Kedi

The other day at a reading, I bumped into and talked to a sweet pen-pal friend of mine (who is also sometimes a face-to-face friend), a person who lives here in Philadelphia now but used to live in Istanbul. This friend told me about a new movie called Kedi, which is the Turkish word for cat. Kedi is a beautiful documentary about a few of the apparently thousands of cats who live in Istanbul—”free, without a master,” as director Ceyda Torun puts it. In the film’s description, Torun writes that cats have lived this way, in this place, for thousands of years. My friend told me about the movie because I wrote a book about cats, and then I told my mother about it because she once lived in Istanbul too, many years ago now. I asked her if she remembered seeing lots of street cats when she was there, and she said, “I don’t, particularly, but there was a lot going on in those streets.”

And that sure does seem to be the case. My mom and my husband and I went to see the film together, and all three of us found its images of Istanbul to be truly vibrant, in the mellowest and warmest of ways. Busy, ancient, twisting streets, all alive with people and trees, fruit stands and conversation, tea and food and CATS. Cats with their kittens in old cardboard boxes, cats sitting up high on the window ledges of apartment buildings, cats slipping under broken doorways to visit with one of their many human friends. If Kedi is a good measure of the city, it looks like any cat’s dream, with a hundred hiding places on every block and plenty of chances to beg for fish from the port and table scraps from sidewalk cafes.

In the film, the camera often gives us a cat’s-eye view, so we can follow the trotting cats along the streets to see where they go and what they do. But just as often we’re looking Torun’s human subjects in the eye, as they describe the way they met a cat who they now consider a friend. We hear people talk about the cats’ personalities, and how they’ve benefitted from meeting them. We see them feed kittens from bottles, throw scraps of cooked chicken on the sidewalk for them to eat, or smoke cigarettes as they talk softly to their chosen cat friend—even as they’re addressing the filmmaker and her camera. Their stories are reminders that, even when domesticated cats are “strays,” they do depend on human beings for survival—just as we depend on them to make our homes and cities more sanitary (as in, free from mice) and for the unique and almost psychic sort of friendship they can provide.

At the reading where I bumped into my pen-pal, I also met a woman who’s in a band that often writes songs about cats. !! It’s really got me thinking, all this talk (and art) about cats. Just as the rise of the internet has been a sort of validation for the introverts among us, it’s also the reason that cat-love is now at the forefront of the popular culture, I think. Everywhere you look, there are famous catswildly popular cartoon cats, and adorable, catchy songs about cats. (And this isn’t even the same band I just told you about!) The idea of the crazy cat lady, as an insult, doesn’t have much sting anymore. Cats are cool. They’re independently-minded, funny, elegant, and wise—and if I dare say it, this film offers proof that the people who love cats are in touch with something a little more sacred, and a lot bigger, than themselves.

I couldn’t help but notice, as I watched this pretty movie, that the production company behind it is called Termite Films. I don’t know the story behind the name, but I choose to interpret it as a reference to the idea of “termite art,” which was coined by the critic Manny Farber in the 1960s. According to Farber, there’s White Elephant Art, which likes to call flashy attention to itself, “filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity,” and then there’s Termite Art, which is small and easily overlooked but powerful because it works in secret, eroding boundaries. Termite Art is where it’s at, if you ask me. Just watch Kedi and see. The universality of the love between people and animals is a powerful message, even when it’s delivered on small, silent feet.

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Worn Out, Worn In

I’ve had my eye on this beautiful book, Worn Stories, since I first saw it in my friend’s shop last year. Well, I had my eye on it at the time, I guess, so I added it to my goodreads list, then kind of forgot about it. But yesterday I realized to my horror that CHRISTMAS was upon us, and I knew I’d need some books to comfort and protect me. If I have a good book I can get through anything. I consulted my list, looked up some of the books in the Philly Free Library catalog, and walked to the corner to catch the bus there.

I started Worn Stories today and it has not disappointed me. In fact, it’s surprised me by being much better than I expected. I spend a lot of time musing about clothing in an intellectual sort of way, and I have no objection to fruity, thinky, noodly pieces of writing on the subject. That’s more or less what I thought these pieces—contributed mainly by well-known artists and designers—would be like. But these stories have drama! People are talking about grandmothers emigrating from Sicily, and construction workers fighting off robbers, and Hurricane Sandy. They’re writing about silk ties and leather coats, yeah, but also about new babies and race horses and criminal court appearances. There’s a lot of life in this book. I’m finding it cheering and more than a little inspiring.

Now, when I was just about to move out of the first apartment I shared with my husband into the house we live in together now, I came across a pair of hair combs I’ve had for many years. I considered giving them away, but I didn’t do that; instead I just considered them. I wrote about them at the time, and I’d like to share that piece of writing with you now, in the spirit of Emily Spivack’s engaging, thought-provoking book.

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The Hair Combs

Well, it’s that time again. Time to clear out the clutter, sort through old memories, and decide what should stay and what should go. We’re about to move to a new neighborhood, and all this old stuff can’t come with me. With us. For such a long time it was just me living someplace, just me packing up my stuff to move to some new apartment or new life, but now it’s us. Things have changed and I guess they’ll continue to.

I’ve had a small pair of emerald green hair combs in my bathroom since I was 20 years old—for 18 years now. They’re art deco ones, made of celluloid or lucite in the 1920s in the “Oriental” style that was popular then, with cranes etched into the front. I bought them while I was still in college and exploring the city on my own, which was something I have continued to do in all the years since. Wandering silently, observing the life on the streets around me, then ducking occasionally into some cramped, dim little shop to dig through the old things there and drink in the mysterious energy that always fills those places. Sometimes I’d say hello to the person behind the counter, other times they’d never even see me there as I looked around and they worked, head down as they read or wrote something, their face hidden behind a stack of dusty books or some other fabulous junk.

I hardly ever bought anything for myself back then because I didn’t have much money, and I hadn’t yet grown into the, um, much more developed relationship I now have with the objects I own. I didn’t collect much, didn’t yet hoard things, hadn’t learned the way you can love and relate to an object almost as though it’s a person, with its own life force and set of memories. But one day, in one of those little shops in downtown Philadelphia, I saw these combs and they seemed to glow with the life they’d once seen. Right there in Philly, maybe, tucked into the hair of some beautiful girl who was still young and single and out having fun. The man at the shop was gentle and sweet and he liked that I appreciated what was special about the combs. He told me about their age and what they were made of. I bought them knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to wear them in my fine, slippery hair, and I haven’t. That never bothered me, either. The point of owning the combs wasn’t to wear them, but to begin building a grown-up life for myself, to become that beautiful young girl who was out living it up while her pretty things, her treasures, stayed at home, scattered around the bedroom and on the vanity as though they were half-forgotten, but not actually neglected at all. They were essential, and they played their role seriously and with great dignity, lying around pretending to be unimportant and waiting for me to come back home each night. You can’t be the character without the props. I needed the combs—and the funny wide-legged pants, and the old-fashioned handbags, and all the other stuff I’d eventually acquire that would help to transform me, on the outside, into the person I already knew I was.

The combs have stayed with me all this time, moving back home with me to my mother’s house after my father died, then into an apartment that was just mine—well, mine and Trixie’s, Trixie being the illustrious, glossy black cat who was my closest friend for years—and then here with Joe, where we moved to start a life together. When we were first settling into this place and I was decorating our bathroom, I placed them in the bone china teacup where I keep my earrings, and where I could see them every morning while I did my makeup and hair. It’s never occurred to me before now that I could not have the combs. Like, they don’t even really belong to me, but to the movie set of my life. Could I get rid of them? They’re a symbol of the kind of woman I wanted to become—independent (solitary, even), funny, smart, unflappable—which is an identity I’ve clung to because I’m so afraid to lose it. If I’ve invested all these pretty things with the hopes and dreams I’ve had for myself, would I be giving up on the dreams themselves? Do I need the things and the strength they give me, or could I manage without them?

Right now our hallway is filled with things we’re ready to part with—scarves and gloves and duffel bags, cookbooks and ceramic planters and a wonky little Hibachi grill that tips over every time you pour charcoal into it. Some of them are things Joe and I got together, and some are things we each brought to this new arrangement but don’t need anymore. I took the combs out of their teacup earlier, with the idea to give them away or try to sell them, but now I don’t know what to do. They deserved this little tribute and having written it, I might not need to hold onto them anymore. But here they sit, looking back up at me, almost a part of me now. I can’t decide. I’m a different person now than I was at 20, but that girl still lives inside of me, looks through my eyes, can’t quite believe what she sees in the mirror nowadays. I don’t know if I’m ready to stop being her for good, or to let go of my longing for a future that’s still unfolding.