Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Less Pleased you than the Stars?

The Ancient Celts had some strange ideas. However, strange is not necessarily bad, and value does not usually depreciate with age, so perhaps we should look at and evaluate one of the more important of their beliefs. For you, and maybe for me as well, time is linear. After all, you get up in the morning, have some food, go to work, come home and go to bed... that’s pretty linear. So is it that you are born, you get old and then you die. 

However, some things seem to be more circular; this December 14th was cold, wet and it got dark early. I’m not a great one for telling the future, but I fully expect next December 14th to be pretty similar. Years and days do have this circular, repeatable function. To the ancient Celts, time did not move in straight lines at all, rather in circular coils; December 14th (not that they would have called it by that name) was a point that was revisited once every 365 days. It’s a bit like a roundabout in a park. If you sit on the roundabout and it starts to move, you begin to see the same things come round each time; trees and buildings will come up every time you go by. Of course, seeing a tree from a roundabout once and then once again, does not indicate that the tree has changed position at all. Obviously the tree is changing too; moving in the wind, shedding leaves, growing and eventually dying ~ remember you are on a coil, not just a circle ~ you move around as well as along.

You can see how the Celts came to this idea of thinking that life is just a big roundabout, and you get on as a baby and fall off when you die. If you are lucky, you get to pass the same points many times before leaving the fairground, and for some of the time, others come and sit beside you for the ride.

We can easily embrace the idea of a coil of time by just thinking of it in the same way that we think about place. If the house where you were brought up still exists and you were to visit it, you would not expect things to be the same; d├ęcor, gardens, people and sounds might have changed, but you would still think of it as being essentially the same place. Is it much harder to think of the current year as being the same as the one just gone? This Christmas might be different from last Christmas but are you sure they are not just the same in essentials, with different weather, events, people and sounds? Some Christmases may seem very different; that person riding on the roundabout is no longer there next to you; we never know what is waiting for us with the next rotation.

It is the winter of 1871. On December the 14th, many things are happening. The house in which I am now writing is still new and its first family of inhabitants is getting ready to celebrate Christmas. But my mind is not here; that's to say, it is here in time, but not in place. I am in London and it is, as you might guess, a cold and damp evening. A gust of wind blows dozens of wet and browning leaves past me and I suddenly feel a chill and want to be out of this wet and windy weather. I turn to find myself in a room lit by two oil lamps. Yes – this is who I wanted to see ~ step with me for a while...

To suffer from SAD is a good start to understanding Christina Rossetti. And here and now, Christina sits at a small writing desk lit by one of the lamps. Despite being of Italian descent, she looks very pale, almost anaemic, and her eyes are red ~ either from crying or from working too late by this poor light. She seems to be about forty years old and is instantly recognisable from her brother’s paintings. She looks thin, wan and fragile. I look over her shoulder at what she is writing. I try to be quiet, but I doubt that she has any awareness of me; Oh yes! I have got the precise moment that I had hoped for; I squint my eyes as I read her delicate, beautiful handwriting in the yellow flickering light;

In the bleak mid-winter frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter long ago..

I look up into her face and try and understand her; sad eyes, mouth tightly closed, cheeks drawn in. Oh Christina, is it so bad? Is life always going to be as bleak for you as that midwinter you wrote of? I have a great need to comfort her, to run back to my own years and bring her my light box and a handful of St. John’s Wort tablets, I want to give her a comforting hug and tell her that she is not alone and that tens of thousands will love her for her work, but I can’t do these things. It doesn't work like that. I am no time traveller, just a wistful winter wanderer. I watch her for a while and eventually she leaves her little writing desk and takes herself to an armchair. I am trying to stay with her...

Christina, you have lost your lovers before, and you will lose those to come, very soon you will be diagnosed with Graves Disease. Later your depression will deepen and you will die, lonely and broken hearted, of breast cancer, having undergone some awful and vicious Victorian surgical technique; yours is to be a life of pain and loss. We never know what is waiting for us on the next turn of the roundabout or perhaps you had a better idea than many. The room, and Christina with it, fade into the dark and damp night..I have lost her.

I still remember singing her words at school in those long dark days leading up to Christmas. ‘In the bleak midwinter’; then I did not fully realise the meaning of the word 'bleak' but now I am fully aware of its accuracy when placed before the word midwinter.

We are about to break up for the holidays. I stand praying ~ it is the end of the day. Miss Maskell has told us to put our chairs up on tables for the cleaners and we now stand by them. To pray, as a six year old, is to hold your hands flat together, fingers close to one another ~ I press so hard that my hands are beginning to turn white while I try I think of Jesus. Miss Maskell has told us that Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the Earth. I was not sure what being meek meant exactly, (nor what inherit was) but I was sure that I was meek and that Jesus was on my side against the bullies, the thugs and the cruel adults that seemed to fill my life. My eyes were tight closed but I opened them in that way children do, looking through my eyelashes and believing that no adult could tell that I was looking out at the world. At once I saw a star, cut out of green metallic paper and stuck to a window pane by Miss Maskell ~ that star is still with me in my mind. Is it the star of David or the star that guided the Magi? Is it that star that still catches my eye occasionally when life takes a sudden and unexpected pause, when the roundabout stops just for a brief moment? At such times it is curious that her handmade attempt to brighten a tawdry dark classroom with a small piece of green metallic paper and a pair of scissors should fill my mind, but it does, often.

Did you ever marry and have children Miss Maskell, or did you spend your life looking after the children of others? Miss Maskell, are you still here, on the roundabout, do you still live with us or were you carried away like Christina, broken down, depressed and ill? I hope not ~ you were one of the few adults of my childhood that I look back on with fondness. It would be wrong to say that you treated me with kindness. That was not the way in those days ~ but you did treat me, all of us, with fairness and consideration ~ that was important. You listened. It was you that first read me ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. I remember you for your huge pleated skirts, for your unflattering glasses, your pale and blotchy face and your star making ~ you made the star that gave me the first religious experience of my life and I love you for it. God bless you wherever you are.

And what did you think of me, that skinny sickly looking boy who asked you silly questions like ‘what does meek mean?' Within a few months of that day, the day of the star, I was in hospital ~ for the next six years I was in hospital more often than I was at home ~ my education, and my childhood, was put on ice. Miss Maskell went on to teach other children, for a teacher's life is never linear ~ for them, the coil is made up of new terms, new faces, new exercise books and fresh pages on the register, but it's still the same school year ~ every Christmas a new star on the window. For me, the future was hospital, medication and meekness; I would never see Miss Maskell again after my illness ~ we can’t tell, we never know what is waiting for us on the next turn of the roundabout.

Am I moved by paper stars today? Sometimes perhaps. Am I moved by renaissance religious paintings that hang in the galleries of the worlds greatest cities? Not often ~ religious art does little for me, not all the crucifixions and nativities... except for one painting. A painting not on canvass or on some majestic ceiling, rather on wood. Not an icon, but iconic in its way.

Christina, and Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel, had a good friend called Holman Hunt and on one cold and damp December day, he, sitting in his workshop, finished cutting the stars in the hood of a lamp that he had been working on.

The lamp was in the ‘arts and crafts’ tradition and the stars were designed to cast star shaped light onto the ceiling. It does not look to me to be the world’s most practical lamp, but it does seem the most beautiful. Just a few years later, Holman painted his lamp as held in the hand of Jesus, in his painting ‘The Light of the World’. The original of this painting is on wood and it hangs in Oxford, with a copy to be seen in Manchester. Some years later, in ill health and with some help, he painted a third copy for St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The lamp, complete with stars, is in the hand of Jesus as he knocks upon the door ~ or, as I think, is about to knock on the door as we have come across him in the woods.

The scenery is not the Middle East. It is not Jerusalem. It is Britain and by the look of the dying vegetation and the fallen apples and weedy brambles, it must be December, and a damp and chilly night when the wind has taken the last remaining fruits from the trees. A very British looking squirrel cheekily reaches for one of the fallen apples in the right hand corner of the painting. Jesus himself looks nothing like the Jewish man that we know him to be, but like a Celt! Look at the redness in the beard and the hair. Jesus looks like King Arthur or perhaps a druid. Was Holman familiar with the words of Columba “I do not hold to the voice of birds, or any luck on the earthly world, or chance or a son or a woman. Christ the Son of God is my druid”. . It is the door that is the key to the painting. We don’t know what is behind the door any more than we know what waits for us on the next turn of the roundabout. Whatever was in Holman’s mind when he painted this picture, he encapsulates what the roundabout ride is all about ~ however many times we go around, however many times we pass the same thing, some things are always there for us; the light of the world leading us to the true maker of stars and lanterns, doors and squirrels.

Have you forgotten how you praised both light
And darkness; not embarrassed yet not quite
At ease? And how you said the glare of noon
Less pleased you than the stars? but very soon
You blushed, and seemed to doubt if you were right

Christina Rosetti

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011


'In the Bleak Midwinter' Poem

'In the Bleak Midwinter' Song Video (perhaps not the tune you know best, but the one I sang at school.)

More about Christina Rossetti;

Large copy of  'The Light of the World' on which you can enlage sections (find the squirel)

More about Holman Hunt;

More about Columba;

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Where the Wind Hit Heavy on the Borderline...

I am a borderliner.  I live so close to a border that my cats regularly travel from one country to another by paw... take a look around and then wander back home again. Just taking my children to school and bringing them home every day means I cross the Wales-England border four times! The border is peaceful now but in the Middle Ages it was fought over continuously (my own village changed hands many times), and the Welsh borders had the highest concentration of military castles and forts anywhere in the world!  The border is now between England and Wales, but once it was the border between the Kingdom of Mercia and the Kingdom of Radnor.

You may argue that the border I live on is hardly worthy of the name; it has no wall, it has no fence, neither passports nor visas are required, no checkpoints, no customs.  Yet every time I cross the border I give it some thought. Our local stretch of the border has been marked, since the time of King Offa, by the River Dulas, and today the border can only be crossed by one of the many small bridges that have been built over the centuries.  (You can of course cross the border by getting your feet wet, but that’s not for me, nor my cats.)  We do, of course, have a language difference; a Welsh place name and traffic signs do not let you forget which side of the border you are on. I don’t speak Welsh, but my children are all learning ~ it is an ancient and beautiful tongue.

I don’t come from this part of the world originally, but it has been my home for a little longer than eight years and I feel very ‘at home’ here. It’s the place that I feel more at home in than anywhere else that I have lived, but why is this? Is that because that state of being ‘on the border’ fits me so well? If you too live on a border, any border, perhaps you will know what I mean. Of course living on the border is not the same as ‘living on the edge’ – people that live on the coastline of a country are always fully part of that country – yet those that live on the border are always something strangely different. Living on the edge (in both senses) may be more dangerous, but living on the border is more compromising.

Perhaps being a borderliner means that you never feel that you are fully part of anything; you always feel... not detached, but marginalized. You are at the boundary of the field and can get a good view of what’s happening in the next field –over the hedge. Perhaps being a borderliner means that you can too easily see the flaws in your argument and the good points of another. Overall, being a borderliner means that you are committed to your cause, but you don’t feel that it entitles you to dismiss the cause of another. Borderliners don’t feel that they belong on this side of the border, or that side, they feel that they belong ON the border. Some borderliners don’t actually live on a border at all; they just feel as if they do or, perhaps, if you live in a country that you have adopted, you feel that the border is just around you.

Borders are not only geographical, they are also philosophical. If I look at the descriptions people write about themselves on their blogs, Facebook or Twitter, you can identify those who feel that they need to describe themselves by adding a degree of shading to their beliefs.  People are sometimes reluctant to fit into just one group, or maybe they relish the chance to span more than one. I have listed (alphabetically) just a few of these below;

All religions are roads to the truth
Anglican, somewhat Friendly
Being a Quaker is not a religion, it is a philosophy
Buddhist Quaker
Christian Unitarian
Quagan (Liberal Quaker/Pagan)
Quakerly-inclined Unitarian
Quakers and Unitarians are cool!
Unitarian Universalist with leanings to Judaism

This list could go on and on, but you get the idea; lots of people are natural borderliners! Of course I have not included those that just say ‘Christian’, Baptist, Catholic or Muslim or those that say nothing at all, but perhaps at least some of these others are closet borderliners. I invariably describe myself as ‘Liberal Quaker’ but as a borderliner I realise this is not good enough.  I also feel very drawn to Celtic Christianity, Judaism, Unitarianism, Paganism ~ I might be better off with a Venn diagram and forget a written description altogether! And if you look at my list and spot contradictions of theology then let me tell you I can justify all!

 Look at any map.  You can easily find the borders. They are marked in thick lines, some borders following the course of rivers and mountains, others simply straight lines drawn on a map. Not all borders, it seems, can be seen.  Some borders lie within us; the borders between belief and disbelief, the borders between altruism and selfishness, the border between acceptance and prejudice, the border between compassion and disinterest. How many times a day do you cross these borders, what is your map and where are your bridges?


More about the ancient kingdoms of Britain

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?

The wind really has been hitting heavy on the borderlands this week. Little constructive work other than cleaning up the debris.