Friday, July 31, 2009

Wössingen, Baden, Germany 3.7.09: Cloudbursts and Pots of Oleander

Days passing quickly and full, with little time to write. On the 1st, we traveled to Germany.

The experience with Ryan Air (on which M. had booked us to save pennies) was unsettling. When we arrived at the airport two hours before the flight, the snaking queue for their counter was horrendously long. They had apparently opened the counter only a short time before, after people had lined up and waited for hours (for all their flights), and it had too few staff.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Edinburgh 1.7.09: Officious Misses and Communion Tokens

To the Scottish national library yesterday, with folderol at the desk issuing a visitor’s card: two lasses talking at the desk, neither helping (or even acknowledging) those waiting for a card. When I was finally called to the desk, the officious miss I drew greeted me not with a hello, but with a “You’ve filled out only half of the form,” and a peremptory order to complete a form she provided me with on the spot, which was not offered online at the section of the website with forms where we’d downloaded and printed the application form weeks back.

She then tsked-tsked that I had written the date as 1.7, and told me it was 30.7, instead, writing 30 July in a big scrawl over my script. Whereupon I sweetly asked, “30th July?” and she caught herself, said, “I’ve gotten ahead of myself,” and softened to a quasi-humanity.

A few hours reading about Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton and the settlement of Ulster, and then we walked to Jenner’s, where we had tea and bought two bottles of Montepulciano wine for the dinner. We stopped in Sainsbury’s and got plums for a cobbler, and then home to cook.

Made grillades and grits, using polenta for the grits, with a nice peppery rocket salad to which I added a sharp vinaigrette with a mustard bite. And then the plum cobbler, which turned out good, if I say so.

And I amused the table by trying to scoop out a dip of very hard-frozen ice cream, which went flying through the air and landed neatly in my dish.

Before dinner (well, tea, Ian called it), Margaret Berwick stopped by and she and Ian presented me with a gold token struck for the 400th anniversary, a replica of the 1909 token devised by John White. They gave Steve one, too, in some metal like pewter, and to both of us, replicas of communion tokens from the past. Very kind and very touching.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Edinburgh 30.6.09: Skye Terriers and Murano Hedgehogs

Another nice, slow day. Ian took us on a driving tour of various areas of Edinburgh, beginning with Valvona and Crolla, which he thought we’d like to see for its significance to Alexander McCall Smith’s stories.

It was certainly a beautifully arranged shop with beautiful food, but far less splendid than various sources had made me imagine. We looked but didn’t buy, since we fly to Germany on Ryan Air in two days and weight restrictions are strict.

From there to the Morningside area of the city, where J.K. Rowling used to live, and where she liked to shop at Waitrose. We went there to buy ingredients for our meal tomorrow. Didn’t spot J.K. Rowling or Alexander McCall Smith.

We did, however, enjoy a good cup of Italian coffee at a café on the main shopping street down from the store. And in a small second-hand shop for the disabled across the street, I found a pretty little handmade vase from Guernsey that I’ll bring back as a souvenir of my time in Edinburgh.

Then on to the Grassmarket, where Ian dropped us to shop. It was rather touristy and uninteresting, so we quickly found our way to Westport, a street with several used bookstores that Ian’s daughter Jennifer had kindly marked on a map for us.

Several of these turned out to be closed because it was Monday, so we could only stare longingly at the books displayed in their widows. We did find one open, though, and spent a delightful hour or so in its narrow tunnels of books guarded by a sleeping dog at the entrance—something we had just encountered at a little antiques shop in the Grassmarket, where a Skye terrier in a basket sleepily sprawled across the threshold as we stepped into the store.

People unfailingly helpful and hospitable even when we bought nothing from them. Steve had wanted to find a replacement for the two small thistle-marked whiskey glasses he’s broken from the set we got on our last visit here.

We looked in several second-hand shops to no avail, asking in each where we might find something like that. In each, we received recommendations to stores of nearby competitors, along with detailed instructions (Ebay, etc.) of other options to try if that failed.

In the shop with the Skye terrier at the door, I did spot, however, an adorable Murano hedgehog for Mary’s collection, and bought it. It’ll be handsome in her collection, with its dots of green, yellow, red, and blue on bottom catching light and throwing ribbons of color up into the sparkling crystal.

Then we stopped for a glass of beer and a sandwich at one of the many pubs on either side of the central square in the Grassmarket, and spent some time sitting and writing there, in a garden behind the pub, and on a bench in the square.

We walked on to a Barnados benefit shop selling old lace, and I found a pretty antique linen tea towel fringed with lace for Billie, and a handbag made of reclaimed vintage fabric (green and gold, glimmering in the light) for Kate. The day had turned sunny—our first sunny day since we arrived—and it was pleasant to be out.

A taxi ride home then with a taxi driver from Mauritius, a rest, and then to dinner at Fishers, a seafood place in the oldest part of Leith, where Ian had made reservations, since we wanted to take him and Donna and Albert out to thank them for their hospitality and celebrate Albert’s graduation.

A wonderful meal—fish cakes (smoked haddock and salmon mixed with mashed potato and bread crumbs) with a garnish of rocket salad and Sancerre wine to drink. Donna shared her appetizer of mussels cooked in white wine and garlic, and they were succulent, tender, and delicious.

For dessert, we shared an array of sorbet (raspberry and red currant), toffee cake, strawberries melba, and truffle cake. The latter surprising, since it seemed to be made with ground walnuts, like a Reine de Saba cake. It was delicious, light, not too sweet, with a smoky deep chocolate base.

Afterwards, a little walk around the old harbor area, very romantic as the haar settled in, muffling cries of seagulls above us. We went into the lobby of the old Malmaison hotel (Fishers was across from it) and admired the beautiful square, solid architecture and appointments one finds in many old Edinburgh houses and buildings. And then home to bed, and another chapter about Henrietta, Christopher Wren’s redoubtable traveling cat.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Edinburgh 29.6.09: Castles and Bright Poppies, Golf Courses and Rocky Beaches

Sunday after service Ian took us on a wonderful driving tour along the Firth of Forth south and east of Edinburgh. We went through fishing villages and vacation communities including Musselburgh (the honest town, a welcome sign proudly proclaimed), Prestonpans and Cockenzie, a traditional fishing village, Aberlady (chi-chi beach and golf town), and then inland into rich East Lothian farming country and the typical village of Dirleton, with its beautiful castle that gives the village its name.

Stands of bright scarlet poppies here and there, varied landscape and flora and fauna, ranging from areas of sand dunes and grass populated by many birds to rocky beach and rolling hills with golf courses. Inland, in the farming area, the land flattens and landscapes is dotted with farms, widely dispersed clusters of buildings, and cool green wooded areas.

The graphic is Alexander Runciman's "East Lothian Landscape," in the National Gallery of Scotland.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Edinburgh 28.6.09 (2): Roman Forts and Secret Gardens

After the church, Ian took us to a pub alone the Firth of Forth, overlooking Fife on the opposite shore. It was a wet, misty day and we could see only the outline of Fife, green and rolling, on the other side.

The pub, Starbank, is an old family-run place where we had each a different local beer on tap, a bowl delicious cauliflower soup with cream and flecks of chopped parsley, and an egg and onion sandwich. We shared a bag of crisps in one of those incomprehensible British flavors, roast beef and sharp mustard.

Conversations punctuated by cheers, as the patrons watched Wimbledon on t.v. and cheered when the Scot scored a point. As we sat, the owner brought around a plate of meat pies fresh from the oven and gave us one as a treat. I enjoyed watching the gray river through many-paned windows, some of them with those raised circles surrounding a spy-hole that one sees in windows overlooking water.

Then a driving tour through the little medieval fishing village of Cramond on the river Amond, and to what remains of the Roman fort near Cramond. There Ian took us to a church hall to see a piece of sculpture by the same artist who just made a memorial for the South Leith graveyard, for all those buried there in unmarked graves.

Margaret had shown this to us. It’s on a wall in what the church calls its secret garden, a little space walled off from the graveyard proper, with flowering shrubs, tombstones, and the memorial on a wall.

The memorial is two pieces of sculpture, a gray plaque of granite with sparkling bits, depicting water and fishes, an inscription commemorating the dead buried in unmarked graves. Beneath is a beautiful red sandstone piece showing us a tree with roots exposed. As we looked at the sculpture at Cramond (a fish shaped from a light granite with a beautiful rose streak running through it), Ian told us the fish and water motif in the South Leith memorial echoes an ancient Assyrian carving.

Margaret told us the need for this memorial became apparent as work began recently to run a tramline beside the graveyard. The work began to uncover bones, and the congregation were reminded that a part of the old graveyard once extended beyond its present boundaries in the direction of the tramline.

Then back to Ian and Donna’s house for a rest, followed by a dinner in anticipation of the Sunday event. Guests included Avril, the session clerk and a Leither; Fiona, a nurse and aromatherapist who grew up in Essex but has Fifeshire roots on her mother’s side; Dawn, a Yorkshire woman who’s a librarian; and Louise, the assistant pastor, with her husband Derrick, a religion teacher from Ayrshire.

A wonderful meal prepared by Donna and their daughter Gillian. Appetizers of haggis, bruschetta, sun-dried tomatoes or peppers in puff pastry, a wonderful smoked salmon on tiny pancakes with sour cream. A co-worker of Donna’s had caught and cured the salmon with sugar and smoke. These appetizers with champagne.

Then boeuf bourgignon, mixed vegetables (sugar snap peas and baby corn), and salad. Desserts a marvelous key lime pie in our honor (an American dish), and a pavlova with strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and the obligatory (and always mysterious) kiwi.

At dinner Donna asked us to share something of our story (others had done so), and I made a spectacle of myself by mentioning Simpson’s death (the 26th would have been his 58th birthday), and then bursting into tears. Avril and Louise looked very sympathetic, which made me feel slightly less horrible about making a proper fool of myself and discomfiting an entire table full of strange folks.

We seldom have any idea of the deep rivers of feeling that run beneath the surface—the brittle surface—of what we call our selves.

Edinburgh 28.6.09 (1): Dignitaries Hither, Divines Yon

Fanfare now over and done with, Deo gratias. The 400th anniversary event was today. Dignitaries hither, divines yon. The service was moving, especially the communion, celebrated by the assistant pastor Louise Duncan, an Ulsterwoman. Huge shining goblets of inscribed silver filled with port wine, aromatic in the still air of the church, silver platters of bread.

All welcome. Louise emphasized that South Leith is a parish that invites everyone—young, old, everyone—to the table. The opening song was Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome in This Place.”

Several older men in kilts. A Mr. Lindsay, a high constable of Leith (if I heard correctly), spoke to me afterwards, twinkling blue eyes and sharp nose like my grandfather’s. Florid complexion. There’s no way we can’t be related, somewhere back in history.

Yesterday, we went with Ian to the church to see if we could help people set up for the celebration. A member of the congregation, Margaret B., gave us a tour, showing us cabinets of old communion tokens in the vestry, which had a Raeburn pointing of a former minister above them (or perhaps Raeburn did only the face).

I particularly liked going to the gallery and looking out at the beautiful carved hammerbeam wooden ceiling with its interlacing woodwork and angels with texts. Margaret told us her family’s pew had been in the gallery when she was a girl, and it bothered her when she realized people were walking to the gallery steps over gravestones each Sunday—and thus wearing down the ancient stones with their inscriptions, on the church floor.

So she got a friend of hers who was with an historical preservation group to photograph the stones. She also told she had an ah-ha moment when she looked down one day as a girl and saw the phrase, Hic iacet. She said to herself (drawing herself up and raising her brows as she told us this), “Ah ha! Hic iacet.

And I had no idea in the world of the point of that story, no idea about why the inscription suddenly struck her as meaningful. Had she suddenly realized she could read and understand the inscriptions in Latin?

After the tour, we helped a bit setting up the communion things and tables for cake and champagne. Margaret was apparently for years the head of the communion committee and has just been removed from it, which, Ian told us, explained why, when he asked her to give us a tour, she replied, “Oh, but I believed you considered me dispensable.”

We ended the tour with Margaret sitting in the vestry in a venerable old chair made and reserved for the clergy, with us across the table from her on wee elders’ chairs. I had to imagine she knew full well the dignity she was assuming in choosing the dignitary’s seat, since she had tsked-tsked in another room that someone had placed a box on an old stool made to hold a coffin at a funeral and said, “I believe these old objects should be reserved for their proper use or otherwise kept from use.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Edinburgh 26.6.09: Skating Parsons and Spinach Gnocchi

Now in Leith with the Gilmours. Such lovely people. A Zambian friend, Albert, is with them, to graduate shortly from a university in Glasgow. The South Leith congregation assists him and the school at which he teaches.

Still jet-lagged. We slept long last night, 12 hours, but I still feel tired. Feet and hands terribly swollen. I begin to wonder if I’m reaching a point in my life when travel will become too arduous.

In the entryway of their house, Donna has put a vase of lilies, which are so fragrant that their scent fills the whole house. I woke in the night and got up and could smell them fragrancing the upstairs. I remember just the same variety of lilies, with the same beautiful scent, in Lennoxlove House in Haddington on our last visit to Scotland.

Apprehensive about Sunday. Ian told us today Queen Elizabeth had been invited and apparently wanted to be at the event, but some mix-up may have occurred in her schedule. Then he said that I will replace her. Though he was being facetious, of course, the thought alarmed me. I do have friends who would find that observation—Bill Lindsey as queen—hilarious.

Ian took us for a wonderful driving tour today past Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Craig. Wonderful views—soft Scottish colors (browns, blues, greens, grays) spread in pleasing panorama below the highest places. We looked down on Duddingston church with its loch where Reverend Robert Walker famously skated in the Raeburn painting.

And then he took us to the National Gallery, where the Turner exhibit we had hoped to see was gone. So we had lunch in the café attached to the museum—Steve gnocchi in a spinach-tomato sauce, I a salad of broad beans, ricotta, and nut crumble. The menu promised olives and tomatoes, but none were to be found in the salad.

Monday, July 20, 2009

En Route to Edinburgh 24.6.09: Stars in Liberty's Crown, Kicks in the Kidneys

In the plane in NY, waiting to take off for Edinburgh. Our trip began early today in Little Rock, then to Atlanta and NY, and now overseas.

When we got onto the plane in Little Rock, they announced the air conditioning was not working. And oh by the way, we’ll be delayed due to a malfunction of our computer system that requires us to do all the paperwork by hand.

Then, as we take off: and oh by the way, the bathroom is broken. Inauspicious omens for the start of a trip!

In Atlanta, we prepare to get into the queue for take-off, and an announcement comes. Please keep your seats, ladies and gents. We can’t go further as long as you’re not seated.

After a few minutes, a chunky woman in a burqa comes sauntering down the aisle. She had evidently chosen to go to the restroom just as the plane began backing out of its gate. And then we land and are taxiing to the gate, and again she bounces up and walks to the front of the plane, causing the pilot to do a sharp halt and forcing us to sit on the runway until she had been directed once again to sit down.

I now find I’m seated in front of a little Italian boy who’s 1) kicking me in the kidneys, 2) singing, 3) shouting Mama! Questa Londra? La torre de Pisa? And now pummeling the tack of my seat at shoulder level with rude kinetic little fists. Che gioia!
And then: Quando se muove? And, Che dolore partiamo. And a series of questions to his papa about whether we’d fly over the Statue of Liberty by night and see her crown and stars.

At least, I thought I heard all of that. I don’t really speak Italian, though I can often puzzle some of its meaning out, when I look at an Italian text. But somehow I understood pretty much all that the little boy was saying. Perhaps a swift kick in the kidneys bestows linguistic connection that would otherwise be lacking.

+ + + + +

And now just reaching the southwest corner of Ireland, according to the little map screen in front of me, though all is thickly clouded over and I can’t see land. Well, now that I look at the map, we turn and fly north of Dublin, coming to Ireland someplace more like Donegal than the southeast corner of the island.

Just finished Nicholas Kilmer’s account of his family’s home in Normandy, as we flew from New York. A bit tedious, though the repartee with his wife could be amusing at times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Belmont, North Carolina 4.9.91: Sun Spots and Dogwood Berries

Steve successfully defended his dissertation yesterday. I’ve noticed since he has been away that, fittingly, one of Mr. Bickham’s rose cuttings on which we had given up has sprouted: new life out of the old.

As I sit on the back porch, the glass thingamabob that causes the wind chimes to work swings and catches the sun, throwing sun spots on the rail of the porch. For awhile, I couldn’t figure out where the light originated—my glasses? Now I know, as much as anyone knows about where the light comes from, because one source leads to another, and then . . . .

Down in the foliage of the sloping dell beneath the porch, a spot of sun pickes out one sole dogwood berry at the tip of a branch, a crimson jewel in a green setting, like some promise that the darkness contains fiery lights, hidden riches.

And I think about receptivity, the need to meet each person I meet as one capable of revealing hidden depths. I’m not good at this, and I become less so as I struggle with the panic that always wants to choke me, and drives me to frenzied work.

I believe so little in moralizing, anymore. What’s left? Grace, I reckon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Belmont, North Carolina 22.8.91: Nacreous Skies and Calls to Listen

What’s closest to our heart is usually the most difficult thing to write about—not because of the inadequacy of language to express deep thought, but because we rarely even see what’s closest to us. Can I see my own nose, the expression of my own face? I don’t know what to write about, except here, now.

I sit on this back porch canopied by late summer green. Sun’s not exactly gilding the sky—more turning the pearl gray of cloud to nacreous. I sit. Hummingbirds come and go and won’t feed if I make the slightest move. Some lesson there . . . . Something about things coming not when we demand, but when we’ve achieved the right balance, equipoise, so that our own compulsions won’t unbalance and send spinning to futility the promise they bring.

But, Lord, what promise? I suppose unconsciously I ask the same old semester-beginning questions: how will I teach? How will I be myself, teach what I know in my inmost being, a being the church denies and denies me the right even to speak, and engage students?

I’m not sure there is an answer, other than patience, apprenticeship: in face of life’s biggest challenges (e.g, learning, teaching) one will always be the disciple. Obsculta, o filii . . . .

Monday, July 13, 2009

Eastern North Carolina 30.7.9: The Outer Banks and Decline and Fall

After Edenton, we went to the Outer Banks. If Edenton was decline, the Outer Banks are fall. Once one crosses the sound going to Edenton, one begins to leave North Carolina behind.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Eastern North Carolina 25.7.91: Slow Brown Rivers and Wild Caladia

At Edenton. A pretty morning, but promises to be hot. One feels the sea in the air. People at Windsor yesterday said it was the hottest it’s been in many moons—record highs.

Didn’t write last night because the heat had me prostrate (he said with typical Southern exaggeration), and we drank a glass of wine at supper and the combination did me in.

When we got going yesterday, I went to see Harry T., the Bertie historian. He teaches history classes at the community college. He was at Hope Plantation back in the woods working on a building which will—inter alia, and I’m not sure of the alia—store genealogical records.

Mr. T. that sort of amateur local historian who performs great wonders collecting and preserving materials, and who also works manually and considers it important to do so. I interrupted him planning wood; he owns a lumber company and sawmill.

I asked where Cashie Neck was and he took a piece of board and drew a map of the confluence of the Cashie, Middle, and Roanoke Rivers, showing me where various planters were. But when I told him the Strachan deeds mention Roquist Creek, he said he suspected we were dealing with land at the confluence of the Roquist and Cashie—probably just south of and on the side were Roquist flows.

We talked awhile and then Steve and I toured the plantation. A Bazemore who donated the house—built by the Kings—gave us a tour of the house, with interesting t-chimneys, a studded basement door, and other medieval features, recessed closets and shelves beside all the fireplaces. Love to hear the lady speak with that old coastal Carolina-Virginia sound, and a hint of a y in her “here”—the old “hyar.”

On the tour were four African Americans. This seemed somewhat to inhibit both of the tour guides, and make me wonder how often African Americans tour old plantation sites like this. Miss Bazemore a perfect lady: when she couldn’t understand a question one of the group kept asking, she would say, “Sir?”

Then to Hope House, where air conditioning was broken and it was devilishly hot. I tried and tried to think of whether any of my ancestors would have been here—to “feel” their presence. But couldn’t, not even when the tour guild told me that James Cherry had bought the house from the Stones.

Where I did feel them was in the land. A 17th-century feel about it, land well chosen and well tended. And perhaps it’s that, when one sees no machinery as one looks at fields in the 20th century, one is essentially seeing what one would have seen in the past. I know that crops vary and hybridization has “improved” some crops. But the overall lay and tilth is the same—and the birds soft over the crops and in the verges, and how the light falls and air feels. That’s what makes me feel I’ve been here before.

Even more so as we drove down to San Souci (that’s “suzy” to locals) ferry, over the Roquist to the Cashie where the ferry runs. This drive would have taken us very close to the Monk plantation, and the more we got back along the road, the more I felt I left the 20th century behind. It was lovely, paradisiac, still, green, removed. At the ferry itself on the far side of the river were lovely wild caladia, some in bloom (purple spikes) and wild iris—not in bloom, of course.

The Cashie brown like tobacco cured, but not muddily so—one fancies one can almost see the bottom. A brown I associate with water around cypress trees, of which there were many. The ferry was so slow and the stream so gentle, I felt far and away.

Between this crossing the Cashie, we went back to see Mr. T. at his mill. He had found for me an 1804 court document with Nottingham Monk’s signature, which he gave to me—kind of him.

In the late afternoon, we arrived at Edenton as a storm blew up—lots of bluster, but only a trace of rain. The town was beautiful then, the roiled bay and wild wind.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Eastern North Carolina 24.7.91: Field Peas and Barbecue, Coats of Arms on Snopesian Carriages

Up early and took a walk after breakfast. Almost immediately behind the motel was a little old Primitive Baptist church, Skewarkey. We walked round it and lo and behold a cemetery with the graves of Cushing Biggs Hassell, Eli Cherry, et al. We had spent the night next to graves of some relatives. Is that why I slept so badly—that, the full moon, and my usual dyspepsia?

After a bit of time in the library (unfriendly librarian, or perhaps shy to a fault), we drove to Windsor, where we’re now ensconced in the pedestrian but perhaps clean and unique (in the etymological sense of that word) town hostelry, the Windsor Motel.

After arriving here, I called a Mr. Mack B., whose name had been given me by the town information center, and Mr. James L.T., who teaches history at the community college. T. not in, but left a message. Long talk with Mr. B., who assures me my people are of the finest (glad to hear it, Mr. B.), but he wouldn’t play up their connection to the lady by whom Nottingham Monk had an illegitimate child. Between you and me, he says, that family (the mother’s) have risen but were never of the best—Snopes story, don’t you know, overseers that rose up and bought the old Watson plantation and drove around in the Watson carriage with its coat of arms and enraged the Watson family . . . .

I’m sure after talking to Mr. Bell and consulting a number of records that the Strachans and Monks lived on Cashie Neck (accent on the last syllable and a long I, and Bertie is a distinct t with accent on final syllable) next to the James Castellow family and the Mizles. Castellaw was a state legislator who founded the oringal and now defunct and disparu county seat of Cashy. All that remains of it is an old Wolfenden or Hoggard house and mill known known as Hoggard’s Mill, to which we drove this evening.

Nice supper—barbecue, fried okra, field peas, slaw—at De Jon restaurant in Windsor, then a drive down to Batchelor Bay in a fierce lightning storm. How strange it feels to reverse the ancestral migration pattern and creep per aspera but in a well-sealed car back East. If only I could follow the pattern up the bloodstream to ancestral memories, ancestral sight.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Eastern North Carolina 23.7.91: Family Scripts and Fried Fish

This is going to turn into another one of those dreary travel chronicles. I promised myself to write daily, but don’t know what to write this hot summer morning when the air hangs over Chapel Hill like thick hot milk.

We got to Chapel Hill in the late afternoon, and after a brief stretch, went out to two bookstores on Franklin Ave. I found a copy of Jones’s Lindseys of Albemarle, for which I’ve been looking, Virginia Cookery Past and Present, recommended by Karen Hess and John Egerton, and Osip Mandelstam’s poems. The latter I bought because 1) it looks interesting and 2) sees (the book blurbs say) the vocation as feeding the people. I’m always sucker for vocation-of-poet stuff.

Speaking of—in the car on the way up, I dipped into James Applewhite’s Lessons in Soaring. Wonderful lines—e.g., “What privileged paradigm lives in first dream . . . ?”

Am also reading Allan Gurganus’s White People—a fitting counterpoint. Some of the stories leave me breathless with pain, because the open old father-, mother-, brother-wounds I have not so much tried to forget as have (or thought I had) left behind as my life moves to its final end. Who can afford to carry all his wounds along to that last and definitively wounding event? To grow old is to forget, and consequently to die apace, to lose one’s humanity by dribs and drabs and coffee spoons.

Great lines in Gurganus: “Without much accuracy, with strangely little love at all, your family will decide for you exactly who you are and they’ll keep nudging, coaxing, poking you until you’ve changed into that very simple shape. They’ll choose it lazily. One when it suits them. Maybe one summer moment” (p. 65).

And supper at the Weeping Radish become Olde Heidelberg or something of the sort—full to the brim with vulgar loud businessmen who want it known that they think they’re heterosexual. And a bus ran over them all and so to the college . . . .

The chronicle continued, with lots of those little ellipses that ornament 18th-cntury novels. And now, dear reader, having revived from her swoon, Emily peered closely at the gloved hand atop her white, marbled breast.

In Williamston. Not much of a burb, to my eyes this evening. Thoughts of the alienated artist, the tortured teen riding the streets endlessly, what a town without pity can do. But of course I see the town with these eyes because so much film and literature conditions me to do so: “Rebel Without a Cause, You Can Never Go Home Again. Are Williamston and those whose name is legion like it just a vestige of old South in a tawdry, commercial, artificial, but clean modern world? I remember hearing someone complain in New Orleans (a tourist) a few years ago that the plantations looked old and dirty. Bien entendu—that’s the point. If you want American history à la theme park, by all means, hie the to one. But know what you’re getting—polyester and not all-cotton.

Am I that tourist? Is this what I feel deep inside: the plantations are old and dirty?

We got to Williamston after a grueling day of book-shopping and touring UNC campus in the boiling sun. I spent an hour or so in the NC Collection of UMC, Steve in the campus bookstore. After lunch, to a huge, cavernous, not user-friendly bookstore on Main St. in Durham. But I did find two Alice Munro short-story collections there. Need to go back.

Then on to Rocky Mount, through Rocky Mount to Everett, where we’d read of a b and b we couldn’t find. So we drove on to Williamston and checked into a motel, then back to Robersonville where we’d seen a likely looking restaurant called the Filling Station. And it was good. Wonderful fried fish with real french fries. Lots of locals—always a good sign. A look abo0ut people in this area: thin faces, sharp noses, foxy-faced look. Is it English, English Puritan, Scottish, all of the above and none of the above? Come to think of it, my grandmother’s siblings Monroe and Fanny, who were said to look like their Monk grandmother and her family, who came from here, did look like that.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Belmont, North Carolina 22.7.91: Hummingbirds and Angels Unaware

I saw my first hummingbird today. When I got up, groggy and sleep drunk, it was at the feeder outside the kitchen window—surprisingly assiduous as it poked its beak into the slot and extracted sugar water. My glasses were so foggy, and I was watching from an angle for fear that if I turned my head I’d spook it, so that I couldn’t see the color well.

Once, it stopped feeding and approached the window head-on to look in, then returned to feed. Steve was standing to my right; he had been drawing a kettle of water when I saw the bird, and I stopped him. Finally something alerted the bird to our presence and away it flew.

Then I went onto the back porch and after awhile, when Steve went in to get orange juice, the bird returned. It whizzed in front of me looking tiny as a bee, then lit—or the closest to that birds come—and began to feed. Then I turned my head slightly, and the bird must have seen, because it stopped, turned to face me as if peering myopically down its long nose, and away it went. I saw it at least twice more flitting by—or maybe there were several—but it did not feed again. When it turned to face me at the feeder, I saw its throat, a beautiful ruby color.

Why am I so excited? For one thing, because I’m the last to see it. Both Steve and Mother saw the bird last week. And because Steve and I are going on vacation today, and somehow my sighting of the bird seems an auspicious omen. No. That’s fancying it up. What I mean to say is that the two seem connected. Both seem to point to the need for a vast (spiritual) sea-change inside me: a retrieval of my ability to see hummingbirds and angels unaware.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Nash County, North Carolina 14.7.91: Rolling Hills and Hint of the Sea

Thursday we drove to Raleigh, where I spent two days doing research on the Monk and Godwin families, then the next day we drove to Nash Co. I had found in the NC State Library a book that suggested to me that the Batchelors lived mostly in the west central part of the county, on the Franklin Co. line, around the communities of Spring Hope, Nashville, and Peachtree. So that’s where we headed.

When we got to Spring Hope, we saw two men selling vegetables by the side of the road. One was young, the other old—the young one lank and hippieish, the other sturdy and hale and hearty with curly gray hair. As we passed, I suggested we stop and see if they knew any Batchelors. We did so. The older man said, “You’re probably kin to me; my grandmother was a Batchelor.”

He was wonderfully entertaining—told us a story re: a cousin of his, a Batchelor, a generation or so back, who had a child out of wedlock. He said that his mother always referred to the child, even when he was a man, as “Jim Batchelor Boone or Jim Boone Batchelor—don’t know which ‘tis.” He spoke with a wonderful east Carolina accent—mellow, lilting, rounded vowels, no r’s, strongly English sounding in some ways.

And the landscape reminded me of parts of southern England, strangely enough—gently rolling hills with a hint of the sea not too far off. It has the feel of a place that has been long and peacefully and well settled. Everything is on a manageable scale, and that may be part of the secret to its being cared for. But it also seems cultural, the secret. As one drives west and passed into the Piedmont, into Chatham, Moore, Montgomery Counties, things have a wilder, more Celtic and less groomed, look.

Another of those surprising twists of life: meeting this distant cousin who looked so much like my Batchelor relatives, and meeting him and discovering this simply because I had the impulse to stop and talk to him.

Mr. Boone told my mother that she has the look of the Nash Co. Batchelors, and I think that’s so. He was barefoot, and after a moment or so, he said, “I am an educated man. I have an M.A. in psychology and was superintendent of schools in Nash Co.”

In the archives, I traced the Monk line back three generations on one side, two on another, to Nottingham Monk Jr. and Sr., Rachel Strachan and her parents George and Elizabeth Strachan. I’ve also easily traced the Nottinghams back to the immigrant ancestor Richard Nottingham in Northampton Co., VA.

Monday, July 6, 2009

New Orleans 27.10.1990: Electric Blue Sky, Peaceful Bayou

A glorious fall day—sky electric blue and calm, cloudless. I’m sitting by the bayou, which I realize as I write has become a haven for me. I have a perfect view of the restored bridge across from Cabrini high school.

Took the morning to go to a Great Hall sale at NOMA, where I bought Christmas presents. Then I went to the main library and did a rare bit of family history research.

Friday, July 3, 2009

New Orleans 25.10.1990: Images of Eden and Ropes of Color

I’ve seen work of two artists recently that impressed me very much. The first was an exhibit entitled “Images of Eden” at New Orleans Museum of Art—oil paintings by a Nicaraguan-Salvadoran artist, Julio Sequeira. Great splashes of tropical brilliance tamed to tiny, obsessive recreations of cities, jungles, mountainsides. Always a parrot or other bright feathered bird atop a tree or building—one of my favorite images of transcendence. A wonderful Carnival picture with little jokes hidden away Brueghelesque in the hullabaloo—some of them I thought gay references.

The other an “Arkansas Traveller” spot on a Pine Bluff black artist, Terrance Corbin. He does large mural-like canvases of intertwining ropes of color. Fascinating . . . .

Thursday, July 2, 2009

New Orleans 14.10.1990: French Quarter Ganymedes and Newcomb Pottery

Yesterday Steve and I got up at 5:55 A.M. to go to a garage sale in the French Quarter. The ad in the paper spoke of an old cypress hutch, and we wanted to see if it was anything like the one we have. We arrived at 6:35, the first to do so. The address—741 Dumaine—turned out to be an apartment attached to Clover Grill, an all-night diner across the street from (and sharing clientele with) the world-famous gay bar Café Lafitte in Exile.

In this day and age one is of course hesitant to stand on any street corner in the French Quarter at 6:30 A.M., when dark still reigns. So when we drove up we sat awhile in the car, mumbling back and forth in our sleepy, wimbly state about what to do.

Finally I pointed out that Clover Grill was full and if need be, we could always duck in there in case of trouble. Steve went to park. I got out and leaned on the wall of the house. As I did so, I immediately noticed that a stocky, cigarette-smoking man in shorts across the street was staring at me casually but intently. I realized he was tricking and thought Steve and I had driven up, chatted, and decided I would get out to pick him up! I tried to show not disapproving disinterest, to preserve his feelings.

Gradually it became apparent to me that no corner in the Quarter was so alive as this one at 6:30 A.M. Saturday. Merry singing from Lafitte’s, alternating with loud female rock vocals. For some reason, I could also see a flickering flame through the smoked glass doorway, like a gas lamp but in a spot where one ought not to be.

Tricks came and went. Groups of three and four young men in all types of clothes emerged and sauntered down the street. A thin gray-bearded middle-aged man came out of Clover Grill and parked himself on the other side of the doorway of 741—another garage sale client. A man in tight, dirty jeans and one of those yoked and strap-bearing muscle shirts gay men love came up and said to him, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” The thin man: “From around,” in a high rural-South voice (north Louisiana? Mississippi?). The man then went into Lafitte’s from which he was ejected shortly by a bouncer shouting something about motherf---r, don’t show ass, drugs, etc.

All the time the sky grew lighter and lighter, and cars of tourists cruised slowly and dreamily past. Two policemen on motorcycles came up to the Grill, and the first hustler—by now on the corner, having given me up—shouted to us, “Did you call the police?”

Steve struck up a conversation with Thin Man, who turned out to be a regular, a quasi-antiquer/junker who goes the round of garage sales on weekends. He asked what we liked—Victorian? Anything? He allowed as how he had recently purchased a piece of Newcomb pottery for peanuts.

As we talked, a Ganymede with perhaps not entirely naturally glowing and flowing locks came UP—bemuscled and bemuscle-shirted—opened the door of 741, turned around, and asked the three of us, “Was you wanting a room?” We reminded him there was a garage sale at his apartment at 7 (it was now 6:48 or so). “Oh,” he said, “yes.”

As he spoke, the waiter from Clover Grill came up and said, “You’re having a sale? Whatcha selling?” Blondie: “I’ve cleaned out my attic. My husband keeps bringing home all this shit and I’m selling it.” Waiter Apparently did not quite catch it all, because Thin Man repeated it to Water. He and Blondie and Waiter all appeared to know one another.

Waiter seemed not quite all together, though amusingly distrait. He sported a Café Lafitte t-shirt and lots of name tags, and a baseball cap. Blondie returned to Café Lafitte, whence he had come. Five minutes later, a light and a sound in 741, then the door opens and sale begins. Thin Man knows the seller—“Joe, what ya got on this?” Waiter returns.

Joe to Waiter: “What you want?” Waiter, arm flailing, hand displaying a cigarette coyly perched between fingers: “Dick.” Steve to Joe: “If you rent a room, that comes with it.”

And indeed as we shopped someone did rent a room. At first I believed she was a damsel in distress, over-fatiguée from a night of bar revelry. But as she ascended the stairs in her green satin blouse, I realized she was a he, a he-she. Saturday A.M. in the French Quarter . . . .

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Washington, DC 2.10.90: Liberal Catholics and Demise of Ties That Bind

The Future of the American Church conference: a dark experience. I felt dark and full of bitter emotion much of the time. When I arrived at the meeting, I asked two women from Baltimore if the registration counter were different from the check-in counter (we were in line for the latter), and one said just a curt yes, no explanation; the other mumbled head down and no eye contact something like, “Back there,” and threw her hand about. This elicits all sorts of feelings in me about how the church talks the idea of community but serves it so badly in practice.

Then I met Christoph P., who was full of mock sympathy about Steve’s denial of tenure at Notre Dame Seminary, and who smiled with undisguised Schadenfreude at my discomfiture. What angers me most about such experiences is that I let myself bed treated this way—or that all my achievements, such as they are, don’t buy me freedom from this treatment. Ditto my encounter with Lou Mc., who was with former Glenmary Nick S. and his wife, something Thibault—but not introduced to me as such. And when I did not understand, all treated me as if I had transgressed some line evident to them—gay theologian who doesn’t understand normal relationships. I hate it—the homophobia at any of these liberal Catholic gatherings which profess solidarity with the marginal but never practice it when the marginal are gay; and the unjust and vicious hidden structures that permit people to do this to one another with abandon.

Consequently, I felt awful about my paper. Fell I’ll never go to one of these Catholic whingdings again. Feel if I’m to remain a theologian, “success” has to seek me out. I’m tired of batting my head against the wall.

The highlight was the day I spent at the Phillips Collection. What moved me greatly—and surprisingly—was the Rouault series, La cirque de l’étoile filante. I must have seen it in repros, but it struck me forcibly on this viewing. The sense of noble, tragic doom in the heads—people bypassed by modernity, judged superfluous, or what’s worse, unmodern. People who know that what they do is essential to a humane and joyous culture, but who are being deprived by that very culture of the right to do it. And so they dance and cavort in sad defiance, because they can do no other. I thought of Bakhtin’s carnival as I looked at this series. The most impressive head of all was Pierrot, who made me think of so many of those deemed Other.