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Monday, June 27, 2016

To Be Young Was Very Heaven—Part X: A Hundred Years Older

Saturday, August 14 (continued)

We stopped at Troutbeck Church to see a William Morris stained glass window. Morris was one of the Victorian era Pre-Raphaelites. I wasn’t as interested in the window as I was in getting up in the pulpit and seeing what it might be like to deliver a sermon from there. Still, I made sure to request Sari to share her slide film with me (which she would have done anyway).

All day I had a bad headache, probably from lack of sleep. I slept all the way to Chester from Troutbeck, but the headache hung on.

In Chester I followed the Dansies all over the city. We went shopping first, because they needed to get something for one of their daughters. I bought a second-hand Dorothy Sayers book, Murder Must Advertise, with Lord Peter Wimsey in it, for 20p in a book shop. We walked all the way around the city on the old Norman wall, which in places was even old Anglo Saxon. Alas, there was no “Ingeld was here” graffiti. We did see the half-excavated Roman amphitheater, but we missed the Rows somehow.

Downtown was quaint looking but many of the old buildings are renovated inside to look like any modern shopping mall. It was disappointing to me. I had lunch with them (thick soup) in the cathedral cafeteria (in the cloisters I think). Later on I sat there by myself listening to the organ music until it was time to meet back at our coach in the car-park. The Chester Cathedral organ is a gigantic Baroque-Gothic copy, built in the 19th century. Its 32-foot gold pipes are topped with silver angel figurines, and the whole thing rises majestically before you as you enter the cathedral by the south chancel. The sound is rich, clear, and positive even in a minor key—this organ, I thought, likes to play, thoroughly enjoys its voice.

As I was leaving, I met up with Gina and Sean, who wanted to know where the car-park was. I wanted to know the same thing, as I’d been rather out of it when we’d arrived and had sleepily stumbled after the Dansies with no thought of the direction. Still, I thought it was in that direction (pointing), and if they wanted to follow, I was usually pretty good at directions. No, I wasn’t positive this was the right way. No, I was only going to sort of feel my way along, watching for familiar things. I went alone. They didn’t want to spend three hours looking for the coach when we only had five minutes to get back.

I walked down the street, crossed at a traffic light that I remembered, turned right and walked a couple of blocks, wondering if I were only imagining the familiarity and if I would end up completely lost. I didn’t have a map as Gina and Sean did, and they hadn’t let me look at theirs. But wait—here it was—I turned left after the construction we’d dodged hours before, and there was Nancy, sitting on the steps of the building next to the car-park. Sven and Sari were coming along from another direction, and over that way were the Dansies and the Riches. The rest came within minutes. Sean and Gina were a half an hour late.

Nancy reminded me that I owed her £3, so I gave her that, leaving me with 50p for the rest of the trip. I told her I’d borrow some back if I got too hungry. Meanwhile, I had peaches, nectarines, bread, and chocolate.

When we got to Stafford, where we were staying for the night, we found the city seemingly deserted, like one of those places that closed up on Saturday evening, even rolling up the sidewalks. We stopped a bobby to ask directions to our hotel, and to make it easy for us, he came with us in the coach, much to Roseanne’s delight—because he was quite good-looking.

When we got to the hotel, we had to wait in the dining room while the management sorted out who was to have which room. The bobby sat down to have a cup of tea and watch a cricket match on the telly. I wanted to know how cricket was played because it figures in the Dorothy Sayers – Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Lord Peter was a cricket champion at Oxford and has to play in a reunion match in one of the mysteries. This was my chance to understand what it was all about. I went over to watch and asked a couple of questions when I couldn’t tell what was going on. The men answered shortly, but clearly, so I could get my bearings.

But then one of my companions (not Sari) came over and for whatever stupid reason, played the Ugly American. At every explanation she would say things like, “How weird!” or “That’s crazy!” and “So what’s the point?” Then she said, “Baseball is so much better.” I was ready to club her and the bobby got so irritated that he refused to say anything more, while the other men absolutely glowered sideways. I wish I had told her outright to take her bad manners and go away, but I was afraid she might make a bigger scene if I did. I just did not know what to do except to take her and walk away from watching the match so that at least we left the men in peace.

Sari and I got a room to ourselves and shut out the world and all the annoying people in it, even refusing to borrow money to go anywhere to dinner. We had only about 15 shillings between us and we didn’t want anybody else’s company. We spread out our fruit, chocolate, and bread and had ourselves a private feast. We turned on the television because the schedule said there were two good movies on.

While we waited for Call of the Wild to start, we watched the American series Chips, about two California Highway Patrol officers and their adventures. It made us feel very strange, as if we were on another planet watching scenes from an old life in an old home. We realized how different life had become for us in these long weeks—enough so that California seemed not only just dimly familiar, but nearly foreign.

Call of the Wild was really good. Neither of us had seen it before. It starred Charlton Heston and was a bit different from the book, but it still got across the theme that God was dead—Buck the dog became the supreme being without the help of the previously supreme Man. For a while Buck nostalgically kept visiting the place where his master died, but then when he began to lead the wolf pack, he never went back. I supposed I should develop the allegorical idea into a long paper, but I thought it very probably had already been done.

The second movie was a Western starring Henry Fonda, There Was a Crooked Man, and the announcer said the star had died that past week. Sari and I were surprised to hear it but not surprised that it had happened. He was pretty sick with cancer after all. The movie also starred Kirk Douglas and was pretty good.

What was really good was to lie there on the beds, relaxed, doing nothing. I had a hard time not starting Murder Must Advertise but congratulated myself on my self-control. I was really too tired. We lay there eating chocolates and orange pieces, watching tv until we dozed, finally able to put aside our longing for Grasmere.

Sunday, August 15

We had no trouble waking up to be down to breakfast in plenty of time to eat our eggs, toast and juice, and to get our stuff out to the coach without holding anybody up. The morning was bright and fair with puffy white clouds on the horizons, and the air held just a hint of cold without being chilly. For just an instant I felt the summer slipping away.

All the way to Benbow Farm Sari and I sang hymns. Benbow Farm is where thousands of Latter-day Saint converts were baptized the first summer after the LDS missionaries came over from America in the late 1830s. There was a pond down in the corner of the front pasture where the baptisms took place, and there we held our own little church meeting. We had a short Sunday School lesson detailing the history of the LDS Church in England, and then one of our professors who was also a bishop in the church conducted a sacrament meeting. We took the emblems of the sacrament to renew our baptismal covenants. Most of us spoke in turn, expressing our personal testimonies. I felt full of love for everybody and everything in general, and for some things specifically.

Sari and I tried to sing a duet, “As I Have Loved You,” but she lost her voice in tears and I lost the harmony in some other key (without Sari singing, I could no longer hear my part in my head)—but we meant well. (I think it was awful, really.) We had been practicing it in the coach all the way there, but sometimes practice is of no use. At least everybody had heard it the way it was meant to be sung, even if not during the official performance.

Sari and I felt that going to the Church of England had benefitted us in ways we could not have foreseen. We gained a deeper appreciation for traditions while at the same time appreciating that the spirit of the Lord often demands more than rote attention to traditional detail. We found that the addition of traditional beauties—music, architecture, a bit of pomp—enriched our attitudes toward the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have heard the argument that such things too often disguise a spiritual emptiness, and that is valid for those who feel that way, but it doesn’t have to be that way for all. Sari and I hoped that our appreciation of ornamentation would never allow us to forget the essential simplicity of the gospel plan. We wanted a time for outward splendor and a time for outward simplicity. The Holy Ghost would always be the guide to knowing when was the right time for each. We suppose we may have to wait for the Millennium to come, or at least until Zion is in the hearts of all the people, for a full realization of the possibilities.

On the way to Tintern Abbey in eastern Wales, we sang more hymns. Wales is green. Of course, we understood that this summer all of Britain was experiencing something of a drought, but everything had been greener than at home. Still, Wales was greener than the places we had been thus far.

In Tintern Sari and I pooled the last of our money, and with a pound each loan from Prof. Dansie who was afraid we were going to starve, we bought yogurt, crackers and cheese, and fruit. We took our lunch to a bridge over the Wye river from which we could see the Abbey ruins, and we sat dangling our legs over the stone edge, eating and thinking about William and Dorothy Wordsworth traveling here 190 years before. The sky was all gray and the wind blew in gusts. Below us, just out of reach, blackberry bushes were loaded with huge, juicy-looking berries. We longed to be birds for just a minute, long enough to get at some of those berries. Or if we had a pair of trained birds, they could fetch some for us and drop them on the ledge of the bridge.

We felt old. We felt we had been away from home a very long time. Instead of going to the Abbey right away, we crossed the bridge to walk along the path on the other side of the river, singing the song “Mira” from Carnival. We were feeling homesick, yes, but we were also realizing that we were forever changed by our experience here. We could never go back to being the provincial girls we once were, yet we longed somehow to recover our familiar identities, even if only for a short time. We would be forever glad not to be the same.

We walked along the path under the trees, the branches meeting over our heads in a vaulted ceiling that rivaled the Abbey across the river. Sometimes the sun came through the clouds and trees, and then we were hot. We wondered if William brought Dorothy down this very path. Dead leaves years and years thick carpeted the path. We struck off into the brush toward the river bank to see what we could see of the Abbey. We were nearly straight across from it. The framing of the tree branches made lovely pictures, which we composed very carefully, both of us being almost out of film and without funds to buy more.

At length we decided we had better get across the river and see the Abbey before having to meet back at the car-park. Taking a couple of sticks to walk with, we sang our way along the path to the bridge, over the river, and into the Abbey car-park.

Unfortunately, there we were stopped. Our group had already gathered at the van to head back to London. The time was up.

“But we haven’t seen the Abbey!” we exclaimed. They told us to hurry over and see it, so we ran. We did not have time to go in. We looked through the iron bars of the fence at the ruins, trying to see them and yet to hurry at the same time. We ran to the shop for postcards and then ran back to the coach.

Some of our group were impatient with us for making them wait. I wondered why they wanted to get going? Nobody really wanted to go back to London, where the dreaded Sandringham Hotel awaited us. It must have been a case of severe restlessness, the kind that strikes when something unpleasant is imminent and you just want to get it over with.

We sang blues songs nearly all the way back. When we were not singing blues, we sang torch songs, or big-band songs, or those wonderful operetta numbers made famous by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Then we sang musicals, from Oklahoma to Lost Horizon. Coming into London we were just finishing the songs from South Pacific and landed with “This Nearly Was Mine” on the pavement in front of the Sandringham Hotel. Horrid place.

Happily (I suppose) we didn’t stay there overnight—we were sent back to Niki House. Roseanne, Sari, Gina, and I took the room Roseanne had had before, and the others took Sari’s and my old room, while the married folks and the young men had their old rooms back. Sari and I spent the last of our carefully hoarded loan on red soda and nectarines.

We sat on our beds writing, writing, and writing our papers while munching fruit. That is, Sari and I did. Gina and Roseanne talked and talked and talked. Mostly Roseanne talked, bemoaning the nonappearance of a letter from her husband, a letter that was supposed to have been at the desk at the Sandringham waiting for her but wasn’t. Roseanne wanted to get hold of Polly to ask her about it, feeling that Polly was a sort of magical person who could produce things that did not actually, strictly speaking, exist (so Sari and I felt).

My poems I thought were awful. I did not feel creative anymore, only tired. I had no real ideas to express, only a vague sense of catching at an elusive mood that I couldn’t quite realize. But such as they were, I finished them and handed them in for the final grade in the class.


Canterbury Pilgrim

I have heard how pilgrims rode on down
In April’s early days to Canterbury town,
Some for blessings, some in thankfulness,
Some to seek excitement, more or less . . .
But that was ages past, and now we go
To tour the church and watch the endless show
Of life in English towns. We do not seek
A martyr’s healing gift—perhaps we’re weak
In faith these days—we don’t believe
St. Thomas can effect our souls’ reprieve.
We told no stories as we rode along,
Nobody lifted up a voice in song.
One student, sick that day, had thought
She’d rather die than tour there to be taught
About the Cathedral as the ancient shrine
Where Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed in their time.
When at Canterbury, she dragged inside
And paused there where they said the martyr died.
If ever pilgrims found the boon they sought,
This pilgrim, in a sudden thought,
Begged the powers that rule to hear a plea
And grant a boon of health, taking for the fee
That she had come there, as some used to do,
Without desiring to begin anew,
But somehow, seeing something, thought again,
And asked as pilgrims did, to leave the pain,
Exchanging it for deeds that ever raise
Such glory to the King as hymns of praise.
Her plea was granted, healthy now I tell
Her tale as ranks of Chaucer-pilgrims swell.


Piel Castle

When Wordsworth saw you
You were wrapped in storm:
Your portrait, painted all in yellow hues,
Must have seemed a beacon in the darkness
Of spinning winds and swollen waves.
When I first saw you, you were fighting winds
Combined with mist, but you were real, not paint
On canvas, though on film I’ll take
You back, a composition I create
On paper in the darkroom. I’ll look then
On hues forever captured in a frame;
Remember when I sat here, freezing cold
But loving every minute by the sea.
The sun came out; you watched me on the shore,
Gathering shells, a fossil from the beach,
Above me fell your crumbling yellow stones.
Someday my daughter, traveling where I’ve come,
May crouch down on the rocks beside this sea,
Collect a fossil as I’ve done, and gaze
Upon the ocean as I do now. Then
How many more of stones will have fallen
Into the sea, to be taken by the tides
Away toward Ireland? Elsewhere shall those stones
Be used to build again Atlantis’ ruins?
I wonder if my children might not see
You as I do. Perhaps they’ll only stare
At your painting, or my photograph. What will they
Think, or write about you? I have been down
To poke along your shore and sail away
In a boat bouncing on the waves, the sun-
Beams warming wind and mist, and lending you
A golden glow, composed this afternoon.
Reality sinks gently on my soul—
There’s nothing to compare with being here,
Not painting, not photo, nor my poor words.
Except I saw you, felt the wind and stones,
And clutched the trilobite hard in my hand,
Experience would lack vitality
And verity of how you felt against
The elements: the wind, the sun, the sea
Its tides and storms. Somehow I’ve gone
Into that painting poets framed in words.


Near Tintern Abbey

The time I will remember when I’ve gone
from Tintern Abbey will not be
my visit to the ruins—
I was not in them at all—
Yet I saw them
through glowing green
across the muddy river.
We peeked past the branches and leaves
at Abbey walls, ignoring cars and power poles
Imagining William and Dorothy there,
walking along, drinking deeply
of woods, murmuring waters,
leaf-strewn soggy ground in
a cathedral hall lined in
moss and vaulted boughs hushing
even quiet voices.
We think we know
how happy we feel:
can we know it now
while we feel it?
Mustn’t we go on, go back
to stand further off
(five long winters)
and look upon this reverently
saying,
“That spot of time was beautiful—
I know I was truly happy then
and thinking so now
makes me happy again.”
Now we sense this, presently,
but then we’ll know it
recollected.

As poetry goes, this stuff felt like fraudulent pieces. But it fulfilled the purpose for which it was written—to get down my reactions to things I did and learned and experienced and saw while in Britain, in a form not quite expository, not quite stream-of-consciousness, not imagistic, but somewhere in the land of all three while exercising some of the styles of the poetry of the period in addition to modern free verse.

I wondered if I practiced enough whether I could handle blank verse well. I really enjoyed writing it. How much did natural talent enter in (I hadn’t got much, I knew). I could only rely on developing skill through practice. I could tell my lack of natural ability by the way I wrote, counting syllables and thinking up images when suddenly I realized I hadn’t put anything concrete in, then writing down all the letters of the alphabet to consider every possible rhyme, and then discarding entire lines when there were no rhymes that could possibly be wrenched into the place to fit. I couldn’t imagine a “real” poet ever doing such things.

Monday, August 16

We hadn’t thought we were going to ever have another Niki House breakfast, but there it was: poached eggs swimming in stewed canned tomatoes, muddy hot chocolate that needed a half a pitcher of cream to make palatable, and cold toast with tiny bits of tasteless margarine stuck on. At least it was surely our last taste of it forever.

Packing took very little time. Sari and I had to leave some things. My jeans were still wet from our climb from Greenhead Ghyll to Alcock Tarn in the rain last Friday, and I had had to wrap them in a plastic bag to get here. And they had mildewed. They smelled worse than awful. Sari left her paint-spattered skirt. She said our jeans could almost have stood up by themselves in the corner, they were so stiff.

At Paddington Station we caught a double-decker red bus to Heathrow Airport. Sari and I sat behind Sean and Roseanne. She conducted one of her interviews with Sean. Poor boy kept blushing right up to the tops of his ears. She wanted to know why he wasn’t married, what he wanted out of life, specifically what he wanted out of romance, love, sex, marriage, etc. Sari and I were crying from the effort of stifling our giggles. We wanted to pretend not to know them (Roseanne, sure that her interviews were interesting to everyone in the vicinity, conducted them at top volume), but since that was impossible, we settled for pretending that it was all cool. We were happy to see the airport where we could escape.

Roseanne ended up having to check her luggage through to New York because it was too big to carry on. Did I ever mention that we had been strictly instructed to bring no more than carry-on luggage? She had acquired quite a lot in the last few weeks. So did Sari and so did I, but we managed to pack all our things tightly enough. I think I acquired the least of anybody.

I must have looked pretty dangerous in my blue suit and white tee shirt, and so must Claudia have in her plaid blouse and yellow walking shorts, because the woman in charge of security frisked us. They did not find the bombs or bazookas and let us go through.

It was terrible to be in an airport for an hour waiting for your plane to be called and watching everybody else go over to the machines and walk away with Cadbury chocolate, and all you had left was one 10-pence coin and two tuppence coins. And the chocolate cost 20p. Nora took pity on my sad-puppy look and shared some chocolate with me.

I got a window seat! All the way across the Atlantic I kept a lookout. I watched the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, trying to memorize them and thinking how like a jewel the land looked against the blue water, so green and the few puffy clouds almost opalescent. When we were over the Atlantic I could see the shadow of our plane on the clouds below, circled by a little ring of rainbow.

When there was little else to watch, I wrote my class evaluation paper (assigned to be written on the plane) and then read Murder Must Advertise. It was great fun to be sleuthing with Lord Peter again. He solved it before we were across the Atlantic.

We flew over Iceland and then angled down over the southern coast of Greenland, headed in over the Labrador Sea and so down the coast of Canada and New England.

I decided I must visit New England. It was lovely, what I could see as we flew across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and down to New York. Then the overcast and haze obscured things and we landed in a very muggy New York airport, feeling a hundred years older than when we left.

Sean drove us crazy pacing back and forth, certain that Roseanne was not going to get her bag and get through Customs in time to make our St. Louis flight. But she did.

St. Louis was still muggier than New York. We grew tireder and tireder, riding in planes and moving ourselves and luggage like programmed robots. When we were finally in our university van riding home from the airport, Claudia started singing a torch song in the fine old Sarah Vaughan style. It was beautiful blues.

Sari and I looked at each other. We had learned at least a hundred years’ worth in a little over a month. People, touring, creativity, art, literature, criticism, education, interpretation, perception, tact, drama, independence and interdependence, jet lag, and living. We had learned all that and were only in our twenties. We were young and we had it all ahead of us because all that was in our past now, safely installed, a foundation on which to build.

When we were sitting in our little apartment reading The Prelude and I found the right quote, we agreed: “to be young was very heaven.”


The End


Mira (lyrics by Bob Merrill)

I came on two buses and a train
Can you imagine that
Can you imagine that
Two buses and a train.

Would you believe
Would you believe
That this is the first I’ve traveled
I come from a town
The kind of town
Where you live in a house
Til the house falls down
But if it stands up
You stay there
It’s funny but that’s their way there.

I come from the town of Mira
Beyond the bridges of St. Claire
I guess you’ve never heard of Mira
It’s very small but still it’s there
They have the very greenest trees
And skies as bright as flame
But what I liked the best in Mira
Is everybody knew my name.
Can you imagine that
Can you imagine that
Everybody knew my name

A room that’s strange is never cozy
A place that’s strange is never sweet
I want to have a chair that knows me
And walk a street that knows my feet
I’m very far from Mira now
And there’s no turning back
I have to find a place
I’ve got to find a place
Where everything can be the same
A street that I can know
And places I can go
Where everybody knows my name
Can you imagine that
Can you imagine that
Everybody knew my name.

2 comments:

  1. I am constantly baffled at the ignorance of people, not just from America, when they are in a foreign country. That woman making rude comments on Cricket reminds me of how the French were regarded in Peru. No one's culture is "superior" to another's, they are only different. Insisting that "back home is best" may be a symptom of insecurity or homesickness, but expressing it out loud is the peak of stupidity. When I was helping with the Railroad Museum's winery tours in northern Baja California, there were a few people on the tour who would make nasty comments about Mexico and I really wondered why they came. Why would you go somewhere if you thought that it was going to be a wretched, dirty place with stupid, backward people who know nothing worthwhile? The Tourist, Twoflower, in "The Colour of Magic" by Sir Terry Pratchett, had the right attitude, even if it was likely to take him to a sticky end without the intervention of Rincewind. By the way, have you read "The Ugly American"? It is not about a jingoistic American tourist, but rather a Cold War spy novel set in Asia during the 1950's. The ending was disheartening because of the failure of the American bureaucrats to realize that they had been outmanuvered by the Communists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At the time I was using the phrase "ugly American," I was not restricting it to the way it was used in the the novel of that name, but instead I used it as a blanket term for all American mistakes abroad, specifically the inability to appreciate a different cultural experience. It's an ugly characteristic not only in Americans of course, but in all people who refuse to step outside their own narrow experience.

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