The flat has two bedrooms and three cats, and (usually) two people in it. We are cat-sitting for a week, and enjoying it so far – maybe because it’s only the first evening, maybe because my allergies haven’t kicked in yet. Or maybe it’s because you just can’t NOT enjoy it.
I don’t mean “not enjoy cats” – I bet this is perfectly possible. What’s on my mind is the thing that, for all its crowded boroughs and in-yer-face attitudes, London is missing: a thing I can only call “presence.”
At the moment, all three cats are in various stages of nap. We’re making out way through our separate bottles of wine, slowly but diligently. Two laptops run in two corners of the dining table, with Prince and word processors and web browsing. There is not much happening, and yet the room feels full and busy.
Either of us can walk across the room and try to do something to any of the cats. Or the cats can become interested (or feign interest) in anything that happens around our laptops, glasses or feet. There will be time for one more meal for them, maybe, and then off to bed (for us) and for nightly runs and cavorting in the dark (them).
It doesn’t have to be a cat. Dogs, mice, any kind of pet or person you’re comfortable with – that does the trick. The thing about the right kind of presence would be that you’re OK with sitting in the room and not interacting – and switching between not-interacting and interacting, whenever any party feels like it.
The cats are well used to one another, and their grooming and playful fights rarely come as a surprise. We are used to them, and they to us. But that alone is not enough; something more is needed between “used to” and “OK with whatever happens next, even if nothing happens.”
Taming could be one word for it – one aspect of whatever it is we’re enjoying now. But that leaves out the “wild” part of the deal, which also happens every now and then: the cats still freak out at a sudden noise, we still choose to enjoy the wild human side every now and then. And the “ties” idea doesn’t really do justice to the temporary, non-committal relationship we have with those cats: their owners pay for their food and vet care, they make sure everything’s OK for us and them to enjoy this week together.
No, there’s something else – the people who tamed these cats enjoy it, but we enjoy it as well, to an extent, without the “ties” being there.
Could it be the “glance full of mutual understanding” that Levi-Strauss writes about? This is closer to what it feels like, for sure. It’s not like we’re regular people for these cats, and we are pretty regular towards each other as humans: and yet it seems we share the room and the evening on equal terms. So where does this come from?
Back again to the wild side. Wild because of London, but this could work anywhere, and probably the reason people and cats feel OK is similar here and in Marazion in Cornwall. The relationship between the wild and the spectator is probably the exact opposite to the “glance full of mutual understanding:” you watch to figure things out, to determine risk and safety, to establish relationships, categorize, size things up. This used to happen outside your home, and stop whenever you came back into the house. Except that it doesn’t any more, not in London – not in a world of house-shares and housemate castings, not in a reality where “part ownership” is something to aspire to.
Home is where your wi-fi connects automatically, she said as we set up to do some work here. This is as good a definition as any other. Seth Godin writes about “safety zone” no longer being equal to the “comfort zone” – but another important shift is taking place, the ever-widening gap between “house” and “home.” Ask the renters, the houseshare crowd, the backpackers, the wandering English teachers: home is a thousand different things. And establishing ties is just one way to deal with a world that’s increasingly wild by default.
So maybe what I’m feeling now is more important than I thought. Maybe the very fact that 99% of flats and houses available to rent in London tonight would not permit that kind of setting – me, her, three cats – maybe that’s more dark and symptomatic than I give it credit for.
There will be time for those ideas, soon. Now the night falls, and the cats – arranged in a nice triangle across the living room – enter the nether regions of nap. This minute is home.
Maybe that’s all there ever is to it.
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