Er-Down-Under, Er-Up-Atop and other great characters

Before I put it back on the shelf, I have to pass on a few more quotes from Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, which is set in the early years of the twentieth century in the small Cotswold village of Slad. Lee’s book features many wonderful passages and some outstanding examples of characterisation.

My first passage has the little Laurie reflecting on the time when he was banned from his mother’s bed due to the arrival of a younger sibling. Having been led to believe that the exile would only be of a temporary nature, he complains:

I was never recalled to my Mother’s bed again. It was my first betrayal, my first dose of ageing hardness, my first lesson in the gentle, merciless rejection of women. … I grew a little tougher, a little colder, and turned my attention more towards the outside world …

‘The gentle, merciless rejection of women’ – which man hasn’t experienced it at some stage in his life?

In another, less traumatic scene, Laurie, having grown up a bit by now, is playing the violin, primarily, as we find out, for his mother:

… old and tired though she was, her eyes were a girl’s, and it was for looks such as these that I played.

Here is Lee writing about trivial old rain:

Water was the most active thing in the valley, arriving in the long rains from Wales. It would drip all day from clouds and trees, from roofs and eaves and noses.

But it’s the brilliant characterisation, which, more than anything else, makes Lee’s memoir such an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Cabbage-Stump Charlie was our local bruiser – a violent, gaitered, gaunt-faced pigman, who lived only for his sows and for fighting. He was a nourisher of quarrels, as some men are of plants, growing them from nothing by the heat of belligerence and watering them daily with blood. He would set out each evening, armed with his cabbage-stalk, ready to strike down the first man he saw.

And then there is the Prospect Smiler, ‘a manic farmer’:

Few men I think can have been as unfortunate as he; for on the one hand he was a melancholic with a loathing for mankind, on the other, some paralysis had twisted his mouth into a permanent and radiant smile. So everyone he met, being warmed by his smile, would shout him a happy greeting. And beaming upon them with his sunny face he would curse them all to hell.

We also meet the Grannies Trill and Wallon, strong characters both of them and the bitterest of enemies, who only ‘refer to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”’.

Granny Wallon ‘made wine as though demented, out of anything at all’, wine that was readily imbibed by the Lee family to dramatic effect. For, having drunk from it, ‘a curious rocking would seize the head; tides rose from our feet like a fever, the kitchen walls began to shudder and shift, and we all fell in love with each other’.

About Granny Trill, on the other hand, we learn that her ‘time was for God, or the birds, [for] although she had a clock she kept it simply for the tick, its hands having dropped off years ago’.

On a less quirky note, we encounter the lovely old couple Joseph and Hannah Brown, who

did nothing more than was necessary to live, but did it fondly, with skill – then sat together in their clock-ticking kitchen enjoying their half-century of silence.

You don’t often meet characters as brilliantly drawn as these, but then this is a memoir, not a novel. Perhaps it is true that life itself writes the best stories.

Best Reads 2013. VIII: Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of LoveThis is one of the lesser known books by the late Dutch Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, best remembered perhaps for books such as The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Wounded Healer. In the former, he briefly talks about giving up his distinguished academic career in order to work with people with mental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. In The Inner Voice of Love, Nouwen reveals that, during his time at L’Arche, he suffered a severe breakdown lasting about six months, a period he describes as the most difficult time of his life. It was, he says, ‘a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life’.

I felt that God had abandoned me. … The anguish completely paralysed me. I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. I could not be reached by consoling words or arguments. I no longer had any interest in other people’s problems. I lost all appetite for food and could not appreciate the beauty of music, art, or even nature. All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.

The breakdown was triggered by the loss of a close friendship, which Nouwen describes in moving terms:

Going to L’Arche and living with very vulnerable people, I had gradually let go of many of my inner guards and opened my heart more fully to others. Among my many friends, one had been able to touch me in a way I had never been touched before. Our friendship encouraged me to allow myself to be loved and cared for with greater trust and confidence. It was a totally new experience for me, and it brought immense joy and peace. It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.

When that friendship came to an end, Nouwen ‘lived through an agony that never seemed to end’. But, he says, he never lost the ability to write. Indeed, writing became part of his ‘struggle for survival’, and so he kept a secret journal, which was to be published years later as The Inner Voice of Love.

In this book, Nouwen describes how the loss of that friendship ultimately deepened his love of God, and how his suffering taught him compassion for others. There are many profound insights in these reflections on issues such as wounds and pain, friendship, love and compassion, God and spirituality, loneliness and transformation, the body, emotions and incarnation, community and living up to one’s calling.

The following quotes, offered without further comment and presented simply in the order in which they appear, give an illustration of the richness of Nouwen’s thought:

… those who seem to reject you … never speak about you. They speak about their own limitations. … They simply ask for your compassion.

Your willingness to let go of your desire to control your life reveals a certain trust. The more you relinquish your stubborn need to maintain power, the more you will get in touch with the One who has the power to heal and guide you. … As long as you run from where you are and distract yourself, you cannot fully let yourself be healed.

It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there.

When your deepest self is connected with the deepest self of another, that person’s absence may be painful, but it will lead you to a profound communion with the person, because loving each other is loving in God. When the place where God dwells in you is intimately connected with the place where God dwells in the other, the absence of the other person is not destructive. On the contrary, it will challenge you to enter more deeply into communion with God, the source of all unity and communion among people.

There is a real pain in your heart, a pain that truly belongs to you. You know now that you cannot avoid, ignore, or repress it. It is this pain that reveals to you how you are called to live in solidarity with the broken human race.

… real healing comes from realising that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain. That realisation allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.

The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them …

It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move towards the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

There is much in this book, which I discovered quite by chance and only recently, that I can relate to in deep and profound ways. Nouwen’s journey from anguish to freedom is also one from hurt and pain to love and compassion, and that goal of a loving and compassionate life, while not making the hurt and pain any easier to endure, can give deep meaning to our struggles.

Love deeply

Do not hesitate to love and to love deeply. You might be afraid of the pain that deep love can cause. When those you love deeply reject you, leave you, or die, your heart will be broken. But that should not hold you back from loving deeply. The pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. … Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom