Note from a northern belfry

All my life I’ve been forgetting things, so that today I cannot even be sure that I am going senile. In my childhood the expression was “out to lunch” — a feeding break for a mind that might, conceivably, resume its normal functions later in the day; but with the possibility of failure not excluded. For after the lunch, comes the siesta. “Thinking is hard,” Housman used to say, “and four minutes is a long time.” He doubted his own students had the stamina, at Cambridge more than a century ago. And while the four-minute mile has since been beaten, I should think attention spans have shrunk, more.

Up here in the Canadas — America’s mad attic, where the bats roost — I sometimes wonder what it would take to drive the bats away. But then I recall that I’m a bat myself, and it is my own home.

Unpleasant people, from the political periphery (“out in left field”) will assume I refer to the immigrants, but no, most of our bats are native. It would anyway be hard to find people from elsewhere as crazy as those we breed here. My constant fear is that the children of our sane, polite, hard-working immigrants, will be assimilated. The fear is reasonable. The other day, for instance, I was stopped in the street by an aggressive young Chinese panhandler. After not giving him the dollar he demanded, I reflected that before we had plenty of Chinese — especially in Chinatown, there — but not one of them a panhandler. Until this guy.

On this morning’s walk I was arrested, though not by Justin Trudeau’s new Pronoun Police. Rather it was by a beautiful sight. It was a Muslim woman, from her complexion and headdress, walking her daughter to school. (I say “was” out of an abundance of caution: I’m sure she was a Muslim woman at 8 o’clock this morning; but do not presume to know what she is now.)

In addition to the daughter, she was carrying a baby. Ah, what a picture. The failed painter within me immediately saw an ideal model for Madonna and Child — coached, curiously enough, by some words of Girolamo Savonarola that happened to fly through my head.

This Dominican friar, and Florentine preacher was, I think, quietly despised by the painters of that city. He lectured them on how to paint. He told them they were doing Our Lady all wrong. She wasn’t a rich woman, he explained, not a fashion plate. In fact she was poor, and from everything we know, modest.

“She would have covered up. Her face, alone, would have been showing. Only whores go about with their heads uncovered like that.”

Another Dominican, Fra Bartolomeo, would obediently affix the mantilla; but not before he had lovingly inscribed every lock of the Virgin’s hair. (I have a book of his drawings up here in the High Doganate; I’m fairly sure that’s what he did.)

One grows older, and possibly simpler. One may forget the more complicated things. How I wish that I could paint the image I have seen. Words will never do it justice: this image of the humble Muslim lady, waiting for the streetlight with that Child in her arms.