Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tangled Inspiration: Julian of Norwich

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
-Julian of Norwich

Julian (not really her name - no one knows her name any more. I'm sure there were people at one time who did, but they're long gone now, so she just lives on as Julian because that's where she lived. It's kind of like her zip code. Could you imagine being immortalized by your zip code? That's some food for another thought.)

Anyway, Julian. She lived in Plague-riddled England in the 14th century. It would seem that she survived said Plague (OK, another brief digression... can you imagine the smell? Just think about it.) She survived this horror show and had some visions, wrote some essential thoughts, and then went to live out the rest of her life built into the wall of the Church of St. Julian outside her hometown of Norwich. She wasn't really built into the wall, like my imagination would have it, she lived in a cell that was built into the wall. Either way, it seems she chose the life of an anchoress to escape the horrors of her world and to focus on the things that mattered to her. 

She was also one of the first, if not the first, published woman writer in the English language. So there's that. Julian's my buddy. 

Her utterly fascinating and mysterious life aside, it's her ideas that captivate me. At a time in history when large portions of the world population were losing body parts and lives and family members to the Black Death, when the monarchy in England was faffing around fighting wars and neglecting its own starving peasants, when the people in charge were busy stabbing each other in the backs and fighting over their own glory and power, when it must have smelled so bad all the time, Julian came back from the brink of death and wrote: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

I'd like to chat with her.

She sat down and wrote what she knew. She was a woman, she wasn't supposed to be writing these things - they were the purview of men. She wrote in ordinary English - everyone knew that anything of any philosophical merit was to be written in Latin. She wrote about hope and compassion. She wrote about peace and love in a world filled with poverty and death and usurpers and greed. She eventually shut herself off from the stinking world and she wrote and she revised what she wrote and she revised again and expanded it. She wasn't supposed to do these things. But she did. 

She did, and now I sit here 600 years later and get a little misty-eyed reading as she compares divine love to a hazelnut. She had me at "hazelnut". She wrote the things that lay on her heart and in her mind and centuries later, they still resonate. As a writer, as a woman, as a human this makes my blood vibrate all the way to my fingertips. It makes my scalp tingle and my mind gallops and rolls and munches on clover in the sunshine. This sweet resonance across time and space and circumstance kicks me in the seat of my yoga pants and tickles my ears and whispers urgent secrets directly to the part of my brain that thinks without words. 

This is the definition of inspiration to me. I have decided to use this space over the next several days (weeks? months?) to write about the people and things that inspire me. There are plenty of things that could discourage or irritate or destroy me, but I don't like them. I like hazelnuts, smooth and hard in my hand (and oh-so-delicious in my belly) and the promise of life that they contain, their sturdiness, their simplicity and their completeness. 

I have no intention of living inside a wall (although, I will admit that on some days that carries a bit of appeal for me. Also, hello? Halloween costume ideas, anyone?) I have no delusions that my words will still resonate, or even exist, centuries from now. But I can write what I know. I can write the things that wriggle against my heart and in my mind. I can look around and borrow Julian's most famous words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.


  1. We all need to chant that- all shall be well.

    (And, I'd like to chat with you.)

    1. It's a bit of a mantra around our house. The Chief Lou is a big fan of Julian, too.
      I would like to chat with you, too, Julie! xo

  2. Why a hazelnut and not a cashew or pistachio? OK, yes, England 660 years ago, I guess it was hazelnuts or walnuts back then But it is nice that you are inspired, go for it!

    1. Thanks, Joe. I don't know why the hazelnut. There are theories that Julian of Norwich was completely insane. Maybe that's why she was talking to hazelnuts, which are clearly the nut of choice for the crazy.

  3. That quote is so very calming... just reading it creates a feeling of peace. Thank you.

    1. It is, isn't it? Almost all of her writing feels like that. I will recommend, however, reading it in translation from Middle English. I let the scholars do the work of muddling through all that strange spelling and usage for me.

  4. I love me some hazelnuts...and so much else about this post. :)


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