No, seriously. Speak it aloud.
Regardless of context, of religious connotations and concrete definitions, there’s an undeniable pleasant ring to Grace that has spanned centuries; like so many Old French-derived words, it has the crystal phonetics to retain a universal appeal.
Grace can be made synonymous with poise to describe physical movement; it can be the merciful pardon, willing to pass over another’s foibles. It can become the prayer uttered in the sight of one’s God before settling to a meal; the blessing of divine love, bestowed upon a religious following.
I was asked by James Prescott (@JamesPrescott77) what the word Grace means to me, on a personal level. This is my response.
I am not a religious person; nor do I pertain to be particularly secular in my belief system. As an agnostic, I’m open in opinion and mind to others’ theories and beliefs, but am personally not willing to tie myself to any one creed, having no basis on which to form a steady structure – to be honest, the only thing I’ve come to believe in and respect above all else, is Nature.
This encompasses life and death, the progress and process of what must be. It defines the very paradox of how we go about our lives, in our own time frames, on this planet that’s just another speck in the sky. I’m not willing to believe that this was made so in a completely random act, with no control; nor will I pin a sentient perspective to the fact we’re here, that others have come before and likely more will come in our stead. And when I say “others”, I mean lifeforms in general. We’re all bound up in this, one way or another.
The grace I find in nature, has much to do with its Give and Take attitude – if a living abstract could be assigned an attitude for a moment. Whatever the circumstance, the situation, the fact it’s for better or worse depends entirely on context, and the perspective of who/whatever’s on the receiving end.
A volcanic eruption spews forth ash clouds to blacken the sky, perhaps for months; plants can’t photosynthesize and crops die as a result, while water is tainted. Livestock and humans perish from the smothering heat of Nuées ardentes (“incandescent cloud” / “glowing avalanche”), with their scalding loads of pumice, viscous magma and ash. Pyroclastic flow can wipe out entire cities, as seen with Vesuvius and Pompeii. Icecaps melt, bringing lahars and landslips. That’s even before we get onto structural damage among local human habitations.
But the flipside is fertility, of both natural surroundings and local economy. Soil is enriched with the minerals brought from the heart of the planet. The flooding waters, once they’ve receded, may have deposited an unlikely treasure-trove of yet more minerals, and stones embedded with crystals – both to be sold for local commerce. Ancient civilizations, seemingly obliterated, can be learned from when the pyroclastic flow has cooled and set – a poignant message of the past, to illustrate the volcanic dangers for our future.
It’s this graceful and deadly Give and Take of nature that I adhere to – the closest I would come to aligning myself with a religion. I’ve found that it’s not something to follow; paganism and Druidism still felt too formulaic in my youth, for something that – on a very basic level – is just an appreciation and respect for one’s surroundings. The simple acts are, to me, equivalent of uttering and performing ritualistic prayer to return nature’s grace: Not dropping litter; keeping off of flourishing areas of new growth, or taking care to avoid trampling ancient rock formulations that are prone to erosion; climbing trees, without feeling the need to peel off bark or carve initials that leave a mark of oneself, which the tree itself couldn’t give a damn about and future generations of humans probably won’t either. That peeled bark exposes the tree’s flesh, drying it out. A branch can wither and die from this seemingly small act, taking nests down when it falls; cutting off life for those to come, arboreal and human.
Nature is deadly, sure. Seemingly merciless, sympathetic only to its own environmental needs and “cruel” whims. But it’s this continuous cycle that I find so appealing. It’s a grace defined by its own neutrality – the ability to regenerate life, inability to favour any one species, race, trend or ethos. Evolution and nature work hand in abstract hand, and if some fall by the wayside to keep the planet ticking over, that’s as it should be.
Dialing things down a bit –
When I was a child, I danced ballet. Grace, poise, elegance were words that ran a thread through the training that began when I lived in Germany. My father was stationed at the nearby RAF base, and my poor mother was left to deal with two daughters, 3 years apart in age and different as night and day. She was often exhausted by us, for individual reasons, and by our energy. I’m told I used to regularly make her cry, though not out of nastiness; just an inquisitive nature that somehow got me into the kind of scrapes to cause scrapes …And cuts, bruises, iron-burns, palms slit open on glass I’d mistaken for jewels…
She hit upon the idea of dance. Not only as a way of wearing me and my sister out, but to perhaps instill in us (well, me) a sense of decorum. I think perhaps she had the same misplaced mindset as many others – that ballet is for girls exclusively, can teach an appreciation for all things “girly.” At the tender age of four, I already had this idea in mind, and dragged my heels when brought to the first class.
(picture courtesy of Gudu Ngiseng Blog)
The funny thing is, the hard work it all turned out to be – routine training at the barre, with pointed toes, bend and flex of muscles, maintaining a perfect circle in a spin – appealed to my rough ‘n ready nature. It calmed my head, already full of white noise, and burned up that excessive energy. It was my sister who would drop out, citing boredom. I continued up to the age of nine, harbouring hopes of becoming a prima ballerina. A fall in school, a bad ankle sprain that still plagues me today, put paid to those dreams.
Still, I find that the training – so like the basic level all military personnel go through in their first three months – has stood me in good stead. It comes back to gift me in adult life. I walk tall, no matter what my mood; it’s second nature to pull my shoulders back, align my spine to the backs of my legs. I’ve won over potential employers with the simple fact I sit up straight, appearing alert even if my mind is wandering. It did get me into trouble on the inpatient unit though, where I spent several months for treatment of anorexia; staff mistook my seeming inability to relax as a “behaviour”. Context is a funny thing.
I’ll often practice old favourite moves, for the sheer pleasure of feeling how alive my body is. It’s a sensation never to be underestimated, the natural gift of feeling grace in one’s physicality. Whatever your own state, don’t let go of that appreciation of what your body is capable of. The time spent on that ward, I was stuck in a wheelchair for the first week, too underweight to be allowed to walk. There was a great risk of slipping into a coma, as my blood sugar had dropped to subnormal levels; not to mention what was going on with electrolytes, and my heart. Still, the muscles of my legs twitched and trembled with frantic energy, a burning desire to move. Adrenalin can keep an anorexic going for years. It was an itch I wasn’t permitted to scratch for long months. Progression from the chair, was slow – corridor-pacing, to snail-pace group walks under the impartial gaze of staff; and finally, oh God, heady freedom – walking alone around the sprawling grounds of the hospital, and thence to the nearby town.
I will never forget how long it took to relearn how to walk heel to toe. I’d had a punishing control of my stride for so long, it felt natural to push to the point of burnout, whatever the exercise. It was the greatest gift to stride again, unimpeded by staff or anorexia’s whip, with the natural grace and fluidity taught in those early ballet lessons, when we learned how to smile for the audience even while it felt like our backs and hearts were breaking.
In those formative early years when we returned to the UK from Germany, my grandmother became my confidante. She saw me for who I was – the middle child of three, feeling a bit left out because of the simple mechanics of there only being two parents (neither of which I could relate to as much as my siblings), with too much racing through her mind at once to keep her body still. I got into those scrapes, so she told me, because I didn’t have enough hands to accomplish all that I wanted to do at once.
She’s a live-wire herself, even in later years. But while I’ll only ever be an impatient git, her creed is to bring calm to those about her; to turn the other cheek, showing merciful grace however possible.
Not that she’ll hold her tongue where a scolding is needed. I learned early on that you can’t get a thing past her. Raised by her own grandmother, a Victorian lady of strong traditional values and family presence, my Nanna is a women of conviction. She believes in the good of others. No doubt she will have had cause to doubt this at certain points in her life. But she is a religious woman, upholding a quiet faith in God through childhood years of poverty in Tyneside; being made an orphan by age ten; motherhood with three children, and moving down South to follow my grandfather’s career at the observatory, Herstmonceux.
The great unknown has made up much of her life. Still, she bears it with a grace and dignity I’m forever fascinated and inspired by.
Now in her pale years, she lives with a sense of Self and gratitude for our family. Her ability to find peace when alone – she’s another introvert – was a comforting lesson to a child who felt odd for not being the socialite her sister was. Later, in adolescence and when the actions of my peers left me ashamed for them, her simple elegance was a reminder of who I was, to stay true to what I wanted to become. She’s always supported my writing, has provided a listening ear and ready wit when I needed a spirit-boost. There’s a hard-earned gravity in her words; she won’t say anything without cause, and to be honest some of my best memories of our time spent together, are the great wells of silence when we thought together.
I owe my Nanna a good deal, for providing the core values of appreciation and respect for others that seem to have evolved into empathy. Handy for writing, as well as dealing with the real world. Rather than resort to strong words and actions, we prefer to maintain dignity in the face of ugly manners and disrespect. That’s not to say I will back down, but there’s a need for control in such situations. Loss of it is letting your guard down; a discredit of grace.
It stands that, as an adult, I make my way through the world and fall back on what she has taught me. There are no answers to the questions begged in darkest moments – why people act the way they do, say the things they say, with a cruelty and love inherent of human nature. Some things are irrevocable, left hanging in the air. We’re a chaotic race; there will always be those who give, while others take. I feel that it’s in our best interests and in our power, to carefully govern the way we react to others. I’ll admit to having wished pain upon those who’ve hurt me in the past. I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t at least entertained such vengeful ideas.
But all they afforded me were brief euphoric sunsets, before the chill nights of despair clawed back up.
Revenge is an easy path to follow, in comparison to the twisting way of merciful grace. There are roots that will twist and tangle about the feet, stones to unsettle every step. Time doesn’t heal, so much as numb certain wounds. I refuse to become another lost soul, wandering the world in a stupor of bitterness and dangling on the claws of one addiction after another. Been there, done that; believe me, the half-life was short indeed.
Grace to me, is being able to look upon the face of the abuser, the name-caller, the one who broke your heart and beat your face out of “love” – and to turn away, the stronger for leaving them to stew in their own weakness. To offer forgiveness, if it’s in your heart to do so – and if not, to leave without looking back. No regret, no guilt, no more acceptance of suffering or being made to feel the victim by those who still live in fear.
Grace is a byword for elegance and good manners, for respect of others and the world we inhabit together, for better or worse. It’s a means of walking upright, back straight and legs poised, ready to carry us beyond what we thought ourselves capable of.
Whatever your take on the word, don’t be afraid to uphold its truth. Whether offering prayer to your God, or extending mercy to one who has shown you none, remember it as being alike to the subtle truth behind the half-smile on a dancer’s face; one that tells the world, my life is my own.