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
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.