Tuesday, June 3, 2014

bubbles underneath the stone

So that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may rest upon your eternal changelessness.
--Oxford Book of Prayer

The Romanov Siblings: (l-r): Maria [Masha], Titania, Anastasia, Olga, Alexei
I remember reading a book about Anastasia when I was probably about ten, and coming across this picture. From that moment on, I was in love with the Romanovs. How could you not be? They stare out of their dusky, damasky Victorian world with impish smiles, with a challenging stare, with a mysterious pout.
They look, in this photo everything a ten year old girl dreams a royal family would look like: stunningly beautiful, elegant, and yet a family. There is nothing impersonal about the world of the Romanovs.
I ran across this photo again yesterday, in a book of my brother's. It arrested my attention, because there are many photos of the Romanovs, but the book's authors used this particular one.
I had forgotten how beautiful they were, these doomed princesses.
But their beauty is arresting. Enchanting. Mesmerizing.

I think partly it's the sort of beauty that just doesn't exist in the United States. (And this isn't a rip on the United States. The beauty of North Carolina's piney mountains, or the craggy landscape of Wyoming is utterly, breathtakingly glorious and unique to the land of purple mountains' majesties.)
It's a very European sort of beauty.
It's like Rouen, where you walk to the market square, and there you see this large, market-place, barn-like structure. This is the Church that they have built to memorialize the martyrdom of Jeanne D'Arc.
And there, you see a slender, spindle-like cross that marks the spot where the young hero was burned at stake. And you stand right where Joan might have stood, and look at the gables and eaves of the city's buildings around you. And you are suddenly back in 15th century France.
There is an ancientness to Normandy, where cities had their origins in the 7th and 8th centuries.
You walk into towns whose roots are back in the ancient Gaul, which we all learned in Latin class that Caesar divided into three parts.
This is the beauty of the Romanovs, the romance of Rouen: they are artifacts that we can touch, they are living remembrances of past dynasties.
Part of the New World's fascination with Europe is that it is not new.
It's like visiting your grandparents, and listening to their stories. Stories that are part of your history, and yet far removed from you. Stories that are not yours, but that you inherit.
And you watch these people who are a generation removed from you, and they are full of mystery, because their eyes have seen so many things before they saw your baby face smiling up at them from your mother's arms.
Your grandparents are full of beauty, a majestic beauty with deep, solid roots. A beauty very reminiscent of Victorian nostalgia and Roman ruins inside the City of London.
A beauty that you do not have because you are a callow twenty-something, and you have a beauty all your own, much like the mountains in Montana.
(Truth be told, the mountains in Montana are more ancient than both the Romanov dynasty and Rouen Cathedral, but that is utterly beside the point.)

There are several things that capture the vitality of the past, the romance and beauty of what has past, a glimpse, a murmur of a heartbeat underneath the pages of our histories: grandparents, Rouen, and the Romanovs.

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