The Rag | Living

5 Lockdown Life Lessons From My Two Cats

Feline inspired self-care for sheltering in place

Two cats on a red chair
That’s Lily (left) and Minik (right) last year when they were tween-age.

As vaccine-privileged folks are blowing up Instagram with maskless party pics and vacation photos, people in many parts of the world, including Turkey, where I live, are retreating back into lockdown.

Despite my natural extroversion and frequent pre-pandemic travel, I’ve been OK in lockdown. Living and working overseas, I was already used to using platforms like WhatsApp and Zoom to connect with family and friends and to work remotely.

WhatsApp even presented a lockdown silver lining this year: through a WOC group, I’ve connected with women who live far enough away from me in Istanbul that I never would have met them in person. I’m also very blessed to live with a partner and have access to greenspace—a real luxury in Istanbul—and streaming services.

My lockdown experience has been relatively cushy, but there’s still a learning curve to being my best pandemic-era self. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m inching closer to best-self status with these lockdown lessons from two very special cats, Minik and Lily. These tabbies may only be a year old but they’re already a veritable furry font of collective wisdom.

1. Our bodies were meant to move

Cats are crepuscular, which means they are most active in the twilight hours. Lily and Minik go bonkers every day when they want breakfast, around 6 a.m., and at bedtime. They tear around the house like little hellions and use our tired bodies as springboards to pounce on one another.

We live in a larger place now, but early in the pandemic all four of us shared about 400 square feet. Lily used the vertical space, becoming a champion climber who likes to jump onto our shoulders and hop into open cabinets. “Your apartment is never too small for a workout,” says Lily, with a meow.

Minik had weaker back legs when she came to us as a foster, I suspect because of time she spent in a kennel as a kitten. By the time we moved last July, she’d built up her leg strength by running around the apartment. She’s still not quite as agile as her sister, but she definitely gets her exercise lapping our new digs.

Her human parents… not so much. Early in the pandemic, my partner and I did yoga together with YouTube videos and an Indonesian martial arts warm-up through Vacation With An Artist via Zoom. But we started to slack off and it shows. Our faces are puffier, our tummies fuller. My neck, back, and tailbone always ache.

Compared to that of our feline friends, human movement is incredibly unvaried and unrelated to what our bodies were designed to do. Lily and Minik full-body stretch when they wake up and when they roll their little tummies toward us in displays of trust and affection. They splay their toes when they groom. They literally walk in plank position. Watching them makes me want to get off my duff and go rollerskating right now.

2. Stick to a diet that works for your body

Lily and Minik eat delicious meat chunks in gravy mixed with dry food twice daily, with one or two small treats during the day. “I love the duck,” Minik says, licking the gravy from her bowl.

We used to free feed our cats, leaving out bowls of dry food that we’d top up intermittently, but we stopped because our vet and other experts do not recommend it. “Free feeding dry food is acceptable for the cat who exercises self-control, but some cats like to snack, and for them, free feeding can add up to extra pounds,” according to the Cat Feline Health Center at Cornell University.

Minik, whose name means “tiny” in Turkish, unfortunately, takes after her mother and will just keep eating. Also like me, she now has a weight problem. “Minik is no longer minik,” said our vet, somewhat alarmed, at her last appointment.

I haven’t picked up the dreaded “quarantine 15” that would have increased my predisposition to diabetes and translated to another 75 pounds of force on my already jacked-up knees. Still, I have definitely backslid from eating foods that nourish me, in appropriate portions, to inhaling food for comfort. Even when I keep to the letter of the law — no white sugar, no wheat, limited dairy — I diverge from its spirit, ingesting copious amounts of calorically dense dark chocolate, “healthy” cookies, and coconut curries.

In the wild, cats hunt and eat what is best for them, a varied high-protein and nutrient-dense diet. We try to reproduce that kind of diet for our cats and, since I don’t have two humans to portion and prepare weight and species-appropriate meals for me, it’s a reminder that I need to do the same for myself.

Two cats snuggling, with one facing camera
Teenage Lily and Minik.

3. Groom yo’ self even if you never leave the house

The Prophet Mohammed allegedly favored felines, but I still credit some of the their enduring popularity in Turkey—land of the hamam and kolonya, the original hand sanitizer—with cats’ commitment to personal hygiene. According to Pamela Perry, a doctor of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, cats spend up to 50% of their time grooming.

If you do a ten-step Korean skincare routine like I do, you too may be spending half your time grooming. My first forays into K-beauty felt overwhelming, but it actually doesn’t take that long now that I know the steps.

I’ll likely never achieve the coveted “glass skin”—“a complexion so luminous, it could be modeled from glass,” explains Glamor—but my Korean skincare regimen is helping me address chronic skin conditions. In my case, Black don’t crack for a reason: I’m oily AF. This leads to a cycle of breakouts, inflammation, and hyperpigmentation, something many of us melanated folks experience.

Finding the right products—especially for POC in white-majority areas—can be a real challenge. Lockdown gave me space to experiment without worrying about people seeing me if a product happened to adversely affect my skin. (BIPOC seeking product recommendations and reviews should check out this PoC Skincare Facebook group.)

Minik and Lily’s impeccable grooming habits—sometimes they even groom each other, which is the cutest thing ever—reminds me of the “Queer Eye” ethos of showing respect for ourselves and people close to us by working at our appearance. For those of us who don’t necessarily conform to society’s ideal age, body type, or “look,” it’s tempting to just give up altogether in lockdown. Lils and Minmins inspire me to do what I can—in ten steps or less.

Cat in a cupboard with dishes
Lily, in a cupboard. She is not supposed to be in there.

4. It’s OK to play

Our pandemic bubble has been watching “Alone,” a History Channel series in which ten survival experts go out into the wilderness and stay as long as they can until only one person remains. Inevitably, once they get their basic needs of food, shelter, and fire met, the boredom sets in. Then, one by one they start to crack and tap out.

Like those over-eager contestants planning to make the perfect shelter and trap a 400-pound wild boar, many of us set ourselves up for failure this pandemic. We were going to maximize all of this imagined lockdown free time to write books, learn languages, and do those relentlessly-marketed Master Class courses.

Then, when we realized we didn’t have the energy to achieve, many of us succumbed to depressive boredom, a “mix of lethargy and agitation and restlessness,” that studies show can have negative mental health effects, reports The Independent.

But what if we had gone into this thing like cats do and just spend our extra time playing with no strings attached? With no hopes of achievement or a goal in mind… just grabbing a toy and playing for the hell of it?

For Lily and Minik, everything is a toy. Lily really likes to play with zip ties. Minik seeks out yarn balls to pull apart — like me, she loves expensive kid mohair and silk blends. Lily is deeply attached to a fabric mushroom ornament from IKEA and even makes a special noise when she plays with it. They both tunnel under our Turkish carpets and take turns “disemboweling” the fringy edges. Cat play may mimic hunting behavior but it doesn’t make them better hunters, say experts, which means it’s not particularly goal oriented. When was the last time you just played so purposelessly?

Cat laying down doing nothing on large pink pillows
Lily, excelling at niksen.

5. Or you could just do nothing

Lockdown life has been a lot more hectic and more protracted than any of us would’ve anticipated at this time last year. It’s increased all of our mental and emotional loads, especially those of working women with caregiving responsibilities. To cope, many people have turned to mindfulness, that quasi-spiritual cure-all so vigorously prescribed by TikTok, women’s magazines, and mental health practitioners alike.

But maybe we should forget mindfulness and, as my colleague Olga Mecking suggests in her book, “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing,” just opt out of doing entirely. Instead of trying to clear your mind or calm yourself or focus on the ASMR of your own chewing, just do nothing.

My cats are frigging fantastic at niksen. Lily goes to this zone where she’s not quite asleep but sort of in this groggy wakeful state with droopy eyes. Both girls stare out the window for long periods. And there is nothing to really see out our windows but some trees.

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t work for me—turns out, it actually makes some people ill. I may, however, have a shot at being good at doing nothing, because it’s seemingly foolproof. When I flail then fail with meditation, it feels like a waste of time, but I don’t see how you can lose when the point actually is to waste time. For a quick primer on how to do nothing—and if you’re American you likely do need the tutorial—check out Mecking’s New York Times article on niksen here.

Ultimately, watching Lily and Minik live their best cat lives reminds me that I need to take care of myself, whether that’s through K-beauty or just taking time to play, not only to avoid getting sick, but also to protect my mental and physical health while I #StayTheF***Home. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to hunker down with my two kitties and observe the ways that they naturally just do what’s best for their little furry selves. As lockdown starts again tonight, just over a year since the last one, I’m recommitting to doing the same for myself.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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