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 outrĂ©.

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.

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