This lyrical fiction is about the relationship between a young Vietnam veteran and the Benedictine nun who helps him stay in the world. Benny Finn and Sister Clare come together in their mutual search for something genuine — something real, at the heart of things.
Sister Clare is a fictional figure, yet inspired by various good friends at The Abbey of Regina Laudis, an extraordinary Benedictine Community in Bethlehem, Connecticut. I first visited in 1978 with my close friend, Patricia Kuppens, who was a fellow graduate student in English at Yale University then. She entered the Abbey the following year, and I started to visit her . . . and to have a taste of Benedictine life through the Gregorian chant, working in the gardens, visiting the cows, going to the wonderful theatrical productions and the fairs each summer, and staying in the women’s guest house or the family guest house. Pat Kuppens became Sister Lucia, and after a few years Mother Lucia, and she is now Mother Abbess! This place is a second home to me, one that offers wisdom, insight, contemplation, balance, and great happiness. Like my character Isabel, I am not Catholic, but Protestant — if not in practice, then in origin and bent; I guess I have been someone hovering on the boundary of the Abbey for years and years, with beautiful days spent inside the Enclosure too, especially in the gardens, and absorbing the contemplative (and the deeply comedic, witty, and brilliant!) spirit I find in this amazing place, and discovering constant ways in which this Community’s approach to the land, to friendship, to love, and to the divine intersects with and nourishes my own.
My libretto for the opera My Lai shares with The Beauty of Ordinary Things a sense of how difficult it can be to hold on to a moral compass in the midst of chaos and brutality, and how important it is to find some kind of benediction.
Atelier26, an independent micro-press in Portland, Oregon, founded by M. Allen Cunningham in 2011, has produced a beautiful edition of this novel. The artist Nathan Shields has created the stunning cover design and interior graphic elements, including the upside-down boot and the fleur-de-lys.
“Filled with precise, loving observations of human nature, The Beauty of Ordinary Things is a slender, wise triumph of a novel, exquisitely distilled. Read this book; it will open your heart.”
—Michelle Richmond, author of The Year of Fog
“This beautiful short novel is populated by characters connected to each other by filaments of memory, regret and yearning. Each strand is lovely on its own, and the whole is captivating, radiant, mysterious, and deeply moving. I loved it.”
—Ann Packer, bestselling author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
“Harriet Scott Chessman: The Beauty of Ordinary Things” – guest post on Meg Waite Clayton’s site, 1st Books: Reading and Writing with Friends, Meg Waite Clayton.
The Charles was glittering and blue, seagulls floating overhead, and down in the current a scull with two rowers moving straight and fast. I started humming that song, thinking the words. Albert Mooney says he loves her, all the boys are fighting for her.
I watched a young seagull hanging in one place, almost motionless. I stopped humming, but I could still hear the song. Let them all come as they will, for it’s Albert Mooney she loves still.
A drop of sweat slid behind my ear.
“No, Isabel. It’s OK.”
“I know. I’m sorry too.”
“I was just so grateful to you, for listening.”
“It’s OK. Forget about it.”
Some cars around me started to honk, as if honking was a way of getting somewhere. Isabel was looking out the window, at her side mirror.
She turned then, and I caught her eyes. She said, “I have to tell you something.”
In the seconds before she said it, I suddenly knew. It was like, I’d known. Wait! I wanted to shout. But I knew she couldn’t wait. I looked at the car in front of us, a little white Datsun with a dent in the tail. A girl was turning around to hand a bottle to a kid in the back seat. You could hear the kid crying.
Isabel’s hand was resting on my arm. I wondered how old the mother was, how the car had gotten dented.
“Benny, I think I’m pregnant.”