“One day you will be domesticated,” she said.

Early on in my marriage, one of my new family members said to me, “One day, you will be domesticated.”

Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing an ...

Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing an early instance of a domesticated animal (cow being milked). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I’m American by birth, and I’d married into an English family.  I knew this phrase must mean something different from what it seemed to mean to me.  This well-meaning relative must have meant I’d learn how to cook and clean better, how to be a good mom and wife.  Still, my hackles rose.

To me, the word “domesticated” meant “tamed”.

For an Aquarian Fire-Horse like me, the most freedom-loving of all creatures, this idea was, well, not terrifying, but somehow unlikely.  Me, tamed?  Ha!  Me, of the wild dreams, of the adventure sports – me, who was sure I’d never have kids.  Me, who didn’t even have a kitchen in my New York apartment, just a hot plate, and lots of deli options.  Me, who sang songs of liberty at the top of my voice in the shower…

For five years, I’ve lived in the suburbs in Melbourne, Australia, with my young children, two cats, and a loving husband.  I’ve learned how to cook and clean, how to parent, how to garden.  I’ve examined myself up against the sound images of some strong domestic role models, friends, woman who I turn to when I don’t know how to do things like, “cream the butter and the sugar together”.  During this time, I’ve thought often of my own mother, and her path in life as an executive assistant in one of the largest New York City ad agencies – she never learned to cook. And I’m sure being “domesticated” never even occurred to her.

As a woman, there is a fine line between being domestic/domesticated and being tamed.  Wait.  I’ve got that wrong.  It is not a fine line.  It is a big, fat broad line.  I’ve discovered this line is so broad, we can run trails along it, waving our hands freely in the air, and singing our favorite songs.  We can be domestic, without being domesticated.

This morning in the gym, while lifting weights, I heard that phrase again, in a rap song on the radio.  The rapper was Robin Thicke and the phrase, “…tried to domesticate you, but you’re an animal…”…

I know, I’m a Bon Jovi girl really, but that phrase, as I bench-pressed my twenty-pound dumbbells, followed up with a set of push ups, and a set of triceps extension with that same twenty-pound dumbbell – well, it was kind of perfect.  “Tried to domesticate you…”

And failed.  I am nowhere near domesticated.

Last week, in that same gym, I was the sole woman in the free weights area at 10 am on a Monday morning, and I was surrounded by young men from a footy team working out.  I had to fight hard not to feel intimidated by the overwhelming testosterone, to know that I too belonged there in that world of steel and muscles.  To be tamed would mean this area no longer belonged to me; I stayed.

This morning, when the rapper was singing, I was in the free weights area with just one other woman nearby, and I could listen to the words, and reflect on them.

“Tried to domesticate you…” 

It is the passivity in the phrase that gets to me – the idea that someone or something else is taming us.  For the stray cats among us women, for us with holes in our jeans torn from climbing trees, for the ones without makeup, for the rebels, it is essential that we remain untamed, even in the suburbs, even in the boundaries of our own homes.  I’ve learned to cook from YouTube videos rather than a cooking class, and I’ve shied away from any attempt by friends or family to tell me the “right” way to be a woman, a mom, a homeowner.  We all find our own way; I love having a home and a family, but I am sure I’ll never be tamed.

Running, long-distance running, ultra-running, is, for me, the ultimate act of “anti-domestication”.  Out in the woods, it is just me and my backpack, for hours and hours, all alone.  My only fuel, little packets of GU gel and salt tablets, the mud my best friend.

There, the idea of being tamed does not occur to me.  I sing the Savage Garden Animal Song loudly as I run:

“…Cause I want to live like animals
Careless and free like animals
I want to live
I want to run through the jungle
the wind in my hair and the sand at my feet…”

Domestication, bah.  Now I’m off to make my children dinner.  Wild and free.

Freedom

Driving along Thomas Street with sad children in the back, I asked my husband to stop.  We were just outside our local vet, the one that often displayed a Kitten Adoption Centre board.  It wasn’t up that day.

A few months ago, we had lost our last cat to old age, and the house echoed with her absence.  I hated coming home and having no one greet me in the front garden.  I’d waited and waited, deciding school holidays was the right time to go in search of two kittens.  But I felt hollow: school holidays were ending, and we hadn’t found them.  We’d spent two hours driving back and forth from the animal shelter, but it wasn’t kitten season.  There was no one there to adopt, and the kids were heartbroken.  So were we.

So when we stopped outside that vet, there was a large hole in our family.  On entering – the vet had already turned out the lights and was closing up for the day – I asked, rather desperately, if they had any kittens for adoption.  The vet smiled, and led me to one of the treatment rooms.  There were two kittens at play there, one long-haired, which my husband’s asthma ruled out.  Looking around, the vet apologised for the state of the room.  “I just put them in here five minutes ago, and it was spotless.”  Cat toys were everyone, food dishes overturned, water spilled.  But I didn’t care about any of that.

The second kitten, a tiny black one, was staring up at me.  I reached down to pet him, hearing what the vet said next with a sinking feeling.  This kitten was promised to someone else.  She would pick him up on Monday, if she decided to go through with it.  By this time, the kitten was in my arms, up against my chest, purring. He reached up with his paw and touched my face. As he purred, I felt that hole in my family, in me, close.  He was special, this kitten.

When I returned to the car, I told my family the vet did have a kitten, but he might be taken. There were howls of protest: We want to see him! they wailed.  But the vet had closed.

Monday morning came.  I did the usual: I dropped the kids to school; rode my bike home; prepared to go the gym.  But I happened to ride by the vet.  The tiny black kitten was promised to someone else, but in my heart, he was already mine.

I entered the vet and there he was in a cage by Reception, playing with a ball.

“Has she called for him?” I asked, gesturing to the black kitten.

“No,” the vet answered.  “And frankly, I’m fed up.  I’ve called her several times over the last few weeks.  She’s never called back.  He’s getting older.  If you want him, he’s yours.”  The vet loved that kitten too, and wanted to best for it.

I could have danced for joy.  “Can I hold him again?”

That purr; those paws reaching out, saying yes.

My husband, when I called him, said we should wait until we found two the same age.

I explained that this kitten was special.

I brought home that tiny black kitten.  We named him Jake.

Baby Jake

It took two more weeks to find his sister, another black-and-white kitten, a female, a month younger.  Jessica.

Baby Jessica

On the night we brought her home, afraid they might fight, I put the Jessica in the laundry room while I prepared dinner.  Jake found her anyway.  She was passing her paws under the door, and he watched, mesmerised.  Reaching out, he touched her, and the white paw disappeared.  She could be heard leaping around the laundry room.  A moment later she was back, paws under the door.  The kids and I gathered to laugh.  Those kittens played with each other’s paws for hours that day – Jake was desperate to know what lay beyond that door!  When I finally opened it, there was not a moment’s battle.  They loved each other from the start.  They still find doors to pass their paws under now, three months later, as if remembering the day they met.  They sleep curled up together, seek each other out for games of chase and battle.  They are our home.

But here’s the thing.  They’ve had all their shots, been de-sexed, microchipped, wormed, cuddled, been registered with the Council and have the right tags.  And they have grown up.  This week, they asked to go outside.  I say asked.  They scratched at the window when I was in the garden, staring at me wide-eyed, How’d you get out there, those eyes said, Can we come?

So I put the collars on them.  And opened the door.

It was hard.  Having lost other cats makes these ones more precious.  They seem delicate and easily harmed.

But just like me, they need freedom: to be wild; to be cats.  I watch them from my office window, leaping at bugs, pouncing at each other, crawling under the house when they are frightened.

It is hard, this letting go, this risking them with the wider world.

But this is freedom.  This is what my mother gave me when I told her I was moving to Australia.  What my husband offers with open arms each time I drive away to an adventure race in an unknown location.  And what, one day, I will have to give my young children as they grow up.

To let go.  To be assured that my love will protect them.

Jake comes for a visit

As if on cue, as I write this, Jake comes running back in through the open door and settles himself on my lap, purring.

Then, when he’s had his fill, he sprints out the door again, Jessica hot on his heels, to do the things cats do, when they are free.

Later, I find my own freedom in a 14.5km trail run.  I smell the spring air, feel the sunshine on my bare arms, and am delighted we have all found our freedom.

They are there to greet me in the garden when I get home, warm fur in spring sun.

Fast, Medium or Leisurely?

“Because so many of you have turned out this morning, we’ve split the start into three waves: fast, medium, and leisurely. You choose your wave, but please…be honest with yourself…”

We’re at the starting line of the Salomon Trail Series, Race 1, in Studley Park, Melbourne, Australia. I listen to the Race Director’s words. Another decision to make, in a race full of tough decisions. Usually, I know exactly what to do, what gear to wear, what to carry, where to place myself.

But today, I have unnerved myself, and become indecisive. It began at home, when choosing what to carry during the race. I spent six years doing Sprint Adventure Races in Hong Kong. There, I’d learned to carry a CamelBak, with house keys, money, a phone, gels. Just in case I got lost in the wilderness, I’d have a way home. The climate was steamy, humid, dangerous. We scrambled up waterfalls, along riverbeds, into the sea.

I’m in Australia now, in winter. I’ve been here four years, but it still doesn’t feel like home. Anyway, this race in only 10 km. There are no waterfalls to climb, no rocks to scramble over. And I don’t want the extra weight. Last year at this race, I was the only person in a CamelBak. It felt heavy and cumbersome, and unnecessary.

And yet…I filled it up and brought it anyway.

Now, here, at the starting area, I’ve changed my shirt twice, re-pinning the golden number to the front of first the long-sleeved running shirt, then the singlet. It’s cold today but the sun is just rising, and once I choose I’m stuck with it.

And now the pacing, which wave to choose?

Leisurely is not an option – I’ve never run a leisurely race in my life, though it does sound pleasant. Medium? I don’t want to underestimate myself, so I set myself at the back of the fast wave, noting the physiques of the others around me, deciding that I fit in ok. The worst thing on these races is to be too slow, to be hounded by others on my heels on the rough terrain. I’m slow on downhill, cautious after sprained ankles. When pressed, I panic and go even slower. So choosing the right place to start is pretty key.

Decisions made, long-sleeved t-shirt tossed into a nearby tree for pickup later, the countdown begins, and then we’re running.

The track is muddy from days of rain, studded with small and large rocks. It narrows considerably near the river, where a slip could mean a slide downhill into the brown and fast-flowing Yarra. Some pass me, and then I pass them. Eucalypts slide by, my breathing comes fast and I am absolutely focused on the now. Each puddle I jump, each downhill I traverse, each decision I make comes fast and furious. No time for second-guessing.

It is only towards the end of the race that it happens. Someone gets right behind me, right on my heels. Step-for-step they follow me. By now, the field has spread out and there is no runner in front of me. I’m following ribbons on trees to stay on course, slowing at intersections, then bounding downwards at full pace. I want to say, pass me if you like, but I’m short of breath and we’re nearly there. After a few minutes, I sense that this person doesn’t want to pass anyway, wants me to set the pace. So I do. Speeding up, gaining assurance. Suddenly my legs feel strong and up to the challenge.

I turn a last corner, hear cheers, and suddenly see the finish line fifty metres in front of me. Her voice comes from behind.

“You go,” she shouts, “I never wanted to pass you.”

I glance back, see her, shout back, “Let’s finish together, come on.” Then, “Go go go!”

And then we are running next to each other, stride for stride, fast as we can, not racing but supporting one another through this moment. Someone shouts, “Go Patricia!”, and I smile, wondering who it is, as we pound across the finish line.

This stranger and I hug, a sweaty, real honest hug, huge smiles and delight. We’ve both chosen well.

On the way home, I turn up Bon Jovi on the car stereo. The song is Lost Highway. I used to play it on the treadmill at Pure Fitness in Hong Kong, wishing I felt what the song was saying.

“In my rearview mirror, my life is getting clearer…its Independence Day on this lost highway…”

Suddenly I realise. This is exactly how I feel right now. Everything is clear. Decisions are easy. I sit up straighter and drive down these roads, which, after four long years, are finally home.