Friday, 6 May 2016

Time it was, and what a time it was...

The Ascension of Christ - Giotto

Yesterday was Ascension Day for Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, and Jewish Passover and Easter, according to the Julian calendar, are over by a few days. And this reminded me the confusion in which I "lived" time when I was a child.

Time is something seemingly easy. 

We are born on a certain day of a certain month of a certain year, we live during a certain number of years, and then we die. This is very simple and linear. Similarly, days are straightforward. They start at midnight and go to the next midnight. The year goes from the 1st of January to the 31st of December. This is all encompassed in another straightforward system. It has been decided that Christ was born on a certain year. All that was before this date is BC (before Christ); all that comes after is AD (anno Domini that is "year of our Lord"). 

Easy for a child.

Morgenstunde - Moritz von Schwind

Morgenstunde - looking at the composition as a triptych:
day (left), morning (centre), night (right)


But when the child, like me, is treated with Church every Sunday, time becomes soon more difficult to understand. 

Jesus is born at Christmas, on the 25th of December. The four weeks that precede this date are preparing his birth. But his birth is not really his coming. 

The Gospels do not talk much about what happened before his birth, except for Luke, who tells us about the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary. Being reasonably talkative, Gabriel adds some gossip about Mary's cousin Elizabeth, a mature/senior woman, past childbearing, who nevertheless "is with child". Mary, being Mary, probably manages her own affairs (after all she has to tell her parents and her betrothed - Joseph - that she is pregnant - and think of the scandal!). She organises her travel, with permission from her parents, but it might be a good idea to have her away, in order not to shock the neighbourhood too much, and to let this poor Joseph gather his wits, and sends word to Elizabeth and Zachary - another household in turmoil: Zachary is even made dumb by the angel who has told him the news about his wife! Off Mary goes. And stays several months with Elizabeth and Zachary. Then she goes back to Nazareth. Somewhere between the end of her sojourn with the Zachary family and her return to her own village, John the future Baptist is born, Zachary speaks again, and Elizabeth looks after her baby. Meanwhile, Joseph, fully reassured and convinced by another angel, - angels are doing a lot of journeys back and forth between Heaven and Earth at this time: traffic jams are expected -, then takes Mary as his lawful wife, and to respect Tiberius Caesar's edict, manages their travel to Bethlem for the census.

Busy life in Galilea!

These are straightforward and understandable facts for a child. Afterwards comes the birth, the angels again, the shepherds, and the rejoicing.

Annunciation - Fra Angelico

Visitation - Fra Angelico
Nativity - Fra Angelico


But the gospels read in the Roman Catholic Church speak of the coming of Christ in a less material way. They make it part of the alliance between God and his People. They show how it is announced throughout the whole Ancient Testament and the New Testament according to Christians. Usually Advent starts with Christ himself telling of his last coming at the end of Times; then we have two Sundays where John the Baptist is fully grown up and prophesizing in a non-appetizing and thunderous way the coming of Christ, and a flash back to Mary visiting Elizabeth when they are both waiting for their respective children, Jesus and John, who are not yet born. As a little girl I was lost.

The same happens with Christmas. The Sunday after Christmas Day, Jesus is twelve or thirteen year old and tells all about the Scriptures to the Doctors of the Law in the Temple. But the Sunday after, the Magi come to adore Him as a baby in His manger - I always wondered if the Magi were particularly fast in their journey or why Joseph, Mary and their child stayed so long in the stable -. Then comes Jesus' baptism in the Jordan by John, and they are both around thirty. End of Christmas time. The Gospels read in church then tell us about the call of the Apostles. But, lo and behold!, on February the 2nd, Jesus as a child held in Mary's arms again, is presented in the Temple - Mary's Purification. A few more weeks, and he is back after his baptism by John and starts to the desert to pray and overcome the temptations of Satan. It is the beginning of Lent. The whole sequence of more or less temporally disjointed texts lead us to the Holy Week, Easter, Ascension Day, Whitsunday,  as well as to some two other special celebrations of the divinity of Christ, as if the Church was leaving reluctantly the joy of Easter. Finally, we are launched into a non-chronological account of Christ's life in between the desert temptations and the Holy Week. 

Where is linear time in this?

In fact, I acknowledged that time was something difficult and relative.


The Four Seasons - Walter Crane

Growing up, I began to see the meaning of this seeming disorder that was repeated each year. And the liturgical year does not coincide with the civil year. It begins at the end of November and ends at the end of November of the next year. Two different years. 

The Christian liturgical year is circular: the same events are celebrated every year. But so are the seasons. They do not start with the civil year and they go round and repeat themselves.

I discovered that there were different calendars: the Gregorian and the Julian, the Chinese, the Hebrew, and the Muslim ones, at least. The seasons may change when we change hemisphere: it is almost winter in the Southern Hemisphere when it is now almost summer in the Northern one. 

And what about the elasticity of time? Joyful hours, days, months went by more quickly than hours dedicated to maths, rainy days, and months of school routine. Nevertheless, when I was writing about a small incident that took seconds or minutes, but wanted to give it in full details, it would expand itself over pages and pages and took infinite time to write and read whereas long periods of boring time that took so long to live through would be dealt with in a few lines.

I discovered, before I attended philosophy lectures, that time could not exist without space. I had not yet understood Louis Aragon in "Les Beaux quartiers" or Virginia Woolf in "Mrs Dalloway." Nevertheless, there was something mysterious and beautiful about these books, and a "je ne sais quoi mais presque rien" - "ou presque tout" - to paraphrase Vladimir Jankelevitch, that slipped between my fingers while being  all at once most important and beautiful. All about time.


The Ascension service induced me to think about time again yesterday, and this took me back to my recent rumination about gardens and spring. 

I have been considering gardens of men, and gardens of wildernesses and gods, mulling over the beauty of Nature's growth and the works of Man, nibbling at their translation into literature, music and arts. However, I have done nothing but consider childhood, ageing, and time, times or Time.

It brings me back to my first awkward posts in this blog, a year ago: how to encapsulate a "moment of being", to quote Virginia Woolf again, in a memory, as a fossil can be held prisoner in a piece of amber from the Baltic? I remember I called these moments "black dots" in water flowing through my fingers, as time flows never to return again exactly the same. Perhaps, this is the secret: time goes forward relentlessly; we snatch particular moments that become our own memories in our own time line; and at the same time, time makes spirals, as the seasons come back but never the same. 

After all, the mystery of the liturgical time was its periodicity and the ever-changing way I was living it from year to year. April, in the same way, is not the same April as last year, and yet is back again. My joy over the Queen Anne's lace on the verges of the back lanes that go to The Village is not exactly as it was when I first wrote about it. Heraclitus is right: we do not bathe twice in the same waters but bathe we do. And we keep the memory of the first bath that informs the experience of all further baths. Until there are but the memories of the baths. 

Memories, like little bubbles of time kept in our minds, make us often scarred but rich and living human beings.


Remember this - with the scratch of the needle?

Old friends,
Sat on their park bench
Like bookends.
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the 'round toes
On the high shoes
Of the old friends.

Old friends.
Winter companions,
The old men
Lost in their overcoats,
Waiting for the sunset.
The sounds of the city,
Sifting through trees,
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends

Can you imagine us
Years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange
To be seventy.
Old friends,
Memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fear...

Time it was, and what a time it was...
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories:
They're all that's left you.

"Old Friends" - Simon and Garfunkel

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

It all began with a garden

It all began with a garden.

On Easter morning, according to the Gospels, women rush to the tomb where Christ has been hurriedly put on Friday evening, before the great Passover Sabbath. They come to perform the last rites, and on the road, wonder how the tomb will be open to them, by whom, as the round heavy stone has been rolled before the entrance and Roman guards will be there. It is well known, as it is the core of the Christian faith, that there will be no need to open the tomb: it is already wide open and Christ is raised from the dead.

But one of the women, Mary of Magdala, is said to be sobbing and looking everywhere for the body that she thinks has been stolen. She sees a man and believes he is the gardener. It is Christ. He talks briefly to Mary with this famous recommendation first: Noli me tangere.

I have already written that I see these Resurrection Gospels as bathed with colours. The Emmaus Pilgrims one is suffused with golden light, Paul and John running to the tomb is all in shades of blues and greens as it is the end of the night, Mary and Christ stand in the rose pink hues of dawn. It is all wrong as the episode of Mary comes before that of the Apostles. And "a garden" in Palestine, close to the city of Jerusalem, has nothing to do with an Italian garden. But rose pink and Fra Angelico, it is for me, when I read or when I hear this text.

A garden and a man thought to be the gardener by a woman who was forgiven for her sins of pagan and human love.

In the mythical and geographically unknown Garden of Eden, Eve succumbs to the lures of the serpent and God sends her and Adam from the garden to their doom on Earth.

At Easter, God made Man comes back from the dead, meets a woman (before he will meet men) who is forgiven her sins and even commended to men - meets her in a very incarnate and real garden, and sends her to the disciples who are hiding themselves in the well-closed and secured High Chamber of Maundy Thursday – she is the first Apostle - to announce that human beings are now free of death. No doom anymore.

The whole story is upside down.

Believe it or do not believe it, but acknowledge that, stylistically and artistically speaking, the tale is richly satisfying: linear plot ending in a loop, meeting its beginning but with a complete twist.

I am not so naive as to forget why Easter has been chosen to stand in spring and in a garden. It figures and takes the place of older rituals, deeply ensconced in the human mind, under many guises. In the European sphere, there are the Greek and Roman traditions, the Nordic and Celtic mythologies, and others. And this is Europe only. All celebrate the rebirth of nature after the long sleep and death of winter. No wonder the Roman Catholic Church has kept such rites as the blessings of the New Fire (light and warmth) and Water (by which plants will grow), or the image of the cross/gibbet of Christ as the tree that blossoms again. All these symbols are ingrained, embedded in our most ancient minds as Jung has told us.

And so did my mind work during this April month.

I meditated on Easter and Easter morning in the garden. Then, when I looked back at my posts during April, I saw that they had recurring themes: rebirth, new projects, tea parties as occasions to rejoice, childhood, the aftermath of childhood in following of adulthood, books, gardens, spring, books, art, music, myths, spring, books, books, books.

Books: my primer, poetry in my primer, books from my childhood and from friends' childhoods (CarolineMartine, Beatrix Potter), nursery rhymes and comptines, Agatha Christie, Henry James, Colm Toibin, David Lodge, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Edith Wharton, Matthew Kneale, Edith Wharton, Alison Lurie... And gardens run through them.

Now, April has turned into young May. My Jewish friends have celebrated Passover and my Orthodox friends, Easter, others, - from Anglo-SAxon ascendance - Beltane. We, Christians of the West, are heading towards Ascension Day and Whitsuntide. Ascension will still be outside, on a mount with a garden on it. And the Roman Catholic Church festivals that go on after Whitsun Day are like a daisy chain of rejoicing, involving flowers. It seems that we cannot leave behind us this moment where Mary of Magdala met Christ as gardener in the garden where the tombs were empty.


Therefore I have kept some more books about gardens to celebrate this time when humanity exults in reborn nature. Among them, I find:

"The Enchanted April".

It is an old favourite by Elizabeth von Arnim that comes to mind each spring with its ringing first sentences: "To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, box 1000, The Times." And the fairy tale can unfold itself once more from the March rainy afternoon in London to the riotous and glorious garden where "all is well that ends well". I saw something of this garden once, on a very early morning, awaking in an Italian hotel on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, near La Spezia, where pink and red azaleas, bougainvillea and mauve wisteria ran wild from a garden at the top of the hill into the blue sea. And, of course, this was joy unblemished. 

"The Knot".

Jane Borodale wrote this novel about the 16th century botanist Henry Lyte, in 2012. I was in such a hurry to read it that I bought it in hardback. It is one of the last books I was to buy. The style is seemingly detached but in fact deeply engaged in the protagonist's point of view. In a remote, damp corner of Somerset, Henry Lyte is still weeping for his first wife, although he has remarried. He has his estate to look to, and a country life that is not so idyllic to go through, as well as nagging family affairs to attend, mostly with his stepmother. Nevertheless, he is wholly engaged in the translation of a Dutch "Herbal", with linguistic difficulties, and with the creation and plantation of new garden with a knot at its heart. Nature is shown in all its restorative and destructive powers before which human achievements are so fragile. One feels here all the warm and physical contact of the 16th century man with his environment and the blossoming of a new knowledge.

"Mrs Beaton's Management of Gardens".

We have an original edition of this book in the library. It goes along with the famous "Mrs Beeton's Household Management" and is full of tips for gardeners of some magnitude. It might have been helpful in another century and with other gardeners as is the famous (at home) equivalent book of management and manners for a lady in the country by Madame Millet-Robinet. The latter deals with meals, menus, poultry yard and other animals under the supervision of the lady of the house, the dresses this one must wear during the day, the arrangement of her vegetable garden, the thickness of the mattresses of domestics, jewels accepted or prohibited for dinners in or out, times to come in the country and time to leave it to go back to town. This was Bible word until Grand-Mother's days.

"Old Herbaceous"

Another example of a head gardener in a great house, but from another point of view: A novel written by the writer of musical plays, Reginald Arkell (1872-1959). Here, he is at his most Wodehousian, creating the greater-than-life, Bert Pinnegar, who rises from awkward orphan to legendary head gardener, "Old Herbaceous" in the style of the perfect Jeeves. Things are exaggerated but it is great fun to read this fluffy candy floss of a book when one needs comfort after a day of toiling in one's garden. Believe me, I know!


One thing is common to all these gardens, from the Garden of Eden to the garden of the Resurrection, and to the gardens and gardeners I mentioned in the books about which I wrote during the month of April and today. They are efforts to tame Nature. Adam and Eve are expulsed from the garden into the wilderness. Mary of Magdala meets Christ and thinks he is the gardener who tends the place where the tombs stand, not forgotten but well-guarded. No need to explain further with the novels.

The poets only speak of nature untamed, some to lament, some to exalt. One thinks of the Romantics of course, far from domesticity. I always felt it was no coincidence that my Italian garden running wild was near La Spezia, where Shelley died. But this poem by William Allingham ("In a Spring Grove") echoes in my heart. It is so close to what I live everyday now.

Here the white-ray'd anemone is born,
Wood-sorrel, and the varnish'd buttercup;
And primrose in its purfled green swathed up,
Pallid and sweet round every budding thorn,
Grey ash, and beech with rusty leaves outworn.
Here, too, the darting linnet hath her nest
In the blue-lustred holly, never shorn,
Whose partner cheers her little brooding breast,
Piping from some near bough. O simple song!
O cistern deep of that harmonious rillet,
And these fair juicy stems, and unexhausted seas
Of flowing life, and soul that asks to fill it,
Each and all of these - and more, and more than these.

What if the wilderness untamed was not deadly? What if the garden was only a way to keep afar the great God Pan?