More than 40 years ago we named our scraggily, tiny black kitten who made so much noise at night, Oiltinsbang. The words are a line in a poem by John Haines, from his collection “Winter News.” As the years went by, we also called our cat Moley Man, but he was always most properly Oiltinsbang (which my father-in-law could never get right, calling him “Tin oil noise” and other variants).
In the poem Haines writes of “Northway where the cold begins,” and:
“Oil tins bang
as evening comes on,
and clouds of steaming breath drift
in the street.”
Haines’s poetry narrated and animated the landscape and cold of our Alaska life. One summer, when I was still in school, a favorite English professor and her husband took us with them to visit Haines at his handmade cabin in the woods near Fairbanks. He welcomed us with meals and a woods walk where we feasted on wild raspberries.
My friend wasn’t really a professor then, though she is now, but a teaching assistant – closer to my age than a regular professor. When she sent word of Haines’s recent death, she included the poem and recalled our visit to his cabin – and mentioned Oiltinsbang.
Her email message came right on top of the saddest iPhone drawing by my painter friend of her cat Tuffet on the way to the vet for the last time. The messages together set up a tangle of connection – old friends – old cats. Sadness and joy – beautiful Tuffet, beautiful poem.
I’d been reading a “New Yorker” article by David Brooks, author of “The Social Animal.” He says a lot of surprising things about our happiness and how unknown the sources of it are to us. Brooks writes in the voice of a neuroscientist to say: “I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”
Cats are conduits. I see our older son and his wife building those links when they tell tales of life with Cromwell and Wolsey, their orange cats. The cat stories of the young people we saw in Hawaii, who moved with their cats from Saipan, made quick connection between all of us – cats’ quirks and foibles filled the room.
When my husband came home the evening of the emails, he’d also heard about the death of John Haines. Out of the blue a decades-out-of-touch colleague in Alaska called to say he remembered that we had a cat named Oiltinsbang – and had thought about him when he read about John Haines.
Brooks emphasizes that research in the last 30 years has shown the importance of connection to our inner mind. He doesn’t mention the role of cats, but he could have.