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Bad Cats and Jewelry

I had the chance to reconnect this past weekend in Mississippi with one of my oldest and dearest friends, and took it.

Camilla was my BFF for more years than seems possible and we had the sorts of adventures young women had during the brief Age of Aquarius--boyfriends turning out to be lying shits/crazy/gay/drugged/all of the above, sign-carrying protest marches where we hoped our parents wouldn't glimpse us on TV, getting busted by Tulane campus police while trying to break into Camilla's own dorm room through an outside window because she didn't have her key. (--Okay okay okay, these When-I-Was-Young stories amuse only those who lived them. But let's just say that Camilla and I go WAY back.)

So here she is now, in Mississippi in upscale surroundings, an accomplished professional woman married to a noted professional man, living among six cherished and very sweet cats they both adore but don't know what to do about. The cats do typical bad cat things, like occasionally shunning the litter box, driving Camilla frantic because no humane deterrence ever convinces a cat to stop doing anything it wants to. Cats are sneaky and patient. They just settle themselves and postpone the sin until nobody's watching. It can even seem political, like a deliberate protest. But whether done on purpose or accidentally, an occasional cat no-no seems pretty trivial an issue to get all worked up about--my own cats have been known to make the same "mistakes"--but what makes everything dicey in this Mississippi house is that it's crammed to the gills with breathtakingly beautiful, unique collectibles from all over the world that its inhabitants seem weirdly dead-set on disrespecting.

Whenever one of my own little feline roommates uses my cheapass doormat as a latrine, I can just pop over to the Dollar Store on Oak Street for a replacement. But when a Camilla kitty does the same thing, he's soiling an antique Kilim carpet worth more than I make in a year. So I totally get it, why Camilla's husband has fits, why she's ripping her hair out. One of the few things I think I know about Oriental carpets (and I could be wrong) is that their dyes are fixed by goat urine or sheep urine or whatever, so conceivably the first of their cats who initially sniffed out that fact years ago decided it was a sign saying "Men's Room" in Turkish. And now, no matter how often the carpets are cleaned, some vestige of cat scent detectable only to cats continues to issue the irresistible invitation. Camilla and husband can't part with the cats and can't part with the carpets, and it'd be sorta funny if it wasn't causing such genuine angst, and I have to say I never smelled even the slightest trace of cat piss while I was there but it's something they worry about and are consumed by. And GOD, their house is so gracious, filled with such beauty, something as natural and inevitable as pee is not the first thing any visitor focuses on. Nor the second. Nor the fortieth. The whole place is like a gigantic flower, a generous rose spread wide open and dropping petals of loveliness into the mind.

Camilla is a self-denying artist, having explored various media when we both were young but then somehow deciding she had no talent and shutting herself up in the closet of her PhD. and profession. But no real artist can just turn it off like cold water, so now she's making jewelry which she disparages as mere craft, not art at all. But oh my God, what intricately gorgeous earrings these are, necklaces made of sterling silver and pewter and copper and brass, studded with semiprecious stones and exotic beads, fascinating charms and crystals. I've known for years she was doing this but after seeing her in her home and at her work, when I say "My friend Camilla makes jewelry," I'm saying she MAKES the shit and isn't just stringing beads like a Girl Scout. I'm talking pliers, hammer, a little anvil, raw metals, the whole nine yards. WHAM WHAM WHAM! --Physically pounding metal, wrapping beaded wire around it, free-forming color and textures into glittering glory dictated by her own instincts like that big rose of a few paragraphs ago shedding its petals and I am flabbergasted. Learning not to verbally admire any given piece, however, because she'll immediately pick it up, hold it out to me, and insist "You want it? Here. It's yours." And it gives me so much joy to wear it but I can't take ALL her pieces, can I? As if. There's so many of them, and she's creating more all the time--those petals rain down--selling few because she has yet to reach the public. Reluctant to claim the title Artist as if it's something that a person must be credentialed for, and jewelry won't pass the exam.

Well, I'm here to tell you that even were she hanging sheetrock or mopping floors for a living, Camilla is what she is and I know what she is and I'm one too. It's not about what you do, it's how you make sense of the world by creating stories or pictures or movies or songs in your imagination--constantly, compulsively--even if you never actually paint them or write them down. Camilla is an artist trapped in the body of a professional, relentlessly creative, strangely stifled. This may also be true of her husband--respected professional man by day, immensely gifted woodworker by night--which could explain a lot about the pair of them seeming so unhappily thwarted in nearly every aspect of their lives. What restless people these are, globetrotting, shopping, making beauty, collecting beauty, always getting in each other's way, on each other's nerves, desperate for whatever unnamed and unnamable things they both need and can't seem to get. Camilla at her jewelry now seems close to bending metal with her teeth.

On a fairytale Friday afternoon, under unblemished blue skies and through mild-winter woods, she and I walk over to her friend Stephanie's so I can meet Stephanie and her three little dogs. Stephanie is a wonderful person, hospitable to a fault, gradually recovering from some long-lasting infection that's had her down for months but doesn't keep her from exerting herself to make me feel welcome, letting her little lapdogs out of their crates so they can frolic in the sunshine with us out on the patio. One is very old and ill--but game--baring his teeth at another when he gets too close. We humans speak of husbands and bicycles, dogs and cats, illness, restaurants, plans, and have a fine time just being three women in the sun. Camilla wears no makeup but looks great, and she's always had great skin and a beautiful face I could still envy now if I wanted to. Then she and I have to go, so Stephanie re-crates her dogs and sees us out.

Camilla's uncrated cats yawn at us from the sofa when we get home, and it's true that crates might keep cats from mischief but "crate" is just a euphemism for "cage". If somebody had told me when I was young that someday in the future dog owners would routinely be keeping their pets caged up, I'd have blinked in disbelief and muttered, "Then why on earth would you want the poor dog in the first place, if it's necessary to keep him locked away?" --Yet funny how modern dogs don't seem to mind at all and actually welcome the security, the fixed boundaries. Birds, too, thrive. "His cage is his castle," a pet manual informed my family back when we got our first parakeet in my childhood, and I saw the truth of it. The little bird always flew home to his bars, his protected inner perch, his jingly bell toy. Whereas cats in cages just eat their hearts out.

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