Doris Lessing and the Very Important Fact

breakfast in sweden

Yesterday I flew to Stockholm, and drove on to Uppsala, where for next three days I’m working with a group Swedish colleagues on the  early stage building of a Shared Reading movement in this country.  This group has been pulled together by Kerstin Rydbeck, Professor of  Library and Information Studies here in Uppsala, a specialist in reading and social change. I met her in Norway at a similar get together last year and last summer she was one of the group of international supporters who came to be part of The Reader’s International Conference at Calderstones just before we closed the building for restoration.

It is a great experience to go to another country and find groups of people sharing reading  in their own language and in their own literature, eager to learn from the work done by The Reader since our first Shared Reading group in 2002.

Uppsala is an hour ahead of English time so I woke up at 6.00am here, in daylight. Found myself lying in bed, looking forward to spending a little more time with The Immortality Ode this morning. What came into my mind was the word ‘home’, which was where I left things yesterday.

Dear Reader, are you getting tired of me going so very slowly through this poem? I’m down to one word a day now! If you are finding it irritating, think of meditation. Staying on one word is just as good as reading hundreds of them, perhaps better. Each word has a lot of stuff we can think about it – the point of poetry is not to get to the end but to get to the realms of gold.  I do that by slow reading.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I’d said yesterday that the word ‘God’ in the penultimate line used to cause me trouble. It was a word I found impossible to use, so loaded it seemed with other people’s meanings. I would read those lines by substituting a kind of blurry ‘x’ or ‘?’ for the difficult word.

..trailing clouds of glory do we come
From ‘x’, who is our home:

If you do this – and I had to do it to get past the idea of ‘God’ which otherwise blocked me – a lot of emphasis naturally  falls on ‘home’.  I love the idea of home, of finding a place, of being safe in it, of it being my, or even better, our place. This is an emotional longing, not a practical reality: I wouldn’t say I was a good homemaker, though have got better at it in the second half of my life. I have never felt ‘at home’ in the world, in my childhood, youth or young womanhood, always felt adrift, not there properly, not safe, not home. When I met Chaucer’s poem ‘Trouthe’ in the third year of University, I was knocked out by the line (about earth);

Here is none Home, here is but wilderness

That’s the truth, I thought and  have had the line in memory ever since. So the idea of ‘god’ or ‘x’ being our home, in Wordsworth’s poem struck a  strong chord with me. I want a home!  There’s a problem here, of course, with the pronoun. You can’t call ‘x’  ‘who’.

Why, I wondered for many years, is it ‘who’, rather than ‘which’ ? Sorry my technical grammar is not too good, and I’m not sure what part of speech ‘which’ is but it feels  as if , if it was there, (as in, ‘x’ which is our home) it would function as a sort of pronoun of place… unlike ‘who’, which always relates to person.

Frankly, I just ignored that problem. I didn’t know how to make sense of it and couldn’t, so I ignored it and got what I could: there is or was once the possibility of ‘home’. That realisation made me happy. That ‘home’, I understood, exists outside of or behind our mortal life. It’s behind us! that’s why we have a drifting cloud of something like memory about it.

Did this thinking make me ‘believe’ in ‘God’? No.

But it opened up an area where ‘x’ was a possible space to be filled. I could think some extra thoughts, name some additional feelings in this area. It expanded my conception a bit. Not that I could put it into words at all.  I can only describe the experience as a sort of space opening up, a cloudiness where nothing had previously been. When I met my hero, Doris Lessing, for the first time in 1983, I spent a day in her company and when I put her on the train at Lime Street that evening she said to me as if passing on a Very Important Fact to a Bear of Very Little Brain; ‘I do believe in God , you know. But I’d never say so in public.’

That seemed to connect to my experience of the Immortality Ode. But I didn’t know how.

Time’s up – must get to the breakfast buffet.

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