Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Book Review: Thomas Becket by Frank Barlow



What do you know of Thomas Becket? Maybe you've heard that some king or other said, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" and a bunch of knights immediately set off and offed the poor archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral.

If you've got a little more history under your belt, perhaps you recall that Thomas and the King (probably a Henry - there were so many of them) were close friends until Henry made Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury in order to have a yes man in the top church post. Unfortunately, Thomas got an attack of conscience and started acting like a churchman, until [see above].

The latter was pretty much my recall, so when I resolved to follow the trend of picking a patron saint
for the year, I decided that 1) it should be an English saint and 2) there should be a decent book about him/her. Frank Barlow's biography is a new edition of the 1986 original, published especially for the Folio society. It's a traditional history book rather than the journalistic or novelistic biography that we expect nowadays. He tries to present a fair summary of the available evidence, and to make the context clear for readers who don't have a lot of medieval history. This means that in parts, the book lags. I felt pretty confused by all the tangents he went off on at the beginning, until I decided that I could read for the big story with a clear conscience. The couple of chapters on Thomas's exile are also a little tedious, but probably not as much for us as they were for Thomas's clerk Herbert of Boshom, who complained of their time in an isolated monastery that he was stuck between monks and a pile of stones.



And to be fair, it's a hard story to tell. Imagine a game of human chess where the principal pieces can both make moves and be played by other pieces. That about sums up the situation in medieval Europe. In England, we have a church still establishing its authority, not only in relation to the crown, but internally, as various bishoprics still dispute primacy (significantly, whether the archbishop of Canterbury has authority over all other bishops). The crown itself is in the shaky hands of the new ruling Angevin family under Henry II. Across the Channel, Henry has also to manage his lands on the Continent, which he rules in various capacities, and negotiate his relationship with Louis VII of France, alternately his ally and enemy, who also happens to be his wife's first husband, his overlord, and father of his son Henry's wife. Throw in a split papacy with a pope and anti pope, vying for supremacy and alternately courted and shunned by secular powers according to their political needs, and you get a taste of the times. It's complicated.

So in one way, the story is never just about Henry and Thomas but about the pan-European power struggles of Church and state. And yet in another it is: two extremely proud men, close companions as King and High Chancellor, who become fatal frenemies, neither willing to concede to the other. I came out of the book thinking that for Thomas, death was not too high a price to pay to be the victor in their quarrel. And essentially, he was. He became the celebrity saint England craved to rival those on the Continent; Henry is barely remembered unless it is in the context of his redoubtable wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or the famous and infamous sons who rebelled against him, Richard the Lionheart and John. (Until, of course, an even prouder Henry crushed both his tomb and the power of the Catholic church in England.)

So does he live up to his hagiographies? No: during his exile, the English church became denuded of the leaders it desperately needed as bishoprics sat empty, and he quarrelled with the important men remaining. True, he 'reformed' his life somewhat, but mostly in the sense of conforming to a monastic rule of life, and an attempt to improve his sadly lacking formal education. He went to his death still disputing with the king he had once mentored. Thomas is the saint who should never have been one.

On the other hand, there are plenty of us who need a saint like that ;)

Thomas's shrine at Canterbury

Friday, April 21, 2017

7 Quick Takes 54: Vintage Mother: bodywork

OK, now Lent is over, I can talk about vain and fleshly (not to mention fleshy) things. Please forgive the ragged editing - it's been a long week with a restless toddler and orphaned mouse...

1. I've mentioned before that, after (very) late baby number three, I've been left with a mummy tummy for the first time in my life. For months, I was halfhearted about it. I had plenty of excuses: I needed to eat enough to keep up my energy mothering and breastfeeding a toddler; my body was going to hang onto those extra pounds for safety until he weaned.  And I was getting a little slimmer. I no longer felt like Nurse Gladys from Open All Hours (I'm not sure if US readers ever got that series - it's an early David Jason classic).

Just grin and suck it all in...

2. Back to the story. My best excuse was that I was pretty sure I had split abs because why else would my stomach stick out so much? Fed up with hearing this for the umpteenth time, my teenage daughter ordered: "Suck in your stomach." She gave me a poke. "Your abs aren't split. Do sit ups."

Out of the mouths of babes and teens with no filter, as they say...

3.The basic plan was obvious. Less food and more exercise. Except I love to eat and dislike exercising. I'd been walking the toddler about five mornings a week, and doing yoga stretches several evenings, but it was time to take it up a notch.

I began by digging out an old DVD for a "body resistance workout" which doesn't use any equipment. The instructor's style is part friend, part sergeant major. He says helpful things like, "If you're already exercising, you could do three sets of fifteen repetitions." I can get up to about five repetitions total of some of the exercises. Stamina is over rated.

4. 'Relief' came in the form of a subscription to Amazon Prime and their free exercise videos. Granted, most seem to be cheesy and cheap, and actually shot in someone's living room, but since I'm exercising in mine, I can't complain. But stamina is still over rated. As is a washboard stomach.

5. Part of the overhaul included admitting my eyesight was getting fuzzier and heading off to the optician, whom I hadn't seen for years, and apparently wasn't seeing any better. Plus, we had spare money in our Mediflex account to be used up before the tax year was out. I overspent it by about double, but came out with a very nice pair of new glasses. Out of curiosity, I put them on for the drive home, and my first thought was, "How am I still alive?". I mean, who knew that cars weren't blurry round the edges 100 yards ahead?

6. To help things along, I ignored the "Don't give up chocolate" argument floating around the Catholic blogosphere and gave it up for Lent anyway. And when it for to Easter Sunday, I suprisingly wasn't chomping at the bit - or the chocolate bar. But just because, I ate my way through an Aldi's bar of dark hazelnut chocolate over two days, supplemented with Cadbury's mini eggs. The first day, I had a raging headache, the second dizziness and a little nausea. I had to admit the blindingly obvious: I had broken my addiction to chocolate. That's depressing.

7. And did I mention that either I've got tinnitus or my hearing's getting less sharp too? Sorry? Didn't hear that...

For more altruistic takes, jog on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.


Friday, April 7, 2017

7 Quick Takes 53: Travels: Cambridge Capers

1. We barely had time to unpack and reclean the house after a week in Texas, when it was time to hop on an aeroplane and visit our eldest daughter at MIT. We had our first stay in an AirBnb, a quirky little nineteenth century cottage tucked back from the street, a couple of blocks from Massachusetts Avenue. By we, I mean the toddler, husband and I; our teenage daughter got a little taste of the college experience by staying with her sister at WILG: an MIT Independent Living Group (the W is for Women's). They manage the house, cook communally, prepare to change the world - and apparently paint well, too: here's my favourite mural from their house:



2. I'm no expert on American cities, but I grew up just outside London, and Cambridge has a distinctly different atmosphere. The lack of middle-aged people was immediately noticeable. Plenty of young people - students, of course - and many young families. Strollers everywhere - more than I even see in an average British town. And then there were the older people who hadn't fled to the suburbs. Mostly a little crazy. And I say that in a non-perjorative way, since I've spent most of my adult life around eccentrics. But really, the place was teaming with people who seemed to be a little unhinged, generally in a harmless way.

3. I didn't see one obese person, a total contrast to Mississippi. I suppose that's in part because the city is so walkable. On the other hand, the squirrels in Boston Public Garden had derrieres that wouldn't look out of place in Walmart. They were slow, too. This created lots of squirrel-catching excitement for the toddler. Where we live, out in the country, the squirrels are lean, mean and fast because that makes the difference between being alive and being chilli.

The ducks are pretty slow as well.

4. We went shopping down Newbury Street, just off the Public Garden, in the cause of what I'm copyrighting as "Upscale Frugality". Which is to say, my husband wanted to buy a pair of "For Life" Doctor Marten's shoes. Yes, a lifetime guarantee. Of course, if you grew up in London in the eighties, Doc Martens mean one thing only. This has given me endless opportunities for skinhead jokes, which about makes up for having to listen to John Donne jokes.

Alcuin had a lot of fun choosing from the toddler styles  - he just couldn't decide which shade of pink he preferred.

"Do my feet look big in these?"

And I haven't been able to get the Alexi Sayle Dr Martens song out of my head ever since...



5. There are so many things on our Boston/MA to-do list. Visiting the Fine Arts Museum, hopping around the harbor islands, whale spotting, a side trip to Salem... but we have a toddler in tow, so discretion etc. etc. Instead, we took him along to the New England Aquarium, a good place to huddle from the freezing rain that was trying to turn into a squall. Predictably, he was fixated by the penguin enclosure. At the beginning of the visit, he could manage to say "pen" - by the end it was "peng-neng". On our way out through the gift shop, he grabbed two plush penguin chicks (one blue, one bright pink) off the shelves and ordered, "Pay." We managed to distract him from that venture into capitalism... and then his sister went and bought him a penguin anyway. Grrr. Some call them soft toys, I call them dirt and dust gatherers.

6. Yes - snow! A whole weekend of snow!! We haven't had snow in Mississippi for two years, so I was pretty excited. Not so Alcuin. We took him out to play, but after ten minutes, he waddled over to the door (which is all he could manage in that snow suit) and declared, "Cold. Inside."

"Someone needs to turn the air conditioning down."

7. On the flight home, we were making a somewhat turbulent descent into Atlanta, when the flight attendant announced, "Prepare for landing.. please take a moment to locate the exit nearest you, bearing in mind it may be behind you." I think my heart and stomach switched places. Every plane I get on, I know I'm going to die, and this time I was going to be proved right. I spent a couple of minutes starting at the sleeping baby in my arms contemplating eternity... but then noticed no one else was panicking. I suppose she'd just gone into auto pilot on the announcements (excuse the pun).

So now I'm back in MS, where it's 50 degrees hotter, but at least I'm alive. For more quick takes around the US, and sometimes the globe, travel on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Off My Shelf: John Donne's Religious Imagination



John Donne's Religious Imagination: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross. Edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain. UCA Press, 1995.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a decade. I selected it as a gift from my in-laws because John Donne is one of my favourite poets, but somehow I never got around to reading it. Every time I had a clear out of my collection, I'd think, "I should throw this out, I've never read it", but it stayed put. Finally, this year, I rolled up my reading sleeves, decided I'd tackle it and then pass it on.  (Plus, with Lent coming up, it could double as spiritual study.)

As is obvious from the title, this is an academic book. It was published in the mid nineties, when interest in seventeenth century religious history and literature was gaining new momentum, in particular after Neil Keeble's groundbreaking work on English nonconformity. This was also the time when I went through college accumulating too many degrees in English, so it was a trip down academic memory lane for me.

Some of the essays are hard to approach if you aren't familiar with the style and genre of certain types of literary criticism. An example: "That the originary decree should escape the optics of presentation is consistent with orthodox neoplatonic convention" (p. 187). I had to read that whole paragraph several times before I understood it (and realized I disagreed!). Other essays, however, are accessible to the average educated person. Despite the fact that the book is out of print and academic trends have moved on, it isn't outdated as the central questions remain unanswered. Was Donne's conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England wholly sincere? Was he at least in part always a recusant (a Catholic who remained loyal to his faith after England broke from Rome)? How much did his views change over the years as he settled into a life as an Anglican preacher? Is the line people draw between the erotic poems of his youth and the religious poems of his older years really indelible? This gathering of opinions makes for a lively debate from the comfort of your armchair.


As a long time and repeated reader of Donne, the essays gave me new insights into poems that are old friends, and encouraged me to tackle others. For example, I've always thought that the end rhymes of "The Flea" (such as "this" and "is") were merely convention, but a contributor suggests that they refer to the Eucharist ("This is my body"). I've now finally put Donne's sermons on my to-read list. Making me want to read further is a mark of a good book, but unfortunately it keeps my list never-ending.

And, of course, reading it gave my husband several opportunities to ask, "Are you done with Donne?" Ha ha, thank you dear, John Donne made that joke four hundred years ago.

Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne, through which I runne,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

(from "A Hymne to God the Father")




Friday, March 24, 2017

7 Quick Takes 52: Travels: Lone Star Leg


1. After eight months when I barely left Starkville MS, we're on the road twice in March. We spent last week in Texas, visiting family and friends - and managed to take no photos. I am the world's worst photo taker in both senses of the phrase, which is ironic given the time I spent working as an archivist. So here's a quick word picture -  Texas: it's like where you live, but bigger. Unless you live in Texas.

2. My mother-in-law was eager to tell us about the new Aldi open in Lake Dallas. I wasn't really interested in shopping there, since I've been going to Aldi in England for several years, and I was trying not to come back with a stuffed car. Then, I happened to read a recommendation for their moisturizer on the UK blog Shoestring Cottage blog. It didn't seem likely they'd have it in the US, but it was worth a look. So off we went... and the moment I stepped in the door, I was facing all the European foods I get in the UK. For some reason, I didn't think Aldi in the US would have German food. So I danced around the store, buying up chocolate (which went to the back of the cupboard for after Lent), cookies (which didn't), and German muesli (no added sugar - hurrah). Oh, and the face cream was there too - at $3.60 a pot, a fraction of the cost of other Q10/ retinol creams.

3. I could waltz round because there were only two other shoppers there. A phenomenon we noted this trip was that there's no one in the supermarkets. We decided - and a friend confirmed - that people in the Dallas area must just eat out all the time.

4. In addition to Aldi, I got a thrift store score. Friends took us to Thrift Giant, which was. And it happened to be 50 percent off everything day, so the place was heaving (unlike the supermarkets). I snapped up a skirt that looked to be good quality for $1.50. When I checked the label (Dahlia Collection), I found it was a British company, and skirts on their website sell for up to 60 pounds ( $75). That and the German muesli made the trip worthwhile.

5. We took two days to make the eight and a half hour drive there and back because we thought we wouldn't survive with a toddler who hates journeys longer than about twenty minutes. Plus, we're old and tire easily. On the way back, we finally spent a night in Vicksburg and visited the battlefield, which is a national park.
How to make your husband choke on his hotel breakfast: Ask, "So which side won, apart from the Americans?"
It turned out to be a trick question, because technically the Confederates won all the battles since every attempt to take Vicksburg by force failed. The Union won the siege when the Confederates surrendered.
Talking of tricks, the park weirdly turned out to be a Union memorial, funded by donations from the north, with huge monuments to the northern troops and a few markers signalling the Confederate battle lines.


Whoa. I want this toy.


6. The other fruit of our trip: Well, we had to keep the toddler occupied somehow, so he got many more hours of Youtube than he ever gets at home. As a result, he still can't pronounce his own name, but he can utter "Maisy Mouse" with perfect enunciation.

7. Now I'm trying to catch up before we leave for Boston/Cambridge next week to visit our eldest. Temperatures there are currently still dipping into the 30s, which sounds a heck of a lot better to me than the almost 90-degree day we had here this week.

For more Quick Takes around the US, and maybe across the world, visit Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, March 3, 2017

7 quick takes 51: Minimalish



1. The other week, we watched Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things, produced by The Minimalists, a couple of endearing best buddies in their thirties - mainly because it featured Courtney Carver of Be More with Less, whose blog I follow. The film began with a series of very short takes which seemed designed to attract the Twitter generation, and I thought I was going to be disappointed. Yet, suddenly, I found myself hooked, even though that format continued, and I knew about most of the trends and arguments discussed.

Even so, it didn't leave me wanting to leap up, throw out all our possessions, and move into a house the size of our chicken coop. As I pondered why, I realised it wasn't because the documentary isn't inspiring, but because we've been editing our lives for months, and we're actually at a plateau that suits our family right now. (Or I'm over that obsession and about to embark on a new one. But let's not go there.)

But we don't all have perfectly organised closets, own only fifty-one items, or live in a 200-square foot house. So here, in all honesty, no styling for photos, is our selectively minimalist life. And when I say "no styling" this excuses my non-existent photographic skills, and the fact that our house was built before most people had cameras or House Beautiful existed, and just doesn't present great angles. Plus the low, blinding Mississippi winter sun photobombed everything.

2. Middle daughter:  This is her Marie Kondo-inspired chest of drawers. Note the hip, one-handle-missing look.




And this is her bathroom before cleaning day. Actually, this wasn't a bad week - I was sort of disappointed.



3. These are all the toys our toddler owns.



OK, there is his "cave". I said I'd throw it out for Advent, but it's still here. Maybe Easter???



Of course, he turns anything in the house, especially kitchen items, into toys. And raids his sisters' old toys, so he's not deprived.

But this is his changing area in a corner of our bedroom. We do cloth and disposable diapers, and he can get through three outfits a day by drooling/ running through puddles/ falling face down in the chicken coop, so I'm resigned to an overflowing area until he's older (not much older, please God).



4. Eldest daughter has basically moved out so her dorm room is her affair. I keep hinting at her clearing her stuff out when she comes back for short stays, but she never gets around to it. One day, I might break down and 'edit' her room for her. My mother-in-law eventually boxed up each of her three sons' things and sent them on. 'Our' box is unopened in the attic. Sometimes we debate about what's in there. Maybe one day we'll look.

5. This is our closet. I've Konmarie'd it twice, but I still haven't got it down to only ten items made of organic, naturally dyed, sustainably produced cotton. Those are mostly my clothes on the bottom rails (with some of my husband's at the back) except for four pairs of leggings in my underwear drawer. Since it's a tiny space carved out of a 1907 house, and impossible to photograph with a cell phone, I counted my clothes out of curiosity: it came to about 65 items. I've no idea where that comes on the minimalism scale. I have ten pairs of shoes/boots. Two are summer and evening dress shoes, which I guess is frivolous (but they're children's shoes, so I didn't spend a bomb). And, of course, there's the extra pair of converse I found in a ditch. My husband threw out three pairs of shoes last time I cleaned out the closet. A fourth, a pair of dress shoes, threw themselves out by coming apart while we were at a posh gala the other weekend.
(Aside. Saying "my husband" is starting to look repetitive. Maybe I'll have to come up with a blog alias. "The mathematician"?)

6. These are our bookshelves. I think this is pretty spartan for two academics, one of whom is an English teacher. (OK, disclaimer: all of my husband's maths books are in his office). I always thought I couldn't give up books, until I read about a retiring clergyman who gave away a third of his collection and explained how spiritually lightening it was. The comment planted a slow-growing seed. A couple of other things helped: when we finally got these built-in bookshelves and put our collections together, we realised we had at least thirty duplicates. And the Mississippi climate took care of a huge number of our older paperbacks - maybe the only thing I can thank the MS weather for.






















7. This one you can't see, because I finished digitizing all our photos last month. I was so proud, I allowed myself the treat of throwing out my two pairs of garden shoes with holes and buying one new pair of wellies. I think that counts as being minimalist.

But you know what, working on this post got me itching to get rid of more stuff. While I go to look for something to throw away, why don't you save paper and visit some of the other blogs via Kelly's link up at This Ain't the Lyceum?


Friday, February 17, 2017

7 Quick Takes 50: Bare Firs, Bear-Face (Book)

Time for a random round up.

1. Post Christmas update: With the weather in Mississippi resembling a British summer, we haven't been burning nearly as much wood as we expected. Our $20 bargain Christmas tree is still going strong as a provider of firestarters.



2. Our eldest managed to kill her phone - but survived three weeks without replacing it. I didn't think that was actually possible for a young person. When I asked her secret, she told me she communicates with almost everyone via Messenger. And here was I feeling all modern because I regularly text her, when in fact she was just humouring her dinosaur of a mother.

3. The toddler apparently doesn't approve of our standards of housekeeping. The other morning, he stopped on his way across the hall, declared "Oh no," and pointed to a piece of fluff on the rug. Then he ordered "'Weep" and fetched a broom and dustpan. While we were cleaning the kitchen one evening, he toddled over  to get cleaner (non toxic before you panic) and a rag from under the sink. When I asked him what he was cleaning, he said "that" and pointed to a patch of cat vomit. If only we could bottle this enthusiasm for the teenage years. (And yes, I know I mentioned that topic last 7QT, but cat vomit and mouse guts loom large in our lives.)

4. A friend, and writer, whose opinion I trust mentioned that she thought my last Seven Quick Takes actually sounded like me. Now I'm obsessively analyzing it, because I feel like I've spent two years floundering around for a blog voice. I think it's because I'm an introvert and an English major: I don't want to share everything, and I want my posts to be structured. And did I mention my intense inner critic?

5. And following on from the internet paranoia in my last 7QT, I have a new saga. One of my domain names is up for renewal, and I thought I'd transfer it to Google. I couldn't get the transfer to begin on my original host (Webeden), so I went back to Google and tried from there. Google told me that Gandi, a French company, owned my domain - apparently it was sold without my knowledge. As if 1066 wasn't humiliating enough.
OK, so I went to their site - to find that I had to log in to make a transfer, using the password THEY HAD SENT ME WHEN I GOT MY DOMAIN. Hmm, missed that. Next step: email Webeden. That email bounced back three times until Gmail finally told me Webeden wouldn't accept it. Zut alors!

So, red coat on and drum at the ready, I am turning to my next plan: wait for the day it expires and try to swoop in and claim it. Update coming, hopefully of the Waterloo kind...

Just me and a few internet savvy friends... we're ready.

6. But wait, the internet trauma isn't over. I've also just about given up on my Facebook news feed. Some time around the election, Mary of Let Love Be Sincere, wrote very lucidly about why she refused to be forced off FB. And I admire that, but I'm not made of such stern stuff. I'm sick of politics, and it's impossible to avoid. Do you remember the Malcolm in the Middle episode where the teenage Malcolm tries to keep his snarky mouth shut, and ends up with a stomach ulcer? That's sort of how I feel when faced with - well, you know the types of posts and comments - but mixed with a stomach-churning fear of conflict. What I really want to reply is, "Why don't you check Snopes before you post/ Learn to construct an argument/ Exhibit a little common decency?" Instead, I'm only checking my groups, and my emotional life is much healthier.
And since I use black humour to cope with stress, do you know how much force it took to refrain from saying that I'm imposing a temporary FB ban while I negotiate stricter viewing rules with myself? Not enough, apparently.

7. And to bring down the tension with something short. Alcuin came up with his first real sentence: "Hit stuff." I think I have a boy.

For more quick takes, sneak on over to Kelly's at This Ain't the Lyceum. I don't think the French are after her domain.

P.S. In an effort to be less of a dinosaur, I've done a little updating around here. You can now comment without having any sort of account, subscribe via email, or link up via Friendster ;)