Friday, August 7, 2009

Today's geography

It’s after 5 pm and only just now, while reading Butler’s re BB. Agathangelo and Cassian and their evangelical trip to Abyssinia (which ended in a bizarre martyrdom) did I realize that today is the 7th and that today, with zero fanfare, my book (Absent a Miracle – have I mentioned this before?) is officially published. Agathangelo was born in Vendôme, France in 1598. About 300 years later the luxurious Vendôme Hotel was built on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and 101 years later it burned down in the “worst firefighting tragedy in Boston history”. My paternal grandmother (she of the inscrutable horoscope and the countless abstract watercolors) lived at the Vendôme Hotel in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She lived in a suite with Mrs. Downey, her companion, who disappeared one day without a trace. Nana wore long dressing gowns and painted all day long in her Grumbacher sketchbooks. (Are they no longer made?) She was pathologically averse to cutting her toenails and she rarely wore shoes, so her long yellowing toenails were a source of wonder to her 10 grandchildren. (Recent research has taught me that toenails grow at a quarter the rate of fingernails, making long toenails a far more remarkable feat than long fingernails. People can reasonably differ on which is more revolting.) Nana was not living in the Vendôme when it burned down in 1972, but she was there in the 1960’s when it caught fire, and she was being evacuated – in her silk dressing gown – onto Commonwealth Avenue late one night when a friend of mine(Jeannie Nicholson, a tall redhead) emerged from a local bar, saw Nana, and took her in.
As a young priest Agathangelo went to Aleppo where he learned to speak Arabic and was friendly with Moslems and Christians alike. When I was a child, my father travelled to Aleppo 3 or 4 times every year to buy cotton waste because there used to be lots of cotton grown in Syria, and where there is cotton, there is cotton waste. When my mother and I went to Aleppo we took a cab out of the city because I insisted we visit the ruins of the shrine of Saint Simeon Stylites, the 5th century ascetic who lived on top of a pillar for 37 years. We saw a lot of rocks and used our imaginations.
From Aleppo, Agathangelo went to Cairo, where my mother attended high school and my other grandmother – Bonne Maman – attended costume parties. They both loved Cairo.
Having become well acquainted with the Coptic bishops, and his companion Cassian having learned Amharic, the friars Agathangelo and Cassian went south to Ethiopia. Amharic is an ancient and beautiful language, but not easy to learn. Once I was in Washington DC in a taxicab on my way to a funeral and the language being spoken on the radio was incomprehensible but strangely familiar. I finally asked the driver what it was he said it was Amharic. He said there were 4 Amharic radio station in DC; that’s how many Ethiopians lived there. When my sister and I were in Ethiopia in the 90’s we spent a lot of time speculating about the location of the Arc of the Covenant. But Agathangelo and Cassian were preceded in Ethiopia by a Lutheran missionary with a special aversion to Catholics, so with his encouragement, King Basilides decided to execute the 2 friars. They were taken out to the tree from which they were to be hanged, but there was no rope. Everyone had to wait around while the executioner sent for rope. “But wait,” said the friars, “we have ropes right here on our habits.” So they did. And they were hung by their own rope belts.
And their feast is today, August 7th. Which just so happens to be the publication day of my novel, Absent a Miracle.


Rebecca Rice said...

I love the exotic and surreal details in this post, moving as it does so skillfully from your grandmother escaping the fire in the Boston hotel to Ethiopia to the martyrdom of Agathangelo and Cassian...

Re: the publication of Absent a Miracle; the journey of a book into the world is a mysterious event, and like children who are launched into adulthood, we simply have to trust that they will find their way. At this very moment there are readers who are being entertained and delighted by the adventures of Alice Fairweather...

Keep on writing, and remember that Virginia Woolf didn't like publication either; she usually went bonkers every time one of her novels was published!

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