Courage and Faith

I’ve been semi-writing the little story I’m working on now (I don’t think it’s going to end up being a little story) for more than a year. It’s been somewhere in my mind since 1999.

This whole year — 2019 — I was deeply involved in three projects — finishing The Price, keeping my vow to the young woman I was 40 years ago to finish HER story, and then the China book. But always this project hung around like a dog who wants to live with me.

Now that I’m finished being famous (at least for this year) and all the broo-ha-ha of the holidays is distilling into the actual holidays I’m “stuck” with the project. I surrendered to it a couple of weeks ago and started just getting down to it every morning. It meant back-tracking, mostly, and getting reacquainted with the story as I have known it so far. It’s kind of nice to look at writing that way — kind of from the outside but with the ability to improve it because it’s yours. I found a lot of small inconsistencies, like characters nodding in response to a blind man. OH WELL…

But as I worked, I felt the story take hold of me. The dates began to line up and dead ends in my research. If you write about the early/mid 13th century you find out that — 1) not a lot remains, 2) not a lot was recorded, 3) people in those days didn’t keep great records; they didn’t have paper and it seems that what mattered most were finances and God, 4) they had no idea I’d be writing about them; I’m sure if they did, they’d have been more thorough. 😀

I began with the idea of showing something of the life of the Goliards, and that’s still my course, but it looks like there will be much, much more. I’d hoped to write a novel that had nothing to do with religion, but it looks like that’s not going to happen this time. When a writer finds his/her characters he/she has to submit to their lives. A writer can start out — here’s a guy and what he/she does — but once that’s happened, I think maybe particularly with historical fiction — the times capture the character, and he/she goes off to live in his/her world taking the writer with him/her.

It’s not much fun writing when you don’t know where your story is going. It’s easy to say, “Well THAT’S not happening,” when it doesn’t feel like it’s happening. More than once I’ve experienced that, and it’s not easy to keep going. But I’ve also experienced that if I keep going, it’s going to tell me what it is and where I have to take it. That’s where this story arrived the day before yesterday. Sometimes I wonder if I write my stories or if they just use me.

A Few Words in Honor of Rust

A few weeks ago I got some porn in my email. No no no not THAT kind of porn, but PERSONAL porn, the kind that whets my appetite and gets the juices of inspiration flowing. I got advertising from Natural Pigments. Yeah, I know…

You might not know but beginning with Martin of Gfenn I fell in love with pigments. I’ve always loved paints, colors, all that. I even had a dream once in which a bag of ultramarine blue hanging from an awning outside a shop in Venice Beach, CA, was “drugs.” Yes, a dream, but it happened in real life, years and years later. I was driving through Venice Beach with Denis Joseph Francis Callahan and saw — you guessed it — a plastic bag with ultramarine blue pigment hanging from an awning. In the dream I was riding with my dad; in real life I was riding with a guy who looked, talked and acted like my dad.

You figure it out.

ANY-hoooo here was an advertisement for natural pigments like those Martin of Gfenn would have painted with. I was very excited, went to their website, saw that my entire DREAM of painting as they did in medieval times was about to come true if ONLY I had the money… To buy the equipment, raw pigments and tools? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even begin to do it. You see, besides finances, I don’t have a real studio. I have a big room which is ordinarily great but not for a fresco shop…

I kept going back and back and of course, they tracked me and finally I saw a set I could (almost) afford. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I could do that. I could paint with that, those colors.” You see, I’ve seen some of these colors in real life clinging to karst cliffs on the hills north of Verona. I’ve touched them. I have had REAL Verona green on my actual hand.

So after sleeping on it for a few nights I went to their website and put the set of medieval/early Renaissance colors in my “basket.” Then I logged out. I had to sleep on it some more. It was a $60 investment. They sent me an email offering me 15% off if I ordered what was in my basket.

They arrived today. In case you ever wonder what most of the colors early artists (and contemporary landscape artists) paint with are made of I can tell you. They are made of Iron Oxide. They are essentially made of rust. Isn’t that beautiful? Iron is the fourth most abundant metal on earth and is so ubiquitous because of its ability to mix with other elements using air, water, fire — it’s just the nature of iron to color things. Potassium is also one of the elements in these colors — iron and potassium oxide.

Anyway, I have already got a painting in mind for these beautiful things. I can’t wait to open the tubes and see the colors in real life. I’m sure I’ve painted with them already in other paints, but these are made with nothing but the mineral and linseed oil, the old way. I also have a tube of real ultramarine blue paint made from lapis lazuli that I will add to these five tubes.

The Best Library of My Life — St. Gallen Stiftsbibliothek

On a winter’s day in a deep and dark December in 1997 I opened a door way that led into a gaudy rococo structure that housing thousands of books I could never read.

It was the Library at the Abbey of St. Gall in St. Gallen, Switzerland. I had just dipped a toe into my personal medieval period. I’d recently read How the Irish Saved Civilization (which I’d bought because I thought it would be funny…) by Thomas Cahill, and I was excited to learn that a couple of Irish monks — Columbanus and Gall — had crossed the channel in little round boats and carried the Bible (and other books) up the Rhine. Gall got pneumonia at what is now St. Gallen and left Columbanus on his own to journey to Italy. Apparently Columbanus was a irritated with Gall for being such a sissy, but pneumonia is no joke…

Columbanus and Gall on Lake Constanz (dem Bodensee)


Gall set up a hermitage and a small library with a few books and he gathered followers and saved souls. He is the patron Saint of Switzerland. His animal friend is a bear. The story is:

… that once he was travelling in the woods of what is now Switzerland. One evening he was sitting down warming his hands at a fire. A bear emerged from the woods and charged. The holy man rebuked the bear, so awed by his presence it stopped its attack and slunk off to the trees. There it gathered firewood before returning to share the heat of the fire with St Gall. The legend says that for the rest of his days St Gall was followed around by his companion the bear.

At first, the library itself disappointed me. I guess I wanted to open the door and enter the 8th century or something. The current library was built in the 18th century. I find it very difficult to see anything in a baroque room, and the Abbey Library is one step beyond baroque — it’s rococo. It’s so full of embellishments and ornaments that my mind becomes confused.

Main hall of the Library of the Abbey of St. Gall

But once I got used to it — and librarian came to talk to us (we were the only people there) — I stopped trying to see through the gold and stucco and began to see and understand where I was. He showed me a medieval map of the world.

8th or 9th century CE map of the world

You can see that it’s oriented (ha ha) to the East, the rising sun — Christ. All the three continents are surrounded by sea. The map is less for navigating physical space as it is for navigating spiritual space. This is a somewhat unusual medieval map of the world because it doesn’t SAY Jerusalem is the center, but it is. I saw a couple other maps on which cities were drawn, and Jerusalem was always depicted as the largest city and had tall, shining towers. Although I didn’t understand at that moment, having only at that point dipped one toe into the medieval world, that the physical and spiritual worlds overlaid each other and that the physical world was but a metaphor for spiritual space.

Of all the amazing things this man explained about the books in the glass cases, other books on the library’s locked shelves, and books too old and fragile to be touched at all was that there are some written in languages people don’t know any more. Apparently researchers are working on that, but I thought at the time that it is incredibly sad. Here are words written in very difficult circumstances, with oak-gall ink on parchment with quill pens, stories, ideas, beliefs, philosophies, knowledge and experiences that their writers were desperate to transmit to the future. And there the three of us stood — my friend, the librarian and I — discussing how no one could read them.

He took us into a hallway behind the main room — it was modern, gray and white — with doors along it. “All these rooms have people working on this problem.” Just then a young woman wearing white cotton gloves came out of one of the doors and greeted the librarian. I got a vision of busy young people in white gloves behind all those doors struggling to decode old words. I wondered what they would find.

Of all the wonders in the library, though, for me one of the most wonderful was the inscription written in Greek over the entrance which, thanks to Michael J. Preston, I could read on my own.

Medicine Chest for the Soul

I continued to pursue St. Gall in various places in Switzerland that winter, including a trip to Basel to see the Gallus Portal at the cathedral. I learned a lot — not the least of which that ignorance is a wonderful wonderful wonderful thing because once curiosity is awakened, and you chase knowledge, you will get more than you possibly could have imagined.

I didn’t know HALF of what I was looking at that winter, but on my second to last day, my friend’s mom told him to take me to visit a little medieval church near where they lived. The church is in the village of Gfenn, outside Dubendorf, both north of Zürich. And the rest? It’s historical fiction. ❤

Lazariter Kirche im Gfenn

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/rdp-wednesday-library/

More than Finesse

I like to write and that’s kind of a problem at the moment because the project I have now is nothing but a random collection of vignettes. I don’t see the whole project. I haven’t even figured out (or seen?) who the protagonist is. Of course, it’s set in the dim past about which we don’t have a lot of knowledge. It’s set in the early 13th century, before the beginning of a historical moment that some Kool-aid drinkers call the “Renaissance.” But the more I delve into this historical moment the more convinced I am that there is no such thing as a “Renaissance” and it was just a “Make the Papacy Great Again” thing. In real life, Europe was in a building, painting frenzy long before MPGA, halted, for the moment, by the plague in the 14th century.

The story is set in Verona, Italy, during the time when the REAL Montagues and Capulets were feuding. They aren’t part of my story. Buildings that are now old were new, some unfinished. Imagining the city then is very difficult partly because I haven’t been there in 15 years and, if I were to return now, I would have a hard time finding it under the concretion of time.

But, I know what to do. Keep writing. Something will come clear or it won’t and, as I prepare to “launch” the China book (sort of like a three year old bottle rocket in drizzle) I remember why I write.

I thought of this last night as I was watching — am still watching because I didn’t finish it — a movie called “Morning Glory.” It’s entertaining. Besides two stars from “my” era (Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton), it features a young woman with “dreams.” Early on in the movie she loses her job, and her mom sits her down and does what she can to dispel those dreams. “When you were 8, it was cute. When you were 18, it was inspiring. At 28, it’s just embarrassing. Stop now before it becomes heartrending.” Somewhat of a paraphrase but generally OK. I wanted to slap the mom. Everyone has a right to pursue their dream. Trying to protect someone from failure is cruel.

Plenty of people back in the day tried to talk me out of writing. Why? What in the world did my writing have to do with them? Success or failure, either of them, both of them, belonged to me. People who do this? I figured they’d been talked out of their own dreams and their arguments were nothing more than expressions of bitterness and envy. LIFE is the outcome of following a dream. Success is something else altogether, the confluence between vision, effort and the zeitgeist.
I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. I have always been a writer. I don’t know why. During the Great Purge of 2015, I found early stories I’d “written” (scribbled) and had asked my dad to read to me. He saved some. His last Christmas gift to me was a pen and pencil set. I lost the tag that went with them, but it said, “Keep writing.” The tag in the photo came from the other gift he gave me that year; his copy of the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam. He died in February, 1972 of complications from Multiple Sclerosis.

Over the years the question of “being a writer” redefined itself. At one point I thought being a writer meant fame, not writing particularly. You write something and you get famous and you’re a writer. Then I read an essay by William S. Burroughs about Kerouac. Burroughs was asked if Kerouac was a writer, meaning real writer like Faulkner or Hemingway or someone in the context of the time.

Well, Kerouac, Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote. And many people who call themselves writers and have their names down on book jackets are not writers and they can’t write.

http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/william-burroughs-on-jack-kerouac-at_14.html


When “being a writer” meant simply writing, my idea changed. Then there was the “so what?” of it, the how. I got my answer to that question from a character in my first novel, Martin of Gfenn when he has to choose between painting over a bad painting (fresco) or scraping it off the wall and starting over. The work itself deserves the best I have to give it even if “nothing” ever happens with it.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/06/25/rdp-tuesday-sub-finesse/

A Wandering Minstrel, I…

Everything’s on sale today, even WordPress blogs. Once I went (with the Evil-X who was a shopaholic) to an electronics store in San Diego — Frye’s — on Black Friday, and the line around the store was 2 hours to get in. He was even ready to stand in line. What could be in there that was worth two hours of my life? 

I hate shopping, but like most people I get that little “high” from buying something I want. I mostly shop online. I got into that habit when I was working so much that going to stores was almost impossible. I learned that there are a lot of ordinary things that are cheaper that way (toilet paper?). 

Now I’m starting to research the Goliards, and that’s involved shopping for books that no one wants to read. I bought some.

Books like these are usually extremely expensive (my Amazon wishlist is full of books I want but will never be able to afford) or really cheap.

One of the interesting parts of research is that it usually starts with one book and that book has footnotes that lead to books that are more helpful. Right now I’m reading Helen Waddell’s  The Wandering Scholars. I like it (her) because she also rejects the term “Dark Ages,” and because of her clear passion for these wandering scholars (I also love them), but her writing presupposes knowledge I don’t have, AND she gushes. Her assumptions have made me reach and shown me what I need to learn, but the gushing… I don’t know. Still it’s not a history book; it’s an introduction to a time and place. Generally I like it — but what I like most are the occasional quotations from the poetry she’s writing about, poems mostly written in Medieval Latin, which, of course, I can’t read. Most of the medieval lyric poems I’ve read have been in medieval German which is bizarrely like Middle English. Actually, not all that bizarrely. Conveniently.

The Wandering Scholars relates some beautiful stories of these people, and one point has really hit home. Back in medieval times, if a person wanted a real education, he had to join a monastery. Lots of people joined monasteries for this reason (as well as others that had nothing to do with a monastic calling). Even with the grand teachers and the collections of books, monastery walls were confining. At a certain point, their minds heavily laden with the classics and the scripture, many of these scholars just needed out. They were called vagabonds, wanderers. Here’s a story:

Some are born wanderers; some have it thrust upon them; but the word vagus denotes often a mental quality…Ekkehard’s [ have no idea who that is, another rabbit hole for me] use of it is interesting.: he tells a story of a young monk of St. Gall, of a mind incorrigibly vagus, with whom discipline could do nothing and how, on a certain day, being forbidden to go beyond the monastery, he climbed in his restlessness the campanile — “O that I were where I (could) but see” — to look abroad, and missing his foot, crashed to the ground. (The Wandering Scholars)

This young monk dies, but not before he asks for his soul to be commended to the Virgins, because, he says, he is one. The attending doctor has masses said for the young scholar’s soul every year.

I was that restless person long ago. The rhythm of the wanderer’s life (as Helen Waddell writes) is that in youth, some need wide horizons and will sacrifice everything to have them. When they’re older many of the vagabond scholars settled down to monastic lives, sometimes of great severity. I’m not especially restless now. Most of the wide horizons I sought are now contained within me. 

Anyway, it’s fascinating, and I’m loving what I’m learning. Long ago, before I knew anything about the Middle Ages, I suspected this second world without knowing for sure it existed. When I wrote Martin of Gfenn I sensed, without knowing for sure, that there was an undercurrent of what we call “Humanism” beneath everything. It just seemed illogical that there wouldn’t have been. In the process of writing that book I found a wonderful book of German medieval lyric poetry that supported my idea very clearly and made me curious about who these people were. Then, finding the Codex Manesse, a beautiful book from the 13th/14th centuries that preserves — with illustrations! — the stories of the lives of these poets was pretty solid evidence.

I have a long journey ahead of me before I find my story. I think it is about Michele, Martin of Gfenn’s painting teacher, but I might be wrong. 

“Let no one in his travelling
Go against the wind,
Let him not, because he’s poor,
Look as though he sorrows.
Let him set before himself
Hope’s consolation, for
After sorrow comes,
Delight.”

Carmina Burana

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/11/23/rdp-friday-shop/

You Can’t Handle the Past

I write historical fiction so the words “the past” is not just my own past (which seems fictional a lot of the time) but a lot of peoples’ pasts. Mostly I don’t think we know that much about it. Even our own.

The other night I was talking on the phone with an old friend and he shared a memory with me of a time that I don’t remember and don’t think happened. I could see the conversation going into that place where a lot of conversations go, so I just said. “Interesting. I don’t remember that.” He started justifying his memory of events, and I just let him.

Who knows?

What stands out in the memory of person A might not in the memory of person B — for a lot of reasons. In this case, if this event he remembered so vividly DID happen, it would have been crowded out of my memory by things that happened afterward — my mom being hospitalized, having to fly to Montana, fearing I’d gotten scabies from a dog we tried to rescue, etc. etc. a whole litany of chaos that included both the dishwasher and washing machine breaking, my purse stolen and my car breaking down. Yep. All in one evening. Those things didn’t happen to my friend or involve him directly. Why WOULD he remember them? He doesn’t.

History is propaganda. I saw that most clearly when I was researching the way lepers were treated in the middle ages. There was a clear discrepancy between what the literature of the era said and what modern historians said. All this was being examined at the time by paleo-historians who were digging up graveyards in what were regarded (by modern historians) as “leper colonies.” What they found supported the literature of the time and went against the whole pariah myth that — it turns out — was a post plague thing and propagated by Sir Walter Scott hundreds of years later.  The marginalized leper was not a medieval thing and medieval doctors diagnosed leprosy accurately.

Then there is the noxious historical period known as the Renaissance. I don’t think there was any Renaissance at all. A sixteenth century Italian propagandist and second-rate painter, Giorgio Vasari, coined the term to describe his OWN period in history. Yeah, there was a lot of beautiful work done at this time, but it was because the church was 1) rich and 2) threatened by the Reformation. All that beautiful painting and stuff? Big character posters.

Then there’s the floating point of historical periods. Giotto — because people in some era future to his own liked his work — has been included in the Renaissance because his paintings are not “primitive and medieval.” This is (to Renaissance propagandists) clearly an indication that the art of painting was progressing, moving toward Michelangelo et. al. It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone that Giotto lived and worked in a century — the fourteenth century — that these same historians have included in the “Dark Ages.” Fuck them. It pisses me off every time I think of it. Giotto’s work was loved and sought in his own era. They have a right to it — as long as we’re going to arbitrarily assign eras to history.

And WHY did medieval painting cling to the Byzantine model so long? Was it REALLY because medieval artists couldn’t paint “better” than that? No. It was because they believed that the Holy Family should not be depicted as ordinary human beings.

h5_60.173

Berlinghiero Madonna and Child, 13th century

There’s a lot of medieval painting that isn’t of the Holy Family, and a lot to be learned by looking at it. Just a couple of very random examples, 12th and 13th century secular paintings:

 

Anyway, you can see the “past” is kind of a “hot button” topic for me. I could rant all day on how the Reformation ruined the color and beauty of the Middle Ages by stripping the churches, making a cult out of the color black and destroying paintings, but I won’t. Just remember when you think of the past — even your own past — you might be editorializing without even knowing it.

Featured image: The Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto di Bondone, fresco at Assisi

 

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/ragtag-tuesday-past/

Rosebuds

I’ve begun reading the Goliard poetry. The commentary/introduction to the Goliards of the book I’m reading, Wine, Women and Song by John Addington Symonds irked me big time yesterday. It was all Renaissance this Renaissance that and you know, that bugs me. The way historians conventionally talk about the Renaissance you’d think all that just SPRANG out of nothing, that people lived their primitive, un-Roman, grubby little lives until, voilá, Leonardo. The book is around 150 years old, but that notion lingers on.

This historian compared Goliard poetry to Renaissance poetry and, IMO, that requires a time machine. If I were an intellectual living in the 1880s I’d be tempted to look more at INFLUENCE than comparison, but not this guy. I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. An example — at the end of a long and beautiful love poem, the benighted Mr. Symmonds writes:

It would surely be superfluous to point out the fluent elegance of this poem, or to dwell farther upon the astonishing fact that anything so purely Renaissance in tone should have been produced in the twelfth century.

I want to throttle him.

It’s funny to me how we name historical epochs (for our convenience) and then go on as if it were a real thing. “Hey, Leonardo, dude, here’s what I’m thinking. Renaissance? What’s your take on that? Like it? I think it’s a hell of a marketing stragedy for my badass ceiling and sculptures.”

“Mike, leave me alone. I’m writing secrets backwards.”

Yesterday I read this 12th century exhortation to love (remember, these are songs):

THE INVITATION TO YOUTH.
No. 8.

Take your pleasure, dance and play,
Each with other while ye may:
Youth is nimble, full of grace;
Age is lame, of tardy pace.

We the wars of love should wage,
Who are yet of tender age;
‘Neath the tents of Venus dwell
All the joys that youth loves well.

Young men kindle heart’s desire;
You may liken them to fire:
Old men frighten love away
With cold frost and dry decay.

For some reason, it reminded me of THIS (written during the Renaissance):

To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former. 

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The Carmina Burana is filled with songs on this theme.

What IF (and this is a revolutionary thought) one thing leads to another?

But I’m not fair to Mr. Symmonds. His job was to open the minds of his readers to the notion that the Middle Ages were NOT a Dark Ages. He used the handholds he had to do this. I’m not exactly the audience for whom he was writing and I bet the audience he hoped to reach got his point which was, “Hey, these are really cool and beautiful songs kind of like all that stuff you like from the Renaissance!”

There are HUNDREDS of Goliard songs. I can’t imagine that they just lurked in dark taverns with iconoclastic young clerics. I’d bet they were EVERYWHERE these wandering scholars went in their, uh, wandering. I bet LOTS of non-wandering scholars — you know, just people? — knew them. I bet they had a larger influence than we know or the Church would not have wanted so badly to stem the tide of disillusioned drunken libidinous clerics wandering Europe, looking for teaching jobs and criticizing the hypocrisy of the church.

The OTHER egregious thing Mr. Symmonds does is compare some of the church-criticizing poetry to the Reformation. Again, that requires a time machine. BUT…WE look at the Reformation as a discrete event in history that sprang up spontaneously (simultaneous to the Renaissance?) but it wasn’t. Symmonds even opens his book with a quotation from Martin Luther. Again, for his Post-Reformation readers, that could strike a chord legitimizing the redemption of the “Dark Ages”.

The British art historian, Waldemar Januszczak, in his series for the BBC The Renaissance Unchained makes a good case (pretty much my case). His argument is that the Renaissance is Papist propaganda designed to combat the Reformation. When I began watching the series a year or so ago, and he made that point, I cheered. I’m not casting aspersions on so-called Renaissance art at all (it’s amazing), but those guys were PAID to paint and sculpt what they did to convey the message the Church wanted them to.

Do I like the songs/poems I’m reading? Not a lot, actually, but what’s behind them is very attractive. A whole world. Reading one spring/love/sex poem after another brought me to poor old Faust on Easter, bewailing his age and all the years he’d spent in study rather than gathering rosebuds.

That roses have thorns is, maybe, the wisdom of old age.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/mallet/