Feral cats and meditation: Coming to terms with my own wild self

It is five in the morning and the cat demands to be let out, and in, and out again through the double-doors that lead to the freezing, still dark screened-in porch. I have complied patiently each time, and then re-situated myself cross-legged on the floor to rediscover the rhythm of my breath. Nothing matters more than this, I remind myself as I drop in. Nothing is more fundamental than learning to locate, rest in, and arise from the peaceful eye of my own whirling center. But the cat is scratching insistently on the door again, unimpressed by my determination to sit.

When he has finally had enough in and out, he picks his way onto my half-lotus lap, perching his dense, tuxedo-marked body precariously along my left thigh. I shift to keep him from sliding off and lose myself in early memories of him. The kitten of a neighborhood stray, he had already endured most of a brittle Minnesota winter before we discovered him. It was years before he learned basic house cat joys like climbing into a warm human lap and settling into undisturbed sleep. In fact, my partner and I had to love him assertively in those earliest months, feeding him by hand, and scooping him up and scratching his neck until his body surrendered into gentle human hands. The first time he climbed into my lap on his own, it was so normal that it took me a moment to recognize it as unprecedented. But there it was: after years of calm sing-song assurances and patient waiting, this skittish animal stepped into my lap and settled, warm as a baked potato.

The years of cat taming did not seem like much while they were underway. It was simply part of the mix of life, an oblique loving attention to our odd, formally dressed boy cat that coexisted with new jobs, long-distance moves, and countless joys and sorrows. I think that if we had focused too assiduously on his progress — insisting that he hurry up and become a normal house cat — he might never have melted into our life. We might all have missed out on that astonishing moment when, pretty as you please, he tiptoed into my lap, curled up, and zonked out. Keeping him in the corner, rather than at the center, of our attention, gave him space to become himself. We did little more than create the consistent conditions necessary for him to evolve. For the most part, his journey toward domesticity occurred naturally, like a flower opening or the erosion of a sandstone cliff.

Just so, I sit each day, gradually befriending the parts of myself inclined to run away from what startles, or toward the next promised pleasure. I sit with the paranoid wildness of myself, the me inclined to bite the feeding hand and retreat to a dark corner when strangers visit. I sit in full acceptance that I may never be much “better” than I am right now on this frigid morning, annoyed by my own impatience with a furry being that I called into my space years ago and have bound to my life. But despite the boiling rapids and craggy precipices of my inner landscape, my cat purrs gently on my lap, a lullaby for a human mind that can still careen from self-satisfaction to self-loathing in a heartbeat. Though there will come many more days when I doubt this, today I know the truth: Breath by ragged breath, decade by decade, I am making peace with the most difficult and ordinary of beasts.

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