Autobiography

Of fires, bicycles and buffoons (no, of Mother)

Talking about wonderful things, I had completely forgotten just how wonderful Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie really is. Here are some passages in which he talks about his mother …

  • maintaining (or not maintaining) a fire:

… most of Mother’s attention was fixed on the grate, whose fire must never go out. When it threatened to do so she became seized with hysteria, wailing and wringing her hands, pouring on oil and chopping up chairs in a frenzy to keep it alive. In fact it seldom went out completely, though it was very often ill. But Mother nursed it with skill, banking it up every night and blowing hard on the bars every morning. The state of our fire became as important to us as it must have been to a primitive tribe. When it sulked and sank we were filled with dismay; when it blazed all was well with the world; but if – God save us – it went out altogether, then we were clutched by primeval chills. Then it seemed that the very sun had died, that winter had come for ever, that the wolves of the wilderness were gathering near, and that there was no more hope to look for.

  • riding a bicycle:

… she’d borrow Dorothy’s bicycle, though she never quite mastered the machine. Happy enough when the thing was in motion, it was stopping and starting that puzzled her. She had to be launched on her way by running parties of villagers; and to stop she rode into a hedge. With the Stroud Co-op Stores, where she was a registered customer, she had come to a special arrangement. This depended for its success upon a quick ear and timing, and was a beautiful operation to watch. As she coasted downhill towards the shop’s main entrance she would let out one of her screams; an assistant, specially briefed, would tear through the shop, out the side door, and catch her in his arms. He had to be both young and nimble, for if he missed her she piled up by the police-station.

  • as a light-giver:

Our Mother was a buffoon, extravagant and romantic, and was never wholly taken seriously. Yet within her she nourished a delicacy of taste, a sensibility, a brightness of spirit, which though continuously bludgeoned by the cruelties of her luck remained uncrushed and unembittered to the end. Wherever she got it from, God knows – or how she managed to preserve it. But she loved this world and saw it fresh with hopes that never clouded. She was an artist, a light-giver, and an original, and she never for a moment knew it.

To love this world and live in it with hope and as a light-giver – what more can we want?

As I have said before, I adore Lee’s language, which, in the first example, is almost apocalyptic. I also admire his humour (I love the chopping up of chairs just in order to maintain a fire as well as the bicycle episode) and his attitude of gratefulness, which pervades not only the last of these paragraphs but indeed the entire book, making it a truly pleasant read.

Poetry · Spirituality

Playing a game with oneself?

One of my principles for the content of this blog to offer positive, life-affirming thoughts and perspectives. It is no coincidence, therefore, that there is much on love and hope in these posts. Having said that, I do not intend to pretend that every day is ‘a masterpiece’, to quote from Anne Carson’s latest book Red Doc>. Pain, grief and suffering are sadly a reality none of us can avoid, and hope is not always easy to sustain. Some might even struggle with the notion altogether, a perspective that I can relate to as well. It is expressed with characteristic brilliance in Carson’s Red Doc>:

prometheus
I planted blind hope in their hearts
chorus
why

prometheus
they were breaking
chorus
you fool

This dialogue between Prometheus and an ancient Greek chorus not only showcases Carson’s classicist background; it also features a poignant observation about hope, as do the following lines:

AND YET HOPE turns
out to be let’s face it
mostly delusion a word
derived from Latin ludere
meaning ‘to play a game
with oneself or with others’ …

As I said, there are times when this unfortunately does resonate with me, and yet, as Martin Luther King points out, ‘faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just’ (Strength to Love, as quoted before).

Spirituality

Playing the lyre

In one of his sermons in Strength to Love, Martin Luther King mentions George Frederic Watts’s painting ‘Hope’, which depicts a blindfolded woman astride a globe, plucking at her lyre’s remaining single string. G. K. Chesterton once commented that the first thought on anyone seeing it is that it should be called ‘Despair’, but Watts’s painting rather eloquently speaks of hope in despair. With all but one of the strings snapped, the woman, whilst clearly unspeakably sad, continues to play her lyre. She thus evokes an important aspect of the human condition, namely people’s ability, at their lowest point, to sense and feel a single string of hope that keeps them going when all else is failing.

George Frederic Watts, ‘Hope’
George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), ‘Hope’
Spirituality

A shaft of light

We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight – moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are the victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light that shines even in the darkness and ‘the spear of frustration’ is transformed ‘into a shaft of light.’

… God has two lights: a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light to guide us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls.

Faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When one believes this, he knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. He can walk through the dark night with the radiant conviction that all things work together for good for those that love God. Even the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment.

Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love

Biblical Studies · Spirituality

There is no choice then

Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious
or boastful
or arrogant
or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.

Love never ends.

These words from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8) have to be among the most challenging but also the wisest and truest comments ever made about love, true love, that is, love that fully deserves that name.

In ‘Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God’, an essay I have referred to before, Anne Carson offers her own reflections on love, self and God in connection with the mysticism of Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. She notes, rightly, I think, that almost everything that passes as love is little more than self-love.

True love is characterised by patience and kindness. It cares for the Other, whoever that Other may be (love does not discriminate between who is, and isn’t, lovable), and does not insist on its own way. It bears, believes, hopes and endures everything; and it never ends. Now that is a challenge!

Yet, says Paul, I can have all knowledge and understanding, all faith even, but if I ‘do not have love, I am nothing’. There is no choice then, is there? It also is the most worthy of goals.

Spirituality

Hope is a participation in the very life of God

Hope is not logical, but a ‘participation in the very life of God’ (just like faith and love, which were called ‘theological virtues’ as opposed to virtues acquired by practice, temperament, or willpower). That doesn’t mean we should not practice being hopeful, but it is still not a matter of pure willpower. Faith, hope, and love are always somehow a gift – a cooperation with Someone Else, a participation in Something Larger than me.

Richard Rohr, ‘Some Effects of Mystical (“Experiential”) Encounter’ (Richard’s Daily Meditations, 9th March 2013)