James Bell's (Arch '80) latest book tells the 40-year story of Adelaide and Lucien as they enter the uncertainties of the last third of their life. With children raised and successful careers behind them, there are still challenges ahead for this couple. The story begins in New York in 1968 and follows their lengthy relationship as they struggle with love, growing up, identity, marriage, child-rearing, careers, health, religious faith and ultimately mortality.
Excerpt from Christchurch:
One night after they’d finished eating dinner, Adelaide folded her napkin by her place. ‘What difference does it make?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?’ Lucien said, raising his eyebrows.
‘I mean it doesn’t matter if we came from the Garden of Eden or from a single-celled amoeba,’ she continued. ‘What’s important is how we live. You don’t need a historical narrative. No parting seas, bleeding statues, or apparitions … or clouds forming in Allah’s name.’
Lucien was excited to be discussing his new favorite subject. That she’d pulled in Allah-shaped clouds impressed him. ‘Those are merely artifacts, created by man to provide physical evidence to justify the existence of a greater being,’ he said.
‘Yes, but do they teach us how to live our life in a meaningful way? I accept they give credibility to the power of belief. But let’s take me. My brain -- the most divinely engineered part of me, according to you -- is dying. Shouldn’t it work forever, if it was a perfect design, created by a divine hand?’
Lucien started to speak, but Adelaide kept on. ‘All I’m saying is, none of this matters. People get hit by lightning or swept away in hurricanes. It’s all happenstance. There can’t be a divine hand without an all-knowing benevolent conscience. Why would he have bothered?
‘Aha, you said he,’ Lucien interrupted. ‘Never thought of you as a sexist. Seriously, we can agree to disagree. I believe there is a greater being who set things up, gave life its start, and now sits back and watches as consequences occur. Be they good or bad. It’s like a computer that operates without emotional baggage. It’s not some man or woman with a beard.’
Adelaide let go a belly laugh. ‘You are a piece of work. What do you do downstairs all day?’ She pushed back her chair, shifted her knees and tucked her legs underneath her. ‘These last three years have taught me one thing – we need to live in our life. We can’t wait. We can’t assume fate will take care of the future.’ Adelaide paused, taking a sip of water. Lucien dutifully sat, waiting for her to go on, like one of the nerdy, front-row, brown-nosing eighth graders he taught so long ago.
‘We need to live every day like it is our last,’ she said. Her eyes were bright. ‘This isn’t an original idea. But it is the only one that makes sense.’
Lucien liked Christchurch. It was orderly and familiar, yet slightly off-kilter and secretive. Cathedral Square seemed always to be full and noisy – a promenade for citizens desiring company, or notice. It was like a big dress-up party, or something out of a Celtic Druid ceremony. There was a tall, bearded man with a ponytail standing on a ladder, dressed as a wizard in a purple cone hat, yelling about welfare reform. A handful of people listened to his harangue.
In pairs or alone, back packers walked through the square. They were scruffy and laden with heavy army duffle bags and canvas packs. Maybe some of them were home from Viet Nam. Maybe some were traveling far from home, trying to forget the war. Nearby, barefoot young women shook tambourines and danced without rhythm to the music of a didgeridoo and buskers playing mandolins, enjoying being together at the end of the world.
The tall cathedral dominating the square provided a sense of solidness that was reassuring to Lucien. Its central spire reached up toward the heavens, the mass of its grey Gothic masonry balanced by a central nave with glowing stained glass windows. Pagan rituals may be taking place in front, but the cathedral oozed old world Anglican power and prestige.
Lucien felt the countryside calling. He had heard so much, read so much about its wonders. He wanted to crisscross the North and South Islands hitchhiking, meet as many strangers as he could, share their intricate lives, if only for a passing moment.
James Bell (Arch '80) is an author who lives in Charlottesville with his wife of 28 years and two daughters. His prior works, The Screen Door: A Story of Love, Letters and Travel and The Twenty-Year Chafe had a minor cult following among a small audience of family, friends and strangers. Christchurch is available on Amazon and Create Space and in select local Charlottesville stores.