From what book…?

I have just sent out the first edition of the long promised newsletter. PSA:  It may have its share of the usual startup problems, which I hope will be worked out by the next edition. If you received the first one and you find things that need fixing, let me know!

Wings coverThere’s going to be news on what’s going on in the writing life, special offers, snippets of works in progress, news about my newest book, currently Wings of Fire…).

Ask questions, if you like. Tell me what you want me to talk about, what you want to see, what you want to know.

And there will be the occasional quiz. Here is a quote from one of my books. I would be DELIGHTED if you know and recognize it I will tell you if you are right in the next newsletter…

“She muttered a soft curse under her breath. The kitten’s tiny, vulnerable face, the delicate suckling on {…}’s finger,the scrabbling little wounded paws… […] jabbed a repair hook too deeply into the rope sole of her broken sandal, annoyed at the kitten’s insistent hold on her mind’s eye. She had interfered because two of the torturers had been Guard, damn it all, not because she was a bleeding heart for waifs and strays.She didn’t care what happened to it, after. She didn’t. She could swear she didn’t.She was glad the little thing had clung to life, but she’d tried to dismiss the creature from her orbit and she had every intention of forgetting about it. Especially now that she knew it had survived.”

What book is this from?

If you would like a copy of the next newsletter, drop me a line at AlmaAlexander@AlmaAlexander.org

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Museums I have known
A matter of faith

It was Sunday and the Montreal 2009 Worldcon was done, so a friend – Canadian West Coast novelist Donna McMahon – and I decided to go for a wander in the cobbled alleys of Old Montreal. We finally washed up on the stone steps of the chapel known as Notre Dame de Bon Secours.

You could enter directly into the gorgeous church itself, full of gilt and glory and stained glass, or you could tiptoe past all that along a narrow corridor to the side of the place, leaving the chapel itself till last, and buy tickets for the attached museum as well as access to the chapel’s tower which promised views of the river and the rooftops of the Old City.

Chapel photoAscending to the top of the tower was accomplished via a narrow twisted stair whose one wall was stripped down to expose the ancient stonework; along the uneven and creaking stairwell, signs popped up exhorting patrons to tread carefully on the “antique staircase” (although I have to admit that the “escalier patrimonial” concept was by far the more endearing than a mere antique stair…)

The top of the tower was a narrow little balcony guarded by two angels green with age, one on each side:

The roofs and alleys of the old city, lying revealed beneath us, and the river glimpsed across treetops a little futher away were a view worth the careful climb up the “escalier patrimonial”. The place inspired at least one subsequent short story (look it up, if you like – it appears here).

The view was fantastic because this edifice was built on top of an ancient promontory over the river, once a campsite for the native tribes who lived in this area before the first European settlers arrived, and subsequently the heart of one of the very first suburbs of the city founded by those settlers, the city beneath the mountain which was named Mount Royal, Mont Real. Once you descent the tower you can look at the history of the chapel whose foundation helped build this great city – traces of an old camping ground which dates back more than two millennia, and the remnants of the original stone chapel first built by Montreal settlers three hundred years ago.

There is a deep sense of history that’s wrapped up in the stones of this building, something that you can’t help but take in, by osmosis, through the air that you are breathing, looking at stones centuries old which were laid here by human hand and around which a whole city began to grow.

And when you make your way to the actual museum area, you discover that much of the history of this place is inextricably tied to one woman, Marguerite Bourgeoys, who lived in 17th-century Montreal and is the founder of the original Congrégation de Notre-Dame on this site.

It is Marguerite, one of the founders of this chapel and the first teacher at the associated school, who is being commemorated in the small museum housed here. Marguerite, born in France in 1620, and was only 20 when she experienced the call to a lifelong vocation of service and the foundation of a devout faith which would last her whole life. She had a remarkable ability, it would seem, to be the tie that binds, to gather up people and focus them all on a single goal, towards the achievement of a single cause.

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She was recruited to the new colony of what was then Ville-Marie in 1653, becoming nurse, friend and confidante to the new colonists who arrived to triple the population of proto-Montreal. She was still a relatively young woman but she joined Montreal’s founder, Maisonneuve, and the hospital administrator of the settlement as an equal – she understood right from the start that the role of women in the new colony would be significant, and she started workshops and classes where ordinary women could learn skills which enabled them to earn a living.

Once the chapel was built, Marguerite was instrumental in establishing a school where the settlement’s children could be taught such things as counting, reading, writing, and of course catechism; the older girls also learned the domestic skills they would need to become wives and mothers and managers of their own households.

This was not a nunnery – the women were not cloistered – and although the community, the Congregation de Notre-Dame, survived and flourished and did lots of good works the approval for such a community by the Church was not actually granted until as late as 1698, only two years before Marguerite’s death. But Marguerite herself was a doughty soul, a woman with a mission, and she neither asked for nor needed such approval (from Bishop or from King) in order to continue doing the work she saw as her duty and her destiny.

She was canonized in 1982, and her remains were brought home to Notre Dame de Bon Secours in 2005, to rest in a crypt in the stone chapel which she had helped raise as a beacon of her faith.

But it is the museum rooms devoted to Marguerite’s life, not the aftermath of it, which is fascinating. It is… oddly childlike. There is a room which is devoted to envisioning the time-line of the colony, chapel, school and the woman who ran it all done in a series of dioramas populated by dolls, and the effect is rather like a very large and very busy and very detailed dolls-house, one into which you might walk and become immersed in its subject matter.

Another room features shadow boxes where similar scenes are depicted with the aid of images and holograms; you have to go and duck your head into a hood-like overhang, almost like one of those old-time photographers who covers his head with a cloth when taking a picture, and then the thing comes alive in front of your eyes. More playfulness; more invitation to learn from the simple things, the simple faith, the simple beginnings.

When we were done with the museum and finally made our way back into the chapel, I confess to feeling rather strange – I had just learned a great deal about this strong and gentle and pious woman who worked so hard to build a community and educate its women and children, and now I was in a position in which I had never been before, in that I was standing in her presence. In the presence, at least, of her mortal remains – the Church would have her spirit up there at the right hand of God, where the saints get to go when they die. It was the first time – and probably the last – that I stood in the presence of a saint.

Certain lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” are apparently descriptive of this very chapel – the lines “And the sun pours down like honey/on our lady of the harbour” refer to the statue of the Madonna which adorns this particular church.

The concept of faith and the poetry of Leonard Cohen have a great deal in common, really. If you examine them closely, rationally, empirically, they make no real sense whatsoever – but put it all together, in a song like “Suzanne” or a chapel like Notre Dame de Bon Secours, and a bigger picture emerges, something that you understand with instinct and heart and spirit rather than with mind. With faith, you don’t KNOW. You BELIEVE.

And it takes an odd little museum in an ancient stone church with an “escalier patrimonial” to remind you of that.

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