Saturday, June 20, 2009

Drawing Cats

The mysterious Japanese fable, The Boy Who Drew Cats, made a big impression on me when I was a kid. I'd hide in the backyard with my book of fairy tales, eat graham crackers coated with peanut butter and honey, and ponder what it meant.

A young boy in rural Japan is too small and weak to be much help on the farm. He's sent to the priests, who attempt to teach him, but he has terrible study habits, preferring instead to daydream and draw cats, everywhere.

Kicked out, he travels to another remote temple because he's afraid to go home. He arrives late at night to this large, empty temple, and fills its tall white screens with paintings of enormous, mighty cats. When he's tired, he curls up to sleep in a cabinet, remembering the parting words of the elderly priest, " Avoid large places at night, keep to small!"

For some reason, this cryptic bit of advice pleased me, because I was sure (especially at 12) that I'd have little difficulty sleeping in a cupboard. In fact, I remember choosing which one in our suburban tract home that would work best for me, should I need it.

Late that night, our hero is awakened by sounds of a terrible battle: hours of screaming and yowling by huge creatures just outside his cabinet door. When the fighting stops at dawn, he cautiously emerges to find the floors of the temple awash in the blood of a gigantic , dead goblin-rat (as big as a cow, my version of this oft-told story states) and the mouths of the smiling cats he's painted wet with goblin-blood. The boy goes on to become a famous artist.

In schools today, this story is taught to children as an allegory about tolerance. Those who are different can also be heroes, nice to hear for those of us who feel our alienation at a tender age. It's also said to be a retelling of the early life of 15th century Japanese ink artist and Zen Buddhist priest, Sesshu Toyo.

Perhaps I find myself thinking about this tale these days because we have a new kitten and there's suddenly a lot of hissing and scratching going on in our house. This tea-cup sized baby orange tabby is engaging in battles with our elderly cat, feathered toys, and our fingers and toes late at night, when we least expect it.

Today, I see in this story even more meaning: Being true to ourselves is the best path, even when it is confusing, or causes problems. Listen to the wise ones, and hold their sometimes puzzling words close. Trust that who we are is exactly who we need to be. This is the time-honored way to triumph over our demons, and fulfill our hidden dreams.

Illustration by Gordon Laite