Good grief! This new discipline is positively out of control. Day three and still no signs of being distracted from the task in hand. Or head. Or wherever on earth I’ve got it stashed.
Wednesday. Not wordless for me, I’m afraid. Rather I thought I might devote Wednesday to Wanderings. I thought about making it a day to share walks but decided that, being somewhat discursive by nature, that I would inevitably stray from the path. Wandering, on the other hand gives scope for excursions other than walks – a junket here, a jaunt there, a foray and a forage. Much more pleasing to one as naturally meandering as I.
Words to accompany these expeditions may be many or may be few but I do promise lots of pictures which may or may not please the eye. I’m of the little lauded ‘Myopic Point and Shoot School of Photography’ so be gentle … I don’t profess any excellence, simply enthusiasm.
Today’s little ramble was more than four years ago when I was first living here in Massachusetts. We subsequently returned to France for eighteen months and I commenced my present life here two years ago.
Arriving anywhere in winter gives a naked narrative to the unfamiliar landscape. Nothing is hidden, all is laid bare and it is a season I love for that reason. Three things struck me immediately about this place: the water, the light and the sheer volume of trees. Fortunate since water, trees and light are three abiding succours of my soul.
This set of pictures was taken in the Assabet Wildlife Reserve which is literally on our doorstep. I share them with you for a flavour of what I mean by water, trees and light. This triptych captivated me then and still does now. In winter, they are particularly lovely to my eyes. But in honesty, they are particularly lovely to my eyes in Spring, in Summer and in Autumn also.
Weak rays of sunshine burnish the trees and the water reflects them back at us. One tree is seemingly suspended like a diving acrobat, refusing to succumb to the ground to rot and feed it’s still living compatriots.
Late afternoon light provides a satin lustre to the wetland and the sky silken above deepens as it lights the water beneath
Nature snoozes but never truly sleeps ….
The rosy gleam of the setting sun shimmering on a natural mirror
A long-legged lumber man silhouetted against his eternal landscape
PS: the unavoidable PS: The title is a line from Emily Dickinson’s lovely ‘There’s a certain Slant of Light’. Dickinson was from Massachusetts, born in Amherst, directly west of here. She captures her place quite perfectly.
Such little lives we live if only we would admit it. All of us however fêted. Marking out our pathetic tiny snail trails as we go. Imprinting what we do – good, bad, downright ugly through our little journey. Imagining ourselves important or impotent when in fact neither is probably true.
Stanley Kunitz, born in a place that I ran (or rather more accurately staggered) last Autumn at a time when I thought I would never run again has it right in this poem. I, me, mine … not at all relevant when you equate the microscopic me to the great landscape of time in which we exist. Just let’s protect what we have – we can do our little bit by acting decently, by regarding others with an importance not by dint of their shoes or their achievements or their accumulated wealth but just because. Because they co-exist with us on this planet we all accidentally find ourselves on.
I have indeed walked through many lives. All of them in this skin. And I will not be done and I will not give up hope until I draw my fatal last breath. Never. Not at all. I am many layered and yet simple cored just like you … if we all accept that, the rest is blissfully uncomplicated. I give you this in answer to the weekly photo challenge titled ‘Layered’ of which a delicious gallery of entries you will find here.
I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray. When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings. Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me. In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.
PS: The picture is taken at Vassieux-en-Vercors where people lived and died in a rather more profound way than I can ever begin to imagine.
If you have been with me a little while you may recall that I moved to a rather palatial temporary home in Grenoble in February and that I knew I would have to give it up at the beginning of July. That time has come and in discussion with the local fire brigade, I have conceded that chaining myself to the stunning ornate pillars in the drawing room and refusing to move will simply be undignified, probably messy and not at all couth. A teeny bit reluctantly, therefore, in a few hours I will close the door on this lovely interlude and very soon I will share what happens next. In the meantime though, and given that it is summer and collective thoughts turn to high days and holidays, I thought a little less taxing on you might be to run a series of photographs accompanying poems, prose or lyrics that never fail to snare my heart and noose my soul. Those which effortlessly conjure emotions and tempt my teeny-tiny brain to shimmy into something resembling coherence.
The first offering is this, a picture, taken more than three years ago in the north of le Cantal in the village that was then home and to whence I will head later today before decamping to the south of le Cantal to check on our seemingly endless renovation of a tiny square house.
It seemed then, as now, to evoke this beautiful poem by a favourite amongst of all favourite poets …
He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven
HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
William Butler Yeats
PS: The title comes from Wordsworth’s brilliant definition of poetry that it is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’
…. In fairness, Emily Dickenson was not specific about which mushroom was ‘the elf of plants’ but I like the poem and it fits the moment.
Two Brains, The Bean and I strolling into the square last week were stopped in our tracks by Didier, one of the characters of our village. He is the most delightful and gentle man, reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lennie in both stature and his mode of dress – typically dungarees with a long sleeved collarless vest under and a hat, woollen tea cosy in winter and cotton with a little peak more hunter-worker than baseball in summer. I should be clear that he has tonnes more wit and hopefully is not liable to break necks nor baby animals with over-zealous caresses. He lumbered over towards us gesturing and grinning and delightedly told us that the Girolles (you may know them as Chanterelles) have arrived and exactly where in the masses of forest surrounding us to look for them. Indeed, he reported, one local had bagged 17 kg of the golden lovelies that very morning. Our joy at this sharing was two-fold … in the first instance we happen to love edible fungus and Girolles rate very high on the richter scale of delicious mushrooms, but the more important delight came from the fact that we were being treated to information that would not normally be shared with random strangers. Actually, the information is guarded jealously by locals who prize the flavour at their own tables and make a good profit by selling to restaurants and market stalls and shops …. it made us realise that we are slowly slowly ever so slowly fitting into our community.
Girolles, Chanterelles call them what you want are amongst the nicest fungi to eat. Delicate on the tongue, some say they smell of apricots – I can’t say I quite recognise that, but their colour is spectacular – amber-yellow, on the apricot side of orange, and their shape beauteous … the way the narrow gills flare upwards to the crown, forcing it inside out and the raggedy edges – like a tiny shiny golden shamrock when they first appear and when fully mature like the thinly beaten bell of a primitive hunting horn.
We have picked three bags full between Didier’s sharing of the good news and the writing of this little blog – parsley from our balcony to finish the gently sauteed darlings and then bound in eggy splendour enriched with a dollop of creme fraiche they make for a delicious omelette – the more so for the scrabbling in the woodlands, the sun speckling through the canopy of leaves, the ground slightly damp and the air scented faintly musty.
If we could train only The Bean to seek them out how rich we would be but absent her interest in any such sport, we will content ourselves with the delight of spotting the little elves in moss and grass and the thick carpet of years and years of dead leaves. Later in the week we will stroll into the bar and thank Didier with a drink and a smile.
PS: Remember, there must always be a PS, there are two types of mushroom, Le Fausse Girolle (literally, false Girolle) and Lactaire Orangé Fauve which are easy to confuse with a Chanterelle the first is edible but only when cooked and the second, though not deadly will make you ill if eaten. Alongside a good book and the advice of a local (whom one hopes is neither trying to fool you nor kill you) in France you should take fungus to any pharmacie where they will identify them for you with authority.
Last Tuesday was Mardi Gras – the last day of eating fatly before the Lenton fast. It’s an important day in the calender here, as it is in all Catholic countries – the children dress up and in many towns there is a carnival atmosphere with costumes and fire-works aplenty as well as a healthy dollop of unhealthy gluttony. Mercredi des Cendres (Ash Wednesday) follows and it too is well marked. People attend Church and the Priest marks foreheads or forearms with crosses of blessed ash that come from burning the palms left over from Palm Sunday. The ashen marks should be left to fade naturally rather than washed off. The bells in all the churches ring peels and peels and peels all day long. This is a reminder that they are being ‘cleaned’ in readiness for their journey to Rome to be blessed. The bells (yup every single bell in France) fly on Good Friday night taking with them the grief of those mourning the death of Christ and the following night these Cloche Volant will fly back laden with treats which they will drop into the houses of the good people. No bells will be heard during this period because, quite simply, they are not there and the joy that the people feel when Les Cloches de Paques sing out on Easter morning will prompt many to embrace in the streets. Now before you go where Two Brains went – this is myth … the stuff that I taught my children is a story that is so old that no-one can remember if its true or not. But I hope the cloche in the village remembers that I am partial to a chocolate egg if there happens to be one spare on the night.
It’s fair to say that I am not a Catholic (though as the mother of four daughters, I do know what it is to be riddled with Catholic guilt) and that my relationship to Easter began and ended with the Bunny. Ash Wednesday of course I had a passing nod to, but in reality it was just the day that followed Pancake Day. This year, though, it felt significant. If you will indulge me, I can explain.
In France, schools are divided into three zones (A, B and C). Here in Auvergne we are Zone A. Winter and Spring holidays are staggered so that ski and beach resorts are not all descended on at once. Here in Zone A we were last this time which meant that school broke up on March 1st and will return on March 17th. The significance of this for me is that the Ecole Maternelle, above which I live is silent. The 12 little children whose voices normally provide the sound-track to my day from 9-12 and 1:30-4.30 are absent.
The silence coincided with my husband going away for a month. This is quite normal for us but normal does not necessarily equal easy. So the week started a little melancholy. Mardi Gras passed me by except to note that there was a wake in the Salle de Fete, which you may recall is at the bottom of my drive, within ‘our’ park. About 10 cars bore the mourners. Carrefour supermarket bags bore the food. Black-clad adults chaperoned children-off-school trying visibly to behave with decorum. There was that huddled feeling that tends to accompany a funeral. Mardi-Gras was no-where to be seen. Later that evening, on the phone to Two Brains, he tells me that his assistant (you will meet) had the news that his wife’s only surviving uncle, a fit, healthy man of no great age, had succumbed to a hospital born infection in Florida and they would be flying out to attend the funeral once arrangements had been made. The heaviness was not abating.
On Wednesday, sitting exactly and precisely where I am now, up popped a message from one of my oldest friends. She apologised for being out of touch and explained that her beloved older sister had died quite suddenly on February 3rd. Anna was an actress, vibrant, warm and loving. Her loss, is felt acutely by many and the pain of her sister is absolutely raw and tangible. I had been reading a blog I follow called ‘Wife After Death’ and a post on a different blog about the death of a dog called Dobby – doing that thing that I do when I am sad … making myself even sadder. It rather felt as though death was surrounding my every move and I sat feeling stunned and numb as though I was the bereaved. Which of course I was not.
I messaged back to my friend. And I have written a proper letter because I feel from experience how important those things that you can physically touch as you read, re-read, you can put away in a special place or rip up into tiny pieces and fling in despair and anger, then drench yourself in Catholic guilt and remorse because you haven’t maintained the decorum that the children at the wake mustered. How important something physcial and tangible can be.
So as the sun gathered strength this week (we are basking in an early Spring with temperatures hovering around the 70 and holding our collective breath in the hope that this is not just a flash in the winter pan) I decided that the only decent thing to do is to LIVE this life. To relish this place and to be considerate of those who are grieving by being positive and glad of everything that I have. So I am. Instead of skulking at home I am out and smiling. Because I can, you see. And one day I won’t be able to. That’s the only sure fire certainty in this life. That one day it will end. And given that life is a lottery, I don’t actually have much, if any, control over when that moment will come. And for me, it seems that the most appropriate way of respecting the dead is to be content. So I am.
PS: The title is a line from the very beautiful ‘Only Death’ sometimes called ‘Nothing but Death’ by Pablo Neruda here translated by Robert Bly:
There are cemeteries that are lonely, graves full of bones that do not make a sound, the heart moving through a tunnel, in it darkness, darkness, darkness, like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves, as though we were drowning inside our hearts, as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.
And there are corpses, feet made of cold and sticky clay, death is inside the bones, like a barking where there are no dogs, coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere, growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
Sometimes I see alone coffins under sail, embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair, with bakers who are as white as angels, and pensive young girls married to notary publics, caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead, the river of dark purple, moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death, filled by the sound of death which is silence.
Death arrives among all that sound like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it, comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it, comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat. Nevertheless its steps can be heard and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see, but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets, of violets that are at home in the earth, because the face of death is green, and the look death gives is green, with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf and the somber color of embittered winter.
But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom, lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies, death is inside the broom, the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses, it is the needle of death looking for thread.
Death is inside the folding cots: it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses, in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out: it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets, and the beds go sailing toward a port where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.