Friday, May 30, 2008

St. David’s, 9.5.06: Old Inglenooks and Angels in White

St. David’s: this shrine on the outermost fringe of Wales once had such eminence that Pope Calixtus declared two pilgrimages to St. David’s the equal of one to Rome—Roma semel quantum, bis dat Menevis tantum.

Extraordinary day yesterday: to T. Went to post office, where entering Welsh folk totally ignored me as I stood outside, but greeted each other volubly and with much humor inside. Bought several O.S. maps for the area, of more to less specific details.

Using material I’d printed before the trip from the Internet, we located it. It’s just past a little village called Brynberian off the A487 and B4329.

We journeyed. As one moves north from St. David’s, especially on back lanes, beautiful old hedges of gorse line lanes and fencerows in fields. Ablaze with bright yellow on the misty day in which cluds overhung hilltops.

The houses in many towns and villages—especially Fishguard—beautiful pastel colors, some even brighter, and often all in a row: soft green followed by yellow, blue, lavender, burnt sienna.

I remember the Portuguese in Toronto painting houses this way. Do people who live near the sea have an instinctive need for such color? It does seem to complement the sea aspects wondrously well. A house shrouded by shrubs and trees in the interior of this green and pleasant land would not need such ornamentation. In fact, it would be clashing and grotesque. But not in the open air and bright sun (when it shines) beaming from a harbor.

T.: past Brynberian, we turned up the first likely lane we saw (right turn, north). This was deep Wales, very narrow lane, tree-shrouded, mist-haunted bunches of yellow primroses everywhere along the banks.

The road seemed to be going nowhere. So when we passed a conglomeration of several houses, Steve stopped at one in which we could see two young women doing each other’s hair (it was a modern bungalow, brick and glass, undistinguished). He knocked and asked about T.

One of the women came out and took him to the roadside and pointed down the road to a house we’d passed and said, “Look, there, through the trees. That house is T.” She encouraged us to stop. A P. family own it, they love to talk about history, etc. . . . .

So we did so. And what an adventure. The house is back a lane and so we hadn’t seen it, an ancient stone farmhouse added onto over the years.

The yard is daunting as you drive up—wheelbarrows akimbo, piles of wood, plants to be potted, some fallen over and the pots broken. Steve knocked. The people gracious invited us in and had us sit in the inglenook where a fire was burning bright in an iron stove—very welcome on the cool damp day.

M. and I. are retired school teachers, he a social psychologist who had become a headmaster for a school, she a geographer who taught primary school. They retired early. M. had a conviction that those who work to 65 die by 70, but those who retire at 50 live to 85.

He recently broke an ankle and is hobbling now with a walker. She is bubbly, warbling, a talker in that hospitable, scatty, wonderful English way that makes connections evident to no one but the speaker.

The house: amazing. Lived in. Generations. Walls a yard thick. Mushrooms growing in damp corners. Slate floor. Massive oak beam over the inglenook with holes in it where the outwear of anyone coming in from outside was hung to dry. Similar peg holes in the beam next to a lean-to stone dairy built on the back of the house.

The house was originally one room with the huge fireplace and inglenook and a large stone on which to sit by the fire in that room. Low ceilings. M. told us the traditional arrangement was to have a bed for mother and father at ground level and then build the beds for the children on shelves attached to the walls, near the ceiling.

The original one-room construction can be seen in the cornerstones outside the house, two of which mark off the house at the middle. Joined to the one room now is the old cowshed with another fireplace, and the dairy behind, with a large stone at the level of the ground floor (it’s a step down into the dairy) on which milk was placed to say cool.

Above are now two rooms to match the original one and the cowshed. To the side of the house another larger old stone cowshed in which their son and his partner had lived.

Beyond this a spring that I. believes may have been an ancient holy site, since it has quartz bits dropped into it. They’re known to have been used as votives.

To the side of this, an old slab of rock with a cross incised into it. M. told us the early Irish missionaries brought these, in case they should die abroad, to be buried under.

Inside, as we sit and talk, M. says suddenly, “Someone touched me!” He felt the touch on his leg. He says this happens frequently, though not in a long time.

+ + + + + + + + + +

As we leave Cromlech House in St. David’s today, Sara Davies tells us of an old lady dressed entirely in white who came up and kissed her baby Dylan at the cathedral a few days ago. When she was pregnant with Dylan, a friend told her, as she entered the friend’s house, that a large white angel was following her.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

St. David's, 8.5.06: Wild Strawberries and Holy Wells

St. David’s now. Drove here from S. yesterday. Words aren’t adequate, even when I follow Susan Ellen Toth’s suggestion to write impressionistic notes to jog memory afterwards.

I read in the car, partly to catch up and partly to avoid having to see the horror of traffic on the M roads. But when we got to Pembrokeshire, I put my books away and looked.

Lush green fields, some with sheep and Welsh cattle. Rain recently, puddles in lanes, though another gloriously sunny day allowing wide vistas onto the hillsides.

Pee stops: one hear Haverford leading to a little lane between roads that was filthy. Rubbish everywhere. Another—and this is the curious clashing character of Wales—absolutely unspoilt, with wild strawberries trailing on a hillside of black damp earth by the road, and flowering wild primroses. I picked a strawberry and Steve a bunch of primroses, and they’re dried in the preceding page.

Many wildflowers I don’t recognize and haven’t seen in England, both on the roadsides as we drove and on the seaside cliffs as we walked last evening. One looks like a wild pink, and is pink in color, very much like fire pinks at home except for its color. Bluebells in many shades—light to dark blue, white, pink, violet.

On the seaside cliffs, clumps of a white sweet-smelling flower like sweet alyssum, but I don’t think that’s what it was: candytuft? A delicate purple flower, small, tracery of green, growing in nooks and crannies of walls. Violets just under the fringe of green along laneways. Buttercups and dandelions, of course. A curious bladder-shaped low-growing flower, white with maroon lips.

B and b, Cromlech House, interesting: 20 New Street. It’s the old family house of the wife Sara Davies, who’s an artist. Paintings of hers all around—some especially striking watercolor butterflies in the kitchen. She tells us that the back yard has a cromlech, hence the house’s name. Lech must be related to Irish leac, since what she describes—a burial monument of three standing stones—is very like Leac an Scail that we saw near Mullinavat.

Her husband James Crisp a musician who has recorded a c.d. with his compositions, pan-Celtic. She’s raising three young children, Jack, Maggie and Dylan, a babe in arms, and sometimes seems overburdened.

People standoffish till they hear American accents and then very friendly. If they take us for English, I understand, since a group of English ordering tea in the cathedral cafeteria yesterday were oh so supercilious and demanding in that pretend-polite English way, and so demanding: asking twice for milk for their tea, frostier and more polite each time. The implication was that the Welsh never get it quite right.

Yet the person staffing the cash register wasn’t even Welsh. He was a Jakob from Prague and didn’t understand all they were saying to him.

St. David’s: the end of things. Perhaps one reason I felt perturbed as we left for here yesterday is that I sense this.

Every pilgrimage has an end. This destination is a reminder of the ultimate westering of life. What could be further west—and more cut off and distant from everything else—than those old Celtic holy sites on the western fringe of Britain?

The wildness seems to attract poets, artists, nature lovers. Long, exhausting walk to St. Non’s well in the evening, but worth it for the sea vistas, the sense of visiting a site with ancient holy roots.

So much I’m seeing demands the artist’s brush to capture it, not words.

Shropshire, 7.5.06: Beasts Kneaded and Boozy Bread Pudding

S. Abbey. Began the day by reading John Donne: “Man is a lump, where all beasts kneaded be,/Wisdom makes him an Ark where all agree.” And, “That love hath not attained the highest degree/Which is still diligent lest others see.”

All I wrote yesterday balderdash. Just not myself mentally or physically. No boring list of infirmities: all the ills flesh is heir to. They do add up as one ages, though, and have a cumulative succubus effect on vitality.

Yesterday in Shropshire. On the drive from Worcester, forest on either side of roads cut into deep hills of red limestone (?). Carpets of bluebells in the woods, just as authors say. And perhaps because it’s higher and cooler than Kent, daffodils in bloom at the same time, clumps of white and yellow alongside the bluebells. In Kent the daffodils were mostly spent.


Parked at St. Chad’s church, Shrewsbury. A doddering but very sharp elderly woman, slightly stooped and pale, beaky nose and squinty eyes, visited us as angelic presence there, offering us extras of the church poster (which had a price otherwise): “Do take more than one in case the one you have is marred.”


I made the mistake of asking her about the pamphlet re: hatchments (a word we met in Canterbury, that I’m still to fathom), and an intense search began, involving the rector, Rev. Mr. T. Who was stolid and supercilious, greeting both my questions and thanks in total silence. I believe she’s the bane of his existence. I devoutly hope so. She insisted I leave my name and address so they can mail me the pamphlets when they’re found.


A smiling twirling curtseying too girlish altar-guild lady with bunches of flowers. A very friendly parking guide with a slightly Welsh-sounding accent, bright blue rheumy eyes and a high complexion, who presided over the parking lot like an orchestra conductor.


Beautiful city, full of half-timbered houses, as was the town of Much Wenlock through which we drove. The hills and narrow streets reminded me of Kronberg im Taunus.

We were single-minded, though, about seeking the archives. Wonderfully helpful young woman at the tourist information center—sparkling brown eyes. Welsh eyes. I saw two tourist ladies, however, having some joke at my expense. They may have been Welsh and took me for English? (And why, at my age, do I even care and torture myself with whys? They aren’t worth it. One looked like a rather dull camel, all fuzzy lip and big stupid eyes. The other was like a stock figure from a British show about lower middle-class people. I directed a reproachful look at her and she pursed her lips and twisted her neck pertly to show me she was oblivious to reproach from the likes of me.)


In the archives, again that mix: incredible niceness from the receptionist, to a fellow researcher who told me of two other Watmer (Watmore, Watmough) researchers and gave me their addresses, to a Mr. Price who was also researching and talked to me as we worked.


But on the way out, as Steve bought an old Shropshire (repro) map at the receptionist booth and a woman waited in line behind him, I caught her eye, and realized we were Not To Be Taking Her Space. She glared in a way designed to reduce us to worm status. In the glare, she managed to communicate that Americans are so bothersome and crude, an intrusion in her green and pleasant land.
And on to Stottesden (after finding Mary a wonderful pottery hedgehog in a shop window where the owner said, “Oh, yes, Little Rock. I’ll be giving away my age, but when I hear of it, I think of ‘South Pacific’”—a comment that mystified both Steve and me).*


Stottesden: clear evidence of its medieval character in the old stone walls that must once have been drywall but now usually have some mortar. Very thin stone carefully fitted together.


Older farmhouses were a mix of that construction and later (17th-19th century?) brick. We took a picture of one such house just outside Stottesden, which had whimsical topiaries—a bird and a ?—in its front yard. It was called, appropriately, Yew Tree Farm.


Beginning to mizzle as we neared Stottesden, which is high and down many narrow hedged country lanes. Church dark inside, its age very evident. The baptismal font, said to be the most beautiful in Shropshire, was magnificent, what we could see if it—Celtic knots carved across it.


Monastic origins of the church evident in its choir. At the head of the south aisle a little chapel-like area I don’t think I’ve seen in any other church, with a seat so that someone in it would face south—i.e., with his/her back to the main aisle and altar, and looking crosswise at the congregation.


Visiting old churches makes me think about liturgical space—how and why it’s arranged as it is, and what theological (or practical) reasons account for the arrangement. You can often see the whole history of Catholicism to Reformation in a single church—altar to pulpit.


The graveyard had a forlorn feel, with benches rotting and one set of stones enclosed with a coping totally overgrown with ivy and weeds. What story lies there?


It’s one of those graveyards in which animals are now allowed to graze (a sign said this is part of a national ecological movement) and had dried clumps of manure in the high wet grass. It, and the church, on a high hillside. One feels the presence of Wales nearby.


Mr. Price had told me the pub, Fighting Cocks, is good, so we stopped there about 4 P.M. Meals were chalked on the board but not to be had. They included a vegetarian bread and butter pudding and for dessert pecan pie and boozy bread pudding.


Signs—old clippings—said the pub was voted best steak pie in Britain in 2000. An array of cocks on the mantel beside us, of every sort—porcelain, metal, and stuffed. A sign next to two said, “Philippine fighting cocks.”


Men talking in thick Shropshire accents that I couldn’t understand. Though rough-seeming, they also seemed not hostile. Country friendliness—a lovely smile on a young man’s face as we met his tractor in a laneway leaving the village.


+ + + + + + + + +

In Stottesden: as we arrive at what we think is the entrance of the church (oh, those glozening English signs that promise so much and deliver so little), a van drives up. Lady with groceries gets out.

She tells us that we’re at the old vicarage. She has a key to the church and will give it to us in case it’s locked.


As she does so (I’ve told her I’m trying to find Watmer roots), she says, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

What a perfect—gentle, inclusive—way to send a pilgrim forth. And the very line my grandmother spoke to me as she commissioned me to forth in the days before her death and my graduation from high school.

*Well, I've now (16.6.2008) managed to inform my ignorant self. The lady was obviously speaking of Nellie Forbush, the character in "South Pacific" who is from Little Rock. I just read an article about how she was booed on stage in New York, when she announced her place of origin, since this proclamation came on the heels of the Central High crisis in Little Rock. And that crisis, of course, occupied our attention far more than the Broadway play, accounting (in part) for my ignorance of the "South Pacific" reference.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Walsingham, 5.5.06: Banawnuhs and Bilocation


Garden, S. Abbey: perfect English spring day. Rosemary at its glorious peak all around the guesthouse, and a bright but muted pure blue, prolific with bees. An odd plant—coffee—of nodding greenish yellow bells that exude, alternately, the aroma of fresh-roasted coffee, skunk, and, at times, semen. It’s head high, and the rosemary to our waists with gnarled old stems.

Sun is westering in an ancient oak tree over the cloister walls. Rooks crying raucously in nests in its crown. They seem to compete to sound each more ebullient than the other.


One of the younger nuns flies down the walkway between the cloister wall and guesthouse, veil fastened back to allow her neck and ears to breathe on this warm day, the white framing her plump red face. She shouts and shakes: Sorry, just have to turn off me water (me wawtuh). It’s overflowing.


And then she’s gone.


In Worcester, an old woman on a bench in the sun says in a thick Midland accent—she’s talking to a companion, dragging on a cigarette—“If you want to sleep well, take a banana before you go to bed.” We pass her twice more and twice more hear her say banawnuh.


Across the way a man at a stall cries his wares—banawnuhs. It’s as if she’s posed as an advertisement for him.


Dame R., C. and C.’s friend, meets with us in the parlor. Into the middle of a conversation about Mother J., a former abbess and mystic, she casually drops the statement, “She bilocated, you know. She’d be praying in choir and at the same time, the laundry sisters would say they’d seen her with them keeping an eye on them.”


As if you’d say, “Would you care for another biscuit with your tea?”


This garden is so beautiful and so full of peace. A wind from the small valley beneath the abbey is cooling things as evening comes, an east wind. I smell the coffee plant even more strongly as evening falls.


The sign with an arrow saying ABBEY → is next to a beautiful, simple single yellow rose, a shrub rose that was very fragrant in today’s sun.


Emerald green lawn studded with small daisies, a magpie skittering along its edge. An ancient fir presides over the little space.


As in Germany, everything is manicured—even “natural” places like forests, but here with far more skill. The “natural” woods by the old ruined tower at Walsingham were obviously planned and tended, down to the clumps of bluebells and the ivy covering the “woodland” floor. A tree whose roots formed a little harbor of dirt had a flower planted in the space.


I could live here. And yet I know I’d feel—and be—very foreign.


Drive yesterday a blur. It was close and unpleasant, though beautifully sunny. As when we traveled in Ireland together, S. and C. yesterday had a strong tendency to treat me as if I were not there, talking to each other and ignoring my chatter. I fall silent as a way of acceding to the inevitable. Give both maps, directions, a steering wheel, and they become oblivious to social niceties.


A half moon high in the sky though the sun is far from setting. The rooks, now more pacific, swooping past it. It’s as if every moment is portentous.


Have I even written about Walsingham? When one reaches the destination of one’s pilgrimage, all can seem anticlimactic, and there was some of that.


But also a place of enchantment. I know and could feel that people have prayed here for centuries. People need a place to which they can bring their burdens, sorrows, hopes and pains, and know they’ll find a listening ear.


The Anglican shrine was . . . busy. Such a need to replicate every detail of a Catholicism that has, within its own house, fallen into desuetude. There were chapels hither and yon, 19th-century Augustinian priests buried in garish sarcophagi, buckets of holy water, votives galore.


A sign asked that one leave 3 petitions—and 3 only—on a card provided by the place. I’d already filled out the card I’d brought with me, and it had 10 petitions. I put it into the slot anyhow.


What will they think when they read at both the Anglican and RC shrine a petition that the church may recognize and repent of its savagery towards gays?


The Catholic shrine almost deliberately low-key, not having to demonstrate its claim to Marian devotion. It was thronged with pilgrims, many of whom looked Irish. An oppressive heterosexuality about the whole group.


More than the shrines, the grounds of the Walsingham (i.e., Anglican) shrine are memorable—the sweep of greensward with sunshine beaming on it, the ruined tower, the artificial woods. I took delight in C.’s delight in it.


The drive seemed interminable. Not much to say. Minestrone soup at £4.50 at a brasserie attached to a hotel, somewhere west of Leicester. It was a meeting center full of business groups having seminars. All like some bad imitation of a bad European imitation of an American swank hotel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fakenham, 4.5.06: Lemon Posset, Women's Rights, and Lessons for Pilgrims

Writing now from Fakenham in Co. Norfolk. The last two days rather a blur.

After Chris left us on the morning of the 2nd, Steve and I went to the library in Canterbury and found its local history section to be closed until the afternoon. So some aimless knocking about Canterbury

To find a travel kit of multicolored thread for Trudie Reed, who says she’s found this no place else but in England. So off to Marks and Sparks, which didn’t have it. But we did buy things for supper—egg salad and watercress sandwiches, chicken and ham, ploughman’s. Found nice juices—raspberry and orange or strawberry and orange. And tomatoes and a mix of greens—rocket, watercress, and spinach.

We did find the thread at a sewing shop. Turned out it’s called a plait.

And suddenly I look up to admire an elephant—some cast metal; the b and b lady has many of them—that’s catching the morning light in our breakfast nook. And see the lampshade above it, which says, “Beatus vir qui no abiit in consilio impiorum et in via peccatorum”: another pilgrim moment.

We are definitely in via. And the way I seek on this pilgrimage—should seek—is that of the righteous and just . . . .

And back to Canterbury. Found that scented shelf paper we’ve seen only in the British Isles at the sewing shop. Got some lavender-scented boxes. Nice to go out of one’s way to fulfill the needs of someone else and happen on what one needs oneself: pilgrim, take note.

Then on to have a bit of lunch at a Cornish pasty place off the High Street. The day was close, and the air at the outside tables felt good. We sat and talked. To talk with fellow pilgrims often tiptoeing through a minefield. I must learn to be more aware (ware: Warten, watch?) of the needs and feelings of others. Another gift for which I pray on pilgrimage.

Then several hours of research in the local studies room of the library. It was mostly misspent time, except that I was able to obtain the originals of Dorothy Gardiner and Gregory Whatmore on William Watmer the mayor.

And they had bits and pieces of information no one had abstracted, which fill in gaps re: the Wynnes. E.g., once Robert and his wife died of plague, it was confirmed within three weeks and the house was sealed, a guard placed at its door. William Watmer had apparently removed the children by then. Their clothes had to be burned—hence the details in some family histories about local merchants providing clothes (for which the estate paid).

And that Watmer’s papers have survived and are in the Dean and Chapter library of the cathedral. The house on the north side of the High Street west of Mercey (from “mercer,” I find) Lane was owned by the Dean and Chapter.

That the “Scottesden” referred to in the Watmer lineage for arms is Stottesden in Shropshire. William Watmer left there as a young man to go to Canterbury, evidently because—Whatmore suggests—Robert Wynne had preceded him, going with William’s sister Frances. Whatmore says the Wynnes were from Canterbury.

The papers of William Watmer form the bulk of Consistory Court records of Canterbury in the early 1600s, and of dispositions from that period.

Picture emerging: when Charles was killed, there were riots in Canterbury in 1647 when extreme Puritans sought to suppress Christmas. In 1648, more riots. The man who ended up with the Wynne house—his name is in one of the articles; they’re not in front of me—was a Puritan who sought to mollify the extreme faction and was consequently arrested. The 1648 riots were caused by the court returning no true bill found in his case.

He became a Royalist in reaction and died within the year. Surely all of this—coupled with the fact that the mayor Robert died in debt—forms the background to Robert Wynne’s decision to head to Virginia.

And then there are the ties to the Randolphs, multiple ones, through both the Wynne and Epps families, that would have helped him in Virginia. The Randolphs seem to have had connections both to Massachusetts and Virginia, and a turbulent career in the former, which leads me to think that they were not thoroughgoing Puritans.

The picture I get of Kent is of a county much divided in the war. Hardline Puritanism throve in east Kentish places like Biddenden. Canterburians had a vested—an economic—interest in the business of pilgrimage and some must have run afoul of Henry when he sought to suppress the cult of Beckett.

It was a divided area that, by the end of the 17th century, was a bare ruined choir—something on which Pepys comments.

Well, what more to say? A nice meal—the sandwiches, raw vegetables, and crisps—in our room that evening. I was excessively tired—heat, constant walking, lingering jet lag.

Next day, a quandary. There’s an Epps tomb in St. Clement’s church, Old Romney I’d have dearly loved to see. There’s Ashford, where the Slomans and Epps lived.

But that would have been to take us south when we needed to go north, and we found the Kentish Studies Society archives—to which the Canterbury library kept nudging us—was in Maidstone, east of Canterbury and on our way to Walsingham.

So we forewent Romney and Ashford and went to Maidstone. Where I found a baptism record, 1620, Ashford, for a Mary Sloman who has to be Mary Poythress Wynne.

And where I found the 1619 and 1663 Watmer pedigrees. The first is when William obtained a coat of arms by tying into the Watmough family of Ecclestone.

The second is his son Giles’s pedigree, showing the Randolph connection. I found in both books the Randolphs, Epps, Petts, etc., and copied multiple pedigrees. Amazing, the extent to which those Virginia families were—and would have known they were—cousins.

As we walked to the Kent archives—we’d managed to park only three blocks or so from them, not knowing we were close—we passed a house that had a statue of a nun in old habit holding a cross, facing out the ground floor windows.

On our return, Steve photographed her. As he did so, I saw in the upstairs window a Virgin Mary. As Steve snapped photos, I saw a shadowy presence looking out the window, and then a witch-like face glaring as she opened the door.

Pilgrims: beware. What appears to be a sign may be conveyed by a “witch.” Things are never as they seem. And grace may arise from unexpected places.

Then on—an interminable trip. We hit terrible traffic, a slowdown, skirting London. Only to find the M11, our main road north, was closed. So on to unexpected byways (pilgrim, take note), wending and winding, anxious about a bed to sleep in and a meal, since we’d had only breakfast earlier in the day.

Then, after driving through scrubby and slightly forbidding forest, past barren-looking fields of sheep, and into Fakenham, we stopped at the first b and b we saw. They had no room, but called a place called Smith’s Cottage on Smith’s Lane.

They recommended a pub at Colkirk (pronounced “coker”) for a late supper. Steve had steak and ale pie, Chuck and I fish and chips and peas. We finished with a lemon posset so buttery it was like eating butter beaten with lemon and sugar. Otherwise, food not distinguished, but the pub was very restful, clean, quiet, in a quaint little village I’d love to explore.

Interesting conversations. A woman, two men, the barkeeper (a woman). Woman at bar tells the group she’s half Spanish. The older of the men says he’s a typical English mongrel, too: he’s half German and partly Scottish.

One thread seemed to be about a soap opera they were watching, which has a repressive Christian character—a vicar?—who thinks the Jews should be killed. That led them to a conversation about how the Christians often betray Christian values. And that led to a protracted discussion of women’s rights and how women (barkeep’s contribution) have no option in today’s workplace except to defend themselves.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Canterbury, 2.5.06:: Pinx and Moving Baptismal Fonts

If a liturgical gesture can bear such freight, our pilgrimage began in earnest yesterday at evensong at Canterbury cathedral. At which a group of gentlemen from the states were welcomed and prayed for. At which all pilgrims and the Queen were prayed for.

At which the most enthralling little boy—not English-looking in the blond and stolid sense that will all too soon turn to beef and port wine complexion, but in a pixiesh way, dark hair and dark expressive eyes—sang with his heart. His mouth rounded out to every O, his hands could not remain still, his head and shoulders moved to the music in a way I imagine the choir master would seek to suppress as outré.

In which Chuck and I both imagined the beedle as a witch. She kept escorting people—the lectors—down the choir hall to the reading stand, a silver wand (the mace, I imagine) in her hand, held precisely forward as if it clove the malicious air ahead of her, warning it to behave itself. Her black robe and secretive half-smile fitted her to a T.

Steve had just said—coffee in a bakery on the High Street—that we should try to imagine our own religious spectacles as if seeing them for the first time, new-minted eyes.

I did so with the witch, and saw not some seemly Christian show, but something distinctly ancient Egypt, thaumaturgic and a little wicked simultaneously. She definitely spiced up what would otherwise have been a rather stuffy 45 minutes of prayer and praise.

And what did I feel, think of, through it all? I’d like to say I’ve received intimations—of meaning, of a direction for pilgrimage, of a roadmap for life’s journey, of the sense that there is a roadmap.

I felt tired, back racked by seats designed to keep a body bolt upright. I felt self-conscious, as I always do in church services in which one faces a watching group across.

Some lines moved or amused me: the psalm that prayed we be mended in all our ways (there is nothing now about me that doesn’t need mending); the prayer for peace that told God only God can fight to make peace; the muted English O Phos Hilarion, ushering us into the muted light of a beautiful English spring evening.

I felt like a pilgrim: befuddled, weary, praying to see the way, the next step ahead; praying for strength to take that step; aware of all the others in the ark, each needy in his or her own way.

And then we walked to dinner in an Italian restaurant (run by Spaniards) in the High Street, called Ark. Where the tables were too close and we were unlucky enough to sit beside one of those smug middle-class English couples who imagine themselves more urbane than they are. Who smirked when they heard us talk. Who smirked solely because we are Americans, a private joke of such self-professed urbane middle-class couples.

Whom, I’ll admit, God help me, I played with a bit by recounting the story of how I saw Ellen’s family treated in the Yale Club—solely because they were Italian, working-class, not one of us.

I saw that my words reached her ears, at least, and bit a tiny bite out of her imperturbable superiority, such that they didn’t know where to put “the” Americans in their catalogues of amusing creatures. Such that he decided to employ the oh-so-banal trick of calling us crazy, Steve said, who saw him twisting his finger around a circle outside his ear, the secret smile turned to more openly dismissive secret hand signals.

And my God, why did I—why do I—even care? She had a moustache and a too-tight pink bodice that no one in her right mind with such a figure and complexion would think of wearing. He had a frog’s mouth attached to pig’s eyes. They looked the embodiment of . . . stupidity that doesn’t know it’s stupid. I was heartily glad when they left, and also a bit at a loss to know to what next to turn my attention.

Catty? Or Chaucerian awareness that one’s fellow pilgrims are part of the hair shirt (and high drama) of any pilgrimage as one is no doubt in turn to them.

This was far from the whole day, and it’s backwards narrative. The day began with rain but turned to glorious sunshine as we drove to Whitstable. Which I thoroughly enjoyed, though our b and b owner dismissed it as a mere fishing village and some guidebooks I peeked into yesterday sniffed and said not anything in the town is worth seeing.

But I enjoyed the seaside, the oceanfront booths selling cockles and whelks, and pinx, and prawns (and crawfish tails?!). We sat and picked at little paper cups of these.

Rather, Steve and Chuck and I did. I had had a rubbery, gritty chaw of a thing or two and then relinquished the cups for some oversized shrimp cooked with no seasoning and served with vinegar. One was good. Two tasted off, and I have diarrhea today—as does Steve.

We also got to see the Mayday parade on the High Street, as we stood in the upper floor of a bookstore and looked out the window. There were people dressed as May trees, people in blackface (!) twirling in Morris dances and then running into the crowd to boo at bystanders. There was a bagpipe. It was glorious (well, the blackface was disturbing, but maybe I don’t understand it), and then it was over—a perfect, undemanding little interlude in a very pleasant morning.

Fishing huts. Bright painted doors. An art museum cum community center, with a young attendant who had designs cut into his hair on one side—pleasant warm brown eyes and a nice smile.

St. Dunstan’s. Where I touched the font in which Marlowe (and Robert Wynne the emigrant) were baptized. Where I had the fright of my life while the others inspected the Roper chapel and I sat quietly looking at the font.

And began to imagine I saw the top piece, a carved cathedral spire, moving ever so slowly. Where I convinced myself I was seeing things.

Where I think realized I was seeing it move both directions, which then convinced me I couldn’t be imagining what I was seeing. Where I ran running to Steve, who pointed out—oh that German mind for solid reality—that it was suspended by a pull thingy that would enable the rector to lift the top easily, and thus was twisting and turning even as it appeared to be sitting on the font.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Canterbury, 1.5.06: A-Maying and Moorhens on the Stour

Shall we go a-Maying with Corinna? If so, a wet a-Maying we shall have. Gray skies and mizzling rain this morning. We had planned to drive to Whitstable for the May Day celebrations.

Well, if one canceled an outing in England because of rain, one would no outings have. And it may be clear in an hour (only to rain again).

Fine evening walk yesterday along the Stour, where we saw a man and his son fishing for brown trout, which we could see in the stream. We watched to moorhens feed their chicks? Goslings? Ducklings? They waded into the stream on their bright yellow unwebbed feet, snapped up things with their scarlet beaks, and then carried the bits to the young.

Jet-lagged. Awoke wide awake at 2, had cocoa and read a bit, then slept to 8:30. Now getting up befuddled, throat sore, the persistent infection in my right ear picking up.

Oh, the walk. We walked into Canterbury from our guesthouse, which is near the University of Kent. It was a cool, sunny afternoon, nice for walking. Visited the usual tourist places, High St., the cathedral gate.

Either because it was a Sunday or the eve of May Day (which is a bank holiday), or both, there were booths and vendors all along High St. But we arrived just as they shut down.

And then to a pub for undistinguished pub grub—leek, chicken, and ham pie. And then back and to bed, exhausted, by 9.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Canterbury, 29.4.06: Pilgrimage and the Whole Grab-Bag Selft

Calling a trip a pilgrimage has this advantage: it frees one to let happen what will happen. I like that sense of freedom, of not having to decide from day to day what I should see and do.

Ironically, if one considers a pilgrimage a response to God’s guiding hand, it’s freedom one is giving up. One remains open, supple, disponible, responsive to a will transcending one’s own.

I’m not sure if—for a long time!—I’ve believed in that kind of puppet-master God pulling all the strings. Such a God is always male, and always a tyrant.

The only variation in these puppet-master theologies is whether they tyrant is benign or, well, tyrannical . . . .

Yet I’m loath to give up the idea that God guides us. Amazing things happen, “coincidences.” Doors open. Injustice is reversed. Flowers spring forth in the unlikeliest places.

I picture the God accomplishing this (with us) as a more feminine force, weaving the woof on the warp of our freedom. And with leading strings of love . . . .

Surrounded as I write this in Atlanta airport by a bevy of soldiers, all in camouflage. Where are they going? ON the flight from Little Rock, a soldier in regular clothes told Steve he’s headed to Puerto Rico “to help our boys down there.”

Why? Is something we don’t know going on “down there”? Is Bush’s response to his plummeting poll numbers going to be to beef up military presence in Latin America—in other words, while mouthing support for illegal immigrants, cynically to exploit our fear of contamination at the borders (Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger is so enlightening on that point).

Things—our culture—seem more militarized than I ever recall. And yet we’re not at war—not in the engrossing sense of World War II, in which the whole nation was involved.

The military presence is especially pronounced in every airport we go to. Again, entry points, orifices: a symbolic gesture to remind us to remain on guard, to remember that we now need Big Papa (God’s emissary) to guard and protect us.

The flight here: horrendous. Steve said he can’t remember being on one so bad in a long time. I don’t think I can ever recall such a flight. It made turbulence and rough air sound like warm milk beside a hot toddy.

Things feel apocalyptic now. People look . . . odd—either messengers sent to pass on a cryptic warning, or menacing watchers.

Of course, I realize this has much to do with my mental state. If so, what does that state (and what it opens me to) portend for pilgrimage?

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Somewhere in the Atlantic approaching England. I’ve slept little and fitfully, but what sleep I got was at least moderately refreshing.

Why pilgrimage now? Why me? At one level, the answer is obvious. I just am not who I was a few years ago.

Which is to say, not sure who I am . . . . Aging, moving to death, yes.

I’ve been through a wreck. I lived. I’m not quite the same, though.

I’ve had lesions detected in my lungs. They’re apparently benign. But. They’re there, and what do they mean? Intimations of mortality?

Above all, we’re facing a move I absolutely don’t want to make. And yet everything tells me I should do so.

If nothing else, “my” life is hardly in my control. And I need guidance, strength, clarity.

Pilgrimage has to be about a lot more. Pilgrims who set off on the road to Canterbury in the middle ages, for instance: just as I do, they surely brought a whole grab bag full of petitions and thanksgivings along with them.

They brought their whole grab-bag self, rejoicing, muttering, praying, cursing, scratching, farting, kneeling.

If Chaucer tells us anything, he certainly tells us that. He tells us they went a-pilgrimage as much for a change of pace, and of scenery, as for pious adventure.

And who knows what they found along the way, each of them? And what I’ll find?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Braunschweig, 20.12.99: Garden Sumac and Phantasies

Just leaving Braunschweig, where we spent the night with M., and are headed to Bavaria. As we leave, I ask myself what makes M.’s house so restful.


Obviously, part of the answer is that she’s a holy, integrated woman, and has created around herself an outer environment that reflects her inner self. But there’s also the esthetic of her home (yes, home does apply here, rather than house).

There’s the white everywhere—marble windowsills full of white soup tureens of all sizes, many with plants (Alpenveilchen in full bloom, a rich salmon red above the green and bronze ivy-shaped leaves). Even in the bathroom, when I look up to the high windowsill, I see a white crock with a philodendron hanging out of it.

And white walls: in all the houses I’ve been inside in north Germany, the walls are painted white. Obviously, that’s the best way to maximize inside light, in this light-deprived land.

And there’s M.'s esthetic in general—the silver votives hanging from the crucifix, a woman wearing a hat and Trachten, a heart; the bronze statue amongst the tureens; the prints of her artist friend in Braunschweig on the walls; the painted Austrian farm Schrank; the obsidian Egyptian cat watching imperiously from the windowsill behind the dining table. And birds everywhere, of all types: a large sand crane atop the glass ring around the light above the table; the little chickadee, goldfinch, and purple finch we gave her perched in a philodendron in the window.

It’s an understated house, in the best sense of the word, a house in which order and regulation exist to allow spirit to emerge. I’m immensely drawn to such a place, but don’t think I have the wherewithal to achieve it. It takes resources, after all, to be able to be understated. One must have the ability to state before one can understate.

Thinking of how travel permits one to venture forth a bit. M. said last night that, in Germany, W. was always utterly reserved. But when they traveled, and he spoke other languages—particularly Italian, in which he was fluent—he became voluble. He assumed a non-German persona.

I am always so afraid of being hurt, that I rarely let myself out, even under circumstances where no one could know me—as in a foreign country. Nonetheless, I find that an inner self I dare not express freely “at home” does emerge—inside—when I travel.

I give myself permission to fantasize when I travel. Or ought I to write “phantasize,” since I’m surely treading well-trodden ground here, Jamesian ground, the ground of generations of effete bent scholars-writers-artists, who desire at a distance, who go to Europe to sigh and admire European tolerance, European frankness about little matters of desire.

It’s not a one-way street, cultural influence, is it? J. and M. have painted their apartment in Koblenz in American Southwestern colors, and have decorated with those colors and stylistic motifs from the Southwest.

Admittedly, these are Germans of a lower middle-class background, who love to come to America and buy a mobile home, trekking from Arizona to Florida and back. I have the impression that more cultured Germans would die rather than admit a wish to borrow so obtrusively from the infantile culture.

But the borrowing back does go on, both obtrusively and unobtrusively. Every bus stop is plastered with posters advertising some cigarette, a rugged young man holding it between his fingers and pointing it to the vagina of a woman in short shorts swinging her crotch towards him, with the slogan, Try it!, auf Englisch.

And at the high-culture level, one plays a bit of Billie Holliday, a bit of jazz, as one drinks one’s Jack Daniels in the evening.

The impossibly bright colors of the American advertising, with their promise of instant earthly paradise, look especially shocking in the East German Saxon towns we’re now driving through. We’ve just passed through Bernberg, en route south and east to Halle. Gray, dirty, full of decayed churches and grand houses. Here, the bright bits of advertising are the only bits of color to be found: too bright, too false in their promise of a paradise only money can buy.

And in a farmer’s yard, we’ve just seen a stand of sumac, obviously planted as a garden focal point. Surely sumac aren’t a native German tree? I think of them as native to North America—but, then, don’t the Lebanese use powdered sumac berries to flavor food?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hamburg, 17.12.99: Losing One's Dreams

What I forgot to say yesterday about Herr Um-One-Must-Be-Careful was that he reported to us a theory that Protestant countries are beer-drinking countries which have their revolutions in winter, and Catholic countries are wine-drinking countries that have their revolutions in summer. When I pointed out (the devil must get out) that Bavaria is a beer-drinking, but Catholic, region, Herr Um replied that yes, but one must be careful: Bayern hat seinen Wein. Every theory is workable, isn’t it, if we’re willing to bend and suppress evidence to make it work?

Yesterday, for part of the day, at least, the sun shone for the first time since we arrived in Hamburg. When we went out in the afternoon, three birch trees in the yard beside this house, on the street line, were resplendent. The late afternoon sun, warm and yellow, was catching their very white trunks, gilding each and every detail of the peeling, patchy bark. Such forms, such noble shapes, as each trunk twisted to its own light while overhanging the street.

I keep thinking of Thomas Mann, as we pass one solid, square, two-story, winter-ready house after another. Each house, its massive stolidity and closed bland face turned streetwards, gives me the impression that a story lies inside—a story hard to ascertain, because of the culture.

How much of the wealth of this exceedingly wealthy neighborhood comes, Steve wonders, from collaboration with the Nazis? And I wonder what’s inside—inside the closed faces of north Germans and their uninviting houses. It’s not that these houses are unpleasant to look at: they’re not; they’re very pleasant, in many cases, set magisterially in their “English” gardens. But the life inside them is unimaginable to me. There’s no sign of it, no tricycle tilted in a driveway, set of winter boots snugged beside a door, face glimpsed at any dark window. The windows turn in, not out.

First seminar day, and I’m tired. Running prior to the seminar, to the university to see Wolfram and then back for a meeting with Erhard that never materialized. Meanwhile a fierce wind blew across the Elbe from the North Sea. It had been picking up during the night, the door of our room rattling constantly and waking me up. At times during the day, the wind blew cold rain hard against the windows.

The seminar went okay, I think. Erhard came and welcomed everyone, with trays of cookies and fruit (tiny tangerines, tart wizened apples) and coffee and tea. He was kind and gracious, claiming Steve and me as friends.

The students seemed interested and fairly responsive. They freeze, though, when asked point blank to avow an opinion or reveal themselves. They all seem so young, and so asexual, like so many younger Germans.

I feel very grouchy these days. I take things out on Steve I should not. In part, it’s that I’m only now overcoming the jet lag, after having slept again much of yesterday afternoon.

In part, too, it’s that the newness has worn off being in Germany, and my old, always unredeemed, self has re-emerged. I expect Steve to save me in every tiniest way, and no human being can live up to such an aspiration. I panic at the recognition that I need to function in German, and don’t know how.

Along with the grouchiness, the wonderful absorbing, very mysterious dreams I was having for days have vanished, having given way to boring panic dreams. What’s the connection between the loss of my dreams and resurgence of my hatefulness, I wonder?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Hamburg, 16.2.99: Cultural Exchange and Coptic Fallacies

At breakfast this morning, a German couple (or so we thought), unpronounceable names. They enter the room where Steve and I are already eating, at either end of a corner. They look suspicious: what do I do? Where do I sit? Who are they?

Steve gets up and offers his place to the woman, who takes it so she can sit beside her husband. She has dark hair unartfully arranged to fall flat and limp around her ears, dark and rather expressive eyes, a pronounced mustache, and a bent but snub nose. One sees the mustache before the nose. She has on a heavy forest green sweater, and her neck is swaddled in a green and brown paisley scarf arranged to make her head seem as if it arises, a vision, out of her shoulders.

He has a nondescript, very formal, gray suit and tie. Up to the point where they choose places, we’ve all spoken German. We speak it so poorly—and they, evidently, likewise—that we don’t realize they’re not German.

Steve introduces himself in German and says he’s American. At that point, the man switches to English, heavily accented and rather labored. He has an interesting scar running from the bridge of his nose about half an inch onto his forehead, in a curve, as though he’s been hit (tortured?) there. His face is very beety, his eyebrows bushy, his brown eyes suspicious. He is teaching at Mainz, he tells us, and the couple are from St. Petersburg.

A comic, intense, at-cross-purposes conversation ensues, with the Russian professor lecturing and Steve and me listening. The wife interjects extraneous humanizing comments in very rudimentary English. I can tell that she understands little when I speak.

He explains he’s here to talk to Prof. U. about a journal, C. O. which he evidently edits. Says prior to the Revolution, it focused on Christianity in the Caucasus. Now that Christianity has been resurrected in the East, he wants the journal to have a more inclusive focus, drawing in areas such as Ethiopia.

I mention that Coptic Christianity is interesting. This gives him an opening for a rebuttal, a lecture: “Um. One must be careful with term Coptic. Ethiopia was isolated from Alexandrian patriarch. It has its own rituals.”

I: Yes, many are very ancient, aren’t they?

He: Um. Ancient, but one must be careful. They often have no prototype, but were developed there (as though I’d implied that ancient meant handed down from elsewhere).

Then somehow a long discourse on why Christmas occurs at a different time according to the Eastern calendar than according to the Western one. Like a prisoner who willingly puts his head on the block, I naively mention Epiphany. That elicits a long lecture (Um—one must be careful) about the two calendars, and how the Eastern one places Easter in the historically correct place after the Jewish Passover, whereas, in the West, Easter sometimes coincides with Passover.

Then on to the danger of the new religiosity in Russia, which he’s against. It’s all too quick. You can’t be communist one day and Christian the next. No immediate change is ever good. (How dare they think that this religion for which I suffered all those years can now open its arms to them when they come running?)

Steve now tries the chopping block, with wild statements about how the revival movements in America are right-wing and fascist. I groan inside, and my guts wrench: is he oblivious to the political makeup of people such as this?

A passionate rebuttal ensues: fascism is an ideology, a good one; the cruelties it practiced aren’t part and parcel of its ideology. It’s wrong to equate fascism with those cruelties.

Not having had enough, Steve moves on to the fact that we teach at a black college founded to offer educational opportunity to former slaves. Um. One must be careful. Liberal sympathy for the oppressed overlooks that the oppressed always make bad masters when they gain power. Man raised to rule is good master. Women and Jews somehow figure into the equation.

We all politely bid each other adieu, good day. I can’t wait to get away. I’m screaming inside, guts wrenching; have I said that? We make to pick up our dishes. The Russian wife says it’s not done. We tell her we think they expect it. She then tries to stop me from removing my dishes; I do it. This is not for man to do.

So endeth the first lesson, cultural dialogue of this day of the year of our Lord 1999.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hamburg, 15.12.99: Weihnachtsmarkts and Bhami Goreng

Already wearying of keeping this journal, as with my everyday journal, in which I’ve not written in ages. I seem to have nothing interesting to say. I think nothing of interest. My life just runs by, faster than I’d like or can control….

And have I really ever even begun to understand another culture? Those travel journals I’ve kept so confidently in the past, with all their oh-so-assured observations about the “natives”: what do I understand. I don’t even speak the language, at least, well enough to understand as much as I think I do.

So, the little notes: no wonder Christmas in Germany means something, or used to do so. It’s so dark here, as the shortest day of the year approaches. Christmas as a feast of lights (like Channukah): that has to appeal to a people who are so light-deprived for much of the year, and above all in December. We awake in the dark and it’s dark again long before nightfall, that is, clock-nightfall. A good time of year to eat, party, gather, be with family and friends.

We went with Wolfram and Karin to an Indian restaurant last night. It was okay, but the food seemed to lack flavor. Garlic is hardly a whisper anywhere here, or fried onion. All the dishes were sauced in cream sauces; just can’t get away from cream, butter (cheese) in north Germany.

Today, after I slept in till 11, we drove to Altona intending to do a Weihnachtsmarkt at the Altona museum, a handicraft market.

But I had misread the tourism brochure in our room. It’s a Saturday market. So on to another handicraft market at Gerhart-Hauptmann-Platz off Mönckebergstraße. It wasn’t much, to be honest.

After that, we piddled around the regular Weihnachtsmarkt that winds all through the streets and plaza, and ate sausage (Thüringer and Krakauer) at a booth. Bought a very appealing little milk pitcher, spongeware, with pastel colors on a blue and white base.

Now home, and a supper of salad and bahmi goreng from a can, to be followed by gift-wrapping.