relaxed with guests in the room and the air’s warm enough.

Where does this shyness come from? Nursing is certainly not “top-down” male behavior, as Deborah Tannen likes to call it—males 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 team’s lead rider in a race---the word caustically links both female and servant status.) I don’t 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 don’t 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, Wol’s 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 we’ve 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 Wol’s gone, I will miss greatly this almost daily domestic routine of nursing. I will miss her weight, her shape, her rhythms—such as how she sometimes suddenly lets her head and cheek “fall” against me when I touch her when she’s 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 that’s where cats have scent glands that “identify” things rubbed like this as theirs.) These “marks” don’t 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.

I will also long for how Wol sometimes settles down facing me on my chest after feeding, her face right next to mine, cheek to cheek. At such times she gives me a gaze from a much closer distance---just an inch or so---that is closer and steadier than any human-to-human contact, except maybe those between a parent and a favorite baby or two new lovers. There’s something wild about its utter disregard for the “personal space” that we humans usually assume around ourselves as part of our identity---wild yet also calm.

I think that my sadness living in Wol’s absence will be a kind of post-partum depression. A part of myself will have been parted away. But it will also be a part of a new self, or an inside self not usually seen or felt as I live in my “normal” male body, that I will miss and will have to seek somewhere else.

Wol is the first cat I’ve ever lived with. We named her the day we brought her back from the rows of cages at the SPCA. She’s 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; they’re 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 don’t 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 we’ve named her after a part of the house.

Wol’s purr is like her agouti fur. Each “part” of the purr (like each hair) has multiple patterns, and when put together these create a pattern infinitely complex, with layers and cross-rhythms and correspondences and much mystery intertwined within. Parts of the pattern can be attended to with great pleasure and great detail, while the presence of “whole” is easily sensed and felt if you relax and let it come to you rather than trying to pursue it. It has to be like nursing, you let it draw out from inside you a sense of the “whole” outside. This infinitude, this shifting presence, like the ever-changing yet steady pulsing of the purr itself, soothes and assuages, assuages and soothes.

Now it’s time for a nap. Then off to something else!




Gnomon 1