Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dillard's Cat Box

How We Begin

My daughter-in-law stood next to the bathtub holding a bottle of bleach and plastic gloves. From the living room I could see Anna, her long legs and blonde locks. She wore an old gray sweatshirt and tight jeans, and even with my professional background as a midwife, I could hardly tell she’s expecting. 

My son and his wife had learned that pregnant women should avoid exposure to the cat-carried protozoan, toxoplasmosis, and its chemical destroyer, chlorine. Still, it had taken three days of Anna gently, but repeatedly mentioning the week-old litter boxes. And now, with four cats in their one-bedroom apartment—windows closed against January—the fetid fumes had become too much. Even for Jake.

“Hey, its time,” Anna spoke to her husband. As usual, she sounded cheery. 

Jake rose from the sofa, tired from his workday. He shuffled to the bathroom, revealing no keenness for this task, more compliance. As Anna began to direct her husband in the art of cat box cleaning, I felt bad. I had volunteered for the job, but my offer had been glossed over. I suppose this task was theirs to figure out, for I was mere guest for a few days, and it would be twenty-eight more weeks of Jake on cat box duty before the baby came. I thought to myself, how smart and good-looking my son and his wife are, young and in love, and as I watched them, heads together in collaborative work, I realized I was in a mild state of envy. 

My gaze shifted to the living room window, where from the thirty-third floor of their Tribeca apartment the light-studded world was in plain view. Boats trafficked the Hudson, and I wondered at human life, so many people, always coming and going, but especially here in Manhattan.

Nearly halfway through Hamline University’s MFA program, I live in Minnesota’s cold and snowy north where lately I’ve been thinking about words and truth, babies and birthing, planes and cats. In particular I’ve been thinking about Annie Dillard’s cat—how literary controversy was born when readers discovered Dillard’s cat as a fiction, a potent poetic image borrowed, albeit with permission, from her student. Some readers of “Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek” felt betrayed. Others, less so. But in all cases, the crux of the argument over Dillard’s cat revolved around this question: What is truth’s role in creative nonfiction? 

And here I see that, built into the very term, creative nonfiction, there is traction, for nonfiction implies a basis in fact, while creative implies a basis in imagination. For both CNF readers and writers there is this abiding tension, a conundrum, a riddle. Our minds consider this riddle as one question—Where is truth in the text?—when as often as not, the deeper question is this—What is truth in the living?

It is not my intention to discuss the merits of Dillard’s Cat here, however. Rather, as Grout Nonfiction has been midwifed into existence, we, the creators, have reflected upon Grout’s living. We hope for this blog to be a community-based online venue dedicated to fearless discussions of all matters CNF. And for that, I have increasingly looked not to Dillard’s cat, rather to Dillard’s cat box, for creation always begins in the imagination, as the ideal—whether a perfect baby, a prize winning book…or a grad school blog. But the actual manifestation of that ideal necessitates work that is risky, frustrating, unpleasant, and sometimes results in failings.

As if to prove the point, my reverie was interrupted when Anna pronounced the boxes ready for washing. Since Jake and Anna’s apartment is old, I could hear my daughter-in-law crank the faucet handles, and then the sound of water as it gushed into the tub and litter boxes.

Almost immediately, Jake issued his first utterance of the evening, part plaintive, part annoyed, “Hey Anna, turn that water down! I’m getting crap all over me.” She did, and their work continued. Shortly thereafter, the two emerged from the bathroom, peaceably enough. Anna held two spectacularly clean cat boxes. And Jake held one plastic grocery bag full of fouled litter. My son left their apartment, presumably for the garbage chute, and returned momentarily, hands now free. 

“Success,” Anna chimed. And in truth, their apartment already smelled better.

“Fantastic,” Jake replied, sounding a little bit droll. 

Yes, fantastic indeed.

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