The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
I am forever catching up. My problem, as a lover of classic novels, is that I'm not on the look-out for new voices in old styles. Hermes Gowar's debut novel is like a winkle in time, so convincing in its recreation of the sights, the smells, the fashions, the brothels and society of Regency London that it's hard to believe itl was written less than a decade ago.
Set in 1785, the story follows the fortunes of a lonely trader, Jonah Hancock, whose ship has been traded for a rare curiosity, a wizened specimen of a mermaid. To recover his lost investment, Johan must put the thing on display—which not only earns him back a fortune but brings him into the society of the most desirable courtesan of London, Angelica Neal. Angelica, an impetuous beauty, has aspirations of controlling her own destiny. During an unhappy affair of the heart, she endures the innocent company of the trader and demands, in jest. a mermaid of her own. Jonah sets out to provide one for her.
The vivid characters of Gowar’s creation sparkle and beguile—the imperious bawd Mrs. Chappel and her nunnery of young prostitutes; Jonah’s niece and erstwhile housekeeper, Sukie; Angelica’s darkly disapproving companion, Mrs. Frost. There are many twists and surprises for the reader. A darker undercurrent of themes lurk here too: the nature of desire, confinement by society, the subjugation of women and their destructive revenge.
Hermes Gowar's work sparkles, her prose is concise yet poetic, and the narrative voice is strong. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock intimates that the folly of humankind is our inability to resist temptation—even when the peril in our actions are abundantly clear. This is an enchanting story.
This summer I discovered the writer Elena Ferrante—in my summer garden, over morning coffee. The perfect way to greet the day when all is fresh and clear, including the mind. Ferrante and coffee—coffee brewed in a frustratingly complicated expresso machine that happens to deliver a sublime demicup of coffee so delicious it’s gone all too soon—like Ferrante’s tantalizing pieces in Incidental Inventions.
The book is a compilation of one-page essays written for The Guardian over the space of a year. The year was 2018—a simpler time, or if not simpler, a holding pattern before the new millennium and the maelstrom of the present century. Simplicity is Ferrante’s strong suit. Elena Ferrante has been named as one of the greatest writers of our times, one who can write about anything with unflinching candor. She has an ability to get to the heart of the matter in a very few words, which makes reading the one-page essays both a pleasure and an astonishment.
Her first piece is, fittingly, about First’s—first love, first time seeing the sea, first airplane ride, first intoxication. After making an honest effort to extract First experiences, she found the exercise “wanting.” “[Firsts are] swallowed up by all the times that follow," she says, "by their transformation into habit, and yet we attribute to them the power of the unrepeatable,”
She goes on to consider the process of becoming that is inherent in beginnings. Beginnings are the start of experience, and experience becomes the process of transformation. It made me think of two things. The first was a comment by a friend, who, after reading some of my early writing, said to me: I don’t think I would have liked you had I known you as a younger woman. The piece he read was about a casual affair and the quandary of passion gone cold—I can’t even remember the name of the story but perhaps it was a little shallow. I was a surprised by his comment but hoped it implied that I had improved with age, deepened, become more subtle, complex or thoughtful.
The second was a question posed to me during a card game: what is your greatest change in the last decade? When I couldn’t answer the question, I was asked another: what was your best decade? Hardly easier. I flipped off an answer: "the current one, of course." But in all seriousness: who we are, who we were, who we will become are soul-searching questions, far more thought-provoking than beginnings.
Ferrante said in her closing to the essay that “What we were in the beginning is only a patch of colour contemplated from the edge of what we become.” The “edge of becoming” is appropriate, coming from Ferrante because no one knows who she is: Elena Ferrante is a nom de plume. The mystery of her identity has been disputed for decades.
As I look back on beginnings, I wonder if I have become more settled, more reflective, less shallow with age. Or have I only become more pensive, more wistful—considering what has passed, and cannot be recaptured (energy, passion, innocence). The truth is, when we are within ourselves, in our present state, we don’t consider who we will become. Perhaps we are like Russian dolls, selves within selves, in ever-condensed order. Do we ever become our essence? Or, as we age, do we carelessly shuck away what we think of as the useless shell? A lifeless skin that itches, a hollow chafing. It is good and necessary to contemplate beginnings from the edge of what we become—the edge, because the center may yet be revealed.
The lesson in this is not to become too attached to ourselves. We will change. Not necessarily diminish (though some reduction is as inescapable as time), but hopefully be enriched, as we move toward truer self.
The Christmas tree is lit, the orchestra is come. We assemble with coffee cups and scores, children in tow, worries of the season galore. We are the choir for the Singalong Messiah, a tradition for dwellers of the great worldwide cities.
We arrive in mid-winter, a Saturday afternoon in Saskatoon, to test our voices and temper our souls. We have lingered long at the parking kiosk. Joy does not mark us this cold day, nor even light-heartedness. We resemble ruffed grouse, stamping our boots, shaking our coats, jingling car keys, juggling cell phones. It is a mark of my determination to participate here that I paid $6 for parking--to be close enough to the church not to perish in my frozen pilgrimage.
And so to the top balcony of Knox United Church. Closer to God, and to the heat.
The stained glass windows are splendid with sunshine. I bask in the multi-hued glow, looking down on the gathering crowd. Old and young, families, singles. The conductor and first violin make their entrance. We applaud, a well-versed if not well-rehearsed crowd. He greets us, our maestro, tests our "stand" and our "sit,"
He tells us there are two human needs as old as humanity itself: the need to create and the need to seek beauty in the world. Create.
As basic as drawing breath.
The opening strains of the revelation are sublime....slow, solemn, swelling with emotion. We must hold back, not spoil the note-- a trot of notes to call us to attention (my eyes have already gone helplessly dewy).
I focus upon the stained glass windows, glowing with kings and courts, wise men and women, Angels in rich colors. And the glory shall be revealed In the lowering light of a Saskatchewan afternoon. Crisp and sub-Arctic, the words are comfort.
Rising, rising now like the peregrine in the wind. The power revealed, how can the tears not come. The colored window splinters into angels. The folds of gowns are too delicate, the shadows of eyes too painful. Hands each, voices lift. The sandaled feet of the saints and the shepherds are so vulnerable.
Tidings, unto the cities, behold the glory of the Lord. The young Tenor steps forward, tips his head in readiness. A modern man, he, half-youth, his collar open (he sports the man-bun). Yet from his lips come the Ages, deep and sonorous. As voice as classical as a sage, unshakeable with faith.
But then, the treacherous semi-tone....
The people that walked in the darkness, we are reminded, they have seen a great light. For the shadow of death is in the windows. Death is in the reclining figures, the extended hand, the face of the Egyptian.
But unto us is born. The Sopranos have found it, caught up hope and lifted the cover of darkness. The Altos draw back the covers smoothly, and the Tenors shake out the folds with authority.
Wonder ful. And his name shall be called. Wonder. Full.
And now we are skipping and leaping with song, wriggled with uncontained joy. As a breeze swirls, a zephyr, a stream of water, cascades with air and light. We are fairly jiggering with delight. Too soon, too soon.Slow now, slow the heartbeat, be calm.
Calm is in the mournful note that appeals: we dwell upon the earth. The shepherds are in the fields. But lo, the angel. As one, staccato!
The Sopranos on high, and Tenors swoop in, the Altos busily build the layers of sound. Repeat, circle, soar. We are birds of prey. We have majesty. Too soon greatness is gone from sight.
We turn to an easy yoke. His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light... An easy pace, imperceptibly quickens, a lope that is finally checked.
What? Is it intermission?
How flawed we really are: ugly and lovely at once. Mouths with crooked teeth, faces creased with smiles that hide cares. Lipstick happlied hurriedly, coats donned with cat hair clinging. Coffee stained breath, we are the grey-haired and warty. Humanity is a scattering of noise, hopelessly indistinct and unorganized. Ceiling fans reassert themselves, children scamper in the aisles. Water bottles are untapped, singing is a thirsty business. The orchestra has vacated their seats to stretch their legs. But the oboe sounds, and the strings respond. We gather our thoughts to cello and horn. Our soloists return en masse.
Behold! the lamb of God!
The sin of the world--my score reminds me: Pitch! We rise slowly, carefully, the sin of the world a rhythm at our heels. We are demoted a semi-tone to underscore the fall. Even as we raise up our voices we are denounced. Reacquainted with grief, and the sorrows our days, we court rejection and doom.Obediently we are reseated. Dejected we plod. A harpsichord harps mercilessly. We are weakened and fainting. Even the violins at last relent.
But no, changing our minds and our hearts we renew the pace and set to cantering. He hid not his face from shame. Briskly. The strings take up the question. We stand, marshalling our colours. Rally now, and smartly so. Still wincing a little, still a little bruised. But with his stripes we are born.
Raptors reappear, still at the distant. Circling high, they gaze upon us. They spin on the wind, and we like sheep... we bleat, we bleat. Everyone to his own now.
We scatter and roam, climbing foothills of notes, stumbling into the valleys of awkward timing, heads wagging, we have gone astray. Dischordant, flat, octaves in ruins. We have turned, we have turned, the inequity of us all! Now run with that: run and laugh him to scorn. Delight in him, deliver him, Deliver delight--we pound this to pieces, as an impatient child crushes a jawbreaker: words without meaning.
The beautiful Tenor chimes in, lamenting at last: why do the nations so furiously rage together? We shall break the bonds. Halleluiah! All stand!
Stand! The king!!
Even the hair stands on end. For we shall live forever. Tears unleashed, horns blare, drums pound. Forever, Forever,Halleluiah!
How can we ever sit again?
But sit we do, and wait--are we tuning up again? Surely not another intermission. The Messiah is lengthy but we've just got up a head of steam. Our concentration has slipped but a moment, a shiver, a shudder. We recover, breathing hard.
Strings call us: listen. And now a sweet sound: the silver-tongued Soprano, young of tone and firm of purpose. Great in beauty is she with the golden hair, smooth skinned, beautiful. A modest maid yet who could resist her.
Simply she sings, but she is strong, riveting. With graceful wing-beat shebear us aloft. Swiftly, swiftly. She knows her redeemer lives.
She asserts that he shall stand upon the earth, the earth that stretches before heaven, beyond our highest mountains, beyond our imagination. Seas, plains, prairies nights and days are as nothing to eternity. We respond gravely, sensibly. We return to earth from our heady heights. And since by man came death, we are broken again. Again and again.
The resurrection. So in Christ, the eagle. We are adamant about it now, and we will not be cheated. Even as the Tenor admonishes us to behold, for he tells a mystery. Trumpets sound: this is no mere tale. It is crystal clear that the dead are raised by the blare of cold brass. Bold now, and let us be sure: we shall be changed. Be changed.
The Amen. The Amen--Amen--play it on the tongue, over the palate. Let it reach into the braincase, let it tatoo the blood. Amen unrelenting and unremitting until the joyful noise has raised the roof!
Every corner of the church, every heart, every window rattles, We have given up thought, the mind vacates, and we are borne on wings of sound. Feathers curling in wind lifting, nerves ashiver, we are not our mortal selves. No longer made of bones and sinew and breath, we are the windows of God, we are souls united. Our sound has gone out unto the ends of the world! The concert is over, the lady asks for the programs back. We leave in peace. Mitts are retrieved, cell phones checked, A blast of cold air meets me on the stair. Outside, on the steps of the church, one brave girl dons helmet and face mask and climbs onto her bike. We are ready to resume the mantel of mortality. I shiver as I dash for the truck.
It's a shock to return to the city after a gold September. If you have ever been trapped in a stairwell you must know the feeling: annoyance, frustration, perhaps even a slight edge of panic.
When I found myself stuck in the stairwell of a medical clinic recently, I was first surprised at the level of security—but of course locked doors and code-pads have become a fact of life. I did not even bother to grumble about fire safety, or curse the lousy cell phone coverage in my cement prison, I considered my options: I could go up or down. Both meant raising my voice (and blood-pressure) and undignified pounding on doors. Instead I decided to wait for the next person who entered the stairwell.
While I waited, I found myself looking at a three -foot graffiti message painted under the stairs.
Five Steps to Happiness.
I’m not a great fan of five-step anything--life is far from simple and there are few shortcuts to take us to where we want to be. I wondered, too, about step five: expect less. I, for one, have been brought up to expect more from life. Constantly we are reminded by media that we deserve more, that we deserve that holiday, that car, that cosy pair of $100 slippers. I certainly did not deserve, as a member of the tax-paying public, to be locked in a stairwell of a publically funded building.
The medical clinic I was visiting that day cares for some of the city’s most disadvantaged patients—poor, First Nations, many of them struggling with addictions. In my job as a public health epidemiologist I spend a lot of time worrying about HIV. Saskatchewan has the highest HIV rates in the country; this hasn't changed in ten years. About 65% of HIV positive individuals in this province are First Nations or Metis. Mortality among HIV patients in our area is almost 20%.
Happiness to many of these individuals would possibly be a fringe benefit to survival. For the thousands who have historically received less from Canada—less opportunity, less employment, less wealth, less health---the working definition of happiness is surely different.
But it's a pretty simple recipe and a foolproof one at that. To give up prejudice and hatred, to suspend worry and doubt about the future, to be more present and more aware of what we have to be thankful for, to give more of ourselves--this could be what it takes.For those whose more urgent challenge is to find the next meal, a place to sleep, getting their kids back from social services, happiness may indeed fall to step five alone. The lowest common denominator. Expect less. In a way, however, expecting less explains why little progress has made on issues like poverty and HIV. We have not expected more of ourselves or our government. Instead we have fortify ourselves against crime, fueled ourselves with hatred and racism, worried about our belongings, railed about our hospitals being overcrowded and unable to serve our needs, cast ourselves to the future, tightened our belts--and expected more.
It is taking us a long time to read the writing on the wall.
Guest blogger Arlette Seib is a writer, photographer and artist inspired by prairieland. She and her husband ranch with sheep on a large swath of land she calls grassland heaven in the Allan Hills near Watrous, Saskatchewan. Vist her at woolstoneprairie.com. Welcome, and thanks Arlette for your contribution! *** A life raising sheep on the prairie sometimes seems ordinary. It’s easy to slip into the mindset that a sheepish way of life is not that grand in the scheme of worldly endeavors. Especially when, in the online world we inhabit, people are vying for extraordinary popularity and some have found fame and fortune for unlikely reasons.
I lean against the box of the side-by-side, looking across the rolling hills and wetlands of this prairie landscape, hearing the snuffles and chewing of the guardian dogs eating their morning meal. A black and tan Kelpie dog sits on the seat watching the flock, ever hopeful for a stint of work. The sheep move off—they always do. The ewes are not interested in hanging out near us, particularly when a stock dog is alongside. But I have to wonder, do they have a sense that my human condition doesn’t fit in their natural one?
There is a beautiful simplicity to watching sheep trail off across the prairie landscape. I have taken photos of them many times over, in different spots, in different seasons, and I never tire of watching them as they go. Maybe it’s because I wish to hold onto the unmistakable connection the animals have to each other and to this land. Or perhaps it’s to preserve those fleeting moments when my human condition meets their natural one.
The ewes seem to go precisely where they need to go but it seldom feels like they planned to go there. Not every animal follows the other when they head out for the day. More often small groups of ewes branch out on finger trails. Each group is taking the path of least resistance, flowing and curving with the land, knowing that the most natural way to travel through the day is to find the flow and go with it.
Land and animal serve the needs and functions of the other; they are united in a shared giving and taking to keep the balance. But also within this unity there are less obvious but well recognized truths, like finding the flow and going with it. Perhaps part of the deeper connection humans seek are to be found within a similar shared unity--waiting for our rediscovery. Only by a willingness to become part of it, rather than ignore or conquer it, will we discover within ourselves those long lost deeper connections.
Having finished their meals, the guardian dogs are milling about. The eldest dog noses my hand, bringing my attention to more immediate matters of doling out affection. The female steps up onto the floorboard of the side-by- side, sniffing the Kelpie still watching the sheep. Two guardian dogs have already left, catching up to the ewes as they disappear over the next rise. The youngest dog stands looking about, just as I was a moment ago.
Prairie land, sheep and dogs… After a stretch of busyness and fitting into other people’s agenda’s, soaking up a scene of sheep grazing with the working dogs nearby is just what is needed to begin the process of coming back to some semblance of balance. Of returning to a time and space that revolves around the ebb and flow of nature, rather than the whims of human opinion and ego. There is no substitute for prairie spaces calming the storm after chaos. Every day here is ordinarily grand and ordinarily wise, so much so that I worry that it just might escape me. I murmur a few meaningless words to the eldest dog and begin to collect the feed dishes.
A whole year between blogs. It’s challenging to keep going. Whenever self-doubt afflicts me, when I wonder who I’m writing for, I think of my friend Page, a photographer—living the dream, doing what he wants to do—what he was put on the planet to do. There is wisdom in accepting your limitations, but there is greater wisdom in realizing your potential.
Jim Page has led a “checkered life”— life is, after all, a series of unpredictable moves. Bold moves, strategic moves, career moves, moving house moves. A few stumbles, charges, some startling and splendid recoveries. From his hippy days on the West Coast, to his Big City sojourns as a mental health worker, Page has moved back and forth across the country following the dream.
Most of his jobs over the years have allowed him to pursue his photography, adjusting his availability to the season and to following wildlife. He is a gifted writer, and was a photo columnist and feature writer for Explore magazine for more than a dozen years. He taught at the Western Academy of Photography in Victoria BC. His photography appears in Candace Savage’s Prairie and his own book, Wild Prairie (Greystone, 2005). I count myself fortunate to have worked with him on a number of magazine articles.
When he isn’t crawling through a ditch in pursuit of the perfect image of a frog, or sprawled on a dance floor catching the color and motion of a pow-wow, he is secluded in his tiny house with the window shades drawn. He processes literally thousands of images annually. Since moving to the village a decade ago, he has been fairly single-minded in his pursuit. He lives quietly, and isn’t always visible in the village. Our Mayor, when he bumps into him on the street, still asks if he is new in town.
Page is prepared to leave town at the drop of a hat, to travel hundreds of miles to photograph bears or salmon. His favourite photo-hunting grounds are the Grassland National Park, on our doorstep. There, he captures the wildlife, in all its startling, scintillating, thought-provoking grace and power.
Approaching 70, now, he still sleeps in his car to catch an early dawn, but he has started to draw the line on the number of nights he’ll tent or rent a shabby hotel-room on a shoot. After a quarter of a century of wilderness backpacking, his knees are a wreck, but he thinks his vision is better than ever. His needs are few. He’s not interested in money or fame. Living the dream means prioritizing and giving up a few things. He gets more satisfaction from posting on his Flickr page, sharing comments with his fans and fellow-photographers, than working commercially.
So when I wonder who I’m writing for, I remember my friend, and what a gift it is to have curiosity about the world, and the skills and self-guided direction to explore it, and share the wonder.
It’s minus 31° C, with a windchill of minus 43°. A four-inch layer of rutted ice coats the streets and paths of Saskatoon. Snow crunches and squeals underfoot. We’ve come through a long spell of being in “the deep freeze.” Still, many months of winter lie ahead.
The past season of advent, which teaches that meaning is in the waiting, seems to have taught me nothing about patience. After the anticipation and build up to Christmas, and the inevitable excitement of the holidays, we enter the period of the year I find most challenging.
It seems a long time until spring.
It’s hard to imagine green growth, gentle winds, and going about in shirt sleeves. The effort required to bundle up, the routine of wearing layers of bulky clothing, means we're robbed of easy movement and the freedom of being outdoors. On the other hand, we've been excused from a multitude of chores. The urge to be on the move is curtailed, and we've checked unnecessary busy-ness. Instinctively, we’ve slowed down.
Winter is the season of the imagination. It is time to put our feet up. Considering the past season and the future year gives me pause to count my blessings: the luxury of rest, the companionship of my dog (asleep on an old sleeping bag), the comfort of the wood-stove, the fragrance of hot soup. Friendly unhurried conversation.
Winter, I am reminded, is a time to dream, to imagine the possibilities. It is the time to picture the garden at its most splendid—without the necessity of hard labour, and the need to execute a plan.
A few winters ago, I spent New Year’s Day with a wise friend, discussing gardening--surely a sign of winter optimism. Read the article.
In September, my thoughts turn to youth and to going back to school. Each autumn, I return to the Grasslands, my spiritual school. In many ways it's a place still unfamiliar to me. Ranching predominates here. The buttes and the coulees run to limitless skies. There’s a kind of primordial tug to the landscape, sculpted by seas, retreating glaciers, wind, sun and time. I come here to write, to walk with the dog and to work on my cabin.
This is a different kind of classroom, especially now during rodeo season, and with 4-H Achievement Day around the corner. Life here is matched to season. Soon the cattle will be brought home from the community pastures. Birds of every feather are on the wing. Coyotes yip early in the evening. I hear the kids playing down by the Frenchman River after school and long after dusk—making forts in the willows on the river bank.
Kids here seem to spend every free minute outside. You see them biking in small cavalcades, riding their horses into town, practicing horsemanship in the empty lot near the grain elevator. I am amazed by their fearlessness, the energy in their games of imagination. As they do their chores, they practice their talents, learning as much outside school as inside any classroom. They are honing skills that will take a life-time to learn. There is wisdom in this ambitious play, courage too.
I met one such young man at the children’s rodeo, who inspired me to write about one aspect of growing up here. Read the article here.
Most of us live by seasonal time. It's instinctive. Spring is for planting, summer for growth, fall for harvest, and winter for rest and contemplation. There is a little of the gardener in every one of us.
Growing our own food is deeply embedded in our culture, so it's natural that our social habits focus around food: finding it, tending it, preparing and sharing it. We have evolved to garden in community.
The idea of community gardening appeals to me because it puts the skills and tasks for sustenance into a social context. At it's best, a community garden is a microcosm of society: people from all walks of life participate; common problems are addressed; opportunities to learn abound and risk- taking is shared. Drought and misfortune may prevail at times but there's also success, even bounty to celebrate.
Gardeners are among the wisest people I know, and not just because gardening is a skill learned through observation, imitation, experimentation and the exercise of patience. Gardening becomes a way of life, a way of looking at the world-- even when we don't need to produce our own food.
A friend of mine who has Asperger's Syndrome recently taught me something new about community gardening: that inclusion in the garden--being part of a living network or people, plants and other creatures--helps to satisfy a very basic human need for fellowship and support. The act of gardening, doing simple tasks in common, is especially important for people who may not have an equal chance to participate in the wider society.
We each have wisdom within us, knowledge that transcends the everyday experience. Sometimes it's hard to identify wise words in the observations shared between friends, family and colleagues. Most of the time we lack the ability to edit the "background noise" of our own thoughts and to be purposeful in conversation. But if we sift through the rhetoric of dialogue, and listen carefully to words, some surprising pearls of wisdom are concealed in the plain language of focused discussion.
For the last five years I've been interviewing people about common interests-- gardening, training dogs, genealogy-- and I have discovered more than knowledgeable people on a variety of topics. When people are passionate about what they do, or what they are trying to achieve, there seems to be a sharpening of intellect, and a heightened awareness. This awareness allows people to become more expressive, insightful and articulate, and to apply a kind of problem-solving to other areas of their lives.
The wisdom I'm interested in comes from exploring ordinary everyday experiences. Wisdom grows through the exchange of ideas, and is nurtured by personal insight and sustained inquiry. Wisdom does not need to be profound. It can be simple and quiet, and give a sense of "rightness" that enriches life.
This is my first blog of the century, which is to say my first ever attempt to explore ideas in a global community. I confess to entering the "on-line author" arena with trepidation. The sages of the day advise that a writer must have a website. And a weekly blog. (Who makes up these crazy edicts?)
I commit, instead, to posting every few months a story about a topic I've recently explored, a profile of someone interesting I've met, or more ruminations on ordinary wisdom. I look forward to sharing what I am learning, and to hearing other readers' and writers' comments. Welcome to Ordinary Wisdom!