This is the Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up: Once a week, I plunge into my 12-year archive and choose something worth resurfacing and resavoring as timeless nourishment for heart, mind, and spirit. (If you don’t yet subscribe to the standard Sunday newsletter of new pieces published each week, you can sign up here – it’s free.) If you missed last week’s edition – Kahlil Gibran on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence, some of the best relationship advice ever committed to words – you can catch up right here. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – over these twelve years, I have spent tens of thousands of hours and tremendous resources on Brain Pickings, and every little bit of support helps keep it going. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell indignated in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats too have enjoyed an admirable run as creative devices and literary muses in Joyce’s children’s books, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, Hemingway’s letters, and various verses. But hardly ever have cats been at once more about cats and more about something else than inLost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. (You might recall a subtle teaser for this gem in Wendy’s wonderful recent illustration of Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats.) Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.
After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevereas Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.
When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:
Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappearthrough the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full felineadvantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.
Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.
And then, one day, Tibby disappears.
Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.
And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears.
Once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, however, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?
When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?
There’s only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.
What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpablesubplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepeningof trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.
The inimitable Maira Kalman blurbed the book admiringly:
The writing and drawings are funny. Nutty. Heartwarming. Smart. Loopy. Full of love.
“Every quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:
6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.
7. But that’s okay, love is better.
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What an honor and a joy to sit down with Elizabeth Gilbert — one of the most splendid writers and splendid humans I know — for a conversation around (though not necessarily about) Figuring at Pioneer Works, the only public event I am doing for the book.
Tickets are priced at $29 — the number of chapters in the book — with all proceeds benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York City’s first-ever public observatory.
Signed copies of both of our books will be available, as will a special limited edition of 50 signed, numbered copies of Figuring made exclusively for PioneerWorks, also benefitting the observatory.
February 8, 2019
159 Pioneer Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231
Doors at 6PM, talk at 7PM. General admission. Seating is first come, first served.
IF YOU MISSED THEM:
The Best of Brain Pickings 2018
The Loveliest Children’s Books of 2018
Overall Favorite Books of 2018