Kindness at a Distance

Turn but a stone and start a wing as Francis Thompson put it: another chance comment on Twitter starts a quick anthology in my mind, just three poems: two from C5th and C6th CE and then one from C9th CE, brought together in Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics. The distances suddenly and recently created – when even the distance of a short bus ride seems impossible – can be painful in our instant-gratification world, and when this dilemma – how to be kind at a distance – came up in the context of Mental Health Awareness week, I thought at once about how people in less connected cultures might have expressed this kindness. Letters are slow, uncertain things in the early Middle Ages, poems only go as letters: no posting a quick quotation on the Internet for poets like the three below. Less connected? Well, differently, perhaps. So here they are:

Here, first is Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, writing to Rucco, a cleric in Paris:

You at God’s altar stand, His minister,

And Paris lies about you and the Seine:

Around this Breton isle the Ocean swells,

Deep water and one love between us twain.

Wild is the wind, but still thy name is spoken;

Rough is the sea: it sweeps not o’er thy face.

Still runs my love for shelter to its dwelling,

Hither, O heart, to thine abiding place.

Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking

Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,

So to my heart crowd memories awaking,

So dark, O love, my spirit without thee.

and while I might think Helen Waddell in her translation makes rather a lot of this friendship, the words divisis terris alligat unus amor are key to why I’ve included it: our worlds are split apart, but one love unites. The “love” word can be contested as we translate, and it’s kept coming back to me since writing first of all about the sacredness of friendship and then about the relationships depicted in Emmett and Caleb: what language can any of us use to express affection over a distance?

Paulinus is more robust about his feelings in his poem to Ausonius:

I , through all chances that are given to mortals, 

And through all fates that be, 

So long as this close prison shall contain me, 

Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee, 

Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, 

Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face

Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee, 

Instant and present, thou, in every place. 

Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, 

And from the earth I shall have gone my way, 

Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, 

There shall I bear thee, as I do today. 

Think not the end, that from my body frees me, 

Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; 

Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, 

Deathless, begot of immortality. 

Still must she keep her senses and affections, 

Hold them as dear as life itself to be, 

Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting: 

Living, remembering, to eternity. 

We might tend to look for a reason to express our feelings: “Are you OK?” “Just checking in to see if things are all right…” and this is all to the good – but in times before quick post and even quicker emails friends could not always, it seems to me, waste time on the tentative. Paulinus – and Waddell is clear that his going broke his friend’s heart – has some terrific turns of phrase:

Discernar orbe quolibet

Nec ore longe nec remotum lumine

Tenebo fibris insitum

Videbo corde,

mente complectar pia…

Maybe if we need to “know how to show kindness at a distance, I guess, at the moment,” as a good friend put it recently, I might make a plea for the explicit act of kindness, and if they send a poem without hope of a return ping on a ‘phone screen, two clerics from a long-gone period at least know how to say how they feel clearly, elegantly. But does this need us to have a real reinvention of our language of affection?

Anthologies can be deceptive: much depends on the selection, and here it is also linked with Waddell’s perception of how she might translate this word, this phrase – or more importantly this relationship, that emotion. So to give a bit of balance to these wonderful poems of love and separation here is kindness-at-a-distance of a tender, everyday kind. A little later than Venantius and Paulinus – more than a little: three centuries later – Walafrid Strabo dedicates his book on gardening with fond remembrance of Abbot Grimold and the monastery school children in the green darkness of the apple trees in the summer garden:

A very paltry gift, of no account,

My father, for a scholar like to thee,

But Strabo sends it to thee with his heart.

So might you sit in the small garden close

In the green darkness of the apple trees

Just where the peach tree casts its broken shade,

And they would gather you the shining fruit

With the soft down on it; all your boys,

Your little laughing boys, your happy school,

And bring huge apples clasped in their two hands

Something the book may have of use to thee.

Read it, my father, prune it of its faults

And strengthen with thy praises what pleases thee.

And may God give thee in thy hands the green

Unwithering palm of everlasting life.

It is an image not too far away from Margaret McMillan‘s Nursery Garden with its “wholesome memories.” It makes me think of my discussions with friends over the last month, or my Dad sending photos of the three fox cubs that visited last week (update: they were back last night).

Common to all three poems, across all the years between them, and the years between them and us is the one thing I would say in answer to the idea of communicating kindness: it is in communicating that we bring kindness, it is in telling it from the heart that we uncover the weakness in the phrase “social distance:” these three people (six with their audience, loads more readers since then) find it a mere physical distance. And in this communication is the compassionate act – maybe even the self-caring act too, as we share our joys, our hurts and our fond memories.

Now, however, it’s time to go and water the garden.

4 thoughts on “Kindness at a Distance

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