The words of this post's title come from a wonderful book: A Tour of Bones by Denise Inge (Bloomsbury, 2014).
I discovered it almost exactly a year ago when exploring Worcester cathedral with my husband and with our son visiting from the States. When I lived in the USA, the churches and cathedrals of England, with their layered history, were among the things I most missed. So I particularly appreciate every small old church or huge cathedral that I have the chance to visit now. It was in the cathedral bookshop that I found this book; Denise Inge lived in Worcester, right next to the cathedral, because she was married to John Inge, Worcester's bishop. In the cellar of their old house was a collection of bones, and it was this that started Denise off on her "tour." She travelled to four European charnel houses and looked at why they were created and what these gatherings of bones mean.
Bones and skulls, of course, are frightening, and it was to address that fear that she began the book. At first, her fear of death was like that shared by the healthy: there, but not always sharply felt—until we're confronted by bones or bereavement—because none of us really believes it will happen to me. But then, while writing the book, the fear comes all too close: she is diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. She died in 2014 at the age of 51. Here's her husband's obituary of her: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/15/denise-inge
She's an excellent writer (and an authority on the extraordinary Thomas Traherne, whose words I quote at the start of Inscription), and her book would have been brilliant anyway. But inevitably her numbered days give an added poignancy to her impressions of charnel houses in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland. And yet, the book isn't grim, but life-affirming. When she returns to her own bone-filled cellar, her fear of it has shifted towards reverence and wonder. She writes:
"I do not know how much more time I have to live my questions out, but I am glad I started asking them even before the cancer came for, although they cannot be rushed, these are questions that must not be avoided. This is true whether or not you have been diagnosed with a frightening disease. The questions these charnel-houses asked of me stirred me to life-enriching responses. Are the broken parts of your deep self being healed? Get rid of the bitternesses. Mend the bridges. Seek and receive forgiveness. Let yourself be loved. Have you found a lasting hope? Anchor yourself in the eternal and abiding (for me this is God). Feed yourself something stronger than optimism. You are in a constant state of growth and transition, so let change transform you. What are the things for which you will be remembered? Cut the crap in your life. Do the things that matter. Find and exercise your gifts. Are you on the path of true humility? Submit to a truth that is bigger than yourself. Become part of it. Let it be your story. What I have been surprised to discover, as these questions chase and wash over me, is that preparing to live and preparing to die are in the end the same thing."
Wise words for any time, and perhaps especially for the start of a new year. I wrote them down in the reading journal I'd started keeping, which is why I have been reminded of them now, because I was looking back over its pages. Also, I was so struck by A Tour of Bones that I signed up to Twitter expressly to tell people about it. (And because I thought it was about time I joined the twittersphere. Now I am fighting the addiction!) My first tweet, almost a year ago, was to praise Denise Inge's book.
The richness of books and writing is never-ending. I look forward to a new year of reading, and writing; of writing about reading, and reading about writing; of using my reading journal to help me remember books I've loved; and of sharing some of my thoughts here for others who also love the world of words.