Thursday, March 17, 2005

In Another Country

I spent a cold winter in Switzerland many years ago. A friend had offered me a place to stay, and I needed time off from my studies to reflect upon the direction that my life was taking.

So, I found myself in the old, walled city of Fribourg on the Sarine River, which divided the town physically, culturally, linguistically. Those speaking French lived on its west bank, those speaking Swiss-German on its east. Most of my friends were Swiss-German because I spoke little French. I did manage to improve my French reading skills by wading through several of Beauvoir's novels, including Tous les hommes sont mortel, which taught me to be less sure that immortality would be a desirable thing.

I'm growing older and forgetting that lesson.

Switzerland was expensive, and my money seemed to evaporate. An acquaintance offered me work in a nearby village, where we were to tear down a nunnery. I'd long been interested in deconstruction, so I accepted the irony.

We used sledgehammers to shatter the plaster and useless particle board. In the dead of a frozen January morning, we'd retrieve our hammers from their cold storage in one of the nunnery's closets, heft them up, and swing hard. The first blow would send shock waves through the frozen wooden handles directly into our bones. We'd drop our hammers, cry out from pain, then pick up and start again.

Our job became intriguing as we began the more delicate work of dismantling the rafters. The boss, Tony, wanted to save the good wood, so we couldn't simply knock it all down. The building was well-constructed, and the roof seemed suspended from its main beam rather than held up by the walls, leaving us puzzled about how to take it apart. Did the rafters hold the walls in place? Would the entire ediface come crashing down?

It wouldn't. They didn't. We managed.

And we found something interesting. In each joint where one rafter joined another, a tiny pendant holding a medallion of the Virgin and Child had been placed. God for the gaps. The builders may have been good, but they clearly wanted to leave nothing to chance.

Winter days were as short as my money. At night, I sometimes found myself alone in my upper room, staring at a candle flame and dreaming of love:

In Another Country

I drank calvados, glistening brown,
and watched the candle gutter down
to smolder in a night of sighs
as deep as her nocturnal eyes.

I didn't find those eyes, but the calvados was almost enough.


At 4:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Bill, for the encouragement.

The "for" was intentional. I have a number of reasons to prefer "God for the gaps" to "God of the gaps."

Generally, I like to avoid cliches in order to maintain greater control over my thinking and writing. (Principle: Always interrogate a cliche to see what lies hidden.)

In this case, though, I also wanted to allude to the thinking behind the cliche, and I did so by a close paraphrasing that would strongly call it up in readers' minds.

More importantly, though, I think that "for" works better here than "of" because it more clearly specifies the intent of the builders, who were implicitly calling on God for supernatural preservation of the building's structural integrity precisely at its gaps.

By coincidence, I found that I had saved two of those medallions. Yesterday, we were cleaning house and tossing away things that we no longer need (in preparation for our move to Seoul proper), and my wife handed me a small leather case, asking, "Do you need these?" I looked inside to find a minor dragon's hoard of coins and small stones from various parts of the world. As I sorted out the money and threw away the stones, I found the medallions.

"What a coincidence," I told myself, and kept them.

At 4:21 AM, Blogger Hagfish said...

"God for the gaps."

"Winter days were as short as my money. At night, I sometimes found myself alone in my upper room, staring at a candle flame and dreaming of love:"

I love these lines.

Great stuff Mr. Hodges, and I love it that you kept the medallions. That was a good thing to do I think.

At 6:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Hagfish.

Jeffery Hodges

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