Archive for January, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Hannah’s little brother Sam turned six months old, the age when a kitten becomes a teenager, or at least behaves like one: he’s asserting his independence, declining his kitten food (insisting on Hannah’s duck and green peas), shunning his mouse toys, throwing items on my dresser to the floor like a he-devil, and refusing to cuddle and purr on my lap, which he previously insisted upon for hours.

While Sam has been behaving like a teenager, Hannah, at the (adult) age of seven, has developed the skin of one. Recently, as I began the spring teaching term, I learned something new: cats can get acne.

I discovered this one evening when Hannah beckoned me to brush her atop the cat tree in the garret living room, her new “safety zone” – only there does she feel safe enough to let down her guard; only there will she receive my affection. The floor, her original “spot,” is now considered “dangerous,” leaving her too vulnerable to Sam’s invasion. Yet, even in the cat tree, she keeps an eye open.

In the cat tree, Hannah lifted her chin so I could rub her neck. She showed to me what appeared to be flakes of dirt on her chin and the side of her mouth. When I put my finger on the area, it felt bumpy. Hannah pulled away. Was she in pain? I wondered, and I tried to touch it again, but she tucked her head in and hid the blackness, like a dirty little secret.

At first I thought it was a wound: perhaps she had been bitten by Sam during one of their “vampire” play-games. It was just a crusting scab, I concluded. But then my PTSD got activated: perhaps she was trying to tell me something. It was the two-year anniversary of the week she almost died. Perhaps, I thought, this was a precursor to her impending and sudden death.

When I mentioned Hannah’s appearance to my friend Stephanie, she suggested it could be acne. Acne? I had never heard of a cat with acne. How could a cat get acne? When I looked it up online, a photograph displayed exactly what I saw on Hannah’s chin. Still, to soothe my PTSD, I put a call in to the vet: I did not want to risk the chance I was overlooking some underlying deadly disease. The vet said it did sound like acne. There was nothing to worry about. He recommended I wash Hannah’s chin with hydrogen peroxide, and if that did not clear it up, I’d need to bring her in for something stronger.

What caused Hannah to acquire cat acne? One: Plastic food bowls can cause cat acne. While I had used only ceramic food bowls for Hannah and Sam, I had bought a new bowl for Sam, which then became one of the two “communal” crunchy food bowls, and which, upon further examination, I saw was partly made of plastic. I promptly tossed it in the trash.

Two: Hannah had been sitting for long periods of time in front of the portable oil radiator. In my head, I equated oil with blackheads, the kind Hannah had on her chin. But of course the oil was inside the radiator, not on the outside. Still, I thought, sticking one’s face directly into the heating system must have some kind of effect on the skin, despite the working humidifier.

Three: Just like with humans, for cats, emotional stress can cause acne. With her trauma history, Hannah had been acclimating herself to life with Sam the best she could, but I noticed an increase in her stress behavior. For example, there was her selection of the cat perch as the only place safe enough to let her guard down. As well, she had been vacillating between two options for eating around an intruding Sam: growling until Sam backed away from her food bowl or simply quitting the premises altogether. Sam’s tendency to “sneak up on her” when she was in the litter box (simply being a kitten trying to learn, of course, but Hannah did not interpret it that way) caused her on at least one occasion to flee from the bathroom and run around the garret with poop hanging half off her tail.

These reasons swirled around my head as I stood in the bathroom, setting up the antibacterial soap and warm wash cloth, the hydrogen peroxide bottle, and the cotton wipes. I settled on stress. Guilt clutched my heart: I caused Hannah’s stress, and therefore her acne problem, which a PTSD-driven part of me worried might cause her to die, by adopting Sam.

I walked into the living room and placed some catnip in front of Sam to distract him long enough to allow me to treat Hannah without him interrupting and thereby increasing her anxiety (unlike Hannah, catnip makes Sam behave like a drunk). Finally, I carried Hannah down the hall and into the bathroom, placing her on top of a towel on my lap. She resisted and struggled.

“It’s okay, sweet girl,” I said to her, stroking her ears. “It’s okay.”

For a moment, she settled as I applied the warm wash cloth and the peroxide. “What a good girl,” I said to her, then placed some wet food by her feet. She disregarded the food and ran as fast as she could from me.

Ten minutes later, as I was tidying up the living room, kneeling down on the floor to pick up some pieces of carpet Sam had dug up, Hannah walked over to me and pushed her nose into my face. “Hi, sweet girl,” I said.

Hannah gently pressed her head against my knee, touching my hand with her tail as she calmly walked on by, as if she were saying, “Thank you for taking care of me. I love you too.”



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When I began to conduct research on the bond between cats and people for my book, Hannah Grace, I interviewed several long-time cat socialization volunteers at The Animal Rescue League of Boston. While they each described different types of experiences, they shared a common perspective: “People have ulterior motives. Cats are straightforward.”

I hadn’t considered this idea until I heard it several times. Then I began to wonder how life might be different if people were more like cats: less manipulative, more direct. Honest. Sure, there’d be alpha cats, but perhaps those in power would behave in a more civilized, if not predictable, manner.

Imagine how this might play out as you stand in line at your local city’s parking and ticket office, or as you wait in your boss’s office to hear if you can keep your job, or as you ask your landlord to fix what is broken in your home.

Let me take that last one. Readers may be familiar with the garret landlord. Six weeks ago, the two washing machines in the basement of the house where I live with Hannah and Sam stopped working. Last winter, when one of them broke, it took six months before my landlord had it repaired (approximately 20 tenants across two houses of apartments use these machines). But at least there was one to wash my clothes. Now, with both machines unusable and my car stuck in a Boston snow drift or ice paddy for the foreseeable future, traveling to the nearest laundromat two miles away by foot is not only a necessity but a treacherous balancing act.

When I inquired about repair status, my landlord stated that the machines were “out of order” because of “dirty water that happens when the city is working on the water system.” Having been home for weeks working on Hannah Grace during my teaching semester break, I was, and continue to be, unaware of any “work” being done on the water system. My landlord said he had a serviceman look at the machines and “he is coming back hopefully tomorrow.” That was December 28.

As I write this post, I look at Hannah and Sam washing their coats with their tongues. It’s direct, cost-effective, and independent of the actions, or lack thereof, of landlords. Perhaps I should become a cat. That is, if my landlord won’t.


I continue to enjoy reading your thoughts on Hannah Grace. Please feel free to post your comments below!

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Hannah and Sam

Before we met, Hannah and I, in reaction to traumatic experience, had narrowed our existence in the world – we were closed as books, or flower buds. Slowly, we began to open ourselves up, to grow, to learn, to live, to be. Together, we became more “free.”

When I first adopted Hannah, she would not allow me to pet her anywhere except in her charcoal-colored cat bed, located atop a storage crate in the corner of my then-studio apartment. Any touch not on her terms was terrifying to her, perceived as a precursor to catastrophic hurt. Hannah felt most comfortable at a distance. So, in fact, did I. With cats, as with people.

When we moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a family home, as I was doing my work to recover from PTSD, Hannah explored the airy rooms and opened windows of our new residence, and a confidence grew from within: she began to walk tall. Her underweight carriage filled out – she became physically fit, eating and exercising with regularity and comfort. She made a place for herself on the loveseat, where she turned around and around and around until she finally settled on a spot for her naps, relaxing her body completely, turning her belly to me, in a trusting way I envied.

Hannah blossomed. From a fearful, isolated spirit in hiding, she opened up to flourish as a playful, affectionate being: her true self.

Although she once frowned at, and stayed away from, the friends and dates I invited in, when we moved to the garret, Hannah became more of a social butterfly. Last summer, when I was away at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, Hannah, for the first time, allowed a stranger – my friend Stephanie – into her space. She trusted someone other than me. While at first she kept her distance, over the course of the week I was away she came out of her hiding spot to embrace the connection of company, to let go of the loneliness of her self-imposed isolation.

Hannah learned to open herself up to people first, then to another cat: little brother Sam. She mirrored my own growth: cat to human, human to cat. And now, as the garret’s token male, Sam is teaching us both that getting closer is not only safe, but full of bottomless heartfelt joy.

I watch them interacting together:

One day not too long ago, Hannah and Sam were sleeping on separate sides of the portable radiator. The radiator was Hannah’s barrier wall. In the past, whenever Sam crossed the boundary, Hannah hissed insistently as if she were demonstrating a move I once learned in a Model Mugging class: stand back! If that didn’t work, she quickly swatted him between the eyes, then threw him to the ground.

This time, Sam put his paw underneath the radiator grates as if reaching to hold Hannah’s paw in companionship. Hannah stared at Sam’s transgression, as if daring him to go any further. Sam did not retract his paw or push further. He just stayed put. To my surprise, Hannah let Sam’s paw remain there, and lowered her head to the floor. Then she fell asleep.

The next day, it was as if Sam decided to build upon the previous day’s work. He put his paw around the side of the radiator, this time, making physical contact with Hannah’s paw. Hannah let out a single “huh!” from deep in her belly, and Sam retracted himself in chain reaction. A few moments passed, and Sam placed his paw underneath the radiator as he had done previously, deemed acceptable.

A little while later, Sam stretched his whole body out upon the floor, then brazenly moseyed on over to Hannah’s side of the radiator, and sat next to her. Hannah remained pleasantly calm for a moment, and then, as if waking up from a dream, looked at Sam with incredulity as if to say, “what do you think you’re doing?” which then melted into an expression of softness and, dare I say, pure lovingness. Another moment passed and Hannah stood quietly, then slowly walked away as if to say, “That’s enough exposure therapy for today.”

Sam’s eyes followed his big sister as she left the room, but he stayed where he was, waiting for next time.

We’re getting closer.


Have you had an experience of growth with your pet? Share your story and comments below!

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Hannah, New Year's Day 2011

As we say goodbye to one year and hello to another, Hannah and I would like to thank you, the reader, for your comments, questions, and engaging support of this blog since its launch in May 2010.

With close to 4,700 visitors, Hannah Grace has gained much ground, and we’ve appreciated all that you’ve shared.

I’m very happy to announce, as I endeavor to publish the book, that a chapter excerpt has been selected as a finalist for The Briar Cliff Review‘s 2011 Creative Nonfiction Contest and will be published in their May 2011 issue. I hope you’ll buy a copy to read!

Hannah (along with little brother Sam) and I look forward to bringing you more stories in 2011.

More soon… Happy New Year!


According to WordPress.com, the most popular stories in 2010 were: In the Beginning (4 Years Ago)…, On Grace, The Interplay: PTSD & the Cat-Human Bond, and Gimme Shelter.

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