Seeing the light in Sweden

uppsalaYesterday was Day One of the  ‘let’s start Shared Reading’ get-together in Uppsala. People have come from various parts of Sweden and from more than several disciplines; academics, students, mental health professionals and librarians, community, regional and hospital-based. Hospital library man says ‘Our work (in a big General Hospital) is trolley-based, we take books round the wards to people too ill to go to a library; when I’m recruiting I say I don’t care if you love books, do you care for people? Otherwise you can’t do this job…’

A woman working in dementia care tells me that lighting a candle in the middle of the table during a reading session helps people focus and concentrate, the candle ‘is like fire to humans, or from their childhood, and it says something special is about to happen here.’

In a Shared Reading session (Thomas Hardy’s poem,  I Look Into My Glass’ , professional  women talk about  the invisibility ( and thus freedom) of older women. ‘When I was young men saw me but not so much my mind. Now they see (sometimes) my mind but for this (indicating body) I am not there.’

I was struck, as I have been each time I’ve visited a Scandinavian country, by the level of education and commitment to citizenship and social values. At dinner a librarian tells me she has volunteered as a ‘language friend’ to an Afghani woman recently arrived in Sweden.  The woman attended the first session with husband, cousins  and both children. ‘She has more Swedish than I have Pashtun, so she’ll be able to help me: she is a knitter so we’ll be able to talk about that.’   How come you are doing this? ‘I read about it in the papers and thought I have to do something. So… I volunteer.’

Two women from a publishing house explain their business to me. It was set up forty-odd years ago to get great books to the workers. There is a strong workers’ education movement in Sweden. The books were paperbacks produced in huge numbers and distributed mainly through the union. ‘Each week you get your pay and you get a book.’ They still work closely with unions, but also do outreach into non-reading and non-working communities, particularly giving out children’s books and working with  ‘new Swedes’.  Could such a publishing house help with Shared Reading in Sweden. ‘That’s why we are here!’

I want to bring them to England to meet with The Reader’s friends in publishing in England.

But to my morning reading. Yesterday I’d got up to the word ‘home’ in the Wordsworth poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, which you can read in full here. I had been working on this section;

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!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

There’s a great leap from ‘god who is our home’ marked by the colon (in some versions it is a semi colon.) Like a cliff edge to fly off from, the colon sits there, marking a spot and we know some other thought is coming, which, as we continue to glide off that cliff,  from ‘home’, it does:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I am trying to think of this line in relation to modern neuro-thinking and psychology: what is the translation? Babies arrive without lived experience, and the innocent clean-slated-ness of that is palpable to habituated and world-experienced adults. Could that be expressed as ‘heaven lies about us in our infancy!’

More simply, there’s also a lovely image of the infant lying in their cot, a mist of something clear and golden about them. But perhaps exhausted parents of new-borns think I am exuding a whiff of sentimentality? Quite possibly yes, if you are your thirty-fourth night of interrupted sleep as a new parent. But even so, I bet, you still feel something extraordinarily wonderful  and realms of gold-ish about your baby, sometimes. But Wordsworth can’t stop here long, in Heaven, he’s no sooner got that exclamation mark down on the page, before he must rush, like the fleeting years of youth, on to a very leaden reality;

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,

One minute heaven lies about you, next, shades of the prison-house begin to close, and only an exclamation mark and a line-ending between them! Now we are in a downhill-all-the-way-race towards the adult life:

Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

And there we are: our adult selves, stuck with everyday reality. What a  come-down. This section feels almost like one of those cartoon diagrams of evolution. You see a sun rise, cross the sky and  go down. The path of sun marks the journey from the radiance of heaven in infancy to boyhood – where the child none the less’ beholds the light and whence it flows’ – to youth where, though we have to move away, yet we are still aware of and able to see ‘ the vision splendid’ and it seems to be coming with us, almost in the place of a servant;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;

The ‘vision splendid’  attends on the youth, as if serving his light-filled purpose, which is to go on… until finally, the grown adult, the man, sees it fade ‘into the light of common day’ and we are rising and going to work, coming home tired, watching telly and eating our supper and going to bed and rising and going to work and ……everything has reverted to the norm, and where is the radiance of  infancy?

The most worrying thing to me is the verb ‘perceives’ – that adults are aware of their loss and feel it happening though it seems they are unable to do anything about it.

How, as a young reader, in my mid-twenties, did I know this was true? I’d  had that feeling,  of course. I’d felt ‘it’ fade away … but was ‘it’?

The poem calls it ‘heaven’ and later, ‘light’. I didn’t have a word for it, but I’d had the experience of it, so was glad to find Wordsworth putting it into words.

Adult life may be mainly  loss of whatever heaven that was that lay about us in our infancy,  but it also makes me grateful for what I see of the light whenever I do see it. Yesterday, learning about these people and their lives, about their  dedication to learning and reading and social care, about the hospital librarian recruiting people to spread the light via the book trolley, made me glad about and hopeful for my fellow humans.

3 thoughts on “Seeing the light in Sweden

  1. Jamie April 6, 2017 / 9:21 am

    I wish I would’ve had this poem with me in my late teens when I was trying to explain to my counsellor why I was so scared all the time – I only knew it had something to do with losing something as I grew up. The beautiful thing here is how Wordsworth is able to bring the feeling into the light.

    • drjanedavis April 6, 2017 / 9:28 am

      Thanks for reading aling with me, Jamie! More poetry in young peoples mental health provision might be a good thing.

  2. Lydia Moore April 6, 2017 / 4:42 pm

    Wonderful, Jane, thank you!

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