The first feline to enter my life was when I was a kid—our family pet was Pudding—and cats have been coming and going ever since. In the early 80s, I adopted Whoopie, and over the next 20 years I often wondered why I love my cat so much. Besides being a wonderful companion, it turns out she was a great teacher.
After I lost Whoopie, a litter of feral furbrats appeared in our Brooklyn backyard, and I began practicing trap-neuter-return. What’s that? Glad you asked, as all animal lovers ought to be aware of it, and it offers a segue to some shameless self-promotion of my memoir An Unlikely Cat Lady—Feral Adventures in the Backyard Jungle.
Because some of the wild things we encountered opted to chill out and move in, my (very tolerant) husband and I now abide with four indoors: Iggy, Echo, Hobo Joe, and Rio. Four, however, is our limit, so I also rescue, fix and socialize strays before hooking them up with forever homes. In other words, I’m a part-time cat pimp.
In so doing, I’ve observed a lot of feline behavior, and it’s been quite educational—especially after I passed the half-century mark. I mean, I’ve always liked cats, but I never considered them mentors until I started dealing with the issues and adjustments midlife women typically face. So, while I heartily suggest that you adopt a couple of cats of your own for an ongoing tutorial, I can impart some secondhand wisdom.
The rules I try to live by, gleaned from my cats, are as follows:
Although I can’t remember a time when I did not have a cat, the Eveready Bunny was more my role model as a younger woman. I ran around, climbing magazine mastheads and partying in pursuit of true love and cool music. Yeah, well, cats don’t have FOMO. Their dharma is holding down pieces of furniture, they sleep up to 16 hours a day, and no one takes as much pleasure in a good, wide yawn. Watching my guys has taught me to relax a little. It’s tough; I’m a doer—I feel like I’m cheating society when not engaged in productive activity. But being surrounded by sublimely snoozing cats has helped me realize that maybe I don’t need to work so hard anymore. I can spend an occasional Saturday in my sweats lolling about mediating, or watching a movie. Take a nap? Um, no—I’m not that enlightened yet.
Cats don’t have FOMO. Their dharma is holding down pieces of furniture.
Tell it to the tail!
One thing I needn’t work so hard at is attaining the approval of others. Time was, I aimed to please: bosses, boyfriends, basically everybody. Sally Field’s “You like me!” Oscar speech smarted because I knew where she was coming from. But cats can’t be bothered. They simply don’t require that kind of validation: they like themselves, and that’s enough. Their reputation for independence really amounts to an ability to be discriminating. Even the people felines do favor often receive a close-up view of their butts! It’s simply a cat’s way of saying, “I may enjoy your attention, but I certainly don’t need it.”
Practice imperiousness and preen like you mean it.
Young women can get away with being a bit, shall we say, sloppy. Letting a bra strap slip, deeming flip-flops suitable for city streets, getting too tipsy in public—things that might be considered “cute” or even “hot” when you’re 20-ish. And young moms get a pass if they’re not pulled together or on-point in their behavior because … well, because they’re young moms. But cross the threshold to midlife, and it becomes crucial to carry yourself with dignity.
Cross the threshold to midlife, and it becomes crucial to carry yourself with dignity.
For tutelage on posture, elegance, and do-not-mess imperiousness, look no further than the nearest cat. Cats can also spend about 50 percent of their waking hours grooming. No self-respecting cat would let herself go. Now, I still have much to learn in this department, as I can let a hair appointment slide for weeks. But my cats’ self-care encourages me to be scrupulous about stuff like mammos, mole checks, and visits to the dentist. I’ve also been treating myself to massages lately; too bad I can’t purr.
When a housecat elects to meander from, say, the loveseat to the sofa, she will take a break to stretch. This cat-ism illustrates the importance of pressing pause during my day and to physically stretch. Sitting is the new smoking, and if I don’t step away from the desk to relieve my shoulders, lumbar region, and left hamstring every hour or so, those areas will come back to bite me. It’s also wise to give the mind and spirit a few minutes of deserved respite. Now I just have to practice looking cool while staring off into space at absolutely nothing.
Make (delicate) demands.
One of the fascinating things I noticed upon becoming a feral cat caretaker is that these wild creatures do not meow. Though they growl and howl when fighting or hiss when threatened and females moan when in heat, ferals do not otherwise vocalize—they “talk” to each other with their ears, eyes, tails, and stances. Socialized cats, however, have figured out how humans communicate so they meow to get what they want from us.
I’m finally trying to stop expecting loved ones to read my mind and then feeling pissily resentful when they don’t.
Of our cats, Echo has the most advanced vocabulary (she’s the only girl, so no surprise, she’s the cleverest). The boys will clamor for food, but Echo will articulate when she wishes to be petted on the stairs, wants water from the bathtub tap, would appreciate a combing, has had enough of the comb, thank you, or just wants to bitch about her day. In my younger years, I was more like a feral: It may have seemed that I was too fierce to ask for anything, but in truth I was too afraid, lest asking make me look weak,or stupid or otherwise get me hurt. I’m finally trying to stop expecting loved ones to read my mind and then feeling pissily resentful when they don’t. As I strive to master the fine feline art of meowing, I’ve begun to respectfully, honestly ask for what I want.
Channel your inner kitten.
Yes, cats are elegant and imperious and can sleep 16 hours a day; they’re also enormously goofy, and when they play, they go all out. Our eldest, Iggy and Echo, are pushing 14, making them septuagenarians in “cat years,” but you wouldn’t know it watching them with a champagne cork, pen cap, or felt mouse. Even Hobo Joe, a former backyard feral who is probably on his fifth life by now, having survived a host of illnesses that defied veterinary science, will go berserker with his favorite toy, a button slid over a boing-y guitar string. Watching these guys always nudges my inner child, and while I can’t pull off mid-air gymnastics like my cats do, every day I can sing, dance, play guitar—loudly, poorly, and purely for fun.
A version of this story was originally published in March 2018.