Friendship: A Literary Medley

In honour of my friend Sarah, with whom I have been privileged to spend so many happy hours this past week.

The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

P. G. Wodehouse

“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.” 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Oh, the comfort — the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person — having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.

Dinah Craik

We two have had such happy hours together/That my heart melts in me to think of it.

William Wordsworth, “Travelling”

 A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”, can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another”. The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.

C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

 

All the Light We Cannot See

It’s August 1944. The small French town of Saint-Malo is besieged, bombs raining down from the advancing American forces. In the attic of a tall, narrow house, sixteen-year-old Marie-Laure is hiding, clutching the jewel that the Nazi prowling below is so desperate to find, and which she herself, being blind, has never seen. Elsewhere in the town, eighteen-year-old Werner, a German soldier, is trapped underneath the remains of the Hotel of Bees.

Those six days in early August are at the heart of this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Extended flash-backs throughout the story tell the tale of Marie’s and Werner’s respective growing-up years and the way in which, before they ever met, their lives had become connected.

At fourteen, Werner is unexpectedly given the opportunity to attend Schulpforta, a Nazi boarding school. As a talented orphan who is destined to work in the mines that killed his father, he sees this as a way to escape, an opportunity for a brighter future. While at Schulpforta, he becomes friends with Frederick, a quiet bird-lover entirely out of place in such harsh surroundings.

“Do you ever wish that you didn’t have to go back?”, Werner asks Frederick once, while they are enjoying a brief holiday, Frederick still bruised from being beaten up by the boys at the instruction of the commandant.

For Frederick, though, that’s not the question:

“Father needs me to be at Schulpforta. Mother too. It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it matters. I want to be an engineer. And you want to study birds. Be like that American painter in the swamps. Why else do any of this if not to become who we want to be?”

And Frederick replies “Your problem, Werner, is that you still believe you own your life.”

But it is Frederick, not Warner, who—when the boys are taken outside one winter day and given buckets of water to dump over a prisoner tied to a stake in the courtyard—refuses to do it.

As a result, the commandant and the other boys make Frederick’s life one of torment, ending with him being beaten up so badly that, some thirty years later, he still needs to be spoon fed, and spends his time drawing spirals on paper.

But the memory of Frederick’s decision comes back to Werner when he, too, must make a decision in Saint-Malo in 1944:

Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet—I will not—Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down. Werner who watched Volkheimer wade into house after house, the same ravening nightmare occurring over and over and over.

Bolstered by that realisation, he makes his choice too, but if you want to know what that choice is, you’ll have to read the book.

All the Light We Cannot See is a beautifully-written, heart-breaking story. It’s not a book of neat, smiling resolutions. After finishing it last night, I sat in bed and cried.

It’s a poignant reminder of the meaningless loss of human life that war entails. Of the sickening brutality of the Nazis. Of childhood innocence destroyed. These are nightmares that hardly bear thinking about. But there is also the blessed relief of beauty, goodness, and love.  The beauty of the sea, the shells at Marie-Laure’s fingertips.  The tender care of a father for his blind daughter. Courageous decisions and self-sacrifice. It’s a masterfully-crafted book. But be warned: it’s a painful one too.

Village Church

My friend Sarah gave me the prompt “church” for my writing last week, and I decided to go down to the local village church, which has stood there for about eight hundred years (though naturally little of what is there today has survived all that time), and write about what I saw there. I’m not very good at describing what I see, so it was a good discipline for me to sit, observe and write. Needless to say, I hope, description of what one sees does not necessarily equate with endorsement of everything described! That being said, it was a lovely place to write in, with the weight of years of worship hanging over it.

***

I turn the heavy metal handle both ways before the outer door opens. Stepping in, I survey the small foyer and close the door behind me. A spring bouquet is in one corner. There are two boards full of church notices: weekly events, contact details for the vicar, the heartbeat of a village church summed up in pieces of paper. Another, heavier door is in front of me, and grasping its handle in turn, I step in and then push my way through the thick, green velvety curtains. I am inside.

I glance around. It’s empty. Good.  I walk under the ceiling striped by dark wooden beams towards the central aisle, which is flanked by grey stone columns so thick I don’t think I could wrap my arms around them. I make my way down the thin red carpet, my eye catching the bright blue sky visible through the tiny panes of glass in the windows to the left. Spring flowers are on the sill: daffodils in yellow, white, and orange. The sun shines brighter through the windows on the right, but the sky is partially obscured by the tall trees in the graveyard.

The red aisle leads to two stone steps, which in turn lead to the chancel, with its seating for the choir to the left and the right. To one side, a stand-alone cross with a crown of thorns is a clue that Easter hasn’t long passed.  The floor here is tiled in black, red, and creamy-yellow squares. I only notice that later, however, because the focus of the chancel is a chestnut-covered altar with a small cross in the middle, flanked by two candles. What really draws my eye is above and behind that, though: a stained glass window in vivid yellow, blue, red, and purple. The middle picture appears to be of Jesus ascending to heaven, watched by his disciples. There are two larger pictures to the left and right, each of a single man, but I don’t know whom they represent.

I turn and take a seat on one of the low, hard pews—pews covered by innumerable scrapes and gashes, scarred by years of worshippers. My footsteps, and the rustle of my bright orange bag, sound unusually loud. Apart from the ticking of a clock somewhere, there are no other sounds.

I write in silence. To my disappointment, however, the silence doesn’t last long. I hear voices somewhere behind me: two ladies and a small child. The older lady comes to the front. I think she checks the daffodils in the chancel. No, they don’t need watering. We say hello. She leaves.

Silence. The clock ticks. I write. On the wall to my right is a marble plaque in memory of Mr Henry Dench, who died in 1803. Similar plaques line the rest of that wall, and the wall on the other side.

My heart sinks when I hear the door open again. Another elderly lady. She doesn’t see me till she gets to the front of the church, and she gasps when she does. I smile again. Hello. She goes out to the back somewhere and returns carrying a red Henry vacuum cleaner. I’m afraid your silence is going to be disturbed, she says. That’s okay, I reply, but inwardly I sigh. I suppose even little village churches have to be cleaned, but why just now? I wanted the silence.

In the porch, the woman vacuums. Then the hum stops, but she is still there. Her work isn’t done yet. As for me, I know when I’m beaten. I close my notebook and leave the sanctuary for the world, walking into the sunshine and leaving the church standing as it has stood for eight hundred years.