I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
It isn’t easy, but it can be done. If you are tired of bipedal life, of the whole absurd rigmarole of walking upright, wearing clothes, eating your food with utensils — plus all the objects it seems necessary to acquire, like food processors, cars, coffee tables, game consoles, and hair dryers; plus all the rituals that no one likes but everyone feels obligated to go on with anyway, like cocktail parties with your coworkers, visits with relatives who ask why you didn’t visit sooner, charity fund-raising drives, and posting things on social media — if you are tired of all that, then it is possible, with practice and determination, to become a cat.
Please understand: the external metamorphosis comes only at the very end, after a long, sustained effort. There is a lot of inner work you have to do before then. Also there is luck involved. Some people work at it for years, following the steps carefully, and still don’t manage to complete the transformation. They are faced with the difficult choice of whether to give up and go back to their old way of life or to continue and risk living in a perpetual in-between state, neither fully cat nor fully human. Others find the process unfolds so smoothly, it’s as if they were always meant to leave their humanness behind. For most it falls somewhere in the middle: a combination of ease and struggle. It will likely be that way for you. If you follow these instructions, then probably, eventually, you’ll achieve your aim.
There are five distinct steps to the process of felinization. First you have to teach yourself to hear the celestial harmonies. This is what the ancients called the Music of the Spheres, the notes emitted by the planets as they turn through space. Men and women usually can’t hear them amid the brittle clatter of the world below. Cats, however, listen to them constantly, and if you sit quietly for a long time, you might be able to detect a sound like chiming that appears to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. If you hear it one time, the next will be easier, and the time after that, easier still. Soon you’ll hear it faintly all the time. You will be able to sense storms coming from far away and wars before they start and the seasonal migrations of ghosts, a phenomenon that humans know nothing about, just from changes in the music’s pitch and tone.
Once you’ve mastered this, you will be ready to move on to the next stage in the process: you must turn your bones to liquid underneath your skin so you can flow along in the shadows at the foot of walls, through the tall grass, and into spaces that seem much too small but which you find a way to pass through anyway. In place of the rigidity hominids require to balance on two legs, you will need a suppleness that folds itself up and extends itself in equal measure. To achieve this, you have to dream repeatedly of something being poured from an enormous cut-glass jug in a long stream. This can be milk, water, oil, blood — it doesn’t matter. But you must have this dream a minimum of seven times before it will have the desired effect.
After the seventh dream your old solidity will start to melt. Your movements will become fluid and flawless, indolently graceful. You will lose the awkwardness you’ve always felt around others, the dread that sometimes takes over at parties, meetings, and other gatherings of people you don’t know well; the fear of not knowing what to say and seeming dull, or of talking too much and making a fool of yourself; the awareness of being hopelessly separate from everything around you, locked away inside your head. In place of this you’ll feel artfully reckless and sure of yourself. Your terrible self-consciousness will ebb until inside you are only sinuous undulations and have the sense of being an element in a grand orchestra of motion that expands as far as you can imagine and beyond. Perhaps, for the first time in your life, you’ll even stop feeling alone.
At this point your friends and family may start to get alarmed. Up until now they have probably treated your ambition with a mixture of amusement and disdain. Don’t be silly, they’ve said. Why on earth would you want to be a cat? Why would you want to be anything besides a human being? They’ve dismissed the whole project as ridiculous, disparaging it when the opportunity arose and otherwise ignoring it.
Now that you’re beginning to make progress, though, you’ll radiate a sense of calm and well-being that’s visible to all. This is likely to upset them. They will comment negatively on every change you undergo, passing up no chance to tell you how strange you are becoming. When you come into a room, they will stop talking, and you’ll know they’ve been discussing you behind your back. Try to ignore this. It will distract you only if you let it. It is part of human nature to react badly to change in those we purport to love, to anything that’s different or unknown. And isn’t that precisely why you wanted to leave humanity behind in the first place? Ignore the doubters and keep going. You are getting there.
Once you’ve become skilled at undulation, it’s time to develop your stare. The feline stare is only distantly related to the Homo sapiens activity of watching, which in comparison is like a fleeting glance. Human beings look with just their eyes: the shapes and motions graze the optic nerve, but all the while they’re thinking about something else, like what they’re going to make for dinner or whether they look attractive in the pants they decided to wear that day or who will win the next election. Only a small part of their attention is focused on their surroundings at any given time.
Cats, in contrast, are able to watch with their entire body. Whatever they turn their attention to becomes at once the most fascinating object in the world. Practice staring until you, too, experience the magnificence of dust motes or sunlight slanting down a wall or the timer on the kitchen stove or the green reach of a houseplant. You will find out how much you have been missing all these years. Time will slow and stretch, and each day will seem like several days, the way it used to when you were a child. You’ll wonder how you could ever have been bored for an instant in a world where there’s so much to see — and hear, and smell — in just a single room.
The penultimate step in your impending transformation will be the cultivation of indifference. This is the most difficult part yet, and quite a few aspirants lose their nerve at this point and turn back to their former life, even with all its obvious disadvantages. Until now the changes you’ve gone through have been, for the most part, pleasurable and satisfying. This one is more ambiguous. You must gather in the threads of your affection, that complex web of sticky filaments that binds you to the people all around you. These connections are so messy, so inelegant. They have no place in your new life. Sometimes this process will be difficult, such as when your partner cries because you look at her as if she were no different from the furniture, the curtains, the fly buzzing at the windowpane. She’s upset because there’s no gladness in your face when you see her, only a kind of cool appraisal, as if you were looking at a painting of a place you’ve never been. Or when your children are crestfallen because you’ve failed to praise them for some effort they’ve made: a crayon picture of a family, or a good grade, or an acceptance to college. But you’ve gained a new perspective — call it cosmic, or maybe geological — and you now see clearly that, in the grand scheme of things, none of these small humps of accomplishment means much at all. Millions achieve them each year, and only humans, with our egos, could wish to be praised for anything so unexceptional. Don’t expect your loved ones to understand this insight, even if you take the time to explain it to them. It’s best not to try, though it may pain you to see them in so much distress.
Moments like these may make you question your whole path. You may feel you are making a huge mistake. But give it time. You’ll find not-caring gets easier, and eventually you’ll experience a vast sense of relief from the burden of all that tiresome emotion. Humans can’t help needing one another, calling this desperation “love” and celebrating it in songs and poems and other works of art. Cats, meanwhile, are beautifully self-contained. They see the world with more clarity than people ever can, and in this there is a kind of freedom, cold and perfect.
There is only one thing left to do. You have moved through all these stages, and your goal is drawing near. You feel almost wholly feline. You never make missteps or hesitate but slide flawlessly from instant to instant, a breathing sculpture. You hunt nightmares in the dark beneath the house and are not afraid of them. You can climb the vertical face of a tree and fall from a great height and land on your feet, unhurt.
And yet the change isn’t complete. You still haven’t shed your two-legged form. Traces of your old life linger inside you. You haven’t fully abandoned the past and the future. From time to time memories well up from some deep corner of your mind, disturbing your new sleekness. They pass quickly, leaving you suspended in the bright and endless present, but to complete your transformation you must rid yourself of them entirely.
You probably want to know how to achieve this. The answer is: nobody knows. Up to this point, everything you’ve gone through is reversible. (How else do you think you are receiving these instructions?) You can still change your mind. You can renew your human habits for a while, and soon you will be back to the way you were before, immersed in the vast clutter of the human world, with its dishwashers and pianos and highway overpasses. It will be as if you never attempted to become a cat at all.
Once you take the last step, however, you will become a cat forever. And you will have to figure that step out for yourself, through luck or intuition. Many people do. Everything you’ve done so far has prepared you for this task. But no one — no person, that is — can tell you how it’s done.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Cats are clandestine creatures, guarded, talented at concealment. Even if there were a way for them to communicate in terms that we could understand, giving us the key to making that last leap, they’d probably refuse to do it. What do they care if we know or not? Is it their concern whether we remain trapped inside the bewilderment and hesitation of our species, worrying about what is past and what is still to come, making things, then breaking them? Is that their problem?
The final metamorphosis, therefore, can only be described from the outside. It is a remarkable thing to watch someone shed the last vestiges of humanity and transmogrify into what she has wanted to become for so long. The arms elongate, and the erect posture collapses into a poised crouch. The fur emerges, ominous and glossy, and the eyes become gold and impermeable. The teeth turn to needles; the claws emerge and flourish. The last signs of confusion and attachment leave the face forever. It is beautiful and terrifying to behold.
Emily Mitchell’s “On Becoming a Cat” [December 2018] is one of the best stories you have published in the last few years. I am starting with step number one right away: teaching myself to hear the “celestial harmonies.” I’m pretty sure I can do it. Call me crazy, but the final step — shedding my old form and transforming into a cat — doesn’t seem like it’s going to be all that difficult.
My transformation into a cat was progressing nicely when I was reading Emily Mitchell’s “On Becoming a Cat” [December 2018]. I was enjoying the luxury of being totally indifferent, but I was unable to control my admiration for her story.