The Blue Cat: Life, Afterlife, and Transformation
Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD
Two scribes and the elegant Blue Bastet Cat with earring
The life of the dead is set in the minds of the living. ~~ Marcus Tillius Cicero
Cats were revered in ancient Egypt. The domesticated cat became a symbol of poise and grace, protection and motherhood – the visible soul of the Egyptian home. Cats were considered sacred, a subject of religious worship, and adorned with fine jewelry like golden earrings.  Wearing gold jewelry was a sign of the cat’s importance.
Egyptian cat with gold earrings & gold nose ring; bronze, c. 600 BC
The history of the Egyptian cat involves the land itself. Egypt’s economy was primarily agricultural, and an empire was built on Ancient Egypt’s enormous agricultural wealth. Cats were highly valued for their skill in controlling the rodent and snake populations that plagued homes, farms, fields and granaries. Cats helped to protect precious crops. Originally for this reason, they were gradually domesticated, maintained in grand style, and deified as purveyors of fertility and sun. They were seen as a divine force that harnessed nature to the benefit of the empire.
Carved black limestone statue of a reclining mother cat nursing her 3 kittens; c. 300 BC; Sadigh Gallery, NY. Representation of fertility and motherhood, a visual prayer.
Amulet: cat with a kitten in front of her, Egyptian faience, c. 400 BC; Charm with magical powers, protection against evil. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
Felines: goddess Wadjet depicted as a lion-headed woman. Bronze, c. 600 BC; Brooklyn Museum
Hieroglyphic: Cat-headed figure of a demigod, Balancing Life, Death, and Afterlife; International Council of Museums Committee for Egyptology; Museo Egizio, Turin, IT
Archaeologists believe that cats were also important in dream interpretation. If a cat appeared in a dream, it meant that the dreamer would have a bountiful harvest.
Cats received great respect after death. "The cat's body was placed in a linen sheet and carried amidst bitter lamentations by the bereaved to a sacred house where it was treated with drugs and spices by an embalmer.”  Cats often received a full embalming ceremony, like humans, and were buried in some of the great cemeteries along the Nile. Many were buried with provisions for the afterlife, such as mice and pots of milk. Grief was boundless, endless, infecting.
Mausoleum & dwellings along the Nile River of Egypt
In some ancient artifacts, Nile boatmen are pictured paddling into the afterlife, accompanying an Egyptian on death’s long voyage.  We can safely assume that the same moral obligation would apply to the sacred, noble cat.
Boatmen accompanying an Egyptian on death’s long voyage into the afterlife. Artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian grave.
The scholarly scribes carefully documented, by hand and with reed brushes and pens on papyrus paper, the lives, deaths, and burials of cats owned by royalty. Hieroglyphs on papyrus.  The cats were mourned at length and in ways similar to the mourning of humans.
Hieroglyphics on papyrus paper, c. 600 BC. One figure bears the head of a cat.
Mummification was supposed to keep a cat’s body intact for transporting to the spiritual afterlife. Because of the Egyptians’ deep affection for cats, and the elaborate after-death and burial procedures created for them, the mummies of ancient cats survived and can still be seen in plenitude today. All these extensive and painstaking preparations give fresh significance to the phrase, "Undying love."
Cat mummy -- Canadian Museum of Art
Death is not the end of the story. Far from it.
Their spirit is reaffirmed now by our admiration and awe. We are their afterlife! That is an honor and a responsibility we owe to the cats and their grieving human preservers. We must behave accordingly, with reverence.
The Egyptian cats offer us the privilege, even if only for a momentary glimpse, of living in their times, many ages ago.
Cat mummies -- British Museum, Our impressive company from antiquity. Grief from a different perspective.
How old is old? How long is forever? Are 3,000 years a long time? Who is measuring? The mind is not a passive learner, and individual perception and observation matter.
When each of us learns something from the lookback, the cats have made our lives a little better than before.
Death yields its benefits. We are required to find them. Until then, we are not whole and free.
“If not for death, would we appreciate life?” 
When we deny death, we cannot serve life well. All of us have the power to write our own story, the courage to make our own choices, the resilience to fathom death as well as life.
Egyptian hieroglyphics, c. 600 BC, Carved into the wall of a tomb. Writing it down… ...so important to the health and soundness of the individual & the community.
Tombs of Ramses V and Ramses VI, in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. Hieroglyphics carved into walls and ceilings. The tombs were looted about 3,000 years ago, in times of Egyptian crisis, But the radiant writing still lives, bearing witness for the dead. It was their duty to write it down - for Self, for the gods, and for generations yet unborn.
Tomb of Ramses VI, a lasting legacy, deep and complex; fathoming Life and Death and the Afterlife.
That becomes the root and the richness of life’s meaning. “Life is primarily a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life….The quest for meaning is the key to mental health and human flourishing.”  Hope and sense of purpose.
What counts is not so much what happens to us, but rather, how we perceive what happens to us -- how we frame life’s events. We have the aptitude to imagine, to reframe, to revise our perceptions, and thereby to rise.
That is strength and growth.
The deaths and burial rituals of ancient cats teach us tales about the beauty of life and the importance of the past. The past is the foundation of the present and a herald of the future. It must not be denied or ignored as some people suggest. Forgetting the past in order to soothe today’s grief pain is not a restorative option. "Forget about the dead and move on" is shallow advice. Impossible. Choose the past and the present. They are actually factually indivisible. They form a whole. It is not a question of either / or.
We cannot live as though history had not happened.
“Turkish” Angora kittens – Angoras are a “landrace” breed, one of several descendant breeds from the ancients ! Past is present and informs the future.
This choice opens our pathways to the fullness of life, containing all that is possible and complete in every particular, and a lasting legacy of dignity, integrity, sincerity, and grace.
Envision. Remember. Become.
Those immortal dead live again In minds made better by their presence. ~~ George Eliot
An Appreciation: Thank you, MTC and HMC, for your friendship and for the Blue Cat. – 6/4/16 -- Viva la Blue Cat. “Each of us has a unique constellation of gifts, an unreplicated radius of influence, and within that radius, be it as small as a family or as large as a state, we can be a transformative presence.” [J. H. Sacks]
And always a Debt of Gratitude to MWM, without whose steady encouragement this pen would still be silent. “We each have…capacities that can lie dormant throughout life, until someone awakens them. We can all achieve [that] of which we never thought ourselves capable. All it takes is for us to meet someone who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. Such people change lives.” [J. H. Sacks]
Map of Nile River region, burial ground for many ancient cats. The Nile is the longest river in the world.
Older map of the Nile region -- British
Hieroglyphic word for NILE
Hieroglyphic words for male cat & female cat. The name for "cat" was MAU, an onomatopoeia.
I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul. ~~ Jean Cocteau
Divine Felines, 305 BC; Wood, gilded gesso, bronze, rock crystal, glass; Scarab placed between the ears symbolized the morning sun. Brooklyn Museum SCARAB: used in ancient Egypt generally as "a symbol for the soul."
The Back Page: Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece. Cats have a rare grace, elegance, and absolute emotional honesty, Glad for company and yet possessing secret lives. They are like spirits come briefly to earth. Time spent with a cat is never wasted.* Life, Afterlife, and Transformation.
(*Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Pam Brown, Jules Verne, Colette)
The Red Horses, c. 1930 -- oil on canvas (Influenced by Marc Chagall, "the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century.")
The artist's name is unclear. We will call him Wolfson. As the story is told, he was a Russian immigrant to the USA. He lived and worked in New York City.* While we are not sure of his name, we are more certain of his inner personal narrative.
Although he immigrated for reasons of religious persecution and political dislocation, he was often homesick. He grieved for the comforting familiar, the people and towns and language of his childhood homeland – his Motherland. He expressed his grief and longing especially in his paintings. This picture is an example. Take another look.
Note the blackened doors and windows and the absence of people. And yet, through his tears, Wolfson found the promise of life, a celebration: blue sky, green growing grass, horses helping, and a wagon full of fresh hay. Also, with such a vivid blue sky and white puffy clouds, we have a sense that the sun must be shining somewhere nearby. HOPE.
And, of course, the picture’s dominant bright color is red, considered by some to be the warmest color in the visible spectrum. In the Russian language, the words “red” and “beautiful” come from the same Slavic root. Red Square in Moscow meant “beautiful square.” In ancient Roman times, red also symbolized courage; soldiers wore red tunics. The color holds vast, international, cross-cultural symbolism – for instance: majesty, nobility, liberty, power, love, happiness, fire (“Chinese red”).
If he were asked today, maybe Wolfson would have chosen all of these words to describe his works. We are left to wonder and imagine. That is finally the enduring beauty of art: the beholder’s eye and the perennial question, “What was he thinking?” We see Wolfson’s resilience – and our own – in this picture. Resilience: the ability to recover, to rebound, to spring back from an impact even if it takes a lifetime. His painting shows us that he did not succumb to sorrow. It reveals that he could use his sadness and bend it and mold it … and heal from it. That is strength and growth. In his grieving, he also found a way of giving to others through his artistic talents. The ability to give to others is itself a gift. As he gave, his gift for painting returned to him much recognition, praise, and a highly favorable reputation in the world of visual arts. That enhanced his self-esteem, confidence, energy and inspiration to continue painting. It brought him community, support, and encouragement. It soothed him, like palliative self-care for the mind.
He was not defeated nor diminished by loss. He transformed his suffering, making it, for long and memorable moments, a dance of light and life.
* * *
*A firmly implanted family folktale with probable and significant alterations of name and places. Memory for facts is sometimes unreliable, but the feeling tone remains strong, unmistakable, and well defined. RLG 24 February 2016 Tags: #art #painting #red #hpm #grief #courage #hope #resilience #giving #transformation
The Holocaust: Bereavement Takes a Different Course
The Red Velvet Album
Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD
Jewish history has all too often been written in tears… I am fascinated by people and groups with the capacity to recover, Who, having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Are not defeated by them but fight back, Strengthened and renewed. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, PhD, From: To Heal a Fractured World
In some situations, the whole idea of complete recovery from bereavement makes no sense. Bereavement can be fully expected to last a lifetime. That must never be considered a mental disorder. Among the most obvious of these situations is Holocaust survivorship.
Very few Holocaust survivors are still living. The last prisoners of the European concentration camps were freed in 1945. Their suffering before release is virtually unimaginable and incomprehensible to the vast majority of us. We have absolutely no mental yardstick with which to measure such suffering. Imagination completely fails. We cannot do it. The children of survivors are perhaps the only ones who come slightly close to a true understanding. They sense the meaning of the emotional horror of the experience and the problems of survivorship.
Fern Schumer Chapman, the daughter of a survivor, said it this way in her book, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past: “The past is a presence between us. In all my mother does and says, the past continually discloses itself in the smallest ways. She sees it directly; I see its shadow. Still, it pulses in my fingertips, feeds on my consciousness. It is a backdrop for each act, each drama of our lives. I have absorbed a sense of what she has suffered, what she has lost, even what her mother endured and handed down. It is my emotional gene map.”
We have a habit of using certain old adages to comfort and humor others. We often use these sayings to dismiss from our own minds what otherwise makes us fearful and uncomfortable. One adage says God never gives us more than we can handle. Another says that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. In the case of the Holocaust survivors, so false. So weirdly irrelevant. So insulting. So empty. So absent in understanding of the Holocaust experience. Would we say that to someone who has survived starvation and certain annihilation in a Nazi death camp? The answer resounds with No. Then, too, why do we say it to each other? Life lessons; applied ethics. The wretched Holocaust is still our teacher, so many years after. From the survivors, another exercise in living.
It must be noted that the survivors had been surrounded by death in the extermination camps. It was not just one death but massive deaths. Most survivors lost many family members, not only one or two. They lost many friends and neighbors, not just one or two. The camp inmates bore witness to many deaths every day, not just on one or two days. The deaths occurred primarily by premeditated, deliberate and vicious murder, not by disease or natural causes. Murder routinely took place after extreme torture. Intense humiliation before death was standard practice. Des Pres wrote that human dignity was treated with cynical contempt. The value of life had been reduced to zero. There was no escape except the grave. In many instances, physical survival was an accident of time and place, not an act of strong determination to live. It was a Holocaust, a great devastation, a systematic mass slaughter. That was genocide. That is the background of survivorship. That is monstrous, shockingly hideous.
This is a different kind of loss and a different course of bereavement. This is not ‘good death.’ It is brute force and mass killing. This is not fear. It is terror. It is panic. This is not anger. It is outrage and despair. This is not guilt. It is inner conviction of crimes committed or omitted. Judgment has been passed by the jury of the inner self. The verdict is pronounced. The finding is guilty on all counts. The question is not: is the verdict right? The question is: to what extent is that verdict right? No punishment fits the magnitude of the crimes. The sentence is lifetime-plus-time atonement. These thoughts form a survivor mindset.
In most instances, talking does not help. Only in groups with other survivors does discussion seem to bring some heartfelt relief. After all, in extreme situations, only experience knows experience. The rest of us remain mere outsiders peering in. Imagining carries us to the outer edge. The Holocaust was located very far beyond that point. All of us have an intuitive understanding of personal tragedy. We find comfort most of all in others whose experiences match our own. We find it also in those who have lived lovingly beside us as we suffered. Survival is a collective art. We need other people.
In notable instances, writing also helps to soothe. As an example, Dr. Elie Wiesel long ago became one of the most prominent survivor authors. From his book, Night:
"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my Faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."
He had vowed that, if he survived, he would devote the remainder of his life to telling the story of the Holocaust. It was his moral duty to tell it, he said. If the world knew the facts, another holocaust might be prevented. As the old Santayana adage goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Wiesel has turned his torture and lifetime of bereavement into one of the world’s most treasured and admired literary art forms. A thing of beauty. In so doing, he eases his pain. He brings us news not only of man’s evil but of his goodness as well. He is successfully saving himself and memorializing his dead family and others as he guides the rest of us. His writing is his public monument to the 6 million and so very many more.
Once again he found meaning in life and regained the will to live. Eventually, he was even able to say, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to Him for that reason.” As we read his works, we fervently wish him to be right: no more war and injustice! Horror transformed into beauty and the embodiment of moral righteousness. That is quite an achievement of chronic bereavement. It is not a disorder. It is a rare and wondrous gift. The Nobel committee recognized and honored this life of achievement with an award for Peace in 1986.
An elderly lady of my acquaintance lived with her family in Eastern Europe during the War. As the German army advanced, she sent her only child, a teenage son, to live in hiding and safety in the countryside. Her son was discovered by the German army, tortured, and then shot before her eyes. All the remainder of her family died in the concentration camps. She herself became a subject of the infamous Nazi medical experiments. She was never able to talk about her son and her experiences without dissolving into tears of guilt and despair. The wound never healed, nor could that be expected.
Late in her life, she was hospitalized. Due to a medication error, she became delusional. One auditory hallucination brought her to a state of panic. We found her behind the door of her room, frightened and shaking. Over the intercom, this hearing-impaired lady had clearly heard the voice and commands of the Gestapo. They were taking a lineup of concentration camp inmates to the “showers” (gas chambers). She saw a camp guard pass her door. She beckoned us to quickly hide with her behind the door. The Holocaust trauma survived and burned in her vivid memory. Through her vision, we could sense the smoke and feel the flames. That was 50 years after liberation. She had seen the face of evil. Like Dr. Wiesel, she would never forget. Why would she? Why should she? How could she? Who would?
She managed to make her peace with life by giving to others. It was her own personal Kindness Project. It brought her purposeful life. It commemorated her dead. She was an expert, avid needle point artist. She was passionate about her skill. Everyone in her surroundings received, with great pleasure, something she had created. She lived to be well over 90. Her bereavement remained raw, but it never brought her down. She was never defeated. She found meaning and healing in her life by giving the fruits of her talent. Her son lived once more in her generosity. Bereavement’s achievement.
Given the depth and breadth of the trauma, it seems an act of heroism just to return to so-called normal life. From Dr. Wiesel again: “I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and to live my life – that is what is abnormal.” The feeling tone is obvious. After such trauma, a life of normal routines seems at first crazy, surreal, disorienting. It seems almost disrespectful of the dead. At best, the reentry is a struggle. It happens nevertheless. At the center of the healing are other people. Connection is the core principle. Hope can be given only by others. Also in Jewish folk wisdom, a Yiddish proverb states: even in Paradise, it is not good to be alone.
Needed: people of warmth and compassion. A shared knowledge that the Holocaust situation was evil and extreme. A firm flow of support and reassurance that guilt for past and guilt of survivorship are misplaced. A conviction from others that the survivor has always been worthy of dignity and respect. Acknowledgement that bereavement is forever and is sane. An understanding that the dead are kept alive inside the grief. Therefore grief is necessary and has a purpose. There is no incentive to finish grieving. On the contrary, there is every incentive to urge grief to remain fresh. Needed: people for whom death is no stranger. People willing to lift the veil of fear and find the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.
So much is said about the devastation of World War II, fascism, and Nazi Germany. Atrocity and abject misery seem to be an endless source of fascination. The reasons are many but the fact remains. Much less is said about reintegration. It is the human will and ability to rise above past contempt. The survivor had to regain entry into a sensible, open society and sane living. Lost through radical suffering. Found, as Des Pres tells us, through social interaction and keeping dignity and moral sense active.
Those of us who did not experience the full horror of the Holocaust will never fully understand its emotional power. But we can help those who did. Never become discouraged by the scale of the problem. Just keep inching forward. This bereavement is a victory for connection, the value of relationships. Accepting, respecting, and appreciating are fundamental qualities of relationship. Attentive listening is also basic. For the survivor, learning to trust again is demanding. It takes great mental effort to accomplish. We can help to point the way, again and again. Repetition is part of the answer. Telling the Holocaust story is that part of the answer. Dr. Wiesel: “I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that, having survived, I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.” To forget the Holocaust, he said, would be to kill twice. Bearing witness gives voice to the dead. That voice is indispensable. Silence speaks.
Connection is a gift we can freely give. It does not require full understanding. It requires only empathy, honesty, and compassion. Maybe a little altruism as well. Each connection provides links to the wider community and further connections and friendship. The support system expands this way. Self-respect and dignity are reinforced this way. Life finds meaning again this way. Life is reaffirmed this way. Once more an achievement of bereavement. Survivors fight back, strengthened and renewed.
Our task is to make music with what remains. Yitzhak Perlman, violinist
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms – To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, To choose one’s own way. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor E. Frankl, MD, PhD, Psychiatrist, Author, Holocaust survivor
Anne Elizabeth Applebaum, Gulag: A History Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem Bruno Bettelheim, Surviving & Other Essays Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age Fern Schumer Chapman, Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Mother-Daughter Journey to Reclaim the Past Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl Viktor Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning Bernard Goldstein, Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto John Hersey, Hiroshima Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel, Children of the Flames Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz Robert Jay Lifton, Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression Daniel A. Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Jean Francois-Steiner, Treblinka The Black Book: The Nazi Crime and the Jewish people (out of print) Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned Leon Uris, Exodus Elie Wiesel, Night Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem Elie Wiesel, One Generation After Elie Wiesel, The Oath
“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted, but mostly they're darked. But mostly they're darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?” ― Theodor S. Geisel