Animals, Ave Atque Vale, Beauty, Friendship, Literature, Plain Speaking, Poetry

“Seeing God in a Cat”

One of the most delightful parts of my weekend is opening my email (yes, really, I know how sad that sounds) on Sunday sometime and discovering Douglas Murray’s latest “Things Worth Remembering” installment for The Free Press.  I’m a basic (paid) subscriber to the site, so I get all the links and can read the entirety of all the posts; I’m not sure how their paywall works with regard to free views.

“Things Worth Remembering” is Murray’s weekly contribution, one which follows the heading:

Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, “Things Worth Remembering,” where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too.

Each one is a lovely meditation on, and memorialization of, a piece of poetic literature which Murray has memorized over the course of his life.  Somewhere, I believe he talks about that being a leftover from his youth and his schooling, something that was expected of children during their studies, and on which they were evaluated from year to year.

#MeToo, Douglas.  #MeToo.

Some of his posts fit familiarly into the landscape of my childhood.  I can recite those pieces, too.  Some of them, such as his examples of, and remarks on, Eastern European poets, are new to me.  All of them are worth reading, listening to, and thinking about.

Six months or so ago, my email told me that the latest Murray post was “Seeing God in a Cat.”  I knew, before I even opened it, where he was going:

There is one poet I am very fond of—Christopher Smart—who certainly wandered over into what was then called madness, or what we might now call bipolar disorder. If he lived today, his condition would almost certainly be treatable, or at least manageable. That thought is enough to pain you until you consider the fact that if he hadn’t had the madness, we might not have the poetry. A selfish equation, to be sure.

(That last bit sounds very C.S. Lewis, I think.  But perhaps it’s just me.)

“Poor Kit Smart,” as Samuel Johnson (almost) immortalized him.  It’s not quite a direct quote, but close enough.  Smart didn’t start out that way, having a privileged upbringing and attending Cambridge University, but shortly after that the mania set in and–although his gentle nature had won him many friends, including Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the playwright Oliver Goldsmith and the novelist Fanny Burney, their best efforts at keeping him afloat eventually failed.  Lacking an ability to keep his professional writing commitments–a.k.a., his job–although he had already written some of the most eloquent and moving poems in all of English literature, Smart was confined to an asylum and eventually a debtors’ prison, where he died.  He wrote until the bitter end, his last work being Hymns, for the Amusement of Children.

But, back to the cat.  Or God.  Or Both.

Murray goes on to discuss Christopher Smart’s most famous work, written in one of the series of madhouses in which he was confined.  It’s a difficult poem about which Murray says:

Jubilate Agno, (or, translated from Latin, “Rejoice in the Lamb”), [is] an ecstatic, long poem that claims all of nature is always and forever by its nature praising God. It adheres to a strange logic. For example, Smart decided that his Psalm-like verses must fall into two categories: sections in which every verse begins with the word Let and those that begin with For. The surviving manuscript throws up multiple textual and interpretational problems.

For these reasons, among many others, it took centuries for Smart’s work to reach outside the madhouse walls. Though he composed the poem in a mental asylum between 1759 and 1763, it was not published until 1939.

The most famous section of Jubilate Agno is certainly the one Smart wrote about his only companion in (most likely) St. Luke’s Hospital, Bethnal Green.  That companion was Jeoffry.

The cat.

Murray, again:

In my own experience, the passage that stands out, and that never fails to charm audiences, is the poet’s praise of his cat, Jeoffry. If Smart’s aim was to show that all nature is constantly praising God, Smart’s cat is exemplary.

I have a Jeoffry in my life.

But her name is Penny.

One year ago, on October 24, 2022, my best friend of a half-century died after a half-decade battle with lung cancer.  She made it to the five-year survivor milestone, but that was it.  She was that rara avis, a never-smoker with no apparent indicators for the disease.

I first met Andrea in the Fall of 1972, when my English Composition teacher–I was a freshman at university–suffered a heart attack and had to withdraw from teaching for the rest of the semester.  The school co-opted Andy’s new husband, a graduate assistant, into the role.  And we forged lifelong bonds.

Bernie introduced me to his wife.  I babysat their daughters (who are now both grown women with lives of their own; Lord, I’m old).  And while Andy’s husband was my teacher, he, and Andy, and I, at one time or another, all found ourselves students of the late Mr. Right.

Over the years, Andy and I shared any number of ladylike adventures.  One of my fondest recollections is of a long weekend in 1992 in Washington DC, during which we visited the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery’s display of Mesopotamian art on loan from the Louvre, “When Kingship Descended from Heaven.”  It was lovely.  I felt so much more in common with those ancient peoples than I do with almost any exemplars of modern art.  (I’m pretty sure they’d have understood Christopher Smart, right quick.)  This very early example (which wasn’t part of the exhibition, but which captures its spirit), and which is known as “Mesopotamian King as Master of the Animals,” perhaps explains why it spoke to me so enduringly:

The adjacent exhibit of early Islamic calligraphy was also stunning.  A weekend to remember for a lifetime.

Today, the Sackler name has been largely disgraced due to the opioid scandal.  My memory of that time endures, including that of the night we spent somewhere in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, at an Ethiopian restaurant.  I can’t remember the name, but it was extremely authentic.  Andy and I were the only two pinkish people and native speakers of English in the joint.  We sat on the floor, ate delicious food, and spent some time wondering what the incessant procession of large Black men up and down the staircase at the side of the tiny room was actually in aid of.

So much else over the years.  Decades of companionship, gardening and cooking fun, tea parties, reveling in the good times, propping each other up through the not-so-good times and–I suppose–growing into something akin to sisters, my only one on this side of the pond.

Certainly, her death hit me quite hard.  I’ve coped with a lot of death in my life, parents and many other family members of all ages, friends, neighbors, but Andy was the first really close friend of my generation to go.  I miss her like stink.

She was an extraordinarily smart, decent, cultured, and talented woman, gentle and full of good humor.  Reminders of Andy abound around the house:  Her beautiful stained glass;  several books; one of her extravagant hats; a favorite coffee mug; and, of course, much of the garden (she was determined to cure my lifelong case of “black thumb”).  She never pushed.  She led gently and by example.  I’m a better person for her influence, and I’ll always be grateful for that, and for the continued generous love and support of her daughters who, I’m happy to say, are still in my life.

But.  The cat.

Andy loved cats.*  Much to her husband’s dismay (he didn’t like cats at all; but they all loved him madly) she adopted several strays over a few decades, and while some of them were quite nice, others–such as Edgar–were appalling.  He was her companion during the early days of her widowhood, and he was (I can say this from a position of some authority across several species) one of the nastiest, most bad-tempered, ungrateful beasts it is possible to imagine. But Andy loved him.

When Edgar became elderly and infirm and needed some veterinary attention, Andy took him to a Pittsburgh vet.  The lady veterinarian manning the exam room left with a fit of the vapors and announced that she couldn’t do anything with him because he was uncontrollable and dangerous.

Andy called me and asked for advice.

“Well,” said I.  “Let’s see what Heather says.”

Heather is my country vet.  She is smart, kind, brave, and peerless.  Heather immediately said, “Bring him down!  I’m sure we can figure something out.”

So I drove to Pittsburgh and (at great personal risk) Andy and I got Edgar back into a carrier and drove him down here.  Heather and the farm girls in her office made short work of him, and he was soon bundled up in a straitjacket like a burrito, and subject to a number of indignities which–eventually–extended his life by a couple of years. (Didn’t improve his disposition, though.  There are some things even Heather can’t do.)

Eventually, Edgar met his maker (I bet that conversation was a doozy), and I dug a hole and buried him under the birdfeeder in Andy’s beautiful garden.

For some time, Andy was cat-free.

And then.

One day, in the summer of 2018, she phoned me.  “There’s a very thin Siamese cat outside my kitchen door.  What should I do?”

I advised. And Summer turned to Fall, and the weather changed, and so of course, the cat came inside.

Enter, Penny.

The cat Andy had always dreamed of.  The friendly cat.  The grateful cat.  The snuggly cat.  The cuddly cat who would lie for hours on her lap while Andy read a book or watched TV. The cat who was Andy’s beloved companion for her last years of life.

Before Andy died, I told her I’d give Penny a home.  One less thing for her to worry about.  Not that I didn’t have some trepidations myself, because I already had a few cats, and I didn’t know how it would go.  Penny was quite old when she turned up on Andy’s back porch, and I thought she might be too set in her ways to fit in with the gang. Still, I thought, “nothing ventured,” etc.

As things turned out, it’s been fine.  Psymon, of course, welcomed her with open paws, and is her special friend.  She gets on well with the rest, with the exception of Fat Alice –who, let it be said–could, on her better days, give Edgar a run for his money.

Penny’s a little cat. A year or so after she moved in with her, Andy brought her down to see Heather because Penny had developed lumps on her tummy.  Turned out she had cancer too.  Mammary tumors.  The veterinary oncologist in Pittsburgh advised chemo and radiation and said it might give her a year.

By this time, Andy had already had her own first round of chemo and radiation, and was not minded to subject Penny to such a thing, even if the cost had not been prohibitive.  So Penny came back to see Heather, who removed the lumps.

A few weeks ago, Penny (remember, the Pittsburgh veterinary oncologist said that chemo and radiation “might” give her another year of life, back in 2019) had her fourth annual lumpectomy, a procedure which she tolerates extraordinarily well, and from which she recovers in less than 48 hours.  But it’ll likely be her last, as Heather said that the tumors have spread, and some are on her chest wall and inoperable.  So it won’t be long now.

Penny approaches life and its significant trials just like her late mistress, with fortitude, grace, and equanimity.  She never complains.  She’s never out of sorts.  She’s always ready to jump (climb, really**) onto my lap for a snuggle. She takes life as it comes, accepts her limitations, does the best she can, and although she can no longer perform Jeoffry’s rather strenuous daily orisons, “there is nothing sweeter than [her] peace when at rest.”

Caring for this little girl has been one of my life’s most unexpected and greatest privileges.  She’s heartened me, pulled me through some difficult times, and kept me going when I was ready to give up.  I’ll really miss her (as will Psymon, I think) when it’s her time.  But I’ll send her off with love and gratitude and sweet memories of decades of friendship.

I look at her sometimes and wonder if she remembers at all the nice lady who was so kind to her in her hour of greatest need.

And I see Andy.

And, when that happens, I see God.

*I’ll never forget Andy, just a couple of days before she died, gently and humorously schooling the hospital’s “Chaplain for a Day,” who in this case was a Rabbi, on the finer distinctions between the Romantic and Metaphysical poets, in a wide-ranging conversation which also included substantive remarks on William Blake and Christopher Smart.  (Of course, Jeoffry came in for a mention, too.) I think he’d begun the conversation with the thought that he was bringing her some comfort and taking her mind off herself (and perhaps he did), but he was seriously out of his depth.

**”For, tho [s]he cannot fly, [s]he is an excellent clamberer”–Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno

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