On Deracinated Cats

Deracinated cats, I thought as we drove across Colorado in the dark, the cats awake and whining in the carrier, me grumbling in the passenger seat at mountain by-ways, Kirsten driving the last stretch of that long journey back to her parents' house, I'll show those cats what it means to whine.

Deracinated, from the Latin radix (which means root) by way of the French. It means, quite literally, to be pulled up by the roots. The word has been on the tip of my tongue for much of the past month, as I've been helping Kirsten to move across the country, and the two of us now stand poised to move into a new place together. Pulled up by the roots indeed.

One of the many fascinating things about the past month has been being able to watch her two cats go through the moving process. I never grew up with animals, on account of allergies to both cats (mild) and dogs (a bit more persistent). Riding in a moving van - and now living - with these two cats has given me a whole new perspective on the happy beasts and on how both people and animals make sense of their spaces.

Kirsten had been living by herself in Carrboro in a small one bedroom. The cats had grown up in Bynum, a tiny community 20 minutes south on 15-501, with a backyard full of tall grass and moving things. For a variety of reasons, though, they'd moved and had been taken in by Kirsten. Living as she did in a busy apartment complex with asphalt, oil slicks, and the occasional abandoned car, it was not really a place for two adventurous cats. The two cats, as cats do, learned to live in the three room apartment. They quickly staked out their territory, found their favorite places, and were happy where they were. But all good things came to an end when it came time to move Kirsten out. The cats, quite understandably, were not pleased. As we broke down Kirsten's furniture and packed her things in boxes, the cats became more and more skittish. They spent a lot of time hiding under the futon bed that we slept on, or behind the stack of boxes in one corner of her bedroom.

Riding in a cat carrier across the country, needless to say, was not ideal.

What was remarkable, though, was to see the way in which they emerged from their carriers whenever we arrived at each of our successive destinations. Kirsten would set their carrier down, open their little door, and the two would cautiously step out. They would then begin these circuits around their new surroundings, putting their heads behind things, sniffing new objects, returning every so often to their carrier. They found the litter box that Kirsten put out, their water glass and their food bowl. They found the windows. They figured out where the doors where.

But first at Kirsten's parents' house in Colorado, and now here in my mom's house in California, it's been striking to see how they locate themselves (racinate themselves?). Kirsten - her clothing, where she sleeps, her voice - is still their touchstone, but they're slowly coming to make their own circuits in this new space. They haven't yet begun to play the way they did in North Carolina - there, they would tear from Kirsten's living room into her bedroom, then turn around and tear back through the living room - but they are again putting down roots. I suppose once they begin to play we can be sure that her cats are no longer deracinated.

All of which is a long way of saying that watching cats sound out the limits of their space - their wonder at mirrors, windows, and closed doors - has been a fascinating experience. In some ways, it's also an illuminating process for Kirsten and I as we get set to move to Koreatown from the Westside. Strangely, the move might be more fraught for me than it is for her. Strange, because I was born in Los Angeles and grew up here and Kirsten grew up in a small town up the mountain from Denver. At the same time, looking for a place - and finding it in Koreatown of all places - has brought home to me just how many roots I have put down in West LA. Walking to the coffee shop this afternoon, I passed under the 405 at Culver. Someone - Culver City, Caltrans - has been redeveloping the intersection of the onramp, the offramp and Culver Blvd., and the resulting space looks nothing like the space I remember from high school. Then, my dad used to sneak down Berryman Ave., then make a left onto Culver Blvd. North before slipping onto the 405 by way of a narrow little-used onramp. The space of the whole intersection has been widened considerably, and I was thinking that my reaction, my sense of disorientation at the change, stems at least in part from the deep roots I have put down in this part of the city.

The consequence of that rootedness here is a kind of disorientation in other parts of the city, a deracination of my own, if you will. In itself, that isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is a challenge. To be honest, I wasn't enthused when we first visited the apartment. It was - and is - beautiful: high ceilings, ample light, hardwood floors, big open rooms, plenty of counter space in the kitchen. But one of my first thoughts was how far it was from UCLA, and as we'd been driving down the 10 from the Westside, I couldn't help but tick off exits in my mind. Growing up as I did on the Westside, I was always accustomed to think of everything else as East, and as distant. Getting off for Vermont, as we did, had always been the exit my dad took to get to work, and that had always felt distant. My first response to the apartment - a couple of blocks southwest of Vermont and Beverly - was how distant it was from where I needed to be. The irony of that situation is that I very rarely thought of where I'd been living on the Westside in the same terms. There, because I'd put down roots, my space wasn't simply the distance between my house and UCLA. It was the neighborhoods all around, the places I could go in all directions.

And when we got home from that first afternoon looking at the apartment and started looking at the map, I began to realize how much was in all directions from this new apartment. One phrase to describe the process might be learning to live in all directions. Driving in this city, it's often difficult to do that, as driving is almost always an act with a destination in mind. There is a place to go, and everything else is peripheral. The process of putting down roots is much more a radial act, in the sense of radiating from a central point. There's so much more of the city within an easy distance now, and as we put down our own roots, to sound out our own space, it might hopefully be an act of living in many directions and not just one.


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