The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

white-cat1

 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

The Snobbery of Chronology

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship...
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The Snobbery of Chronology

As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.

Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.

Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization.  During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000.  The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.

The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar.  The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century  during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.

The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000,  painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions.  It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.

Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty.  There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God.  People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society.  Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm.  People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts.  Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds.  The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith.  Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.

Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food.  Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder.  Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom.  Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age.  It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.

Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive.  People went by Christian names, not surnames.  One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name.  Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents,  Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.

The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule.  The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England.  In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future.  Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies.  “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.

Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man.  As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy.  Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud.  Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude.  Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life.  Society was more egalitarian than one might think.  The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.

CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”.  Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia.  By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more.  We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views.  However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.

We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before?  CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us?  Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.

An Ambleside Spring

imagesI wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils,

Beside the lake, beneath the trees

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 —  I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth, April, 1804

Springtime in Northern England is a time of inspired renewal.  Lavender crocus and sun kissed daffodils peek from under moss-covered rocks and along the tufts of broken heather that interrupt the fells, crags, scars, hows and pastures of the Lake District.  The weather is a fickle, undependable companion with four seasons visiting every day.  The wind sweeps down from the northwest unfurling great banners of rain and swirling mist.  Suddenly, a swath of cornflower blue appears and expands into a great chasm of sky bursting with unfiltered spring sun.  The verdant landscape comes alive in a kaleidoscope of painter’s palette color accentuated by the natural light.

The shadows move slowly whispering and creeping toward you as the light stretches out of abbreviated winter hibernation.   Each spring day is a reward for the incarceration of a bleak midwinter.  It is a time for poets, writers and artists.

Dove Cottage is situated on the edge of Grasmere in the Lake District.  William Wordsworth, his wife and his sister Dorothy, occupied the cottage in 1799.  It was on a day of broken clouds and rambling near Lake Ullswater, that Wordsworth’s sister recorded in her diary the simple perfection of daffodils peeking through the muddy ground to welcome the sun. As he reflected on her entries later that evening by blazing firelight, the poet was inspired to record his famous serenade to the citrine harbingers of spring.   The Lake District was Wordsworth’s joy. Until his family had literally outgrown their beloved cottage, increasing by three Wordsworth children in four years, they would not entertain leaving this mystical Eden.   Ultimately, the family moved a few kilometers away to Rydal Mount where they remained for 37 years

Behind the cascading slate roofed cottage, John’s Wood stands silent – named for Wordsworth’s brother John, a sea captain who had perished at sea. The hill climbs sharply up the rock strewn Loughrigg Fell, a thousand foot outcrop of bracken-clad knoll.  From the fell, poets looked north on the magnificent River Rothay that cascaded down through villages of Grasmere and Rydal Water.  To the south, more midnight ribbons of blue water converge before feeding Lake Windermere.

The Lakes are terraced here with footpaths and low slate walls, hemming in great flocks of Swaledale sheep.  It is lambing season.  A restless knot of cotton white ewes swirls in a pasture disguising scores of small unsteady legs that stumble and stretch to catch their mothers for a morning meal. Hill fog spills into the steep draws and ridges that form like tendons bracing the massifs and peaks.  With names like Scafell Pike, Great End, Skiddaw Little Man and Great Gable, the mountains draw thousands of hikers and ramblers each year. The Lakes derive their ubiquitous greenery from annual rainfall of over 80 inches but only an average of 2.5 hours of sun per day.   When the sun appears, it is cause for celebration.  Villagers and locals are suddenly still.  They smile, squinting up to the heavens, basking in the precious warmth.  Suddenly, everything is still again as shadows move like islands in the stream of a great malachite ocean.

Across the valley, lies Near Sawrey and Hill Top House – the summer farm of Beatrix Potter for 37 years.  Aside the simple gardens, massive hedgerows climb, obscuring adjacent fields and tarns.  Rabbits dart in and out of the thickets reminding us of a young girl who watched out a bedroom window sketching mice, geese, ducks and rabbits, meticulously weaving their shapes and movements into stories that would captivate an eternity of children.

There is something in the flat light that falls in this northeastern corner of the Western hemisphere –the emerald broken land above the 54th parallel.   Pastoral artists like Constable, Watson and Cozzens labored across rock-strewn fields to paint in open air a soft palette of spring and summer colors.  As the daylight advances, twilight suspends the day in a chrome blue light lasting for hours. Dusk finally yields to a black galaxy of night interrupted by the twinkling solitary lights of remote inns, pubs and small farms.  For any artist, The Lakes are a compulsory corner of the Great maker’s garden, a watercolor combination of elements constantly combining to create new shades of rain, mist, mountains and sun.

If you travel to the Lakes to wrap yourself in an English Spring, consider stopping at the edges of Lake Windermere.  On its southern edge, sits the Rothay Manor Hotel – an elegant country house run by the Nixon family for over 40 years.  In a reassuring mahogany pub, springtime hikers and travelers recovering from their journeys among the scores of lakes and tumbling rivers can drink a pint of lager and contemplate a framed poem, The Ambleside Weather Glass, that hangs next to a gabled picture window:

When Wansfell weaves a cap of cloud,

The roar of Brathay will be loud.

When mists come down from Loughrigg fell,

A drenching day gray heads foretell.

 

When breezes blow from Coniston,

Twere best a mackintosh put on.

If down from Kirkstone pass they come,

You better go not far from home.

 

When Redscree frowns on Ambleside,

The rain will pour both far and wide.

When Wansfell smiles and Loughrigg’s bright,

Twill surely rain before the night.

 

Yet should in nets on Windermere,

Twelve pickled salmon do appear.

No rain will fall upon that day,

And men may safely make their way.

Wordsworth considered the Lake District a spiritual Mecca and a paradox of the highest order – a living, breathing place that never ceased to change and through its constant motion, like the sea and the seasons, it’s ceaseless energy was in itself a reassuring symbol of a divine hand that moved across the land.  Spring it seemed was and remains a time when for a brief moment, the sun appears, breaking through the chill of winter and isolation.  In its cascading beams of light, one might spy the face of God smiling in the swaying grace of a canary yellow daffodil or in the solitary journey of a single cloud.