What books do we reread? Sharing that information shares a lot.
One of the reasons I’m more o.k. this fall (in the turmoil of an effort to Recall Walker–please see note #1 below ) than I was last spring (in the anxious haze of protesting against Walker)—more able to hold onto my equanimity, less likely to feel whipped around by second-hand adrenaline, can be found in a couple of books I reread most years.
The Virgin in the Ice is the sixth book in the Brother Cadfael series. (The BBC made some fetching adaptations of some of the books, but I prefer the books themselves, although Derek Jacobi is firmly planted in my mind as the meddling monk.)
Edith Pargeter took the pen name Ellis Peters and wrote 21 of these books. I love them for several reasons (cf. note #2). Brother Cadfael is the monastery’s herbalist, so there are terrific passages about gardens and herbs and healing. Peters loved the changing seasons, and I love her passages about them.
In her last book, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, published just after she died, Peters muses on the beauty of November (which our early December still resembled until today, when it just seems COLD):
“Most of the leaves were fallen, the stems dark and clenched like fleshless fingers holding fast to the remnant of the summer, all the fragrances gathered into one scent of age and decline, still sweet, but with the damp, rotting sweetness of harvest over and decay setting in. It was not yet very cold, the mild melancholy of November still hand lingering gold in it, in falling leaves and slanting amber light.”
Peters doesn’t have the lush, swampy poetry of another mystery writer I love, James Lee Burke, but I appreciate her imagery, the occasional dab of a trope, and the perspective—a little surprising. A little twist on how we might normally see things. That’s what makes her books worth rereading for me—the gentle prodding to see the world differently.
She goes on to say that Brother Cadfael, now in his late sixties, “had never before been quite so acutely aware of the particular quality and function of November, its ripeness and its hushed sadness. The year proceeds not in a straight line, through the seasons, but in a circle that brings the world and man back to the dimness and mystery in which both began, and out of which a new seed-time and a new generation are about to begin.”
I’ve been appreciating the yin yang symbol lately, and this passage reminds me of that—the sense of circularity, the sense that the green on green on green of my favorite month, June, can’t happen without the gray on brown on white of late autumn.
Brother Cadfael, of course, is musing on his own mortality and concludes he should “go contentedly into the earth with the moist, gentle, skeletal leaves, worn to cobweb fragility, like the skins of very old men, that bruise and stain at the mere brushing of the breeze, and flower into brown blotches as the leaves into rotting gold. The colours of late autumn are the colours of the sunset: the farewell of the year and the farewell of the day. And of the life of man? Well, if it ends in a flourish of gold, that is no bad ending.”
Cadfael’s friend Sheriff Hugh Beringar (see harrumph in note #3 below) comes upon him at this point and says “God bless the work…if any’s been done here this afternoon. I thought you had taken root.”
The other Brother Cadfael book I reread yearly, The Virgin in the Ice, takes place several years earlier in the series, but also at the end of November and throughout December. It’s that point where things are gray and cold and it feels as though it could snow at any moment. Sort of like today. You can tell by the title things get cold and stay cold.
And this book comes to mind especially this year, the year of “the troubles” in Wisconsin, as one of my many clever colleagues put it. Brother Cadfael’s books take place in England in the 12th century, during what is sometimes called “the Anarchy,” when the Empress Maud and King Stephen fought for the throne and divided the country.
I’ve been in Wisconsin for twenty years now, and in the election cycle we’re often called a battleground state. Of course our battles don’t result in deaths, so calling our current conflicts “the troubles” is an exaggeration (see note #4 below). We have not suffered the violence they suffered in Northern Ireland and I hope we don’t come any closer to it than we already have, although things sometimes feel very powder-keggery and tinder-boxy.
And of course we’re not in a civil war in Wisconsin, although we are surely divided. Polls have shown that almost no one here is in the “undecided” category.
One of the things I love about Brother Cadfael is that he doesn’t choose sides with Maud or Stephen. In fact, he makes the point to numerous characters over the whole series that although he understands fighting for a side with all your heart—before he was a monk, he was a foot soldier in the Crusades—this is not his fight.
I am not Brother Cadfael—I have chosen sides and I’m not sorry for that. I am partisan. I have a dog in this fight, as my father would say.
At one point during a battle in Brother Cadfael’s Penance, he is told,
“You’ve done enough brother…in a quarrel that’s been none of your making.”
“None of us,” said Cadfael ruefully, clambering dazedly to his feet, “has ever done enough—or never in the right direction.”
And although I’ve chosen sides and am working in my pitiful way to help Recall Walker, I do rue the quarrel. I do feel dazed. I do wonder how we’ll emerge from this hard time, if we’ll ever be other than a battleground state. I wonder if we’re doing enough, or too much, or always in the wrong direction. All of us, I mean—the side I’m on and the side I’m not on.
So I have summoned my inner Cadfael. There is a part of me I’m holding apart, a neutral monk, as it were, someone who can see the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. It helps. And in that mode, I was able to send a friend request to someone I’d unfriended on Facebook when he made a perfectly civil comment last spring in support of Scott Walker. It’s a tiny gesture toward common ground, but it was sincerely meant. Last spring I felt so unhinged I couldn’t bear to see even his civil disagreement as anything but but a devastating blow. Things feel very different now.
He accepted my friend request and I felt deep gratitude, perhaps out of proportion to the act. But I am grateful for grace, wherever it appears.
I’m still partisan. If a woman ends up being the Democratic candidate for governor, I will absolutely get a bumper sticker that says MY CASTLE STANDS WITH THE EMPRESS MAUD.
But as I look across this particular chasm, I want to at least make eye contact with people I care about on the other side. Obviously we’re very far apart politically, and in some cases the chasm runs deeper than politics. I’m just hoping that what connects us runs even deeper.
#1Once again, let me assure readers I have worked on this blog off-campus, using my own computer.
#2There are words I find in these books I don’t find anywhere else and I long to use them in a Lexulous game: tocsin, hauberk, and seisin among them.
#3This is one of my problems with the BBC series—Sean Pertwee was Sheriff Beringar in just a few episodes, but he was the first one I saw, and perfect, I thought, and then I was sorely disappointed every time he wasn’t in there, nearly aggrieved, really. Since the friendship between Cadfael and Beringar is a huge part of the stories, the disappointment appeared frequently.
#4Perhaps akin to the hyperbole of Sylvia Plath identifying with Holocaust victims because her emotional life was HARD.