The Virgin Blue, by Tracy Chevalier, is a curious and thoughtful book, and a bit of a category-defying one, about how religion affects two different women, distantly related, and how the conflicts about religion play out in the society around them. It bills itself on the back cover as “part detective story, part historical fiction,” but that is a bit of a misnomer. The historical fiction part isn’t about a famous person, as most historical fictions are traditionally–but maybe that’s a good thing, as in the huge five-volume non-fiction compendium called The History of Private Life, who knows? At any rate, Ella Turner, who pursues her family history in alternate chapters, eventually manages to “touch base” through time with her distant ancestress, Isabelle du Moulin, while living in France with her own husband, and getting to know the French people and the French countryside.
The book is a sort of a mystery as well, and a love story, because not only must Ella accept and come to terms with a large degree of loss in terms of history, but she also falls in love while in France (spoiler alert) with someone other than her husband, and this has certain consequences.
The two women’s stories shadow and reflect upon each other’s conflicts, Isabelle’s as a Huguenot in changing France, hunted by Catholic enemies, accepting a far less than perfect life with a brutal husband, and Ella’s, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to value her or appreciate her differences, but gives her the famous French cold shoulder.
Actually, to say that the two women’s stories are similar is an understatement, because some of the same sensations, exact experiences, and thoughts occur to the two of them in a sort of spooky and extra-sensory fashion, as if Isabelle were speaking to her descendant from the grave. And the grave is concerned in more than one way, though I won’t give that matter away.
A lot of men might think that this is a book mostly for women, but merely because it has a female character in the lead (who is also a midwife) and deals with some haunting and emotional experiences are not reasons to dismiss it as not fit to read for half of the human race. In fact, a lot of men might be improved by a reading of this book, in the sense that they might become more sensitized to some of the ways women think of and process historical data, the more personal way some women choose to interpret data, and the like.
And the picture of a contemporary small French town is yet another reason to reach for this book. Like small towns everywhere, these are gossipy, close-knit, and somewhat homogenous, but loveable in a lot of their characteristics, as Ella comes to find. I hope you will pick up this book soon and enjoy it as much as I did. For additional reading by this author, you might pick up Girl With a Pearl Earring or Falling Angels.
It sometimes happens that I am sitting alone, after having worked at something non-verbal all day, and I suddenly am taken with a feeling of sadness, not quite loneliness, but a need to reach out for words, expressions, little nuggets of language to register where I am now. Not where I am in reference to location, of course, though that could work too on another day, but where in the aether I am finding my bearings, by writing. This is a poem about that:
A Need for Words
There is a need for words, sometimes, you know,
Though much of our life is set against this notion;
We suppose that all is said and done entire
When we have fully experienced the emotion.
Yet, the feeling so overwhelms and overstays
That still the controlling touches of noun and verb
And even the adjective, adverb, preposition,
Can help us the agony to restrain and curb.
Even consummated love, in it eager grasp
Can belittle or besmirch our human drive
To be in charge of what affects so nearly
The dearly bought hour which helps keep us alive.
For, we are too willing often to admit
That love itself is a part of our life force,
And yet, to express all the back and forth and doubt
We rely on only more contact with the source.
And just like romantic love, the other relations
Of our days, the ones we think of as commonplace things
Sometimes defy us in their developments,
So then, we are left with all uncertainty brings.
But to put a thing in words, you must have an idea,
A thought, a pondering, a hint as to how it works,
Thus your words themselves can then become your guidelines
As to just where in the whole event your problem lurks.
Therefore, let me not forget my main resource now,
At a point when I am bewildered and afraid,
Let me always remember how to spin neat phrases,
To reward, spout love, construct theories, or upbraid.
And as for that man, our dear La Rochefoucauld
Who said, “Our words are meant to conceal our thoughts,”
He’s only just one of many subtle thinkers
Who can show how to tie an enemy in knots!
©by Victoria L. Bennett, 8/13/2019
There are times when I go to my bookshelf without an idea in my head about what I want to read, and different processes by which I select one. This time, it was almost a sense of obligation that caused me to choose the book, which had sat in my collection for at least 20 years without being touched, even with a little curiosity. It was a little, old, regular-sized paperback, with extremely brittle and yellowed pages (because it was printed on non-acid-free paper), and the marketing, which is often a large part of a book’s appeal, was as dated as the condition of the book. I look now at the publication date (1948) and the printing dates listed (1961-1965), and am not surprised. Though it quite clearly says in small letters on the back in one of the reviews that it’s a satire, the front cover and other, written parts of the book bill it as a historical fiction, even “a lusty historical novel by one of history’s most illustrious story-tellers.” I guess it’s a case of “you pays your money, you takes your choice,” depending upon the sophistication of the reader involved. Having a certain amount of pride in my own degree of sophistication, I like to look past the evocative, haughty stare of the beautiful and expensively dressed “dona” on the front cover (Catalina herself, in the illustrator’s imagination, evidently in the latter parts of the book, after she has acquired some money), and the promise of Maugham telling “movingly of 16th century Spain with all its turbulence and pageantry, and intrigue of courts and clergy,” and the Inquisition, and etc., to the fact itself, that he is clearly telling of these things with a satirist’s manner and seeing through satirical lenses, however good-natured he is.
And this is the point: we are used to reading satire that is bitter in tone, angry even, with pointed queries and sharp rejoinders in the dialogue, sometimes satire that is almost an ill-tempered chuckle a minute. Maugham is none of that in this book. We are familiar with him as the acclaimed author of such books as The Razor’s Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, Of Human Bondage. Though Catalina is by comparison with these a minor work, it deserves a place no less in the writer’s Hall of Fame, and is a good satire to boot, though in this regard, it almost sneaks up on you at first. To begin at the beginning:
Catalina is introduced to us as a young woman of 16 or so who clearly needs a miracle. She wants to marry her erstwhile suitor, Diego, the son of a poor tailor, but she has since the inception of his interest in her been accidentally trampled by a bull and is lame. His parents will no longer allow him to marry her, because they reason that a lame wife cannot help him in the household. So Catalina is heartbroken, and prays relentlessly to the Virgin to help her be healed. And lo and behold! on a day when a huge pageant is being held à la Inquisition, to welcome Don Blasco de Valero, an Inquisitor, and his brother, Don Manuel, an important captain in the King’s army, to town in the town where their brother Don Martin, an apparently unimportant baker, lives, the miracle begins to happen. The Virgin appears to Catalina where she sits with her crutch on the steps of the church, and promises her that “The son of Juan Suarez de Valero who has best served God has it in his power to heal you. He will lay his hands upon you and in the name of the Father, the Song and the Holy Ghost, bid you throw away your crutch and walk.” So far so good.
But the rub comes in when it’s a choice amongst the brothers. In a richly satiric section which comments upon the mercy and grace of the Inquisitor (who grants small favors to those whom he is about to have tortured or burned), it becomes obvious that everyone who hears of the Virgin’s promise–if they aren’t assuming that Catalina was visited by a demon in the shape of the Virgin–thinks automatically that the Inquisitor is the man being referred to. They are all afraid to speak of the sighting of the Virgin, because just as God is said to be a jealous God, the Inquisitors are typically jealous of their own special province, and don’t usually respond kindly to people who claim to have experienced miracles, even some of their own clergy. When Don Blasco hears of this miracle, through many channels, he asks God for a sign. In front of some of his own friars, he is levitated in the church by mysterious means, and that God might be a satirist does not, of course, occur to anyone. But when Don Blasco attempts to heal Catalina, it doesn’t work. With some fraught humility, he and his society question Catalina, and find that after all, the Virgin did not identify Don Blasco specifically in her visit, but only mentioned the brothers as a group. So, the town next asks the military brother, Don Manuel, to try. Again, it doesn’t work. They are ready to asssume that Catalina has been visited by an evil spirit, until it occurs to them, after much difficult thought, that there is a third man, the humble and generous baker, Don Martin. They are loathe to try his powers, but Don Blasco’s friars are visited by Catalina’s drunken playwright of an uncle, a former childhood friend of his, who quotes the religious statement about the stone which was rejected by the builders being the cornerstone of the church. They ignore him, but Don Blasco seems to get the inspiration, and they try the bewildered baker’s hands on Catalina’s head: it works, and she is healed.
The remainder of the story is a sort of spoof saint’s legend, with Catalina as the saint in question (she is emphatically not a saint, because she is a lusty young woman very much in love, who evades a temporarily interfering Prioress’s attempts to make her part of a nunnery, and instead escapes and succeeds in marrying her sweetheart, Diego. They go on to become members of a travelling theatre troupe, and become quite famous by the end of the story, not exactly a fate in line with their contemporary Church teachings). This is particularly the good-humored part of the satire, because it is almost a love story, and yet the occasional whimsical though pointed remark whizzes its way through the fiction like an arrow.
Though I have told the main parts of the story with nary a spoiler alert, it is still well worth a read to see the craftsman Maugham work for yourself. A satire of the Inquisition and the entire hypocrisy of its containing society, this book also inspires generous and loving laughter at the foibles of religious man and his bona fides.
A Record of Birth and Death, and a History of a Community–Anne Lamott’s “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year”
Anne Lamott sneaks up on you, every time she writes. She makes it seem so easy, and she makes you laugh your way through the most serious trials and traumas, yet, as they are usually her own or her friends’ trials and traumas, she only invites you to be amused at yourself and your friends and acquaintances as well, without attempting to force it on you. She gets your attention from the very first, with her whimsical and tantalizing titles. Bird by Bird. Travelling Mercies. Help Thanks Wow. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. This last mentioned book is what I want to comment upon today.
No one who thinks in categories is likely to remain unsurprised by Anne Lamott. She writes from the heart for everyone. She identifies herself as a Christian believer, yet many Christian believers who are of the narrow-minded or even reserved variety would be shocked by the things she says about belief, and about the challenges of life and friendship. She’s a writer’s writer, but one who pooh-poohs many of the accustomed bywords of the profession, and instead captains her own canoe, and tries to teach others to do the same. She is preternaturally wise about people, yet doesn’t mind looking clueless or foolish in the pursuit of raising a child, which for everyone not trained in childcare is a new experience at least the first time, sometimes with every child. And she has been a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, yet without mouthing all of the expected pieties or begging for pity or understanding: she understands herself, and is willing to share the experience of new realizations and inspirations on this and other life challenges. And she is a member of a warm and loving community of friends, to whom she spends a lot of time in Operating Instructions giving due credit for all the things they did for her and helped her with during her pregnancy and her son’s first year. You’d think that all of these things would be a large order for one book to fill, but Lamott manages it all. Indeed, my question to myself wasn’t why I was reading her when I myself have never had a child, live without a large community of friends, have never been an alcoholic or a drug-user, am not a strict Christian believer, and etc.,: my question to myself was why I hadn’t run across her work and read it before now, for the sheer overwhelming qualities of humanity and fellow-feeling in it. Indeed, Lamott herself becomes a new friend through her books, and I only regret that if I manage to read all her works, assuming I can find all the titles and copies, that I won’t be able to hear her wonderful voice resounding through any new works. But then, it’ll be time to re-read the ones I’ve already read!
There is a price to be paid by all of us for being alive, and that is the one of someday having to die as well, whether from old age, or infirmity, or sheer cussedness. In the last third or so of the book about her son, Lamott begins to extend her subject, beyond that of her son and his acceptance into her community of friends and fellow church-goers, who all worship him and seem to adore her, and value her as she should be valued (except for a very few, whose defection she recounts with perplexity and consternation, but also with humor); in the last section of the book, she also documents with love, affection, and sorrow, extreme sorrow, the gradual passing of her friend Pammy (Pamela Murray). Pammy was the most frequent, perhaps, of all Lamott’s friends to be around and to help, and they continued by Lamott’s record to support each other to the very time of Pammy’s death, in 1992 at the age of 37.
How like Lamott to center something with the subtitle A Journal of My Son’s First Year on her son, yet instead of making the book wholly about him and his development, (with a certain amount of misdirection) to place him in the center of what would be his community as he grew up. One appreciates the absence of the gaa-gaa goo-goo kind of baby silliness, and instead the distinct degree to which Lamott admits her lack of expertise at this parent game, and takes the reader along as she herself grows up too, in a sense. And one of the pieces of growing up is to accept and to mourn the loss of a friend, whose cancer took her away from Lamott and her family and friends in an untimely fashion. A life begun, and a life ended, and Anne Lamott negotiating her way in between with her masterly and humane craft.
I have no choice but to read now, as soon as I can locate a copy, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, to continue to follow this small and yet extended-by-friends family through the story of Jax, Anne Lamott’s son Sam’s first son, who came along when Sam was nineteen. That is all I currently know of the book, other than that it was first published in 2012, but I’m hoping to know a lot more. I also hope that you too will follow Lamott through her books about writing, faith, family, and also her fiction books, which are perhaps undeservedly lesser known because so many people (like me) are in love with her essayistic voice. I know that I urge readers to follow certain writers with the “if you read nothing else this year” line so popular with reviewers, so I’ll just say, “Verbum satis” (A word to the wise is sufficient). Don’t miss the opportunity to make a new writer friend.
This is my latest love poem, and I have to say that even though not all of my poems are love poems, I’m beginning to wonder if people are getting tired of my favorite poetic subject, of all my poetic subjects, if they by and large aren’t poetically inclined, if they resent rhyme (as I often use it, and some people consider it out of style), or if they’re even reading my output at all. I still am getting tons of reads of my literary essays, some even all the way back to 2012 when I first started my blog, but it’s rare for people to comment on the poetry, or even give it a “like,” which admittedly is a bit of a lazy technique for comments, though I have occasionally used them when I couldn’t think of what else to say. So, if you are reading, folks out there, don’t feel unequal to the situation, or shy: most poets are flattered even to be read. I can tell by some of my stats that the poetry is less popular, but other stats suggest that some readers are getting to it through “Archives” and the “front page,” as I call it. Let me invite you to read, and have your say.
A Theory of Time After a while, the rope will fray and break That is tied and stretched and tested for love's long sake; Though aeons may pass without apparent change Then on a sudden the atoms will rearrange Themselves, and the threads will fast unweave And the lover's heart, torn and tattered, cease to cleave (Except when "cleave" means to split and to divide, Whereupon the rope then untwines from side to side Rather like two snakes, themselves undoing from acts of love If really that were their destined formation, to be wove.) Rope, quite like the mirror, split from side to side, And Tennyson's curse seems to mock and to deride. Ropes and rivers, and bodies in boats drifting with the tide To Camelot, where the towers spread out wide, And boats are secured, as long as ropes hold true, But boats are just boats, and rue is only rue. For when men and ladies rue what has been done, And time rolls around, intent to spare not one, Then Camelot once again peeks out from time Granting a suffering unwound and sublime. And then threads of love lie loosely on the ground, Quiescent, dependent from the parent round So that all one can say is "It once was in Camelot, And wherever else, and now the bonds are not." For, regal and royal we most of us just fail of, And our Camelots flourish on more quotidian love, Long testings and strivings, so noble and honored and free-- Why, ropes already riven would float us out to sea! So, consider, my love, that I still love and hope, Though for aeons, it seems, I haven't yanked on the rope; But left you at peace, where it seems you want to be, As far as a galaxy, universe, from me.
©4/19/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett
Though some of you may be unacquainted with the term “responsive reading,” many of you will know the form from a church context. It is in form in which the minister, rabbi, imam, or priest speaks certain set lines, and the congregation, when he or she is done, repeats another set line or lines, usually shorter, which seems to sum up or comment upon what the leader said. I decided to try writing a secular poem using this form, even a secular poem which ends with a reference to my very best friend, my cat. Some might feel that this is reductive of the form in a profane way, but I like to think that what comes around goes around, and that as I have also written some poems with God-references and spiritual topics, I’m allowed. So, here is the poem:
How many bright morning are left in the day
‘Ere mornings and evenings and all pass away?
How long shall I linger, how long shall I strive?
How long before I am no longer alive?
And then there falls a long silence.
Though I am still searching for dubious goals,
And most of my best-laid plans have gaping holes,
I yet ponder daily on how to achieve
The things I most want to do before I leave.
And it seems that the sky folds and snickers.
It happened upon a time there was someone
Who made all my days much more easily run;
But then he found other things far more his style,
And left without grieving, but just with a smile.
Love is a mug’s game, through and through.
So, now I prize letters that fall on the mat,
And seek correspondents, and dote on my cat;
And make my dear calico poems on her eyes–
At least to her I need not spout any lies.
Love is salvation, between true companions.
Oh Lucie, oh Lucie, oh Lucie-Minou!
Your eyes are like jade, and your nature’s so true;
I would that all humans were loyal as you,
And smart and quick-witted, and beautiful too!
We all eventually find our own way out.
©4/1/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett
A good many years ago now, when I was an awkward adolescent making timid but determined steps forward in an avocation of being culturally aware, there was a sponsorship group known as the Community Concert Association which made it possible for moderately well-known musical artists, soloists, and dancers or dance troupes to tour our complacent little backwater of a town. Our town would possibly have been omitted from this flattering arrangement if it had been one whit smaller, more rural, or deeper in the surrounding countryside. There was also the fact that it was the county seat, and had a number of professional people from larger areas and more prestigious educational systems living and raising families in what they thought of as a “safe” and unremarkable place. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who, though a widow, thought it important to make such performance viewing opportunities available to me, and so she set aside part of her small income, stretching it enough to cover my attendance at the season of concerts and ballets each year. It was just a taste of intellectual freedom and enjoyment, just enough to set my appetites for more as I grew older. I can still remember sitting in a crowd composed mainly of adult couples up in the balcony, where I had chosen to sit so that I could see better in the crowded high school auditorium. The seats were not ranked according to preferential spots as they are in most performances; it was first-come, first-served, and the balcony meant that I didn’t have to look over heads or miss the echoes of the music that floated up into the overarching ceiling.
I can still remember, and in fact except for a blurred recollection of many a night taken together, one night stands out as the symbolic equivalent of the whole endeavor, which took place during the 1970’s, when the entire area was burgeoning and growing with cultural and monetary progress, which only began to recede again once the mid-80’s were over. But let me concern myself with this one night, which stands out for me as the epitome of grace and accomplishment, though initiated by a failure, of sorts. It’s a shame that I didn’t know at the time just how strongly this impression would stay with me, and that I didn’t preserve the dance program, or remember the male dancer’s name. But perhaps by consecrating his memory in a stray paragraph or two, I have more accurately or feelingly preserved his moments with us on stage, which just dropping a name or a company moniker would not do, as that would only commemorate his gift to us for those who are knowledgeable enough to be acquainted with his or their work, and would neglect to foster awareness of just what he gave to me and others that night for everyone to understand.
The first few performances of the evening were by small ensembles of dancers, round dances and pas de deux and other such exhibitions of talent. And don’t get me wrong, all of those artists, as far as I can recall, were quite accomplished. But they were in no way remarkable each from the other, but were just as good as they were supposed to be. They filled the bill, as it were. Finally, as the last performance of the evening, the single male dancer who was going to dance alone came out to thunderous applause, which was possibly because he was known to be someone more important than the other dancers had been, the troupe’s manager, for example, or possibly because the county audience had more or less had enough for one evening, and was looking forward to the last moments of the night’s performance. He took his place on stage, struck a pose, and waited. And waited. There was a moment’s shrill squawk from backstage, then a tearing sound, then a wail. Still composed, he broke formation, stepped to the side of the curtain, and spoke with someone behind the scenes. We saw, I saw, him hesitate for just a split second before something in his manner seemed to state, “Right. Okay. Well, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that. We’ll have to go ahead.” As it turned out–and as he stepped forward to the footlights to explain to us in broken English heavily accented with Russian, or Slavic overtones–the tape had broken which contained his music. Seemingly unfazed by this, he proposed to us that he would dance without the music. There was a slight murmur from the crowd, presumably because now there was nothing to tap one’s foot to, and such a small-town area as this was not overly fond of male dancers as it was. The immodestly tight tights, and all that. Male friends of mine who were taking lessons in the only dance studio in town had already encountered such prejudices. But from his first leap high in the air, the audience seemed to waver, and change its mind: he was dancing in time to something which he could hear and we couldn’t, quite obviously. We watched him and marveled as he swept and swooped and cast himself upward like a reverse waterfall, and then came down again on both feet, and then started the whole thing all over again, with what seemed like a magical ability to keep pace with some hidden music. And in fact, that’s what he was doing: showing an extraordinary degree of preparation for moments of grace when he could have gone away and protested that someone or something he counted on had failed him. When he was eventually done, he struck a strong, masculine, and thoroughly accomplished pose on stage and let us look at him, the man who could suggest musical tones just by imagining them clearly enough. To my great delight, the audience loved him. When the troupe came out, group by group, he got the largest round of applause; his own troupe applauded him as well.
I hesitate to draw a moral from a tale like this, because it seems preachy and overly goody-goody. Suffice it to say, that when my own Ph.D. instructors told me about what my task in passing a Ph.D. exam ultimately consisted in, and they used the expression “Grace under pressure,” I knew what they meant, whether I can be said to have succeeded in showing it or not. It meant that I was going to have to leap high whether there was any music for me or not, and that the audience expected to be pleased whether or not I was feeling harmonious at the time. I needed to rely, that is, on hearing inner harmonies, and seeking out whatever grace I had come equipped with already.
On a lighter note, I was also privileged to see yet another exhibition of grace under pressure from a beautiful troupe of ballet dancers, mostly female, who were onstage up in Toronto during the time I attended graduate school there. They had been passing round and round on stage in a circle, doing parts of Swan Lake, when suddenly amidst the exhibitions of fluttering tutus and pointing toes there struck a huge clunking noise. The noise itself detracted from the visual elements, though it wasn’t easy to see what had caused it. The ballerinas continued to circle, some dropping out at the wings, some swooshing into the line from the same spots, and all circling close and closer to the front of the stage. Imagine the audience’s surprise when, just as the twelfth or so ballerina bent gracefully over her own toes, she also picked up a huge semi-circular object and carried it out of the round when next she exited! There was some nervous laughter as the watchers realized that the ballerinas had been dancing around a heavy weight which had fallen from the ceiling, which could have struck or tripped up any of them, and yet, since it didn’t, they had chosen the neatest, most audience-friendly way of removing it so that their fellows wouldn’t fall over it. Again, there’s no fail-safe remedy for such moments, such unpredictable moments, but there are people who manage to incorporate the grace notes and arpeggios of chance into their routines, and those people, to my way of thinking, make their own sort of music and sound their own sorts of rhythm for the universe.
We all have moments when we are in tune with something we can’t name, which yet fills us with a nameless sort of confidence and then leaves again before we can get its calling card or take its number down, something which is too busy in the universe to allow any of us to hog it. But we can prepare to greet it on those odd occasions when it walks up, slaps us on the back, gets our suggestions, and makes off again while we run off to tell the other so-and-sos in our life whom we met. As far as I know, the best way of being prepared for it to call again is to celebrate it when it comes, because as we know, everyone likes to hear himself or herself mentioned with approval; and who’s to say that grace isn’t like the rest of us, waiting to be approved of and mollified? In any case, rejoicing is rare enough, and we can all rejoice together when we witness an instant of grace, our own or someone else’s. And together we can hear the music of what was intended for us, even if it sometimes seems, as it sometimes does, that the music has been borne away, the tape rent, the trumpeter silenced. The music is ours, from the time we make it ours until it accompanies us through the final performance, and we strike the last post and wait for applause, the music that, though others may not be able to hear it, we can imagine as we dance, and can set our steps to, all the way to the very end.
©4/21/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett
(P.S. to my readers–This is my essay which was inspired by a reading of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.)