Ludovica and the Art of Yoga

More than the story of how the press never discovered Ludovica’s scandal, my story is one about ageing. About ethics. But more importantly, it is about how the vision of Yoga is transformational.

by Ricky Toledano

Lu-do-vi-ca: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of four steps down the palate to tap, on four, at the throat. Lu. Do. Vee. Ca. She was Ludo, plain Ludo, in the morning, standing on four feet in mismatched socks. She was Vica on the sofa. But in my arms, she is always Ludovica—as I play with the opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita. And just like the classic story, Ludovica attracts too much attention for her age, despite being much, much older than Lolita. As I walk with her in the park, strangers think she’s a young vixen. I am probably the only one who can see her gray hair and the tightness of her spine. Her beauty remains uncanny among cats and her attractiveness continues in her old age. What is more, despite the curiosity of a man strolling alongside a cat with neither leash nor collar, strangers see her and not me, maybe because I have now reached an age in which I am starting to become invisible, no longer an object of desire, although I am younger and in much better health than Ludovica.

The veterinarian would have condemned her to death, if not for fact that, on the recent visit, he had just euthanized a cat in better shape than Ludovica. The [deceased] cat was ‘healthier’, he said, according to the blood exams, but biology is not mathematics—so I don’t know what you are doing, but keep going because this cat is clinically fine.

Without further options for my elderly cat, who could become as obstinate as a mule or as fierce as a tiger if tricked or forced to take medicines, I opened the canvass sack and Ludovica crawled in on her own before we set off on my bicycle. She has always been too dignified to be stashed in a carrier, caged like some circus spectacle. Hidden in her sack, Ludovica once again escaped the paparazzi.

The vet was hardly the first to be astonished by Ludovica. On our early morning walks in the park in front of my new house, both neighbors and strangers stop to watch us walking side-by-side, at times one in front of the other in a single file, as we cross the park: But I’ve never seen a cat follow orders like a dog! I explain that she is an old lady cat who is doing her physiotherapy. But how old is she? question the nosy paparazzi in the park.

Friends say that I’ve been saying that Ludovica is sixteen-years-old for the last four years. I really do not remember her age anymore. I lost track of the years, because so many have passed since she was found—lost—an abandoned kitten no bigger than my hand, who would have been torn apart in a gruesome attack by street dogs had she not been picked up an instant earlier. She grew to become the spitting-image of my previous cat, one who had just been assassinated by the neighbor’s German shepherd, whose instinct it was to lurch in the shadows, as silent and motionless as a spider, awaiting the opportunity to snap my cat’s neck—which he finally did on the occasion of a misstep. Ludovica’s arrival was an eerie reincarnation of my murdered cat, giving yet another fair chance to the lopsided mask and mismatched socks of a mixed Siamese.

Or should I say I was given the second chance?

What will you name her? a friend had asked, who was already laughing before I had even pronounced Ludovica, having expected my swift condemnation when naming animals and nicknaming friends. I took one look at the kitty already nestled in the middle of the sofa after her bath, as if possessing her rightful throne, and I immediately remembered the daughter of a diplomat, the daughter of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend from across the globe. Reencountering in Rio de Janeiro, it was “Ludovica” who had invited me for dinner the following Friday at her house. I arrived a respectable fifteen-minutes late with flowers and a bottle of wine at their posh residence, only to find the doorman puzzled and whispering into the interphone. Upon opening the door, Ludovica was in a bathrobe with a towel wrapped around her head, an ornate frame for her face of confusion. She asked, what are you doing here? I responded flatly that she had invited me to dinner on Friday at 7pm. Oh! I must have forgot. No problem. Come on in.

I didn’t want to go in, but didn’t see how I could reject the bidding of passage. Greeted enthusiastically by her father, he was elated to have an English-speaking visitor with whom to drink whisky.  His wife, the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, the diplomat, did not bother to come out to greet me. I remember the conversation with him as being pleasant, maybe even interesting, but I do not recall any of it, because I was simultaneously monitoring the situation around me, hoping for a moment to head for the door, and I was concentrating on not getting drunk on an empty stomach, since almost two hours had passed and there was no sign of food. It had occurred to me that they might have been waiting for me to leave before having dinner, so I made a greater effort to exit, but surrendered to the invitation for dinner by the diplomat, who finally emerged from the kitchen where she had been hiding, if only to dart over to slam a plate of olives down in front of her husband, piercing him with a look of hatred he did not bother to see. The three-member family spoke English for lack of a common language. Mother and daughter exchanged clipped, hushed words in a language they did not share with the man of the house. The lack of rapport among the three members of the family was disconcerting, to say nothing of how Ludovica had not even said a word to me after opening the door and casting aside the flowers and wine. She had plopped herself in the middle of the sofa, a beautiful woman, wrapped in the heavy folds of white terry cloth and turban to watch television with unabashed regality. She later appeared at the table in pajamas to play with her food. Her mother ate in icy silence. I continued to chat with her father, who drank whisky together with his meal.

From a culture in which receiving guest is sacred, my emotions morphed several times over the evening, panning from discomfort to outrage, then to pity, and on to the amusement at how bizarre the predicament was, because even if I had in fact walked in on a family feud, such awkwardness wouldn’t have explained their behavior.  I had never been so rudely and sloppily received that my offense ceded into bewilderment, as only it could when I found myself in the presence of another story, as if a black-and-white silent film was taking place before my very eyes, told in pantomime I couldn’t decipher. I had made several attempts to make an exit, all of which were thwarted by the imploring father, a man desperate for company. I couldn’t blame him: it was as if his own wife and daughter had also greeted him at the door just as they had done to me, letting in an unwelcome guest to be tenaciously ignored. I decided to sit with him for as long as I could out of solidarity.

My cab driver on the way home was in hysterics, ‘A diplomat?’ he questioned, before releasing the gregarious laugh only smokers have. ‘Wait’ I responded, ‘there is more!’

So it was “Ludovica” who I had immediately remembered when I saw the kitty on my sofa on the day we began to live together, in a house on a hilltop neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, one of the few places that still affords domesticated animals some luxury of space, but not without the disadvantage of having to deal with neighboring animals. That is why I disciplined Ludovica with a sternness of which many would not approve. My Captain-Von-Trapp-form of love was necessary to teach Ludovica the limits of her territory precisely, and for her to follow my orders irrefutably in order to save her very own life, if we were to live together in the space I had to offer. Upon my whistles, she quickly learned to come when called and to halt whatever she was doing. Furthermore, Ludovica was trained not to make noise at night, because I had to sleep well in order to make everything that we enjoyed happen. Yes, she could bother me all she wanted for fresh crunchies, but she wouldn’t get any if there were so much as one kernel in her dish. Ludovica was, however, allowed to interrupt me to play as much as she wanted, and vice-versa. Those were the rules. Needless to say, the charm of felines is their unruliness, and Ludovica pushed the limits in the way that the ones we love are never going to do exactly as we wish. That made for some nasty fights, including one which led to yet another tragic misstep, one that no one knows of, which resulted in me paying off the press to never tell the story of how a horny, teen-age Ludovica—brought up in the very best of houses with the finest manners of our caste—had run off with a thug to a clandestine rave party in the woods, only to return more than a month later. A heroin addict. Anorexic. Pregnant. 

We had planned on wearing hats and dark glasses as we entered the abortion clinic, just in case there was anyone who might recognize us. Luckily, it wasn’t necessary, because Ludovica miscarried a single fetus.  We buried it in the garden at night. No one ever knew. Our status in society prevailed. There is much more to that story, but it is one that will be told in the Posthumous Memories of Ludovica, which, I am sad to say, won’t be long now.

“I wouldn’t be so sure!” said my housekeeper. “I’m beginning to think that Ludovica will bury you!”

“Well, she does scratch into the dirt of the park sometimes with that smirk on her face.”

I’m proud to say that the sunset of Ludovica is going well as I watch her benefiting from all of her discipline at the end of her life, but this last stretch has not gone without its challenges. Cats hate moving house and Ludovica has done so twice as an elderly cat in recent years. The first was downhill and into an apartment when our neighborhood had become impossible for many reasons beyond my control. Despite the room with a view, she never liked the apartment and just slept for three years. Then the pandemic hit, I joined her in confinement for another year, looking at the world through the safety, fishnet stockings of the window. The pandemic left no one unscathed, and I began to contemplate exactly what a life of captivity means—in many ways—including exactly how much of a favor I had actually done by saving Ludovica from the streets, since selfishness can be found lurking behind the most generous acts of kindness. The plague made me see the scaffolding of cruelty in ways I had never imagined.

For example, since runners and dogs don’t get along, I couldn’t help but notice the increasing number of stray dogs on the hilltop streets of Santa Teresa as I learned to run with a mask. People are letting go of their dogs, I finally realized. Then I observed the cat ladies working overtime in the park to feed the abandoned. Everyone had already perceived how the population of homeless doubled in Rio de Janeiro that had already been dire even before the virus hit. I started making donations for people and animals—and for people to keep their animals—that had never even been on my radar. My contemplation went further: Vegans should not keep pets, I mused, although I am not vegan. And the vaccine will be tested on animals, I thought. Tears welled up in my eyes every day when placing a banana and water for the birds on my windowsill enclosed with a safety net.

Bas! I exclaimed ‘enough’ in Hindi, collapsing to sit on the floor, I will get us out of here, Ludovica! You will die with dignity: under the sun and stars like a cat!” I kicked away a cushion in irritation before folding my hands for a terrible promise: We will not stay here. It is You who will get us out of here. Please help me to do my best to help those who can make no choices.

All actions, including prayers, are interminably linked to other actions. In just a few months, Ludovica found herself living in a house on an island. The content with which she strolled around the patio on the first day made me suspect she thought she had returned to her original palace, a place of remarkably similar logic of veranda and garden. But it was a move, nonetheless, and it interrupted the routines of a constipated old lady with shoddy kidneys, which wound her up at the vet a few times, a vet who comprehended why I wouldn’t be doing what the literature dictates, subjecting her to hospitalization for subcutaneous hydrations and then administering daily oral medications, to gain, who knows? Six months?

“No, no, no, doc. She’s much too dignified and I will not be torturing her at the end of her life. Besides, look at her: she’s fine.” That was when the vet told me to keep doing whatever it is was that we were doing, because she was supposed to be either in great pain or dead.

Ludovica and I winked at each other, because we knew what the magic was.

I had decided to help Ludovica the only way I know how. When I opened the front gate, balancing a coffee mug in one hand and Ludovica in the other, she realized she was going with me into the park and she cringed, because she had always been afraid of leaving her premises and only ventured into external areas of the house when I was at home. Ludovica was fascinated yet nervous as she was carried into the open park at 5:30 in the morning to see the sunrise over the water. Placing her in the grass by the water’s edge, she couldn’t believe it.

“You walk!”

“No!”

“Ludovica, you walk now, I say!”

“No!”

She always says no, but she does what I say, because her love and fear of me is the same. I knew she would locate the house across the park, even through slightly cloudy eyes, and head straight for the gate. We walked side by side as I drank my coffee and kept an eye out for dogs roaming in the park.

Thinking I had escaped some of the uglier pictures of cruelty when I left the city, I quickly noticed the confusing situation of dogs on the island. There are those who simply open their gates in the morning and allow their dogs to roam freely, which is convenient for lazy people who want neither to walk nor to clean up after their animals. Then I noticed something more sinister: once in a while I encountered dogs wandering in a familiar panic, having been brought to the island only to be abandoned by people who are much, much worse than lazy. Neighbors confirmed my suspicions, and also pointed out the same for cats, many of which were dumped on the notorious Cat Lady, whose house stinks an entire street with noisy, one-eyed brutes terrorizing the night. Coincidentally, I read an article in a local paper about the fishermen that had saved a litter of kittens thrown from the Rio-Niteroi Bridge in a bag. Poignant was the indignation of the fishermen, who kill animals every day, as to the horror of the scene and to “the cruelty of man”.

In the park, Ludovica made some stops along the way to munch on grass or to absorb a passing bicycle, the lizard dashing over dried leaves, the birds taking a dust bath, and the smells we cannot detect, until I picked her up again as she reached the gate. “No!” she screamed. Ludovica already knew what I was going to do. I returned her back across the park, but in another direction.  She was tired; she didn’t have the strength, but slowly she went. I saw her expressions as she exercised her mind in ways she had not done in years, navigating unfamiliar territory. Upon entering the house, she drank all the water the doctor had ordered and then some. “Hmmm,” I smirked, “I’ll fix you yet, you stupid cat!”

The next day she did three laps, the following, four. Without me having to wake her, she started getting up on her own from her endless naps to pee and drink even more water. She finally started eating more. I saw cognitive improvements. And she started visiting me mid-mornings and evenings like she used to. Then we started increasing the work-outs.

“Jump!”

“No!”

“Jump, I say!”

She leapt down from the low-lying branch of a tree. In a few days, it was a higher branch, and then higher. I tapped my hand on the park bench in the signal for her to jump up, then I found a higher tree stump. After a month of track-and-field, she is walking almost kilometer every day, and I am now holding her just below her tree perches, supporting her just slightly for balance, forcing her to pull herself up in a much more difficult muscular exertion.

“Yoga!” I responded, fielding questions from the press, asking what happened to Ludovica, whose improvement in the last few months has become so noticeable, just when the paparazzi thought she was on her way out, a has-been.

Well, in fact, she is on her way out; but aren’t we all?

Having to care for an elderly animal was something I had not imagined when I adopted Ludovica almost two decades ago, much less had I fathomed that one day we would have to say goodbye. That may be the basic ignorance not only of most pet owners, but also of those who reach out to accept another person in their life, if only to abandon them once the convenience of passion is gone, never to discover love. Despite the opacity of other people’s lives, I think it was obvious that the passion had long been gone between the diplomat-couple, and maybe even between them and their daughter, who was no longer the playful puppy. I would even venture to judge that they hadn’t much contemplated their upcoming goodbyes, considering their treatment of each other (and others!). But did they discover love?

I hope so. In spite of their oddity, there was that inexplicable cohesion that only family affords. It is not unlike the bond between humans and their pets, that unshakeable loyalty often cited by those who “prefer animals to most people”. In eulogies to their pets, they often profess how their animals had “taught them about love”. I believe them: especially in a world where people abandon people like they discard old fruit, dogs in particular are easy to love and may indeed be the best of teachers. I question, however, whether their animals can actually proportion enough conflict, enough friction, for them to really discover love.  Indeed, I had a neighbor who seemed bent on proving me wrong: the plump woman of gray curly hair and thick glasses had an incessant altercation with her strong and happy terrier of equally curly hair; the dog dragged her along thrice a day as she would shriek all the way up and down the street about how he never listened to her, how he did everything wrong, about his disrespect, about how many times he was told not to do this, not to do that.

I would say that the terrier didn’t give a shit about the banshee, but he actually did—happily relieved upon every one of their walks.

Their raucous parade was much more of a daily spectacle than, say, a man walking peacefully alongside a free-roaming cat, but I am certain that both scenes are composed in the only language love knows, one that does not employ words. Caring must be expressed through action; there is no escaping the labor of love through the hands and through the body. That is why I say that Ludovica has taught me so much about yoga, the wisdom that begins with paying uncommon attention to what moves and what is motionless, what changes and what must be accepted – not only in oneself but in others – which is the maturity that comes from harnessing the only tools at one’s disposal: the mind and body. It is why I rise even earlier nowadays to get my morning rituals out of the way in order to accommodate the new ones for Ludovica, the routine I created to take things into my own hands when medicine no longer has viable solutions for my ageing cat. “You are forever responsible for that which you have tamed” I think, remembering the words of the Fox to the Little Prince in Saint-Exupéry’s classic as I frog-march Ludovica into the park every morning. I’ve come to realize that there is no such thing as affection without discipline, just as there is no discipline without affection. They are the two sides of the coin of love. 

Even if it is just a seed, there is always selfishness in acts of kindness. Picking mine out of the soil of rituals in caring for Ludovica, it is clear to me that I want the solace of knowing that I had done my best, because the opposite would be unbearable. I would do anything to be free myself of such agony. That knowledge is where the lines between captor and captive dissolve when tending to my roses or collard greens, my cat, the guests in my home, my work, and my family: always doing your best is the freedom found in captivity. That is yoga.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

One thought on “Ludovica and the Art of Yoga

  1. Ricky, mais um texto bem escrito, saboroso de se ler, interessante desde o início até o final; com muitas falas do americano que você é, e como brasileiro e indiano que você é também. Mais uma vez gostei muito!

    Like

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