Tuesday, December 27, 2011


"Art and music will survive without you."

– Eliza Doolittle (to Henry Higgins), My Fair Lady

A friend asked me today what my inspirations are, as a writer, my literary "influences." I thought hard for a moment, the way I do every time that question comes up. I hesitated because of the qualifier, "literary."

I know I am supposed to have been – to be continuously – "influenced" by the great ones who have come before: Dickinson, Yeats, Keats; Dante, Milton, Auden; Sappho, Kipling, Millay; the Psalms of David, the prophets (those brooding malcontents of the Old Testament), the hymns and spirituals and sermons of my Southern childhood. If not directly "influenced" by these, I have certainly been encouraged by them. And these have set a deep music in me, a music and a cadence which rises again and again like a phantom in my own writing. Because of these who came before, because they did their necessary work and it survived them, I have been strengthened and comforted by my return to those writings, discovering and rediscovering what has risen from the solitary minds of those who spent their lives wrestling with the human experience and making of it a kind of dark and troubled beauty, a splendor, an art.

I have loved them and been awed by them and taken solace from them, but what can I learn from them that might sustain me when an emptiness looms in me where it never loomed before? What have I ever had in common with any of the great writers that I could get through such emptinesses with any grace or goodness? And what do I learn by placing myself before the literary ancestors and their works when my own writing doesn't seem to go along so well, or when it grinds to a halt?


For all the good lessons those great works of literature have to offer a writer, that particular lesson isn't in them. My life is as far-removed from their greatnesses, and their troubles, as the far stars are from the morning glories withering on my front trellises.

So what then, in my ordinary life, has opened itself long enough to let me "see" something profound enough to get me through, to decipher its meaning and merit on my own, to see a gesture, an act of faith strong enough to get me through the rough spots of the writing life. There are a few, I think. But none more immediate lately than my little cat, that amber-eyed, 6-pound sack of fur and birdlike bones, that eating and sleeping and pooping fiend. He manages everything he does with a curious feline finesse and I have never seen him depressed or filled with melancholy. When he's not eating or sleeping or hunched in the litter box with that far-off, how-did-I-come-down-to-this "look" on his face, he's curling up on the chair-back for a nap or devising new ways by which to instigate the daily bug-tussles with the big, blue-eyed cat who, by now, is frankly annoyed with his chronic merriment and curiosity.

That dumb little cat knows nothing of discipline, artistic or otherwise. He knows even less of poetry, classical or contemporary, and memoir and fiction are wholly beyond him. My cookbooks are about as intriguing to him as my textbooks are: something to distract me so he can go about his daily mischief. Awards and honorariums and professorships do not impress him. He could care less about publications and tenure. What impresses him is his daily tuna - and catnip toys. He will chase, with gusto, the red light on the laser-pointer across the floor and up a wall. He will do this for hours. He will sit alertly and watch a toy bird with as much attention as he watches an actual bird. And he relishes my time at the desk each morning because it means he can sit on my desk and amuse himself with the paper clips and stapler, so he can swat at my fingers or the pencil as I write. Sometimes, he gets bored and places his soft-furred head alongside the warm keyboard and dozes off. It's of no consequence to him if I agonize half the morning over the structure of a sentence, if I'm pleased with the task of it all or stuck in a subjunctive rut.

But just let me run out for a half hour to do the morning's errands or head upstairs to put away clean laundry, and he'll diligently post himself at the living room stairwell, looking up, waiting for me to return. He'll sit like that, looking up an empty stairwell, for however long it takes for me to come down again, or to return with groceries or mail. He doesn't just sit and wait; he anticipates. He sits in a chronic state of belief: something will come.

After all, he's never been disappointed. I go away; I return. And with my return comes the return of the food and play and more time at the desk and catnip toys.

It's a grand time for him, that sitting, and he does it with all his catlike little heart and body and those three little synapses that my husband believes are the only standard operating equipment for thinking that cats bring to the game. Like Romeo at the balcony, he waits with great fervor.

The odd thing though, is that crazy little cat is never neurotic or unhappy when I go away. He takes up his position at the foot of the stairs and lifts his eyes. He can stare into the emptiness like nobody else I know. He never flinches, never gives up. He is – as my people are wont to say – in a state of blissful ignorance, believing he will sit and I will return. Not exactly cause-and-effect; more like waiting for the payoff after he's put in the time. Cat logic. Or a human imagining cat logic.

Call it what you will, but I am learning a kind of grace from that cat's gesture of waiting that is making me less crazy, less anxiety-riddled, less paranoid when I sit down at my desk in the pre-dawn hours of the mornings and nothing comes to me. And by "nothing," I mean nothing. In the deeply-troubling moments of no-words-coming, the moments of I-have-nothing-left-to-say-of-any-importance, moments when I would formerly have fled the emptiness for the productive distractions of gathering laundry or unloading the dishwasher, when those moments come to me now, I am learning to sit back in my chair, to wrap my hands around the coffee mug and stare out into the dark wintry morning beyond the windows and to wait. Something will come. After all, something has always come. Not because I have demanded it. Not because I have bargained with the gods for it. Not because I am strong-willed and dedicated. Not because anyone else in the world cares if I am writing or not. And certainly not because I arrived on the planet infused with greatness. It has arrived for as many years as it has because I have been open to it, because I wanted it badly enough to wait until it arrived: hours, days, years. Maybe it arrives some mornings because I wouldn't know who I was without it, because it's my oldest habit, my most faithful vice or virtue. And now I am learning, thanks to a cat, the joy of sitting in the largesse of emptiness, in anticipation of an arrival.

photo by Anne Caston