It is the familiar spirit of the place;
It judges, presides, inspires
Everything in its empire;
It is perhaps a fairy or a god?
When my eyes, drawn like a magnet
To this cat that I love…
The Cat by Charles Baudelaire
It has been harder to focus since losing my cat, Elektra, to bone cancer in January. When she found me—in 1996 in New Haven, Connecticut, the runt of the litter, she couldn’t have been more than eight months old—she placed her two front paws on the leg of my jeans and meowed up at me. Later, I would learn how rare it was for her to behave in that way.
Elektra was skittish around other people. She’d hide under the furniture when I had company, coming out only after they’d gone. It took a long time for my friends to gain her trust and even then she had her limits. She would let them pet her for a few minutes before telling them to stop with a warning hiss. But me, I had her trust from the beginning. And she wasn’t a big talker. She only spoke up when she had something important to say. She’d yowl with her mouth half-closed after leaving her litter box to tell me she’d done her business and that I should clean it up now. Right now.
During our sixteen years together, Elektra became a part of my writing ritual. In the early morning hours as the sun came up, I would prepare her breakfast and she’d eat while I made my coffee. Then I’d walk to my desk with Elektra padding beside me. As I wrote she’d sit on my lap with her two front paws on the desk and she’d stare at the screen and then look up at me. In the last two years, she started curling up in the circle of her tail on my desk and watching me work. When she napped, which was often, she’d use my arm or hand as a pillow while I typed with my free hand.
In this way, she sat with me as I wrote my novel, The Blood of Saints. She taught me the most important lesson a writer can learn: patience and stick-to-itiveness. Every morning, we got up together and made our way to that desk to work. Sometimes, on my slow days, and I had them, she was at that desk before me, waiting with a look on her face that just might’ve said: Get with the program, we have a routine here, and you’re late. Cats are creatures of habit. They like routine, a predictable schedule. Many writers are like this, too. We each have our own idiosyncrasies that get us in the chair or, in the case of Nabokov, standing at a lectern, writing on index cards.
When Elektra was diagnosed in September of last year, they gave her two months. But the cancer didn’t affect her quality of life until those last few days in early January. She still chased her toy mice around the apartment, she still adhered to our writing routine but with just one small change. She’d ask me with the slightest, softest full-throated meow to lift her up onto my desk because she couldn’t leap anymore. I like to think she stayed around long enough for me to finish the edits and hand the manuscript in to my agent.
I’m still learning to navigate my mornings—my days—without Elektra with the rituals I have left. I had to put aside my new novel, started while she was still alive. I’ll return to it at some point. The book I’m working on now, I’m co-writing with Camellia. This helps. In a way, Camellia is at my desk with me even though she’s still sleeping—my crack of dawn writing schedule is too early for her. And we have this blog, which is another kind of writing, one that we’re managing together.
In time I imagine that new writing rituals will evolve. But for now, it’s just me and the coffee at my desk.