On Mrs. Mingott, the perfect paragraph, and a hat
One day last week I bundled up and went to sit in a frightfully cold St George Colegate Church to spend some time reflecting on the readings for the following Sunday's sermon. Such had been my intention, but the cold was rendering reflection frigidly difficult, so I ended up reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The copy I have is a small, hardback edition with nothing written on the cover so it looks a great deal like a prayer book, complete with a silk ribbon bookmark. A couple came in (I knew them to be married because I could hear the unmistakable intimate cantankerousness of long-suffering true love) and I looked up, nodded and smiled. Since before succumbing to Wharton's prose I had been reflecting on listening, I resisted the temptation to jump up and greet them in my usual manner.
They walked up the centre aisle having a kind of whispered argument about hats (she was telling him to remove his and he was saying it was too cold) and when they got near me the gentleman – not taking off his hat – asked, “Excuse me, is it alright to take photographs?” His wife hissed at him, “Can't you see he's praying?” but I said no worries, of course he could take photographs, but that if I was going to be in them to try and take them from as high as possible to render the number of my chins less visually voluminous. The man let out a rather loud honking laugh (a “snorffaw” I wrote in my journal – a combination snort and guffaw) and the woman slapped him across the arm and said, “Be quiet – you're disturbing him! And take your hat off!” in what I'm sure she thought passed for a whisper but was probably just as loud as said snorffaw had been. The man mouthed “Sorry” with an accompanying look that was reminiscent of when I catch my dog on that one chair in the house on which he is not allowed to sit. The man's hat, however, remained on.
Leaving behind the concept of silent listening, I stood up and said that they were not disturbing me and that the book I was reading was not a prayer book at all, although obviously inspired. The man asked the name of the book. He hadn't heard of it, he said, and his wife said “You have too! We saw the movie years ago. That blonde American actress you like is in it.”
“Michelle Pfeiffer,” I said (so much for listening and not talking) and the woman said, “No – that's not her name,” (although I knew for a fact that that was, indeed, her name).
“Is the book good?” asked the man and the woman sighed but sneezed halfway in the middle of it (“snighzed!” I wrote in my journal). I answered that it was, and that I had just read what I would characterise as a perfect paragraph which had me in equal parts elated (knowing that such craft exists) and deflated (knowing that I am no Edith Wharton).
“Ooh,” said the man, “can we hear it?” to which his wife hissed in that whisper of hers (“hissper!”) “He doesn't want to do that!” But, of course, read it to them was exactly what I wanted to do, so I read:
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.
“Is that the character that that short woman who is always on Graham Norton played in the film?” asked the wife.
“Yes – Mrs. Mingott – she was played by Miriam Margolyes,” I said and the woman said, “No – that's not her name,” (although I knew for a fact that that was, indeed, her name).
“What does that have to do with the Bible?” she asked and this time her husband hisspered at her, “He doesn't want to get into discussion about this – let the poor man get back to his book!” But, of course, get into a discussion about it was exactly what I wanted to do.
I said that I often think of the Bible as a record of God's movement through time and history, an epic love story, in which God is like an excited lover chasing after his beloved. His beloved, of course, is us.
“Oh my,” said the woman whilst scrunching up her face. She seemed unnerved at talk of an excited lover and her look clearly said “I told my husband to remove his hat for this?”
I said that – through my own sinfulness, spiritual blindness, and pig-headedness – I frequently don't add to the story as I ought to.
“You don't either,” said the husband to the wife.
She shushed him and pointed at his hat.
But every now and then, I continued, I let him catch me – God – and I'm inspired to do all kinds of things when I'm in his embrace. I'm a better person when I let him catch me. And, though I might not be in a position to change the overall arc of that story of God, maybe – just maybe – I can play my small part. Maybe every now and then, I can write a perfect paragraph. God's love story continues, of course – it's far bigger than I am – but I contributed somehow in my own small way.
The woman said she wasn't a writer and the man said that she was missing the point. “Correct me if I'm wrong,” he said to me, “but I think the minister is saying that if we concentrate on God's love we can contribute to it in some way, even if it's tiny. It's a metaphor.”
I nodded. “I never metaphor I didn't like!” I said, laughing at my own joke far more than either of them did. “Yes – you're absolutely right. The smallest things can make a difference. And they add up. If you get enough perfect paragraphs together you've got one amazing story.”
“When was this church built?” asked the woman, clearly desiring to move from metaphor to brick-and-mortar. (Mortarphor! I thought smiling, but kept it to myself.) You can't win 'em all, and I tried not to take it personally that she was less than impressed by my words.
Her husband wandered away and stood in front of the altar, head turned upward to look at those arches under which prayers had been ascending for centuries. Was he thinking of God's story and our sometimes perfect paragraphs? I'd like to think so, because then, in a gesture both thoughtful and deliberate, he removed his hat.