Growing Up With Tennyson: How The Text Takes Us Higher

20180924_120033When I was twelve, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the legendary bookshops of the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye. For £5, I purchased an ancient copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry, published in 1883, nine years before his death.

What a world of wonder it opened up to me! It may have even changed my life.

On one of the front pages, spotted with yellow patches of age, I found an inscription identifying the book’s first owner: “To Lilian Henderson from the Parents of the Infant School of S. Mark’s South Teddington in token of their love and appreciation of her kindness to their children. Jan 31. 1884.” How this excited me! Well over a century before, this woman had held my book in her own hands and loved it when it was new and the golden gilt edges still shone. In my imagination, I created Lilian Henderson. She had dark hair and spoke with a soft voice and wore plain white dresses edged with lace.

20180924_120137Inside her book, I found little slips of verse and a penciled list of titles with their corresponding page numbers. Lilian, I was sure, had written these. I read them over and over, and I carefully worked through her list of what I assumed were recommended titles, prepared to like each one right from the start, reading them like a prospector hunting for gold.

The other slips of paper, those with the excerpts of poetry, planted themselves in my mind and, thirteen years later, I still think of them sometimes. One piece had two neat little maxims penned with great care. I was fascinated by the appearance of the writing. The effect of the inked dip pen on the page was startling and glorious to me, and looking back now, I think my first love for old-fashioned ink lettering was kindled in me that very day.

20180924_120212On the back of this sheet, Lilian (so I like to think) had written out a quatrain from “Lady Clara Vere de Vere.” I didn’t have ready internet access at the time, so I didn’t know the origin of the verse until I discovered it myself in the poem. What fun that was! What a thrill of discovery! The text reads:

Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

At the time, I had yet no notion of the tempting lures of classism and snobbery that would come to afflict me later. But I hid these lines away in my heart and they came back to me just this week to shed light and wisdom on a present struggle.

And this, after all, is why I do what I do. It’s why I love to create art out of words that have the power of truth behind them. Because when these words are duly ingested and have truly saturated our hearts, I do believe they are weapons in the good fight of everyday life. It’s as Charlotte Mason wrote in Towards A Philosophy of Education: I heard the other day of a man whose whole life had been elevated by a single inspiring (poetic) sentence which he heard as a schoolboy.” 20180924_120253

That’s real. The text can take us higher. I believe it because it happens to me.

For the rest of my stay in Great Britain, I devoured Tennyson voraciously from this historic volume. I had always enjoyed reading, and had read some of Tennyson already, but the experience of stumbling through pages of blank verse that I knew to be intended for adults was a new kind of challenge. It made me feel grown up and I was eager to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that I could enjoy this book as it was meant to be enjoyed and as thousands of other Victorian Britons (including Lilian) had, I presumed, enjoyed it.

I read the easy ones, like “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Brook,” “Alymer’s Field,” “Marianna in the South,” “Break break break,” and Lady Clare,” (not the same as Lady Clara Vere de Vere. I know, so confusing.) I tried to read “The Princess,” although I understood it not a whit. I even struggled through pages and pages of “In Memoriam.” On the plane back to the Middle East, where my family was living at the time, I tried to hide my tears over “Rizpah” and “In The Children’s Hospital.” And in a cold drizzle in the Welsh countryside, sheltering the book with my jacket, I read a poem that would affect me so much I would write about the experience later in my own first poetry collection.

20180924_120502To contemporary readers, “Enoch Arden” might seem to be trying too hard. The story of a sailor who is lost at sea and returns home after many years to find that his devoted wife has finally given him up for dead and remarried his childhood rival may not sound to us like a fresh plot or a new idea. But reading the story at twelve, still inexperienced both in life and in fiction, I was captivated by the pathos and tragedy of the characters. I was desperate for a resolution, for a happy ending, and genuinely disappointed when I realized that the loss in the story was going to be permanent, that there was not going to be any way out. However, I was able to grasp some little part of what Enoch’s character champions at the end of the story when he chooses not to reveal himself to his wife and her new husband but dies alone, blessing them with his last words and taking comfort that he will soon join their child whose death in infancy had been a great blow.

It doesn’t sound original, perhaps, but this woeful story in blank verse moved my heart so deeply and stirred me to value and adore silent, self-denying heroism, an attribute all too easily forgotten in this era of fanfare and self-promotion. “Enoch Arden” talked to me and it made me better. It talked to me because I had no smartphone to fill up my spare minutes, no little red notifications to distract me from the book in my hands and the great outdoors around me. Because of that, I made connections with words that would stick with me always, and with a woman who lived over a hundred years ago and was kind to the children of the Infant School at St. Mark’s, South Teddington.

20180923_140605I have yet to mention the Tennyson poem that has been with me the longest. Even before I bought Lilian Henderson’s book in the little Welsh shop, I had memorized one of Tennyson’s most famous pieces in school and copied it out in my best hand-writing on lined paper. I had been given the option to pick a poem to memorize, and the one I chose was “Crossing The Bar.” Yes, I chose it in part because it was shorter than many of the other options. (Although, to be fair, it’s certainly longer than “Flower In The Crannied Wall.” So there’s that.) But also, it held a strange fascination for me. I had only a vague idea of what was being conveyed, and was certainly thrown off by phrases like, “from out our bourne of Time and Place,” and “such a tide as moving seems asleep,” but I just disregarded these odd lines and stuck to what I understood.

I knew that in this poem, Tennyson compares death to a sandbar that separates a ship from the ocean, and hints at his hope of encountering God (the “Pilot”) on the other side of death. This seemed sublime to me, and while I wanted Tennyson to take a bit of a lighter tone and be a little bit more reassuring and less darkly mysterious, I was, on the whole, well satisfied with my choice. Lilian too, it seems, was a fan. “Crossing The Bar” was only poem she wrote out in its entirety and stowed away between the pages of her copy of Tennyson.

It has been something like seventeen years since then. I now know why Tennyson said, “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark!” I know why he said he “hoped,” to see the Pilot, not that he “would” see Him. Like most of the great thinkers and writers in the Victorian age, Tennyson grappled with faith all throughout his life and at times seems to have been overwhelmed by doubt. But the words he wrote in honor of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam in “In Memoriam,” are perhaps equally applicable to their author:

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Later in his life, Tennyson wrote, “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him…[He is] that Divine and Unseen Who is always guiding us.” Before his death, he told his son Hallam that he wanted “Crossing The Bar” to appear at the end of all future editions of his poetry.

At last he beat his music out.

20180923_141052A few weeks ago, I set out to create a piece of art that would honor the debt I owe to Tennyson. My artistic rendition of “Crossing The Bar” is a small watercolor painting accompanied by hand-lettered dip pen calligraphy – the kind Lilian Henderson got me sold on back in the day. Thanks, Lilian, whoever you were. It took me several days to complete this piece and although my capitals are still improving, I’m pleased with how it came out. 8×10 prints just became available in my Etsy shop yesterday, so if you want to have one for your own home, click here to view the listing.

[NOTE: I’ve tried to find records of Lilian Henderson, but haven’t been successful so far. If anyone out there knows anything about her, her family, life, or connections, I’d love to hear from you!]

On Homesickness: A Letter to My Children

Airplane Flying
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. If they’re anything like me, they will be afflicted with a craving that creeps up at unexpected moments, and gnaws like hunger. How will they know that I too was young once, and didn’t belong anywhere? How will they know about all the music I’ve switched off and the mountains I’ve looked away from and the magazines I’ve closed up and put back on the shelf, so as to keep the sorrow of unfulfilled things at bay? How will they know there is a thread to tie up all their scattered affections? I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You don’t belong here. I’m pretty sure you know this already, although perhaps you’ve not expressed it in exactly this way. However, I think you should express it in this way.

I don’t know what the colors will be on the flag you stand under at crowded events and in places of national significance, but I can tell you for certain that you aren’t represented there. Though you stand with your brothers and pledge to defend that portion of the earth that has come to belong to you, you mustn’t suppose for even a moment that you belong to it.

You found something once that you wanted to buy and you didn’t have the money for it. A telescope or a helicopter that really whirs overhead and crashes into telephone wires. A doll with a pearly porcelain face and dark braids. You bent your being to that thing, and you worked long hours for it, and you turned down other simpler pleasures, and abstained from candy and small purchases, and it was all a great delight to you, for your eyes were fixed on a better thing. But when you acquired it in the end, you so soon grew tired of it, and put it aside. One day, you walked into your room, and tripped on that prized possession in the doorway, and broke it, and threw it in the trash.

In this way, you know you can’t put any confidence in anything you touch, for if you lean into it, it is sure to give way. Indeed, everything is slipping away. And even this youth you’re passing through today, will fade into a memory you wish you could enter again.

The blue planet has housed you for some time now, and you’re starting to understand that something isn’t right. In spite of all that is startling and surprising and good, there is a mournful well of emptiness at the bottom of every cup. The question is, is the lack in you? Or is it in your sad, unsatisfactory corner of the world?

Or is it in the world?

GalataBridgeMy children, I have been in the world. I have made my home in more than one sad corner of it. I have lived more than half of my years in a country where a different language was spoken and with a people I didn’t belong to – although through the love that I had for them, they came to belong to me. When I was just coming out of my childhood, I left that place suddenly and was planted in the country that was mine – but which I didn’t love and had no part in.

I knew that it would hurt. But I didn’t know it would go on hurting, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I didn’t know I would never be able to hear the music of that country with my heart healed of aching. I didn’t know that the sound of other languages – any of them – drifting through a park or over a television screen, would make me alert, and tense, and hungry. I didn’t know that the National Geographic would be a pain I would pursue in an unreasonable way, flipping the pages, and closing the book, and opening it up again. I didn’t know that sometimes I would change the subject suddenly in conversation, and sometimes I would babble on at inopportune times, half-hoping someone would see my grave wound of displacement and ask me about it, and half-hoping no one would.

Ankara StreetIt’s remarkable – the way we can use words without feeling their import like a knife in the heart. Like the way we can talk about homesickness and not realize what we’re talking about is a malady that wakes people up at night in dread and in loneliness, and makes every place desolate.

There are times when I put my knuckles in my mouth and cry for no apparent reason, except that I’ve fancied I smell the sea on the air, or someone on the street looks like a child I once knew, or down a hallway someone is playing oriental dance music.

The evident truth is that I am homesick. But the bigger truth is that I am not homesick for any place I know. I am homesick in the way that you are homesick – sick not only because the place where we live is not home, but because we can’t find any place that is.

I and the others who’ve been through the nations of the world, we know this by now: how it’s possible to be homesick for so many countries, and not at home in any of them. How the awkward neutral ground of the airport can be the most comfortable place you know.

Poet W.S. Merwin wrote in his poem about airports,

we travel far and fast
and as we pass through
we forget
where we have been

But this isn’t so. For we never forget where we’ve been. It comes back to us in strange ways, whether we wish to remember it or not. It comes in the fragrance of tea leaves, or a certain slant of light on the snow. It comes in snatches of so many songs and in the contrails that crease the sky. It comes in old fuzzy photographs that you don’t remember ever seeing, and in power outages and firelight and pink thyme-flowers, and billowing storms. It comes in hot soup, and unexpected valleys in the forest, and etched words on trees. It comes back to us in the lights behind doors that are shut.

May 15th 2004 001Dear children, I think you should know that all your life you’ll be haunted by these echoes that come out of nowhere and ravage your contentment. And whether you travel to all 196 countries, or never get beyond the town you were born in, this ache that tells you what you have isn’t enough – it isn’t going away.

In Greek, the word is nostos. It means to return. The word that is wedded to it, is algos. It means suffering. We call it nostalgia, a suffering caused by the unappeased longing to return. But this isn’t quite true.

Let me tell you something you might not know yet: even if you could go back, it wouldn’t be enough. Even if you could have the thing you so desperately miss, you can’t make yourself quit hungering. Just like with the doll or the telescope, your homesickness is a hunger that possession does nothing to mitigate. Children, you know already that if all your dreams are shattered, it will hurt. But you must understand that if everything comes about exactly according to your longing, it will still hurt. Homesickness doesn’t tell you what you want. It only tells you that you have not got it.

LastHomelyHouseSometime in your life you’ve seen some ghost of what you want. Somewhere you caught sight of water plunging from an ethereal height, or the winking lamps of a city far away, that tasted like the Better Country. Some page you turned spoke about it. Something whispered out of an unexpected stillness and reminded you that all striving towards wholeness is out of reach while the Last Homely House lies so desperately beyond your grasp.

There is a reason why I think you ought to express all this by saying you don’t belong here: because it’s important that you understand your dissatisfaction is no accident, no glitch in the system of the universe, no bug in the program. The hunger that you have, it has an object. Someone said it best like this,

Happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner, a memory. We are all kings in exile.”

The reason you can’t belong anywhere here? It’s because you already belong somewhere else. Those wants you have, that aren’t satisfied by anything you can get your fingers on? There is a place that has been shaped to fit into your desires.

Swallow_LastavicaThere is a book that I hope you read someday. In it a young boy who has lost everything he has, meets an old man who is passing on. “I did not want you to fly away,” the boy says.

And there is great sympathy in the old man’s voice. “But we all must fly away.” It is the ghastly, gorgeous apex of truth.

“Why must we?” asks the boy. But he is pretty sure he already knows. “Because this is not our home?”

“Yes,” says the old man, “because this is not our home.”

But if this is not our home, some other place is. “I go,” said the homeless world’s wanderer, when He was leaving, “to prepare a place for you.

Children, don’t be afraid to be hungry. Don’t be afraid if nothing fills you up. Don’t be afraid to admit that you belong to no place you’ve been to. Even supposing you could, you don’t want to get too comfortable here. After all, you won’t be here for long.

But how long the days are under the sun! – and you will be bearing your home-hunger all the way. Children, you must learn how to put roots out into the soil of a country, and make the fattest fruits you can produce, sun-ripe and splitting. After all, you may be here for a long time yet.

4000 Gifts: A Story of Arrival

P1040686Some years ago, I was seventeen, and life made almost no sense. What a surprise.

That is, I had my bearings on a great many matters, and I had a veritable collection of high ideals, but they were just that: ideals. And when you are young and living in your parents’ house, it is probable that everything worth having will seem to be far in the distance. If you are not careful, that will never change.

The story of the seventeen year old whose life makes no sense is hardly a novel one. But neither is the story of the college graduate whose life still makes no sense. Or the mid-career professional. Or the young housewife. Or the wealthy, retired couple that vacations in Europe. Or the worn old man, full of days, who finally holds up the white flag and gives his surrender to cancer, and whose life makes no sense to him at all.

P1040675The fact of the matter is, there is a sense in which life makes no sense. Ever. Because now we see through a glass darkly, and what we see is shadowy and muddled and absurd. Sometimes we know what we are looking at, despite the fact that the picture comes in blurry and unclear. But sometimes we haven’t the faintest idea.

When I was seventeen, I supposed all this would eventually change, and that at some point, I would stop running into mysteries and trouble and arrive at the place of complete satisfaction, happy in the work of my choosing, and not hungering anymore. Someday, I supposed, I would have everything I wanted, and get rid of the ache that rises up in me when the front door opens and the world smells like rain, or when the sun goes down paving the ocean with gold. But I was very wrong.

P1040641Thankfully, something happened to me four years ago to stop me in my tracks and turn me around to face my life – my own splendid life that was passing me by every day while I was refusing to take delight in it. Refusing, because the good that I had was not as good as it might be, and because I kept hoping I could make peace with the hunger in me, and would not look it in the eyes.

The thing that happened to change everything was that I stumbled over some old words, and chose to wake up to the myriads of good things that crowded me on every side, and to give them names, and to give them records. Most significantly, this was the only thing that changed. For in every other way, my life went on just as it had been going on, and nothing was different but myself.

P1040628I have filled hundreds and hundreds of pages, and made lists that are crooked and illustrated them with little patches of paintings that are disproportionate and smudged and sometimes just plain ugly. And my days have been checkered with darkness, and not a few regrets, but when I go back to look at what remains of them, what I see is hundreds and hundreds of gifts, for that is all I have recorded of all this time.

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

someone asked in a little poem from the past century. For when we’re in debt to love so immense, every little thing that we get is a gift.

This week was the four-year anniversary of the gift-lists in my life. This week I put down #4000 in a little spiral-bound notebook, with a worn-out pen. Like this:

#4000 – “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

P1040670And thus did I arrive at the place I was seeking, and found out it was exactly the place I was living.

The time to arrive at the place of complete satisfaction is now. Because satisfaction isn’t found in a place or a time or a country. It’s found in the World’s Great Lover. And you’re going to hunger all your days – all of these days that you spend down here under the sun. So you might as well stop trying to put a gag in the gaping, and decide to put a good face on it instead.

Take heart, for the day is coming when we shall know fully, even as we are fully known.

Having Decided To Stay FREE for Kindle — just two days!

Having Decided To Stay, Bryana Johnson, Kindle

I have some great news for you this weekend! Amazon is offering the Kindle edition of my poetry collection, Having Decided to Stay, for free, just today and tomorrow. Hop on over there and pick up a copy for yourself to see what it’s all about.

If you read the book and enjoy it, a quick review over at Amazon or Goodreads is always deeply appreciated.

Don’t forget that you can also purchase beautiful paperback copies of the book. Perhaps one of these would make a perfect Christmas present for someone you know?

 

Having Decided To Stay Released for Kindle!

Having Decided To Stay, Bryana Johnson, Kindle

My poetry collection, Having Decided to Stay, has just been released for Kindle! You can now get the e-book for only $3.99. If you prefer the paperback, it’s available here.

Also, don’t forget to enter your name for the goodreads givewaway that ends in just three days…

If you have read Having Decided to Stay and enjoyed it, I invite you to help a struggling author and share your thoughts in a review over at Amazon or Goodreads. I’m grateful for every one of your words!