Saturday, 18 November 2017

“A Palimpsest of Unheard Sound” by Georgie Tennant

Discovering New Words

The word ‘palimpsest’ first entered my vocabulary when I was a newly qualified teacher, guiding my almost-as-old-as-me group of A-Level students through the opening chapter of 'The Handmaid's Tale,' by Margaret Atwood. Describing the gymnasium where the women are made to sleep, Atwood writes, “Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound.”  To avoid looking like I didn't 'know my stuff,' I investigated the meaning of this unfamiliar word (appearing to glide like a swan, when you're engaging in rather more frantic, duck-like paddling, is key to surviving one's early teaching career).  According to the dictionary, a palimpsest is:

"... a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.

... something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form."

In the case of ‘The Handmaid's Tale,’ it evoked the left-behind lives of the women captive to the evil, futuristic regime. Even as it tried to erase their identity, superimposing a new one, their previously written stories echoed still. I was captivated.

Living with Re-Writes

I didn't understand it fully, as a sheltered 22-year-old, but it stayed with me, re-emerging later in my teaching.  When it did, it struck me afresh that it adeptly captures that inescapable feeling that the stories of our lives are never written quite how we imagine.  From small day to day scenes we wish had panned out differently, to major life events, that change us and our paths irreparably – many of us live with a sense that there would have, should have, could have been a different story, lurking under the surface of the one we are currently living.

We struggle so much, when our lives’ directions change, because we have already half-written the manuscript in our minds and imprinted it on our souls - so much so, that, when it all changes, we feel like we are living a new, unfamiliar life.  We have to come to terms with the ‘new’ story, mourn the loss of the old – even though it hadn’t actually been ‘written’ yet. The bumps and scraped-out bits of our personal palimpsests are painful reminders of what might have been. Undertones echoes beneath, of the life we thought we were getting, but didn’t. 

The full force of the word hit me hardest, when I faced the loss of our baby daughter at twenty-five weeks of pregnancy. I lost a girl and had two beautiful boys, whom I wouldn't change for the world. But even now, as I watch them as shepherds and camels in their annual, Christmas nativity plays, echoes linger of the sparkly tights I might have purchased, the angel costume I might have sewn, had the baby on the other layer of the manuscript of my life made it into being. I tried to use the word palimpsest to write about her, in a poem, as it fits so well (you can read it here, if you have the time and inclination!): 

Keys to Moving Forward

So how do we deal with it if we find our stories have changed beyond recognition, in comparison to the narrative we thought was unfolding in front of us? I think a proverb and a psalm and the story of Elijah, hold the keys.  Elijah is the ultimate, biblical example, of someone who found his story being completely re-written.  As he indignantly replied to God’s enquiry as to why he had ended up hiding out in a cave, his words burst with pained frustration that things had not gone as he imagined.  He reminded God of all he had accomplished and miserably lamented the situation in which he had found himself. God’s response?  “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19v11).  Only God’s presence, in his new chapter of the story, overwrote the echoing pain of the old one and enabled Elijah to move forward and live the next part of his story well.

Elijah lived what Proverbs 16 v 9 tells us, A man’s mind plans his way [as he journeys through life], But the Lord directs his steps and establishes them.”  We must keep in mind to hold things as lightly as we can (which is very much harder to do, than say), and accept that, somehow, when the script alters, God has everything in His hands and will ultimately work it all out for good.

Finally, Psalm 118 v 24 declares, “This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.”  Hard though it is and impossible though it seems in life’s tougher seasons, it helps to stay in the moment, focus on the day we are in.  Finding things, daily, to be thankful for, can change the direction of our gaze, lift us from gloom to rejoicing and enable us to slowly but surely re-establish trust in the One who writes the full manuscript, from the beginning to the very end. 

Instead of scraping away at our layers of palimpsest trying to read the story that might have been, let’s be people (and writers), who face our changed narratives, courageously, with God’s presence.  In doing so, we might inspire others that their life stories, too, are in the hands of an Author, who writes the very best stories; however hard the struggles and however dark the chapter we are in, His stories always - somehow, someday - end in redemption and wholeness and peace.

Georgina Tennant is a secondary school English teacher in a Norfolk Comprehensive.  She is married, with two sons, aged 9 and 6, who keep her exceptionally busy! She feels intimidated by having to provide an author-biography, when her writing only extends, currently, to attempting to blog, writing the ‘Thought for the Week’ for the local paper occasionally, and having a poem published in a book from a National Poetry Competition! Her musings about life can be found on her blog:


  1. A beautiful and powerful thought... and the same for the poem.

  2. I remember doing a lesson on 'palimpsests' with my sixth formers a few years ago when teaching The Handmaid's Tale! An excellent post, Georgina. You do write so fluently and powerfully.

  3. This is a beautifully written and powerful post which really speaks to me. 'We must keep in mind to hold things as lightly as we can...and accept that somehow, when the script alters, God has everything in his hands and will ultimately work it all out for good.' Love this truth so much. Thank you for sharing your insights here x

  4. What everyone else has said. If you don't object to the Apocrypha, look up 1 Maccabees 6:1-8, about King Antiochus who 'fell into a lethargy from acute disappointment, because things had not worked out the way he had planned'. I used it in my book on depression, 'Crying for the Light' (BRF 2008)

  5. Absolutely brilliant, Georgie. Excellent ideas expressed superbly,

  6. Thank you so much everyone. Your words of encouragement have lifted me today! ☺️