Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coffeegirl Book Club

Chapter 1: Glenmerle Revisited

Brief Synopsis and Review of Important Figures

Chapter 1 has already provided several bits of key information for us and has cast some foreboding tones on what is to come. We learn here that Vanauken is revisiting his beloved Glenmerle, the estate which he and his family inhabited during his younger years, “a place of magic, unearthly in its serene beauty.” His description of the midnight visit, which Chapter 1 is recounting, indicates that this place holds treasured memories of events that were significant in his development – a love of reading, classical music, poetry, sailing on the open seas, a year in England that rooted it in his heart, and an articulate awareness of the presence of beauty in the world. He tells us that this place “had been, beyond doubt, a place of accepted security. And a house of peace, peaceful and gay at the same time.”

We get glimpses into the significant relationships tied in memory to this place: his father – “quiet and relaxed and amused – though capable of fearful sternness,” and his mother – “quick to praise and admire” while “his father’s rare ‘Well done!’ had been a thing to treasure for days.” We learn of beloved house servants, frequent visitors and playmates of childhood. But most importantly, we learn of Davy, his “dearling.” Davy, “…so dearly loved, so dear, and now a sixmonth dead.” It becomes clear that the memories of his time with Davy at Glenmerle in years gone by is a significant thread in the fabric of their love – the long summer days of walking the expanse of the countryside, swimming, reading aloud under the shade of a tree, night walks by the pond. His love for Davy runs deep, and the immensity of his grief over her death is exposed throughout the chapter.

We get glimpses as well into the friendship between Vanauken and C.S. Lewis – a deep and personal friendship which bore, among many things, the heaviness of trying to make sense of a premature death. Vanauken tells us it is Lewis “who had said that Davy’s death was a severe mercy. A severe mercy – the phrase haunted him: a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love. For it had been death in love, not death of love. Love can die in many ways, most of them more terrible than physical death; and if all natural love must die in one way or another, Davy’s death – he and she in love – was the death that hinted at springtime and rebirth…She had not ceased with that last light breath. She and he would meet again: ‘And with God be the rest!’”

Points of Reflection

I have chosen a few points of particular interest to bring to the discussion, but as stated last week, please feel free to add on and expand the conversation to the points that were of particular interest to you.

1. As noted above, Vanauken reflects upon many of the significant influences of his childhood that shaped his adult life. I was struck by his statement after reflecting upon his memories of a year spent in England and the way it parallels my feelings of having arrived at this place in my life. He writes, “And even as a boy he had wanted to go to Oxford. When in the end he had gone up, it had seemed both right and inevitable.”

As I look back over the course of my life, I can identify certain life experiences that were so deep and so real that when I look around and consider where I am today, it seems both right and inevitable. It is as if my life experiences were a beautifully-crafted foreshadowing of what was to come, and only now can I see it.

2. In thinking of the time he had left Davy and his family to join the service, he notes that he didn’t know then that he was also saying goodbye to Glenmerle. He did not know that his father would die, the estate would be sold and he would not return again until the midnight visit over a decade later that we are currently reading about. He writes, “The real farewell, not even dreamt of then, had been farewell to Glenmerle…”

This struck me because it seems that one of the hazards of cross-cultural ministry is the risk of these unknown farewells – things change and tragedies occur without even a chance to say farewell or get a taste of closure. The sting of the farewell “not even dreamt of then” really resonated with me.

3. I found myself wanting to stop and resolve along with Vanauken to again choose the heights and depths of the human experience; resolving equally against the safe, cautious middle way. For those without the book, I think it is important to include a portion of this text as it sets the stage for the rest of the book:

But if the best of life is, in fact, emotional, then one wanted the highest, purest emotions: and that meant joy. Joy was the highest. How did one find joy? In books it seemed to be found in love –a great love –though maybe for the saints there was joy in the love of God. He didn’t aspire to that, though: he didn’t even believe in God. Certainly not! So, if he wanted the heights of joy, he must have, if he could find it, a great love. But in the books again, great joy through love seemed always to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain – if, indeed, they went together. If there were a choice – and he suspected there was – a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.

4. We learn early on, the third page of the book in fact, that Vanauken is grieving the death of his beloved wife, Davy. The mixture of joy and pain brought on by treasured memories is depicted so well, and his description of grief caught my attention particularly. He writes, “He chuckled at the memory, and then, in the instant, tears were burning in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks. That was always the way of grief: laughter and tears, joy and sorrow.”

My experience of grief has not been rooted in a loss so close as a spouse or family member, but as I have grieved the loss of loved ones, personal wounds, and the intangible losses of my life I have experienced this same phenomenon of the strange way that grief displays itself in life. Even here, as I have grieved the separation from my family, I have been caught up in laughter over the phone and then struggling to speak as I am reminded of the distance that separates us. Grief has its own way, and with Vanauken I agree that we must allow ourselves to feel each emotion deeply, which leads me to my next favorite point.

5. I must mention the paragraph that, upon first reading, left me shocked that someone had captured so perfectly my own thoughts and experiences. I had struggled to articulate my thoughts of the matter of beauty for years before I read this, and I am still unable to articulate the point effectively to anyone who has not read this book. Upon viewing the “delicate tracery of bare black branches against the icy glittering stars,” Vanauken describes his experience of being gripped by the power of beauty in the natural world. He describes the experience, saying, “Suddenly something that was, all at once, pain and longing and adoring had welled up in him, almost choking him. He had wanted to tell someone, but he had no words, inarticulate in the pain and glory. It was long afterwards that he realized that it had been his first aesthetic experience. That nameless something that had stopped his heart was Beauty.”

I remember clearly the first time I felt this way upon viewing a painting, nearly moved to tears by the longing within to somehow enter into the picture and take up existence within it. I am not moved by beauty to this extent frequently, but the times that I have experienced it have been etched into my memory as clearly as Vanauken’s childhood memory of the bare branches against the starry sky.

So tell us, what do you think of these things? What portions of this chapter resonated with you? Have you found portions of your own thoughts and experiences here? I’ll be here, sipping on my coffee, looking forward to your contributions and chattering back with you over the coming week.


amyinbj said...

Hi all, this will be a little short as I am in the midst of packing to go to our annual conference. One of the things I could relate to in the first chapter was the way in which he physiclly went to Glenmerle and stood on the hill -- he "reentered" his old home only in his mind so that the memories could stay intact. Both sets of my grandparents have died and I've driven by their former homes. So many good memories! Part of me would like to see what the insides look like now ... but like Vanauken, I shall leave them perserved in my mind and drive on by.

The Stover Family said...

I agree with Amy, I love how he goes back to a place where he grew up and remembers all the wonderful memories he has there. He has such an amazing way of describing each detail. I felt like I was almost there myself. Every time I get the chance to go back to Thailand where I grew up, I love to visit all the old houses I use to live in. I love just standing there and remembering all the wonderful things I did there with my family and friends.
He is so good at grabbing your attention and pulling you into his story. I am loving this book so far. Such a great book for the start of the book club.

Shan in Japan said...

Coffeegirl, thanks for the points of reflection. My parents still live in the home where I grew up so each time I go to their house I get to revisit memories with them and my sister, lots of good ones!
On to your points of reflection:
1. The moment I arrived in Japan I knew I was home. When I was young and friends would talk about where they wanted to live when they grew up I could never imagine living in any of those places. When I arrived here 'it seemed both right and inevitable" that I should be here.
2. unknown farewells-This does seem the way of the missionary. When I am leaving the States I am actually coming home so I don't think about the farewell as deeply as those I leave behind, I admit. I just assume that when I get back everyone will still be there and our fellowship will continue in the same way as always.
3. I am so good about taking the safe and cautious middle way rather than working through the highs and lows of human experience. Thank you for pointing that out-and thanks Mr. Vanauken!
4. I, like you, have not experienced the grief of losing someone so close, but have experienced grief and find that laughter and tears, joy and sorrow do go together.
5. Ah, the breathtaking beauty of God's creation and the art of His creation. Vanauken expresses it so well. I usually have no words deep enough, rich enough to be able to describe my thoughts. The Alps, the Great Wall of China, Mt. Fuji, Niagara Falls, the Venus de Milo.
I am looking forward to "The Shining Barrier"

Coffeegirl said...

I think it's interesting how the revisiting of the home resonates with all of us. As you've said, his description really allows you to connect with his experience and it helps to recall so many personal memories in our sacred spaces, doesn't it? We went back to visit my first home several years after we had moved out (I was probably just 10 or 12 when we went back) and I remember being totally devastated by the redecorating of the bedroom I had shared with my sister. I now agree with Vanauken as well that it's best to let things be as they are now and bask in the memories instead. Glad you've enjoyed the first chapter. I too am looking forward to The Shining Barrier, Shan!

Libby said...

I found myself thinking of several times that I have done something very similar to what Vanauken did visiting his old home. I have, like others mentioned stood by or in one of the places I lived or spent much time in just looking and looking and the flood of memories is sometimes overwhelming! I can be sweet and painful at the same time.

to comment on your #1 point CG I really relate to what you said about that! I have remember many times growing up thinking about a particular experience that my parents were allowing or causing in us kids lives and thinking "WHY are we doing this?" Now, where I am I look back at some of those same things and think, how appropriate that God had my parents train me in that way! I needed that practice! :)

About point #3 I wrote some of those same quotes down about joy and pain in my journal. These past few months I have been learning a lot about joy born out of a painful time. I wouldn't ever choose to go through that pain but I am so thankful for the joy and peace God has given me because of what He had to teach me through that painful time.

and about #4 I too have experienced that moment on the phone with a loved one where even as I was laughing out loud the tears began to pour down my face and the sobs were hard to stop! But I think it's good to just let them come. If I need to cry...SOB sometimes for a little while that is ok. Stuffing the emotion doesn't do me any good.

My husband read this book to me quite a few years ago but I am really finding like others have mentioned that I am being pulled in and totally engrossed in Vanauken's style of writing.

I also love his descriptions of places he and Davy went and what they did, it's like a mini getaway to read about them! And it has challenged me to really find a way to "get away" even if it's a few minutes here and there staring at the mountains or the stars in the sky.


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