2019: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Happy New Year, dear readers!

I’ve had a wonderful break over Christmas. I hope that you had the same. I return to this space refreshed and eager for all that 2019 brings.

But before I look to the future, it’s good to pause for a moment to review this last year. It’s interesting (to me, at least!) to see if I can spot any trends, or determine if there’s anything that I’m doing that people particularly like.

So, here goes.

  1. Followers – the number of followers of the blog (people who click that magical “follow” button) has risen slightly over 2018. As of today I have 199 followers. So close to 200! It’s good that this number has gone up and not down, but it still would be nice to have that number be bigger. Oh well. However, I am very thankful to each and every one of you who have either just visited the blog and read a post here and there, or who faithfully follow and read every week’s offering. It’s very gratifying to know there are people out there who get some enjoyment out of this space. It’s interesting to look through the list of followers. I see other writers, book reviewers, artists, a gardener, an adventure traveller, a scientist, historians, editors, and many other fascinating people from all over the world. Thank you! And a special shout-out to my newest follower, The Hannie Corner, who joined up on December 30th. She obviously loves to read, as she reviews books on her blog, and seeing as I have some Hannies in my family tree we might even share more than a love of books.
  2. Changes I made last year – in 2018 I tried posting more at the beginning of the week (ideally Monday) instead of at the end. To be honest I wasn’t very successful at that. Somehow having the weekend before a post was due gave me a false sense of security that I had time to get a post written, but I would almost inevitably wake up on Monday realizing I had not got anything ready. Also my work schedule changed a bit, with the addition of working Monday morning. By the time I went to work, came home to have lunch and then walked the dog, it felt like the afternoon was half over and barely had time to start the initial research on a post, never mind writing it.   All of this meant I felt behind the eight ball all year. As a result, In 2019 I’m moving my posting day back to Friday. It just feels more doable to me. In 2018 I also tried to be more disciplined in setting out a schedule ahead of topics to write about. This was a success for me. Even if I didn’t always follow it exactly, it really helped with the dreaded blank page when I sat down to write on the blog. I will continue this in 2019.
  3. Most popular post on the blog – this is the same as last year. It’s my review of the Netflix series, “The Last Kingdom.” It has had 343 views in 2018, even though that post was from 2016.  Wordpress tells me that some of the searches that brought readers to that post included phrases like “why is Skorpa’s teeth red?” I guess having the answer to that question in the post brought people there! At any rate, I’m happy to solve that little mystery for people. And yes, I’m still enjoying that series, although I will admit I like Uthred more as a Saxon than a Dane…
  4. Other popular postssecond most popular post was The Wanderer, which was a repost in August of a post from a couple of years ago. I suspect this is because of the tie-in to the Lord of the Rings, as I comment on how portions of this Anglo-Saxon poem was quoted in the book and movie. Maybe I should do more reviews and mentions of TV shows and movies? Heh. The third most popular was the post on the Franks Casket, which came from October. I’m glad one of my Anglo-Saxon posts reached the top three, at any rate.
  5. Least popular post – the dubious honour of the least popular post of the top ten in 2018 was the introduction to last year’s reading series, 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner. It’s possibly because that came up early in January, and people hadn’t quite got into the routine of catching up on their blog reading. Also possible that it just wasn’t that interesting to people. My other reviews of Buechner books this year all fell below that in rankings, so I suppose I could see it as being the most popular of my reading series posts this year, instead of the least popular of my top ten posts.

Looking ahead: 

Wilding_cover32019 is going to be a big year on The Traveller’s Path. On February 5th I will be self-publishing my first novel, Wilding, on all the major e-retailers such as Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc. I”ve got the MS back from the proofreader now, and am making the final changes so that it’s ready to go. I’m also figuring out how to provide for paperback copies as well.

I’ve been having a think about this and decided that I’m going to have to make some changes here on the blog in order to make sure I’m making the best use of my time. For better or worse, here’s what I’ve decided.

  1. Less frequent posting schedule. There’s a big chunk of time I spend each week getting the posts ready. And while I enjoy it and am proud of the pieces I put up here, I find that the time spent has eaten into my other writing time. I have a hard time writing short stories, for example. And what with publication looming and then the preparation for Book 2 after that, I feel like I should cut back here in order to concentrate more on that. So, you will see posts here twice a month, generally, instead of once a week. I hope that will give me more time to concentrate on the books and the business end of publishing and marketing. I’ve spent a lot of time on my novel writing, I need to concentrate on giving it the best start possible. However, you might find that I will post more often, occasionally, when I have more time or when I need to inform you of book news. Stay tuned!
  2. No reading series this year. This was a tough decision. I loved my Year Of Reading… series, and it has opened me up to books and authors I probably wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t disciplined myself to a reading schedule of books. But, again, it comes down to time. Having to read one of the books in the schedule each month ate into time I could have spent writing or planning ahead on the books. I also wonder if my reading series was not of interest to my blog readers, who maybe are coming here for posts on Anglo-Saxon history, or news on my book or fantasy books in general. So for this year, I am putting my reading series on hiatus.  I will continue to post on my various series on Anglo-Saxon England, looking at the customs, society, and anything else to do with that fascinating time.
  3. New website? I am seriously considering  making this blog part of a bigger website, which I can use to showcase my books. It seems a logical step that once you have published a book, you should have a dedicated website to promote them. This blog will be one of the pages on that site. This will likely happen in the next six months.

Onwards and upwards! Thank you for joining me on the journey so far, and I look forward to new adventures ahead in 2019!

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Year of Reading Buechner: Crazy, Holy Grace

Near the beginning of the year, just as I was starting this year’s reading series, I picked up a few of Buechner’s books to have on hand as the year progressed. As Crazy, Holy Grace (published in 2017) was one of his newer books, it was readily available, unlike some of the older volumes. I started to read it as the second book of the series, back in February. But I quickly realized that this was not new material, but a compilation of  sections of other works. As some of the books included were ones that I had been planning to read this year, I set this one aside to read as my final Buechner book of the year, to serve as a bit of a summary and reminder of what I had been reading all year.

And here we are, December already! This is my last month in my Year of Reading Buechner series, and I will be sad to see it go. I will write a little more about the year’s books in a final summary of the series in January, but for now I will say that I have enjoyed his books very much, on many different levels.

This book is subtitled, The Healing Power of Pain and Memory, and the excerpts from various of his works all touch in some way on those topics. However, they are pretty loosely related, in some cases, and because this book is a compilation, it doesn’t have the same flow that his other books do.

Which I missed. Buechner is a careful and precise writer, at his best, and although his books are short, they pack a lot of punch because of the thought he puts into not only the words he uses but the structure of the book. Crazy, Holy Grace feels like a bit of a hodgepodge in comparison.

God+Can+Turn+It+To+Good.jpgThat’s not to say that the book has no value. The book is divided into three sections. Part I is Pain and God’s Crazy, Holy Grace, and it consists of just two chapters, a new essay, “The Gates of Pain”,  and a chapter from his first memoir, A Sacred Journey.  The first chapter  is a wise reflection on the different ways we deal with pain in our lives, and how facing it instead of burying it is the way out of the pain into healing and joy. He uses the Parable of the Talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30, to show us why it is important to be good stewards of our pain, not to ignore it or bury it. In the parables the man who is given the one talent (unit of money) and ends up burying it, is condemned as being a “wicked and slothful servant”. As  Buechner reflects on this, he writes,

…sloth is what this man is condemned for. Sloth is getting through life on automatic pilot. Not really being alive. Not really making use of what happens to you. Burying what you might have made something out of. Playing it safe with your life. To bury your life, bury your pain, to bury your joy. To bury whatever it is that the world gives you, and then live as carefully as you can without really living at all.

It’s a good reminder to try not to miss all that we can learn from the events in our lives, and to not neglect share what we have learned with others.

Part II, The Magic of Memory, consists of four chapters, one from A Room Called Remember, and the rest from his second memoir, The Eyes of the Heart. These all touch on memory and the power of remembering your life and trying to see beyond the simple events that happen down to the deeper meaning, to where God has met you even when you may not have noticed.

Part III, Reflections on Secrets, Grace, and How God Speaks, consists of little snippets of his writings from various books on those topics.

This book touches on many of the themes that resonate through Buechner’s writings: pain, memory, loss, faith, meaning, And in that way it could serve as a good introduction to his writing. But because we only get bits and pieces of his works, a reader new to Buechner’s works would miss the real depth and breadth of his skill as an author.

But even bits and pieces of Buechner are better than nothing! Crazy, Holy Grace was a good reminder of the power of his words, and a fitting end to my reading series this year.

 

 

 

Letters from the Dark Ages: Berhtgyth

It’s that time of year when letters and cards might actually arrive in your mailbox. Real letter, hand-written by a friend or loved one who lives far away. Isn’t it wonderful? One of the sad things about this modern age is the pen-and-paper letter has gone the way of the dodo, for the most part.

Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until even thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a letter from someone far away. And even in Anglo-Saxon England, in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, there were people who communicated to one another via letters.

This was not an easy task, and, just like today, not exactly a common one. There wasn’t the convenience of a centralized postal system which would handily take care of getting your letter to its destination. You had to find someone who was going to the letter’s intended destination, and then someone at that destination had to get that letter to the recipient.

Couple these difficulties with the fact that most people could not read and write, and you can easily see that for the general population, this means of communication was not possible. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but for most of human history, when people left their homes to go to faraway places (in those days, that could even be relatively close by, to our minds), it was likely that they would never be heard from or seen again by their loved ones.

Having said all that, it’s amazing that some letters from the 7th century survived through the centuries. They are  fascinating, as they give us a first hand view of one person’s life at the time. Since these close and personal glimpses of life in the Early Middle Ages are few and far between, these letters are very instructive to us today.

The one group of people who could easily write and send letters were those in religious life, as they learned to read and write as part of their vocations. And because there were often travellers between the various monasteries, they had a way for letters to be carried back and forth. So, it’s not surprising that the letters we have are mainly from Church men and women.

And seeing as the Church was engaging in missionary work at this time, establishing monasteries on the Continent, there were even opportunities to send letters back and forth across the ocean.

Today I want to introduce you to Berhtgyth, a Anglo-Saxon nun who grew up in Wessex. She eventually went overseas to Germany as part of a mission to that country, likely with her mother, Cynehild, and taught in the region of Thuringia, Germany. She likely worked under the leadership of the Abbess Leoba. At the end of the 8th century* she  wrote some letters to her brother, a monk named Balthard, who at the time of receiving the letters could have been Abbot of the monastery at Bad Hersfeld, in central Germany. The letters themselves aren’t clear exactly where Balthard was, but it is evident he was some distance away, either in Germany, or perhaps even back in England.

We don’t have Balthard’s side of the correspondence; just three letters that Berhtgyth wrote to him have survived. You might wonder why. Although it seems she was a learned woman and accomplished teacher, Berhtgyth was, by all accounts, an ordinary nun, doing the work set out for her as part of an English missionary circle which included the much more famous Boniface, the celebrated English missionary to Germany.

According to a later, 11th century Life of St. Boniface, Berhtgyth’s mother Cynehild was a maternal aunt of Lull. Lull (or Lullus) was the eventual successor of Boniface as Archbishop of Mainz. Because Boniface and Lull were both important figures, the correspondence between the two of them, as well as letters to and about Boniface, were saved for posterity. In the midst of that bundle of letters that have been saved (probably compiled by Lull), you will find these three letters from Berhtgyth to her brother Balthard. I will touch on why this might be so later.

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Statue of St. Lullus, in Bad Hersfeld. Image from Wikipedia

The letters are short, but remarkable. To give you a taste, here is the opening of the second letter:

Most beloved brother in God and dearest in the flesh, Berhtgyth salutes Balthard in the name of Christ. 

My soul is weary of my life because of our fraternal love, for I am alone, left behind and without help of kin. For my father and my mother abandoned me, but the Lord has taken me up. Many are the congregations of water between me and you, yet let us be joined in love because true love is never divided by the borders between places. But still I say that sadness never recedes from my soul, nor can I rest my mind in sleep, because love is as strong as death. I therefore ask you now, most beloved brothers to come to me or have me come to you, so that I might see you before I die, because your love never leaves my soul. Brother, your only sister salutes you in Christ. 

All three letters follow this theme. In them, Berhtgyth begs her brother to come and visit her, and expresses her loneliness and sadness at being abandoned by her parents (by their death). In fact, as you can tell from this excerpt, she does lay it on rather thick. However, we have to keep in mind that this type of overblown rhetoric only seems that way to our  modern eyes. In some of the other literature we have looked at, such as The Wife’s Lament, you can see hints of this same style, so it’s not like this was unusual for the times.

In the third letter, we get a glimpse of some of the ways letters travelled from one person to another, as we see that Balthard has obviously replied to Berhtgyth’s letter.

It may be known to you that your missionary words came to me through a faithful messenger named Aldraed,  together with gifts that are embraced with intimate love. And now I confess to you that with the help of God I long to fulfill all that you instructed me, if your will might deem it worthy to come to me, because I cannot in any other way suppress my fountain of tears.

Aldread has brought a letter back to her from Balthard, along with some gifts. It almost seems like the package of a letter and the gift maybe passed through more than one hand, finally getting to Aldread and thus to Berhtgyth. And at the end of the letter, she reciprocates:

A little present, although small, still loaded with great love, which we send to you by the faithful messenger named Alfred; that is a ribbon.

Try to look past the “fountain of tears” to see the woman who wrote the words, who has given up husband and family to serve Christ as a nun, and who is missing her only kin, her brother, longing for a glimpse of home in a foreign land. They write back and forth, sending gifts via a messenger or messengers they can only hope and pray will reach their destination. It’s really rather touching, don’t you think?

There is some speculation that these letters were included with the bundle of Boniface correspondence as a type of “form letter” that others could use in their own correspondences to use in similar circumstances. If you were missing your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/mother/father, etc, you could pull out these letters, personalize it with the appropriate names, and you would have a letter already done for you. Keep in mind that letter writing was an important skill that was taught in Classical times, and although we don’t know for sure, there are hints that it could have been taught throughout the Early Medieval period in England as well at the monastery schools. It was expected that letters would follow certain forms and include specific parts. It would have been handy to have examples of a “good” letter to work from for busy church men and women.

At any rate, no matter why there are there, I’m really glad these letters still survive. We get a small glimpse of an ordinary person of the times, in her own words. That it is a woman’s voice we are hearing is even more remarkable. These letters are a small window into this long-ago time, one far removed from the battles, warriors, and saints we usually see.

But I wish we knew whether Balthard finally visited Berhtgyth or not, don’t you? I really hope so!


Featured image from medievalists.net

If you want more in-depth info on Berhtgyth’s letters, have a look at Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard, a scholarly paper from the University of Iowa by Kathryn Maude.

 

Cover Reveal! 

This is it! If you are one of my newsletter subscribers, you got a sneak peek at this last week, but today I’m releasing to the wider world the cover of my first book, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path.

I think it looks awesome, how about you? The designers at Ebooklaunch did a fabulous job, and I am very pleased. I would recommend them if you are in the market for a cover. And bonus: they are Canadian, to boot!

Someone asked me, “What are the significance of the elements of the cover?” I wasn’t able to give a very coherent answer, mainly because we were sitting at a table at a social event with loud music and lots of conversation in the background, so it was difficult to explain anything in-depth. But it was a good question, and I thought I could answer it properly here.

1. The Celtic Cross – the main bulk of the story action takes place in 7th century Northumbria. The cross represents this time and place because it was a time when the Christian faith was beginning to become the dominant faith, and in particular, the variety of Christianity that we now call Celtic Christianity was the one the people there adhered to. This Celtic Cross could be found dotted across the Northumbrian landscape, at various monasteries and as well as at places where they would be known as “teaching crosses”, places where travelling monks would stop and preach the Gospel on their rounds throughout the kingdom. The cross on the cover also represents the monastery at Lindisfarne, where Thomas, my main character, finds refuge. And finally, it symbolizes the spiritual journey Thomas undergoes as he is swept away from everything familiar, and his already struggling faith is challenged in new and unexpected ways.

2. The crows – I don’t want to give too much away, here, but I can just say that the crows represent Thomas’ main adversary in the Travelling Path series (which will likely be three books, but I’m not exactly sure yet).

3. The mist – Thomas, and others, have a recurring dream, of him walking through the mist, heading towards an unspecified, but earth-shattering, threat. So I thought it would be good to include this on the cover.

I wanted a cover that was not too cluttered but gave readers a sense of the book’s content and genre. One thing that was tricky was to impart the sense that this is not just a historical book, but a historical fantasy. In the end, we decided to do that by making the font stylized and artistic, rather than just block letters. Barring dragons and wizards on the cover (neither of which appear in my book) I think it helps to give the cover a fantasy feel.

It was an interesting process to get this designed, and a fun one. And to see my name on the cover…whoo.

My final bit of news is that I have firmed up my publication date. Wilding will be available on Amazon and all the other e-book retailers on February 5, 2019. 

Lots to do until then….stay tuned!


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Anglo-Saxon Elves

Today is a special day on The Traveller’s Path – this is my first crosspost! My post today is also being featured on the Superversive Inklings Blog…many thanks to them for allowing me to share their space…

One of the intriguing questions about the Anglo-Saxons who lived in England in the Early Middle Ages revolves around their religious beliefs and mythologies. Pretty much all of what we know of these beliefs were written down by Christian monks, and so it’s tricky to tease out the truth of that second-hand information. Bede gives us some glimpses of their religion, but by the time he was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed around 731 AD, the religious practices of the pagan Anglo-Saxons had pretty much disappeared from England, so he was writing about beliefs and practices that were pretty much legend in his time.

The Anglo-Saxons of the 7th century* were, of course, descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who migrated to Britain after the Romans left the island defenceless in the 4th century. There is considerable discussion about whether these migrants came as conquerors or settlers, and the truth is likely a mix of the two.

These groups of people came with their own set of beliefs and worldview that were distinct from those of the Celtic and Romano-British people who populated Britain at the time. They were Germanic people, and shared the rich heritage of the Norse and Germanic religions. They certainly were not Christians, but encountered a strong thread of Christian culture in Britain, a legacy of the Roman occupiers.

So in trying to determine the religion and mythologies of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, scholars and historians look to the beliefs of their contemporary Germanic and Norse kin who lived on the Continent during the time they settled in Britain. But of course, their culture and beliefs slowly diverged from their Continental neighbours as time passed, and as they began to be integrated with the local population.

I don’t have the time or expertise to cover all of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs and mythology, but I thought I could give a brief overview of their mythologies about elves, seeing as I did some research on this in writing my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path (coming early 2019).

Much has been made of Tolkien’s elves, and many scholars with far more expertise than I have written about Tolkien’s understanding of the Saxon myths and religion and how he incorporated that into his Middle Earth (itself an Anglo-Saxon term) and his conception of elves.

I have posted before about how the concept of “elves” is a feature in many different cultures’ mythologies across the world. In that post I wrote:

Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them.

Our English word, “elf”, comes directly from the Anglo-Saxon word ælf. This means “white being”, which seems to relate to ideas of the supernatural, divine, or of feminine beauty. At any rate, the Anglo-Saxon elves were thought of as being human sized, and indeed, generally they were said to look human, although usually they were thought of as being exceptionally beautiful. They could make themselves invisible, or change shape. These are not “Tinkerbells”. The conception of elves (or “fairies”) as being diminutive beings with wings came much later, in the Late Medieval period.

Elves were not to be trusted in Anglo-Saxon mythology. They could be helpful, but they could just as easily be tricksters, or worse. They could lure both men and women into illicit sexual unions, or into a bargain that inevitably would end badly for the human.

They certainly were seen as the cause of some illnesses, both amongst humans and livestock. In Bald’s Leechbook, you can find charms or remedies against what is called “elf-shot” – a sudden, sharp pain, which was caused by being shot by an invisible arrow from an invisible elf.

 

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Bald’s Leechbook. Image from The British Library

Another great danger the Anglo-Saxon elves posed was their penchant for stealing children. It is said that they would take a human child and switch it with one of their own, a sickly, wizened being that would be known as a changling. Human parents who suddenly had a fractious, sickly baby would fear that they had been the recipient of this type of switch. There were also tales about human women who were tricked by elves to become wet nurses for their offspring. And of course, time moves differently in the elves’ world. The woman could emerge from the Otherworld to find that three hundred years had passed when she thought it was only three.

Speaking of the Otherworld, it is very difficult to determine exactly where the Anglo-Saxons thought their elves lived, or where they came from. That’s because the mythology of Anglo-Saxon elves has been conflated with the British Celtic views on these beings, whether they be Irish, Scottish or Welsh, and so to tease out what is specifically Anglo-Saxon about the legends in this regard is tricky. However, it does seem that the general idea was than the elves lived in hills under the earth, which would sometimes open up and reveal the elves singing, dancing, and feasting, which were favourite activities of theirs. They are also associated with certain trees, especially oaks.

The mention of elves from this time period comes from either medical treatises or from epic ballads such as Beowulf. In that poem, the elves are lumped in with other creatures such as giants and demons, who are all descendants of Cain. These are creatures exiled by God that feud endlessly with mortal men, who are the descendants of Seth (Adam’s son) and Noah. This assumes that their home is on Earth, but that they are hidden in some way from men until they make themselves known.

In general, then, when trying to categorize the elves of Anglo-Saxon lore, it is best to think more of Tolkien’s depiction than Disney’s Tinkerbell. Keep in mind, however, that Tolkein was writing fiction, and brought both his own imagination and some later Scandinavian legends and stories for his idea of elves. Not everything in Lord of the Rings corresponds with actual Anglo-Saxon beliefs about them. Especially not the pointed ears!

But because of Tolkien’s influence, there is still interest in these stories and legends that otherwise we likely would have forgotten or ignored. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would likely be amazed to know that, this many centuries after they are gone, we still tell stories about the elves and their kin.


*As my book takes place mainly in 7th century Northumbria, that is the time period that is the focus of this blog. Although there would be some differences from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon migration until the time of the Vikings, these broad strokes are pretty close to what most of them would have believed throughout that time.


Featured image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake (1786) This painting comes from the 18th century, but I think that it is actually not a bad depiction of Anglo-Saxon elves! Image from sussexarch.org.

 

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Year Of Reading Buechner: Eyes of the Heart

Throughout this Year of Reading Buechner series, I’ve made a point of reading his memoirs. This month I come to the fourth, and last, memoir, Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, published in 1999. 

At the time of publication, Buechner was seventy-three years old, and we discover that his only sibling, his younger brother Jimmy, has just died. So I’m sure he was feeling the weight of years upon him, and the sharpness of loss, as he wrote this book. Little did he know he would still be alive, here in 2018, at ninety-two! However, this shadow of death is very much present in this memoir, giving it a darker feel than the others. 

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The book is also in a slightly different format than the other three memoirs. They told the story of his life in more or less chronological order, each one picking up from where the other one ended. 

The Eyes of the Heart goes back into older history, the story of his mother and father’s early lives and marriage, and revisits in greater detail some of the other periods he has already written about in the other books. It delves deeper into the personalities of the people he knew, giving us a fuller understanding of who they were. 

The book begins with a description of his office/study, which he calls the Magic Kingdom, the place where he keeps all his books and where he does his writing. In this space he stores his book collection and his important family papers, and as he gives us a tour through the room and its objects he also gives us a tour through the times and people in his life that are represented by the objects, papers, and books.

He also continues an element that he has included in other books, that of his discussions with his beloved grandmother, whom he calls Naya, who of course is long dead. As in previous books he brings her to life again, sitting  her down in his study/office and allowing us to listen in on their conversations.

It’s an effective thread that helps to hold the book together as he skips from one person to another, and from one time to another. 

This memoir helps to fill out some of the previous stages of Buechner’s life, but honestly I will have to say that it is my least favourite of the memoirs. I got bogged down by some of the details and personalities. If I had never read any of the others, I’m sure I would have liked this one more. But because I know what he is capable of when writing this style of book, I came away somewhat disappointed. 

The charm and genius of the other memoirs was that, although he wrote of his own life in those books, he also managed to make them about all of us, about how we see the world, and about how the small and sometimes insignificant things that happen to us can have profound and lasting effects. 

There is only a hint of that in this book, and I missed it. I got bogged down in the stories about people I don’t know, ancestors of his and friends long gone. I didn’t find much of the sparkle in this book that had captivated me in his other memoirs. 

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There is some of that sparkle in the last chapter, however, and it was my favourite. In it Buechner wraps up the thoughts that he has sprinkled throughout this book on death and what happens after, by having a conversation with Naya about it. 

I have to admit that there were also things that bothered me about this chapter. One of the things that I have appreciated very much about Buechner as I have read his books this year is his ambiguity when it comes to faith. I like that he leaves some room for questions, and some room for doubt. That is realistic, after all, and he allows readers some space to wrestle with their own doubts and questions because of it. That is all well and good. 

But at times I wished he would not be quite so ambiguous about it all. He presents an almost Universalist view of the afterlife – in other words, it doesn’t matter what god you worship, all of us will get there in the end. I think this is both intellectually dishonest as well as being absolutely anathema to the orthodox teachings of Christianity. On even a surace level it doesn’t make sense. As soon as you examine any religion, you will find that their views about who God is and how to live your life in light of that are pretty much incompatible with each other. They can’t all be true. Buechner writes about the Buddhist philosophy, for example; about how, in the end, a person will dissolve into the great emptiness. That is an entirely different thing from the Christian view of a personal God who calls each of us individually to a life where we will become more and more the people that he always meant for us to be. 

Buechner does admit in this chapter to his reluctance of stating things too plainly: 

I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best. I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for the fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more of less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness–even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus–as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. 

I understand his reluctance, and in many ways, share it. But there’s reluctance to speak of it and then there’s speaking of it in such an oblique way that the truth of it is distorted. 

In the end, however, I don’t want to be too harsh with my comments. Buechner has a gentle, self-deprecating way of helping us wrestle with our own thoughts and feelings. He gives us other lenses with which to view our lives. And in sharing his stories of the insights he gleaned from the things that happened to him in his life, he encourages us to find insights of our own in ours. Especially the insight that, as he says, it was all of it, all of it, and forever and always, good.


If you want to read more of my reflections on Buechner’s work, you can find the posts at the links below.

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

The Celts: 7th Century Wales

At the time of the 7th century, the Celtic peoples had been pushed by the Anglo-Saxons in to three main areas of Britain. These correspond roughly to what we call Wales, Ireland, and Scotland today. In the next few posts on my series on the Celts, I will focus on each of these three places in turn.

I’m going to start with Wales, because that lovely little piece of the world holds a special place in my heart, as my mother was Welsh, born in the charming town of Mumbles, on Swansea Bay in the south of Wales.

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Sigh. The rugged beauty of Northern Wales. Image from pixabay

Wales in the 7th century was, of course, not known by that name, although the name “Wales” does originate from this time. It comes from the word, wælas, meaning foreign, strange  in Anglo-Saxon. The word wælisc therefore meant foreigner, or stranger, and it was the word they would use to refer to the Celtic Britons who lived in England at the time. Which is ironic, seeing as the Britons were there first. It gives you a sense of the hostility that simmered between these two groups of people.

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The Welsh flag. The dragon has been used on flags in Wales for centuries. Some suggest it came from the draco military standard brought over by the Roman legions, and was adapted by the prominent Romano-British families thereafter. The green and white stripes were additions of Henry Tudor in the Middle Ages. 

The Welsh called themselves the Cymry (CUM-ree), which loosely translated means, fellow-countrymen. Today the word for Wales in the modern Welsh language is Cymru (also pronounced CUM-ree). But in the 7th century, the place we now call Wales did not have one name.

That is because, like the rest of Britain, Wales was divided up into several kingdoms. These were very much based on tribal and kinship allegiances rather than territory, although of course they did generally correspond to one area or another. The borders were fluid, due to the penchant of the kings’ attempts to expand territory by raids and warfare against other tribes/kings. The history of the various kinship groups and the territories they held are rather murky, and it’s difficult to say for certain a lot about the specifics of Welsh in the Early Middle Ages because of this. Certainly the people of Gwynedd in the north were a prominent group at this time, and we also know some about the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwent. The kingdom of Powys was not referred to by that name in this time, although it certainly existed, under a different name. The name Powys does not surface until the 9th century.

Wales at this time was very much a rural society, with no large civic centres to speak of. The kings didn’t govern in the way we think of it, they were mainly the chief warriors who expanded the territory of the tribe/kinship group and who doled out the rewards of conquest to his faithful retainers. They might also give judgements on disputes, but only in consultation with the local elders. The local head of the kinship group would be the one to whom people looked to for the day-to-day stuff of making life work.

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The Bodvoc Stone. This dates from the late 6th century-early 7th century, and was originally set on a prehistoric barrow on Margham Mountain in South Wales. The inscription reads “The stone of Bodvoc. He he lies, son of Cattegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus.” It’s the earliest known family lineage in Wales. Image from britain express.com

Wales was a Christian society at this time.  There were several monasteries in Wales, the most famous being the one founded by St. David, in the south. The Welsh followed the practices of the Celtic Christian church, which had some differences from the Roman Christian practices, most notably in the style of tonsure and the dating of Easter. There some other, cultural differences, too.

Just as they were never completely subdued by the Romans, the Welsh were never completely subdued by the Anglo-Saxons who followed them. The mountains of the north were a formidable barrier to any invaders, and the fierce independence of the Welsh made them difficult adversaries in any battles. Various of the Welsh tribes/kingdoms did form alliances with certain Anglo-Saxon kings, most notably with Penda of Mercia, in their fights against the Northumbrian kingdoms, and there was some intermarrying that went on as well. They also had some alliances with their neighbouring Celts in Ireland, and would make war with them on the Picts or Anglo-Saxons at times.

For the most part, the Britons who lived in the place we now call Wales were a strong, independent people, well used to defending their territories and their customs against all who encroached upon them. Which is the reason why Wales survives today as a unique part of the United Kingdom.

Cymru Am Byth!* 


For more posts on this series on the Celts, see this introduction to the series.

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*”Long Live Wales!” This is the motto of Wales.