the open heart

One of my favourite poems is ee cummings’ may my heart always be open to little

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

I love it (though I change the masculine pronoun to be more inclusive). I recite the first few lines to myself almost every day when I see the tiny birds around our place: wrens, finches, sparrows, and others that I can’t identify. The superb blue wren is gorgeous, with its small round body, electric blue feathers, tiny legs, flirty tail. Superb_fairy_wrens_mark_2It hops around our veggie patch, and loves to perch on the top of the garden stakes we’ve hammered in to hold up tomatoes. I always draw in a breath and stop, when I see one. And wherever there’s a blue wren, there’s usually a brown one, the female partner. As I’ve watched, though, I’ve noticed how beautiful they all are, not just the bright ones — even sparrows that we tend to think of as ordinary and common. They gather on a stretch of unplanted veggie patch and have dirt baths, gradually burrowing out hollows in the ground. At times, when there’s a flock of them, their brown feathers blending with the dirt, it looks like the ground is moving.Sparrow

We have a large terracotta saucer that we fill with water for a birdbath, and the birds fly in from a nearby tree where I’m sure they check out the lie of the land, to see if it’s safe to come down. One by one, they gather around the rim of the saucer, dip in a beak to drink, and then dive in, shake, flutter their wings, spraying water around, and hop out again. It’s all very orderly and respectful, each one apparently waiting their turn. At least that’s how it looks from my human point of view.

I’ve read lots of great poems about birds, but cummings, for me, has caught something about the vulnerability of these little creatures, and the something more that goes along with that. Sometimes I think the birds look self-sufficient, but I’m not sure it’s possible to be vulnerable and self-sufficient at the same time. I’m still thinking about that one. It’s more that, as I watch them, these little birds seem to just be. They inhabit themselves, wherever they are: thoroughly bird, thoroughly there. And, as I read the poem, that ability to be at home with who we are is only possible if we learn to live happily with our frailty and our limits, and even to celebrate them. I love that idea! The ‘secret of living’.

The cell: real and imagined

He closed the heavy wooden door behind him. Five of us were now shut in this small room about ten paces from end to end, and even fewer across. It was late afternoon in early spring; some sun came through the leadlight windows and candles were burning, but we were glad to have the lights on.AllSaintsSthLynn Interior1

We were at All Saints’, Kings Lynn, in Norfolk, England, and I had come hunting anchorholds. This small room was the oratory for an anchoress — the place where she came to pray; her living space would have been attached to this room, but it wouldn’t have been any bigger.

The priest had said we were very welcome to visit the anchoress’s oratory, but because there was a baptism in the church, we would need to stay there for the next 20 minutes so we didn’t disturb the service. Fine, we said. Sitting in a small room isn’t difficult, is it? We do that often, for short periods of time: an office, a doctor’s waiting roomAllSaintsSthLynnInterior2, a train carriage.

But then we know the room isn’t designed to live in, and we’ll be leaving soon. As I sat with my husband and children in this enclosed space, we chatted about the woman who would have committed herself to stay here for the rest of her life. No ‘twenty minutes and then we can go’, as I told my kids. No leaving at all. With those thoughts and words, the room became a little darker, a little smaller. And we were relieved when the door was opened.

From the outside, we could see how small the oratory was against the size of the church, and on the outer wall were the marks that indicated where the anchoress’s dwelling would have been.

AllSaintsSthLynnExterior All Saints South Lynn

When I tell people the title of my novel, there’s often a pause to digest this strange word, and then the question. ‘So what’s an anchoress?’

Fair enough. It’s not a word you hear every day, and was a complete mystery to me when I first came across it while I was doing research for my thesis. I was reading about the Life of St Margaret of Antioch, a virgin martyr who was swallowed by a dragon and burst out its back, proclaiming herself a kempe, a hero. In thirteenth-century England, the story had been written down and bound into a collection of texts to be given to anchoresses.

An anchoress freely chose to withdraw from the world in order to commit herself entirely to Christ, denying the world and suffering with him. The anchorholds could vary in size and situation, but most were small, and attached to a church for the safety of the woman enclosed. The anchoresses that most interested me were the ones who were given the Life of St Margaret to read, along with the Lives of St Juliana and St Katherine, and the Ancrene Wisse, the Rule for Anchoresses.

In this Rule, the cell is described as having two windows: one through which the maids can provide the anchoress’s daily needs, and a second one, covered with a curtain, that looks out into a parlour where visitors can come for counsel. A third kind of window, usually tiny and often a long, thin slit, was called a squint; it was cut into the church wall and enabled the anchoress to see the altar; a small niche beneath it allowed her to receive the bread at Mass.

The language of enclosure was all about becoming dead to the world, and the enclosure ceremony often included reading the burial rites over the anchoress. In some cases, a grave was dug in the cell as a reminder that she must ‘daily dig the dirt of her own grave’. The door was closed on her, sometimes nailed up, and sometimes bricked up, the confronting physical affirmation of the permanence of her commitment. Evidence about anchoresses is very limited, but it is becoming clear that some women had larger cells, and that some could leave their cell to travel. Nonetheless, the intention was to withdraw as fully as possible from the world, and the women were honoured for their commitment.

It’s very extreme, I know, and at first I was horrified. But contexts of time, place and culture are so important. Women who became anchoresses chose this way of life: their intention was examined by a bishop to be sure they were serious about enclosure, and to be certain that they understood the gravity of their commitment. Some writers have commented that a life of prayer, reading and counselling may have been attractive to an intelligent woman who did not want marriage or the convent. It’s hard to imagine, I know, from our position now.

But that was exactly the challenge for me: not to dismiss these women as foolish, weird and deluded, but to respect the choice they made, and to try to understand it. And so began my imagining into the head and heart of Sarah, my anchoress.