I refer, of course, to the month of December…
I have kept at least one candle burning, the clock round, from December 5 (the day I returned home from a road trip to California) till now…I have had indoor fairy lights, outside string lights, and plug-in Madonna-blue Japanese lanterns. I have cards GALORE, two Advent calendars, two creches, vintage ornaments strung on royal purple florist wire across the tops of all the doors, two balsam sprays, and one vintage gold metal Merry Christmas wreath.
I went to Mass almost every day during Advent, usually at Vespers. I said Morning and Evening Prayer. I continued with my Ignatian Exercises for an hour each early morning. It so happend that this week the readings were on the Incarnation, the Nativity, the shepherds, the wise men…
I spent quite a bit of time (for me) with people. A lot of recovery, a lot of socializing. The highlight was the Christmas Day zoom gathering I had with some members of my family. Some friends came to town from LA, and that, too, was lovely.
The result being, however, that I am way outside of my normal schedule and routine which at this point is kind of driving me nuts. I bought myself a ton of books for Christmas: Jed Perl’s Authority and Freedom; an essay collection called The Philosophy of Gardening; Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists; John Moriarty’s Dreamtime; Reveries of the Solitary Walker, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; A 12-Step Approach to the Spiritual Exercises by Jim Harbaugh, SJ; The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1859; Tim Robinson’s Connemara.
Meanwhile I had cataract surgery on one eye, a dear friend died, I still have people with whom I want to have that once-a-year phone chat. It’s to start gathering the tax dox. I have a shingles shot, a teeth cleaning, and the other eye surgery coming up.
And all I want to do is curl up in bed and read!
Yesterday was cold and gray and in the afternoon I finally succumbed, crawled in, and watched The Conspirators (1944), a B-grade (at best) spy film with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid that was kind of a pallid version of Casablanca, complete with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. No matter: I relished every second. Nothing like a smoky nightclub scene, a casino peopled with Nazis, and a guy in a trenchcoat who knows how to light a lady’s cigarette.
Then I settled down to one of my favorite kind of afternoons: I started reading Heavy Light: A Journey through Madness, Mania & Healing by British writer Horatio Clare. H, as his friends (and now, I) call him, wrote a stellar memoir about growing up on a Wales sheep farm called Running for the Hills, and has written a bunch of travel and landscape type books since. He’s also possibly an alcoholic, and possibly bipolar, and suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and really, really should not smoke pot.
He’s covered some of that in his previous books but this one is about a flat-out, rather flamboyant breakdown in which he took off all his clothes, for example, and rolled his car off a cliff. He was “sectioned” as they call it it England (we would say carted off to the psych ward). And I haven’t finished the book yet but I gather it’s about how we could possibly start thinking about and treating mental illness in ways that do not primarily involve prescribing incredibly strong drugs with severe, often irreversible, side effects. Even the doctors don’t understand how most of them work. And the patients, of course, are caught in a Catch-22 such that they can only be released from the nuthouse if they agree to take the horrible drugs. Not that the drugs don’t sometimes help, BUT.
Clare meanwhile has a long-term partner, Rebecca, a more or less stepson, 17, and another son with Rebecca, 6. Who are all deeply frightened, pissed, anxious, hopeful, loving, frightened, et cetera.
So the book is a great read, but even better, because Clare writes, reads, listens, travels and mingles, it’s the kind of book that had me reaching for my phone every five or ten pages to explore. I learned, for example, that a coracle is (especially in Wales and Ireland) a small round boat made of wickerwork covered with a watertight material, propelled with a paddle, and that is shaped like half a walnut shell.
That cheered me no end!
I learned about sculptor Barbara Hepworth and about the Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden (which H could walk to from “the facility” once he was allowed day passes). I learned about Bardsey Island (The island of 20,000 Saints), and I learned that you can stay there in a white-washed cottage with a stone wall and a red door and basically nothing around but a restaurant and the birds. I learned of the painter Brenda Chamberlian who lived on Bardsey in splendid isolation for many years, then moved to Greece, then moved back and died of a barbiturate OD (memoir-novel Tide-Race on order).
I learned of the Dylan Thomas poem, “In My Craft or Sullen Art.” I learned that H had visited an isolated former parish (and felt right at home) of Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, whose biography I just finished. I looked up the word “mordant” for about the tenth time in my life, and hope to use it in a sentence one day.
I put a used copy of a memoir called Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers that I gather from the reviews is a bit of an acquired taste (H adored it and once lived on the same canal as its author, Antonia Quirke) in my ebay cart. I learned that Clare walked the same 250 miles to Lübeck, Germany, that Bach walked in 1705 and wrote a book about that. (Which you can also listen to).
Through some other similar, recent follow-the-breadcrumbs trail, I have also happend upon the mostly unknown British painter Theodore Major (1908-1999). I won’t describe him now because I want to write a column, but suffice it to say that he shunned publicity, mostly refused to sell his paintings, lived in voluntary poverty, and adored children, beauty, truth, his wife, the gritty town of Wigan, and the hard-working, hard-scrabble, noble-in-spirit people of Lancashire (people who were thought unworthy of notice or admiration by most of the rest of the world, especially the art world). He was a recluse, a bit off-kilter himself…but really, who’s to say?
The point being that if you stray even a bit off the beaten path, there are all kinds of fascinating people out there who forged, or are forging, their own little path. And thereby provide some light to live by.
Speaking of which, I just learned of Daniel Brush, through his obit, unfortunately, but that’s another avenue worth exploring.
One very last thought, speaking of voluntary poverty (I got this reflection from my beloved Caryll Houselander, don’t ask me where). The wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus–but when the time came to present him at the temple (which was only 40 days later), Mary and Joseph only had enough money for the poor people’s offering: a couple of doves (rather than the lamb more well-off folk could afford).
The conclusion being that in the meantime they must have given the loot away. Let’s ponder that in our hearts as we celebrate Mary, the Mother of God on January 1.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!