The Awakening of Miss Prim

“’My dear Miss Prim,’ he’d said, ‘you may use all the labels you wish, of course you may. All I ask is that you don’t use the kind that glow in the dark. I don’t have anything against coloured labels, nothing at all, but I don’t think the sermons of St Bonaventure should be catalogued in lime green, or the works of Virgil in fluorescent pink.’”

I expected Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim to be a light, fun read of a book-loving woman falling in love with her eccentric employer. I didn’t expect it to contain deeper thoughts on education, marriage, and faith, or to be, in essence, a conversion story.

When Prudencia Prim takes a job as private librarian to a gentleman in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois, she is unaware that she has taken the first step in turning her life upside down. An intelligent, orderly woman, a lover of beauty and of what she terms “delicacy”, Miss Prim likes to think she was “born at the wrong time and in the wrong place”.

She tells her employer, The Man in the Wingchair, after she has been in San Ireneo for a while, “’I used to think I possessed a sensibility from another century. I was convinced I’d been born at the wrong time and that that was why vulgarity, ugliness, lack of delicacy all bothered me so much. I thought I was longing for a beauty that no longer existed, from an era that one fine day bade us farewell and disappeared.’

‘And now?’

‘Now I’m working for someone who effectively lives immersed in another century, and it’s made me realise that that was not what my problem was.’”

Miss Prim’s real problem, as the book makes clear, is her modern, secular mindset. With a premise like that, one would be forgiven for thinking that The Awakening of Miss Prim was an example of the mediocre kind of modern Christian fiction, rather than something that is, in fact, published in the mainstream market. To its credit, however, its spiritual elements feel integral to the story rather than being forced or garish.

Overall, the quality of writing was good, although I felt that the story sometimes lacked internal coherence, and I would have made some changes to the conclusion. That being said, Miss Prim was a fun, absorbing read, and satisfying too because of its serious treatment of things that matter.

In an interview with Foyles, Fenollera said the following:

“I wanted to write about two very different manners of seeing the world – from the viewpoints of tradition and modernity – and about the adventure entailed in asking oneself questions and looking for answers, searching for searching for [sic] truth, goodness and beauty.”

I think she did a good job of that, and I’d recommend The Awakening of Miss Prim as a delightful and enriching read. I’ll let The Man in the Wingchair have the final word (as he so likes doing):

“’Dostoyevsky, Prudencia? Dostoyevsky? If I were you, I’d start worrying.’”

Advertisements

Parable and Paradox

Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the Saying of Jesus and Other Poems, is Malcolm Guite’s latest collection of poetry. As he did in Sounding the Seasons, Guite uses the Bible as a springboard for many of his poems, and as the title suggests, in this case it is Christ’s words, such as his “I AM’s” and his “hard sayings”, that form the basis of his poetic reflections here.

“When it comes to hearing the words of Jesus, our great problem is over familiarity”, Guite writes in his preface, and in his poems on Christ’s sayings, he intends, as he writes in one sonnet, to “peel aside the thin familiar film” and help us feel the force of Christ’s words again.

Guite does this both in beautifully comforting poems such as “Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled” (which you can read here) and in challenging ones like “A Sword”, which begins “Oh, you have come indeed to send a sword/We feel it in the keening grief that cuts/Through kinship, blood, and culture.”

The collection also includes some wider-ranging pieces (akin to those found in his The Singing Bowl) where Guite celebrates themes such as nature, wordplay, and—yes—decay (in which latter he praises the “old and mouldering” in the face of “the shiny new,/Persistent plastic choking out our life”).

As in his previous collections, I appreciate Guite’s spiritual insight, the beauty of his language, and his commitment—for the most part—to using poetic forms rather than free verse. Two of my favourite couplets show off his skill:

 

“Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.”

 

And

 

“For longing is the veil of satisfaction,

And grief the veil of future happiness.”

 

 

Let me finish with one of my favourite poems, which is a sequence of seven roundels mirroring the seven days of creation, while also tying in the theme of each day with the story of our lives now. The first, deeply satisfying, roundel begins

 

“Let there be light as I begin this day,

To draw me from the darkness and the night,

To bless my flesh, to clear and show the way,

Let there be light.”

 

Amen.

The Little Prince

A pilot who finds himself stranded in the Sahara encounters a little prince from a distant star who asks him to draw him a picture of a sheep. This is the premise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s exquisite story The Little Prince, translated by Katherine Woods.

I remember that we had a copy of The Little Prince years and years ago. I remember looking at it, and perhaps I read it. If so, however, I’d long forgotten the story. But I don’t regret not having my first meaningful encounter with it until adulthood: while ostensibly a story for children, its depths can perhaps be better appreciated when one is older.

To say that it’s a book that highlights what’s truly important in life, and that what is truly important is to love others and to be a giver rather than a taker in relationships, is a simplification, and also runs the risk of making this delightfully wise piece of fantasy sound moralistic. And as the narrator himself says, “I do not much like to take the tone of a moralist”. But yet, this little story (or “parable”, as the blurb on the back of my book calls it), is a gem for its insights into life as much as it is for its humorous and touching narrative.

Here are some favourite quotes.

“I myself own a flower,” [the little prince tells a businessman who is absorbed in counting stars] “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week … It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars…”.

The fox: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“’What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…’”.

And last of all, and so beautiful:

“’All men have stars,’ [the little prince] answered, ‘but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they are wealth. But all these stars are silent. You—you alone—will have the stars as no one else has them—‘

‘What are you trying to say?’

‘In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night… You—only you—will have stars that can laugh!’”

A talking fox. Stars that can laugh. A hidden well. And a puzzling, but charming little prince. What are you waiting for?

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

 

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.

Inside of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

I visited Cambridge for the first time in Easter 2014, with SJ as my sidekick. While of the two quintessential university cities it’s Oxford that has my heart, I have perhaps never been so enraptured with a building as I was with King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, which surely is a poem in stone and glass. In this sonnet, Wordsworth captures a little of that beauty, and reminds us to make our art the best it can be, to give it all we can.

 

Tax not the royal Saint with vain expense,

With ill-matched aims the Architect who planned—

Albeit labouring for a scanty band

Of white-robed Scholars only—this immense

And glorious Work of fine intelligence!

Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore

Of nicely-calculated less or more;

So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense

These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof

Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,

Where light and shade repose, where music dwells

Lingering—and wandering on as loth to die;

Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof

That they were born for immortality.

Paper Memories

The dining room table has been loaded with boxes of letters this week: letters from years ago, decades ago that have been unearthed from our loft. Most of them are Mum’s, but as she sorts through them, she picks out any addressed to me. I already have most of my own letters, of course, in the pine chest in my bedroom, but she discovers a few of mine mixed in with hers.

I sift through these pieces of my past. There’s a handful of birth cards, in which pink features predominantly. “A Baby GIRL!””, one proclaims, while another begins “To Welcome Your Daughter.” There’s even a telegram my aunt sent—to think that I was born in the days when people sent telegrams! My younger brothers had never seen one until I showed it to them.

I don’t know most of these people, though, so I am less interested in the birth cards than I am in a few more personal items. There’s a letter my grandmother wrote when I was three years old. She included some photos of me from a recent visit I’d paid. In one of them I give a small, shy smile as I stand on a chair drying a plate with a tea towel. My hair is quite short and looks, perhaps, a little unusual. It must have been taken after I had cut my hair, Mum points out. I remember the hair-cutting incident, although I don’t remember my visit to my grandparents. “Won’t Dad be surprised to see you drying the dishes for Granny?”, my grandmother wrote.

There’s also a letter my dad wrote me when I was almost six. He was away, and apparently I had sent him a letter and a picture. “I really liked your little letter and picture—once I could find it in the envelope”, he wrote. I must have sent a tiny missive or a huge envelope, or both. “I love and miss you very much,” he finished. I don’t remember getting this letter either, but now? It’s something special to have and to keep.

As we rediscovered these mementos from the past, it made me think again about how meaningful it is to have real, physical letters that last. Will we be able to look back on old tweets, Facebook messages, or even emails in twenty or thirty years’ time? And even if we can, we’ll be missing something of the writer’s character that we can find in a handwritten message—the handwriting, the choice of card or paper, adds a layer of meaning and personal interest that pixels just can’t mimic.

“If I get a guy,” I announce to Mum, “I’m going to make him write letters to me.”

As I Am

He’s not here to assess me, like my boss was the other week—reading my lesson plan, observing how I interacted with my students, noting my manner and appearance. He won’t sit down with me later to discuss the positives and negatives of my performance.

He doesn’t care about my past. The foolish decisions. The wasted years. My sins and my shames. My frighteningly long list of misdeeds could be much, much longer and it would make no difference to him.

He doesn’t mind that I’m not pretty. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to notice my glasses or my spots. Other women and girls in this light-filled hall have smoother skin, glossier hair, brighter eyes than I have, but in this moment he has eyes only for me.

Yet he has no idea who I am. I don’t suppose he remembers the last time we saw each other, but even if he did, he would be none the wiser as to my actual identity. Distant relation? Long-lost family friend? Neighbour? No such questions disturb his tranquillity.

Oh, I could be anyone, I could have done anything, and he wouldn’t care. All that matters to him is that this woman who’s holding him is smiling at him. I lean in, and he peers back, and we’re forehead-to-forehead, so close that I can no longer focus on the big brown eyes that I can’t see without adoring. We pull back, and he grins at me—the sort of beam a five-year-old might give after tearing off the wrapping paper and discovering a long-wished-for toy inside. All I’ve done is smile (with a funny face now and again for good measure) and lean into those eyes, and he’s delighted.

And me? I’m basking, joyful, in a nine-month-old’s smile.

Caretakers of the Past

We’re over halfway through August already. A few days ago, I noticed that there were some leaves scattered on the ground underneath the large tree near the top of our lawn. That particular tree does shake off its leaves in rather more of a hurry than more sedate trees tend to do, but still, it made me realise that we’re on the downhill of the year. Where has it gone?

Before I began writing this, I dipped into a handful of posts that I’d written here over the last two years or so. Looking at them again, I was grateful for the memories I’d recorded: roses, a rainbow, strangers on trains with books. Things too easily forgotten in the blur of life. And I was grateful for the thoughts that I’d shared about books I’d read—glad that I’d taken the time to process my thoughts rather than simply rushing on to the next thing.

I wrote a little piece about Bro5 for my creative writing class at the beginning of the year. I didn’t publish it on my blog, but re-reading it today after all these months, I was thankful to have stored away that that sketch of him as he is now, since it is not him as he will be in five or ten years’ time. I wish I’d written more pieces like that. Although I love him as he is, and although I’ll love him as he will be, I also loved him as he was. What a treasure it would have been to have had those vignettes of his three-year-old self and his six-year-old self too. There’s so much I’ve forgotten.

Time really does go by so fast. I can’t hold my days hostage, but if I can use words to sketch a face here, a form there, as they glide past, I’ll be able to retain something of their beauty long after they themselves have departed.

Don’t trust what you love to that traitor, memory. Words are more faithful caretakers. Entrust a little to your pen or your keyboard—a happy day, an answered prayer, an amusing story—and I think that, like me, you’ll be glad that you did.

This is the Land the Sunset Washes

Have you ever read any of Emily Dickinson’s nature poetry? I love how Dickinson unites vivid imagery, striking personification, and economy of words, and how she captures the beauty and wonder of the world. Just look at these wonderful sunrise and sunset poems.

LXXIII

I ’LL tell you how the sun rose,—

A ribbon at a time.

The steeples swam in amethyst,

The news like squirrels ran.

 

The hills untied their bonnets,

The bobolinks begun.

Then I said softly to myself,

“That must have been the sun!”

 

But how he set, I know not.

There seemed a purple stile

Which little yellow boys and girls

Were climbing all the while

 

Till when they reached the other side,

A dominie in gray

Put gently up the evening bars,

And led the flock away.

 

XLIII 

BLAZING in gold and quenching in purple,

Leaping like leopards to the sky,

Then at the feet of the old horizon

Laying her spotted face, to die;

 

Stooping as low as the kitchen window,

Touching the roof and tinting the barn,

Kissing her bonnet to the meadow,—

And the juggler of day is gone!

 

LXIV 

THIS is the land the sunset washes,

These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;

Where it rose, or whither it rushes,

These are the western mystery!

 

Night after night her purple traffic

Strews the landing with opal bales;

Merchantmen poise upon horizons,

Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.