Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Mark of the Cat

"I've often about wondered that."  The woman behind the department store counter paused in folding up returns that looked like they were heading back to the store shelves.  "Why don't you Americans sign the back of your credit cards?"  

The woman next to her, taking my purchase of socks and underwear, paused to listen.  It had been pointed to me before since arriving in England that my fellow Americans had the reputation of being negligent in this aspect of handling our personal finances.  This was the first time I had the opportunity to give an explanation.  

I told her, at least as far as myself and my circle of friends were concerned, I left the back of my credit cards blank in order to induce whomever was taking the purchase being made with the card to ask for identification.  At least one acquaintance of mine, I told them, writes, "Ask for ID," in that little box instead of his signature.  It is done in the hope that, in case my card ends up on some nefarious stranger's hands, the clerk will do what is necessary to verify the buyer's identity.  

It is a way of saying, "Hey!  Look at his identification!  It's important!"  

Side note: The use of the word "nefarious" in the previous paragraph was, I suspect, done so under the influence drinking my morning tea in the lounge of the quaint English hotel I'm staying in while typing out this blog entry, just as the usage of the word quaint was employed under the same influence.  I promise to keep these influences in check throughout the remainder of this entry.  

I think it was a similar motivation that prompted the builders of the Avebury stone circle to create this work.  Not that this sprawling, incomplete monument, larger yet less well known that Stonehenge, which is near by, is a giant Neolithic attempt to purchase sheep on credit.  But I did get the sense as I was walking around the standing stones of an effort on someone's part to point something out.  After centuries of construction, the circle is interrupted by streets, restaurants homes and other buildings, erasing most of the monument.  But there are moments, walking along the ridge, when you get a glimpse of the former structure.  The thing being pointed out is gone.  But you can see a shadowy outline, like a hand pointing into the fog, and hear a whispered voice insist "See?  There!  Look!  This important!"  

I've told some people on the tour with me that coming to England and seeing this stone circles and medieval cathedrals and castles is something like going to Grandma's house when I was a little boy.  It is a place filled with old things that I have a historical connection to, but which I'm not supposed to touch lest I break them and loose some small part of history.  Photos, mementos, trinkets, my grandmother's little glass figurines, the original copy of the Magna Carta, are preserved and kept in special places so that they can be shown to the people that come after and used to illustrate the stories of what happened before.  To tell little boys about the parts of the family they never met, and why their stories are important.  

It is easy for Kings and ancient priests to be remembered.  These important people order the construction of these massive structures, these piles of history, which the descendants of their great-great-great grandchildren tend and care for.  I've heard it said that people face three moments of extinction related to their existence.  Their death, or personal extinction.  The time when everyone who knew them personal dies, or the extinction of their direct relationships.  And finally, the moment after the last time they are last mentioned by another human, their historical extinction.  If they reach this level, which I'm afraid most of will achieve, they will have vanished.  It will be as if they never existed.  

I believe that this is something we should work against.  The odd are stacked against each of us.  What is it that any one of us can do that will cause our existence to be remembered from amongst the stream of billions upon billions of souls that will wink in and out of being?  It is unfortunate that the easiest ways are those which cause the greatest harm to the evolution of our species, by assassinating a peace-maker or starting some war.  Far harder to gain remembrance for creating something of enduring beauty, or by sculpting a turn of phrase, a meme, that people will quote and being guided by as time stretches on.  

But the attempt is important.  And my visit to this country has reminded me that it doesn't necessarily have to be something historically grand to keep you in the collective mind of humanity.  A bit of whimsey can do the trick.  (Apologizes.  "Whimsey" is definitely a "morning tea" influenced term).  

At Salisbury Cathedral, where the original copy of the Magna Carta is kept on display, there is a stone set in a low partition that separates the walkway surrounding the central grassy court from the rest of the building.  This stone can be found directly across the entrance from the cafĂ© added to the front of the building.  On this stone is a crude drawing of a cat.  

This drawing is over 800 years old.  It was cut into the stone by one of the workmen that helped build this impressive building.  The workmen were paid a penny and a pint of day for each day of labor.  

When this carving was pointed out to me, I imagined some young fellow sitting on the ground by the low wall he'd been instructed to build.  It was the end of the day.  He's taking a sip of his pay and surveys the scaffolding surrounding the impressive structure he's helping to erect.  Though incomplete, it is already impressive.  Already larger than any other building made by man that he has ever seen.  And he's a part of it.  He's helped to make it happen.  He may be one ant amongst thousands scurrying over this hive of history, but he has worked hard and he's proud of what he's done.  

On impulse, he takes his trowel and uses its tip to cut into the stone he's just finished setting.  People call him "the cat" because of how nimble he is carrying stones up the scaffolding to his brother workers.  It takes a few strokes.  In the space of a couple dozen heartbeats, it's done.  

This fellow is gone.  All all those people that knew him are long gone as well.  But we remember him.  He may be a vague silhouette in the fog of history, but we still remember him.  

Let's all strive to make our mark in some way.


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