Flash and Substance: Fanny Howe's The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation

The Winter Sun

The Winter Sun:
Notes on a Vocation

BY Fanny Howe
(Graywolf Press, 2009)

From the Publisher:

“Through a collage of reflections on people, places, and times that have been part of her life, she shows the origins and requirements of ‘a vocation that has no name.’ She finds proof of this in the lives of others — Jacques Lusseyran who, though blind, wrote about his inner vision, surviving inside a concentration camp during World War II; the Scottish nun Sara Grant and Abbé Dubois, both of whom lived extensively in India where their vocation led them; and the English novelists Antonia White and Emily Bronte. With interludes referring to her own place and situation, Howe makes this book into a ‘progress’ rather than a memoir.”

Fanny Howe describes The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation — her latest work of nonfiction — as a “collection of notes and memories” constellating around a series of metaphysical questions, culminating in the final one, “What could I call what was calling me?” Her answer, “A vocation that has no name.” As it gives witness to all three — the call, the caller, and herself as the called — in words, however slippery, this book is product of that nameless vocation.

Since Howe has written twenty books of prose and poetry, readers might be tempted to assume that writing is the vocation to which she refers. Not exactly. The author acknowledges, “I have never been sure of the need for it, the use of writing at all, the value of any completed poem, or the idea that writing might lead somewhere.” Then a few pages later, she offers a daunting rationale: “Why write if it is not to align yourself with time and space?” In the absence of that, she states, “Better to wash the bottoms of the ill or dying.”

As it gives witness to all three — the call, the caller, and herself as the called — in words, however slippery, this book is product of that nameless vocation.

This dichotomy she revisits often. In a later chapter, she recounts a spiritual retreat she took in Italy in 1999. The Dalai Lama says in his homily: “Don’t talk; act.” Although not specifically referenced, this tension, among many she explores, is the Martha-Mary quandary of Luke’s gospel, whether action or contemplation is the preferred path, a challenge Howe became acquainted with at an early age. While strongly drawn to introspection and contemplation, she understands our lived reality is constituted in such a way that “without an action there would be no past, present or future in any direction.”

Composed of nine separate pieces, of varying lengths, The Winter Sun builds on one paradox after another. As its title suggests, light and warmth coexist with chill, at least for residents of the Northern Hemisphere, from where Howe writes. The title extends an Edith Stein reflection, that “streams of consciousness are different for everyone… Like the sky dappling the cover of a river with reflections and refractions of all kinds, and the river keeps sliding along with its content intact.” Howe says only a certain quality of sunlight, among them, a pale winter sun, can infiltrate such water.

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