Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Nine Lives

A warm and wet holiday weekend is a good time to watch movies. Since my daily work schedule leave scant time to view anything from most Monday-to-Fridays (and it would claim even more if I’d let it), relaxing often involves watching. I first saw Cats as an ambitious stage production for a local outdoor theater some years ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber has acute talent when it comes to mixing show tunes and popular music; so much so that even a vague storyline will do to carry a show. Cats, of course, is based on a set of children’s poems by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is no narrative, and they show’s emotionally charged hit “Memory” had to be culled from among Eliot’s other poems. Nevertheless, the musical, now long off-Broadway, exists in a film version that is heavily endowed with religious themes. This weekend I watched it for the n-th time, and each viewing brings out new nuances.

The “story,” such as it is, has two very basic events: Jellicle Cats choose who can be reborn on the night of the Jellicle Ball, and Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of Jellicles, is kidnapped (cat-napped?) and must be recovered before the choice can be made. The vignettes feature cats dealing with loss, love, and crime. The character who resonates with many viewers is Grizabella, the glamour cat. She is the has-been who sings “Memory,” the cat who was somebody before her fame and fortune faded to a tawdry existence among questionable society. The musical is about transformation, however. Transformation is a religious theme, the desire we have to be something more than we are, to transcend the hand life has dealt us. Now, I’m no theater or film critic, but I have to wonder whether the obvious fades and duets of “Memory” point to Grizabella as the older but sadder version of the young and lively Jemima.

Certainly as the finale builds, Grizabella is chosen to be reborn and is sent to the Heaviside Layer, but the camera keeps coming back to Jemima. She is often framed in the center and the suggestion is made that the new life has already begun. Religion thrives on transformation. I suppose that is the reason I find it so ironic that in politics religion, Christianity in particular, is championed as the pillar of the status quo. Whether they are new or old, religions serve no purpose if they do not challenge the “business as usual” model of the secular world. Perhaps that’s why successful artists such as Andrew Lloyd Webber thrive—they can pack theaters of seekers weekend after weekend, even for decades sometimes. Even those of us watching on the television at home click the eject button with a sense of hope that seems possible only on a holiday weekend.

A stray Jellicle cat?

Natural Born Killers

Every year I spend some time at the local 4-H fair. I grew up not knowing about 4-H, and the discovery of the organization as an adult has been an education for me. The local university extension that supports 4-H is Rutgers, although on campus you never hear about this rural aspect of the sophisticated world of academia. My daughter has been a member of the cat club for years, and although not a member myself, they are cordial and always offer me a chair (something no university has ever done) to spend a few hours in the shade while the kids showcase their skills and knowledge. Young potential is one of the few sources of optimism I find in a culture obsessed with selfish gain. My daughter’s cat club shares a tent with the alpacas, the epitome of herbivorous tranquility. With wool so soft as to be unbelievable, the alpacas with their long, graceful necks and huge brown eyes, look to be the least offensive creatures at the fair (except maybe the bunnies).

People in crowds, however, often shift dynamics and stress systems that would otherwise find their own balance. While many of the thousands of visitors at the 4-H fair are respectful of the animals, many others seem unaware that loud voices and running children and constant noise can stress even docile animals kept in small enclosures. Kids will find a cat in its cage and bark at it to get a reaction, and we all know the glass-tapping behavior that drives the reptiles wild. The fair has been part of my life for three years now and I’ve never noticed a stressed alpaca. They seem above it all. Yesterday, however, one stressed animal took on a surprisingly human behavior and began to bully a smaller alpaca in its pen. Apart from the caricatured spitting, the larger animal began licking and biting the smaller one, snaking its long neck after the smaller camelid’s head, biting its ears, and generally making its life miserable. The aggression lasted only a few minutes, but it felt to me like the tension of seeing bullies rough up a kid on the playground. The fairgoers felt uncomfortable, with some even wagging their fingers at the larger, aggressive animal.

Club members eventually stepped in to separate the fighting alpacas, and the poor, smaller animal kept trembling for several minutes after the attack. No blood was let; the assault was mostly psychological. I went out to get a snack at the food tent. When I returned I was relieved to see the smaller animal had been removed from the pen, given some space. Later I learned the young animal had died from the stress of the attack. I had seen the incident, and the violence had mostly been of an unrelenting display of dominance with a minimal physical attack. The aura of threat had created the stress. Saddened, I realized that a parable had unfolded before my naïve eyes that afternoon. Like all parables, only those with perceptive eyes may be able to see through the drama and get to the heart of the matter. If only people were as perceptive as even the innocent herbivores, perhaps such parables could finally come to an end. In the meantime, maybe I’ll watch the bunnies and forget what I read in Watership Down.

Just look the other way...

Cat Tales

Several years ago a cat named Rusty, aka, Firestar, came into our lives. Since my wife is allergic to cats Firestar is, of course, a fictional character. I’ve written about the Warrior series of tween books by Erin Hunter before, and last night I was reminded of the centrality of religion to the story. My daughter has been a fan of Warriors since fourth grade. One of the few luxuries we allow ourselves is the (now mandatory) purchase of the newest installment on the very day of its release. Waiting even one day cannot be tolerated. Although my daughter is among the more wizened readers of the series, her devotion is undying. She’s the kind of fan publishers (and some deities) covet. Last night I took a break from grading student papers to take her to see Erin Hunter at the kick-off book signing for the latest release in the series.

What a publisher loves to see

I have to admit feeling a bit out of my league waiting in a massive line where the average age is, on the whole, several decades below mine. There was even some question as to whether we would even be admitted since we had the dreaded B tickets rather than the highly prized A stubs. Having read the first twelve books as bedtime stories quite a few years back, I hadn’t expected the founder of the quaternity of Erin Hunters to be quite so witty. As she explained (mostly to the adults present, I believe) her interest in devising the series, she cited “religion” as the second of her interests. In the series, tribes of feral cats each have a shamanistic “medicine cat,” and the spirits of the departed cats play an influential role. Ms. Hunter also explained that the clans could be taken to represent different religions, all struggling to coexist.

Now I could understand that I was clearly in the world of fantasy. Religions, like all human institutions, are prone to corruption. Lofty ideals, inspiringly presented by insightful founders, soon come to be used as weapons and tools to win control over other people. Since religion is understood to be sacred, few suspect the insidious uses to which the various tenets of belief-systems may be put. Those of us who have toiled long among the religiosphere must become more circumspect about our surroundings or be consumed by them. Many of us know firsthand what darkness religions are capable of generating. In fact, it is something that even cats recognize, if Warriors be a reasonably reliable guide through this tangled forest. And like cats, many religious warriors can barely keep their claws sheathed.

Old Deuteronomy

Last night my family attended a performance of CATS. We can seldom afford shows, or even movies for that matter, but when CATS comes to town it is non-negotiable with my daughter. It is a must-see musical. Anyone who has seen the show knows it is all just for fun with only the thinnest of plots and the most colorful of non-religious characters (they are, after all, cats). T. S. Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, were/are solidly C of E, and that orientation comes through in both some of the characters from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the arrangement of the poems into the lyric of CATS. The basic message of the show is redemption, but the angle that I particularly noticed last night was the mosaic aspect of Old Deuteronomy.

Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of jellicle cats and father of many of the cats in the junkyard, is a hobbled, old character who assumes the aspect of a law-giver to the younger generation. He has been to the Heavyside Lair and knows the path there. He leads Grizabella to her rebirth with the Everlasting Cat. Even his name suggests his association with the Torah, famously summarized in the book of Deuteronomy. When he is kidnapped (cat-knapped?) his return leads directly to the culmination of the show, the return to Mount Sinai.

No one would claim that CATS contains a profound religious impact, and yet the show conveys an unexpected emotional power. T. S. Eliot was not particularly known for his religious poetry, yet his personal beliefs permeate the children’s poems that form the basis for the show. His Moses is non-judgmental, a cat who was quite frisky in his younger years and who knows the value of a life well lived. A cat that believes in second chances. That simple message kept audiences returning to Broadway to see CATS on its incredibly long run. For those of us whose careers have run aground in mid-course, a Moses more like Old Deuteronomy would be a hopeful religious leader indeed.

Redemption through work

Resurrection From the Crab

My daughter loves cats. We have, however, lived in apartments since having been forced from our four-bedroom house at Nashotah. That means we’ve been at the mercy of various landlords for our choice of allowable animal comfort. Most landlords disallow cats and dogs, so we’ve gone the route of caged or terrarium pets. Birds, reptiles, and arthropods are fascinating but hardly cuddly. All three taxes share the phenomenon of molting, and once out of their artificial environments they are also all difficult to get back in. Our current non-embraceable companions are hermit crabs.

If early Christians had known of hermit crabs, I am sure they would have used them as symbols of the resurrection. (They could have used Baal as well, but that was a non-starter I’m afraid.) Our adventure began in a mall. The salesman told us, in broken English, that they would live two or three years, with proper care. We purchased one and were chagrined when it died shortly after, just when my daughter was hosting her cousin for a week-long visit during the summer. Shocked and tear-stained, we went back to the mall for a replacement crab. Later that week, crab number one (Sparky by name) suddenly reappeared. What we assumed was the corpse of Sparky was only his (or her – I have no idea how to tell) molted exoskeleton. It hung limply out of the shell like a deflated crab, but inside a new incarnation was preparing its epiphany.

This drama has enacted itself many times. This past week Sparky’s companion really died. Since the crabs are not the center of attention during the holiday season, I was the only one with this esoteric knowledge. The pile of legs and vacant shell were a little gruesome, but tucked into the corner of an out-of-the-way aquarium, they attracted no other attention. I resolved to bury the little guy. Today as I prepared to take care of his crustacean cadaver, I was astounded to find him (or her) alive and well and inhabiting a different shell. Resurrection. Our crabs have outlasted their projected livelihoods and are into their sixth year with us. Every time one dies, he (or she) comes back. If they couldn’t use Baal or Adonis, early Christians might well have caught on to the symbolism of the humble hermit crab.

I was dead, but now I am alive