THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

I’m thinking of all those, especially in my beloved California, who have been pounded these past weeks with storms. Tucson has been intermittently cold, wet, and drear, but we’ve not suffered anywhere near the damage and extremes of so much of the rest of the country.

What is it about January?…A month when I, for one, seem not to feel my best, look my best, or think my best. I am, however, trying to ACT my best.

News from the front: My cataract surgery is completed, both eyes. Having worked on many med mal (medical malpractice) cases in my time as a lawyer, my fondest, highest hope here was that “they” would not blind me. Which they didn’t! Everything’s a little brighter and a little clearer and my long-distance vision is vastly improved. Thank you.

Speaking of vision, sight, eyes and blindness…I recently re-read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, a work of utter genius. I’ve been reflecting upon it for days and hope to devote a column to it.

Other reading includes, but is not limited to, learning about two female artists, one Scoth, one Welsh. Joan Eardley (1921-1963) painted, inter alia, the street urchins of Glasgow and the wild coast of the fishing village of Catterline, Aberdeenshire on Scotland’s northeast coast. She lived there alone in a whitewashed cottage without electricity or running water and would go out in her oilskins in a roaring gale, set up her easel by the shore, and paint. She died far too young, at 42, of breast cancer.

COVER OF A 2015 BOOK BY FIONA PEARSON ABOUT EARDLEY’S LIFE AND WORK.
THE PAINTING IS SUMMER FIELDS, 1961

My other find is Brenda Chamberlain (1912-1971), a painter, poet, and author who deserves homage if for no other reason than that she wrote a wondrous “memoir” (the book defies categorization) called Tide-Race, an impressionistic account of her time on Bardsey Island.

Bardsey is colloquially known as The Island of 20,000 Saints and has a rich history. It’s harsh, austere, isolated, hard-scrabble. When Chamberlain moved there with her then-husband in 1947, there were only a dozen or so full-time (extremely eccentric, apparently) inhabitants of the island. All supplies had to be brought in by boat, through a treacherous sound. The islanders lived on rabbit, gull’s eggs, sea birds, and home-grown vegetables. The men went to sea; the women waited.

A couple of excerpts:

“This is a land that hoards its past and merges all of time in the present. The cargo boat that was salvaged last year off Maen Bugail, whose coal cargo will keep the island in fuel for the next twenty years; the illicit sweet wine of France; the shipwreck of Arthur; are of equal importance and freshness. It might be said that what happened here yesterday has taken on the colour of a long-past event, so timeless do happenings appear to be; as if the drama had been written long ago, and we who come by chance to the island play our parts that were designed for us, walking on to the stage at the twitch of a string held in the firm hand of the master.”

“After the chill currents of the sea-way, the breast of the island gave off an intense heat. Everywhere, birth was taking place; chicks were breaking from speckled shells under the burning-glass of the sun. On every shelving ledge, on hard-baked pockets of earth, whole eggs and green fragments of shell lay beside blind creatures beating the dust with embryonic wings. The gull king, his head hawklike between his shoulder blades, was watchful from eyes of cold amber. He alighted on the cliff, sea-water dripping from his beak of lemon bone. Around him squatted his clumsy offspring.”

BRENDA CHAMBERLAIN ON BARDSEY, ON A BOAT TRANSPORTING CATTLE, 1950

It goes on and on like that, every paragraph a paean and often, too, a kind of dirge. Chamberlain also lived in a white-washed cottage, heated by peat, without electricity or running water. She had many romantic attachments, some requited, some not. She was passionate, intensely stimulated by landscape, a skirter of edges, a bohemian, a free spirit a little too drawn to death.

She was recognized for her poetry, broadsheets, paintings and plays but Tide-Race (1962) seems to have been her crowning achievement–and what an achievement, though her contemporaries felt she never quite attained the stature she might have. After 15 years or so she left the Bardsey and lived on another island, in Greece, was forced to flee after the 1967 coup, and returned to her home town of Bangor in Wales, aging, alone, and increasingly weighed down by sorrow and depression. She died of an overdose of sedatives at 59.

It’s no small feat for a woman to make her way as an artist. If she has a spouse, there’s always a tension between the vocation of marriage and the vocation of art. And if not, there’s the danger of frittering away creative energy on a series of romantic dramas. We have to find somewhere (as does every human being) to put all our love. So I’m fascinated by the lives of the female artists who have forged their own way and tried to do that.

8 Replies to “THE BLEAK MIDWINTER”

  1. As usual… beautiful writing speckled throughout with links providing a wealth of riches! Just what I need in this “bleak midwinter”.

  2. As always, dear Heather…..Thank you!!! Cannot do it without Jesus, how many of we Women a’ kickin’ and a screamin’, do not figure that out…..and Jesus is free!

  3. Michael Demers says: Reply

    Heather, I’m glad for the success of your cataract surgery…and to learn about Eardley and Chamberlain.

  4. So glad you all liked the post. I’m starting to prepare for my trip to Galway/Connermara this summer (and possibly points farther afield) and am steeping myself in art and literature. And the Eucharist. Wonderful antidote to winter lows!

  5. melanieposer says: Reply

    Beautiful, and because l can’t travel, l look forward to your adjective laden writings on Galway. And you’ll be able to see all the shades of green!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      I can scarcely contain myself, Malanie–my mouth waters just looking at photographs of Connemara, and I’m starting to read about it, too…will definitely be reporting back.

  6. hi heather
    i am not getting the latest posts. i just feel a barrenness that is not necessary.of course the trees are barren and sadness is in the air. of course there is no fruit in winter. but think about it- the fruit was there in summer, in fall. and so goes the spiral of life- there is fruit, and there is care for the garden. it was there and it will come again.in winter you dream of the fruit that will come and in summer you bring it. and think about all the good fruit that was there last year.and dont forget the mastergardener that takes care of it all. even in winter he scetches the trees for you and he connects them for you with pictures – i would say, in childrensbooks- but you can find his care for you here and there and connected.
    no more bleakness!

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      I underwent a couple of very black spells during December and January, too, and I do think much of it has/had to do with lack of light, penetrating, wet cold, and the fact that the beginning of the year brings with it all kinds of pesky tasks that have been left undone during the holidays…I try to hold as a kind of spiritual obligation to at least try to cultivate an inner orientation of gratitude. Some days I’m way more successful than others…Also, I’m by nature somewhat manic and definitely obsessive, so another thing I’ll do is come up with a bunch of projects, all of which require huge amounts of time and energy and usually none of which anybody cares about but me. That kind of works to drive away the black dog of depression, though, for me anyway. Thanks for the companionship, Tina–and wishing for you connection and consolation…

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