The Statue

This post is not about anything that happened on our most recent trip.  This goes back to a time, over a year ago when we were having dinner at an outdoor restaurant In Brussels.  At the end of the final course, I excused myself to go to the loo.  On the way to the back of the building I discovered another dining area, a garden and a fountain.  And a few statues.  One of them caught my eye.  I took several photos of her from various angles.

I was seduced by one in particular.  It’s the one shown above.  There was something about her smile, the placement of her arm and her figure.  But it was the gaze on her face and her obvious grace that captured me.  She was looking to her right.  I’ve seen that smile before.  She’s a bit coquettish and sexy and seductive, but that wasn’t the focus of my attention.

I’ve seen that look before.  I saw it in my wife’s face shortly after we met.  I’ve seen it in my past, from the delicate faces of the girls and women I thought I loved…and perhaps I did at the time.  But it’s a universal profile.  A glance that says “Maybe it’s you I love” or “Come up and see me sometime”.

My self-image leaves much to be desired.  I wish others could perceive me as I wish, not as I am.  I also know that this is a symptom of one who feels the loss of youth and is facing old age.  It’s odd, but change occurs slowly…every day and you don’t notice it until you see an old photo of yourself.  I knew when I lost my youth…it wasn’t that many years ago.  It took a clean mirror. A mirror that was honest with me.  Coming to grips with that has been hard for me.  What happened to the last thirty years?  I’ve no idea.

I gaze into the mirror and see white hair and bags under my eyes.  It seems like every joint in my body from my waist down could use a shot of Valium.

However, I feel in my heart, that at a distant time in the past, the young woman above would have gone for a walk with me.  But I have to live with the fact that she will never age, unlike me, save for weathering and lichen and moss that will someday grow on her ankles, shoulders and all that hair.

[The photo is mine]

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Journey’s End

Pick a window…any window.  There’s nothing to see, only white.  We entered a fog bank.  Fog as thick as whole milk.  We’re sailing due west, nearing Long Island.

Visibility from our deck window is about ten feet.

The end of our three-month journey is about to end.  Nothing left, except to get through customs and get a taxi and get to our hotel.

Written on board the Queen Mary 2 at 7 pm on April 20.

 

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.

–Jacques Yves Cousteau

Travelling shouldn’t be just a tour, it should be a tale.

–Amit Kalantri

True wealth is…Places you go…People you meet…stories you tell.  Thank you for traveling to see us.  For being such wonderful people we meet…and for sharing and being in our stories.  Our paths will cross again soon.

–Tim Ovendon

 

[All photos are mine.]

 

In The Land of Pooh, The Badger, King Arthur and Beyond: The Excursionist XIII Finale

magic (n) A mysterious quality of enchantment.

 

England is a land of mystery, magic and myth.  It is a land of legends of kings and villains of all sorts.

Consider this quote:

As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty!

This line is from The Wind in the Willows by A.A. Milne.  It’s from the chapter titled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.  To me, that chapter is one of the most beautifully written prose I’ve ever read.

[A country church in South Dorset]

Over the years I’ve walked dozens of footpaths.  At first in Thomas Hardy country in south Dorset, a place he called Wessex.  I’ve sneezed and sweated through fields of ragweed, cleaned my boots of the mud and manure, and sat in a remote hay shed to keep dry in the driving rain.  I feel as though I’ve been through the 100 Acre Wood of Pooh.  I believe I’ve seen Badger and Mole alongside a river.  I stood over the cliffs of Tintagel, Cornwall and gazed down at the cave where Merlin was born.  Watching the moonlight from the Glastonbury Tor, I sipped a bit of wine and listened for Arthur’s faint heartbeat.  I walked naked into the English Channel and nearly froze.

[St. Michael’s Tower atop the Glastonbury Tor]

I loved every moment when I was able to do these things.  Now, my back and feet are making walking painful, but the most pain is that I am unable to do what I most love about this country…walking.

And that makes me sad.  To be prevented from doing what you most love is an exquisite torture.

It’s time to begin sorting our belongings and start packing.

While we were here, since mid-February, I sat in pubs and listened to folk songs. One local pub, The Buffalo welcomed us with such warmth.  Thank you Kate, Amy, Massimo and Jenny. Whenever I would bring home a copy of The Guardian, there were bold headlines about the chaos and confusion over Brexit.  It fills the evening news on ITV.  So there was the experience of the old and traditional pub society and the quiet of the countryside contrasted with marches in London to demand another vote and to remain in the EU.

[A pub in St. Ives]

It’s a time of turmoil here…and we are leaving in the middle of it all.

We are truly are thankful for the hospitality of our hosts, Tim and Jo Ovenden.  We have shared their lives for three months and have grown even more fond of them than we were before.  Their son, Thomas is a quiet and thoughtful young man, always ready for a conversation.  Daughter Anna and her often-present friend Felicity are talented dancers (ballet).  They are bouncing on a trampoline in the backyard as I type this.  Their giggles brighten our days.

[Jo, Thomas and Tim with Anna in their arms]

[Anna, left, and Felicity]

Regrets?  Always.  I’ll never get over my deflated mood every time we drove past a Public Footpath.  So many missed opportunities.  I’ve walked many paths over the many visits to England but the sheer number of those untrodden by me would fill a lifetime of roaming pleasures.

[My own personalized OS Map]

Who has that long a lifetime?  I certainly wish I did.

But one cannot sail forever on an endless sea because no sea is really endless.  There must be a port somewhere.  Our time in this country can now be counted in days (I’m writing this on Wednesday and we leave for Southampton on Saturday).  Soon it will be a matter of mere hours.

In the end, I guess it’s time to go home.

When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

–Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows

[All photos are mine]

 

 

 

 

The Circus: The Excursionist XI

Really great adventures always start with a sign taped to a window of a shop or to a wooden pole along the curb.  At least that’s how I found out about the circus.  We’re not talking about Barnum & Bailey here or even the Big Apple Circus that visits Lincoln Center every winter.  No, this is a small one-ring affair, very European, very English and very entertaining.

Once upon a time I saw a small circus just outside of Bruges, Belgium.  It should go without saying that I fell in love with the trapeze artist…a dark and beautiful being that floated, back and forth, over my head.  If you’re interested in the consequences that can come of having your heart stolen by a woman flying in the air fifty feet above you, then find a copy of the classic movie Wings of Desire.  You’ll get the point.

But I digress.

The Jay Miller Circus doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is.  A small traveling circus that winds its way through rural England.

After entering the Big Top from the bright day, I found myself greeted by forms that were indistinct to me…my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness.  But I did notice a bright red jacket.  After we were shown to our chairs…set up in the grass. (Someone had scattered a bucket or two of sawdust on the green field to remind you that you were at a circus)

I went back to the red jacket.  “May I take your picture outside?  I’m going to write a blog about all this and you’re very colorful (and pretty, I thought).

Here is Charlotte:

[Thank you, Charlotte]

A 5:00 PM, the lights went down.  And, as the cotton candy continued to be devoured by the many children, the Ring Master appeared.

[The Irish Ring Master. Total disclosure: this was taken half-way through the show, after the fog machine had been on for twenty minutes.]

What followed was a truly unique display of roller-skaters, jugglers, a state-of-the-art laser show, fire-eating women, ball rolling, magic and a woman who was spun in air above my head from a clamp attached to her hair!

Here are some of the visuals I took:

[Sand art projected onto a screen. It read Life Is A Circus]

[The finale]

So, it was over.  I quite enjoyed the talent (the hula-hoop woman was sensational) and the effort, but my mind always drifted from the action, to the life beyond the show.  During the intermission, I went outside to get some fresh air.  I looked over at all the RV’s that housed the cast and crew.  What were their lives like after the Big Top came down?  Were any of them married?  Lovers?  Were they happy on the road?  Did they sleep well at night after they failed in an attempt at something?

The woman, early in the show, sat atop a very tall unicycle.  She put a little hat on.  She put a saucer on her toes and flipped it to her hat. She repeated this with a cup, then again, and again until there were four cups & saucers on her head.  She failed three times to get a small cube of ‘sugar’ into the last cup.  Finally the assistant handed her the sugar and she simply placed it in the top cup…without flipping it off her toe.  I wonder if she relives her mistakes at night.  Did she fret over her inability to finish her act successfully?  I wonder about these things.

I hope she will sleep well tonight.

Inside Gaudi’s Dream: The Excursionist VIII

 

You find yourself in sunny Barcelona…on the south coast of Spain.

You have massive amounts of wax so you do what you’re expected to do with massive amounts of wax.  You sculpt the facade of a cathedral.  You include all the alcoves for the saints and the angels and the biblical scenes of the Old Testament.  You include images of the New Testament because you are a God-loving person and a visionary mystic.

Then you stand and view your waxen model of the cathedral.  Standing back, you turn a hot hair dryer on the wax.  It begins to drip.  When the drops solidify you’re happy.

I agree, it’s a bit of a long lead-in to the impression I had when I stood outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  But it’s hard to find words to describe the architectural style that made Antoni Gaudi such a visionary…breaking the rules of traditional church architectural style.  Things seemed to drip, and drip into the right place.

When I entered the Basilica, the interior was something I may have dreamt about in another lifetime.  I’ve been in dozens of English Cathedrals and Anglican churches.  I’ve been in Russian Orthodox churches and the great mosques of Istanbul.  Many hours have been spent in Notre Dame in Paris.  I don’t mention these things to boast–only to put things into some kind of perspective.  Nothing prepared me for the sights inside the Sagrada Familia.  My eye had too many places to look.  The neck had too many angles to cover.  The colors, the fluid shapes…the uneven nave, the Christ, hanging above the Altar.

I had to sit down.  I had to try to take this in— a tiny bit at a time.

It was not going to work.  I needed more than a few hours.  I needed days, weeks, months…maybe longer…to fully grasp even a bit of what Gaudi was striving for.

I left.  I looked back and imagined the melting wax.  I was deeply moved, not so much by the religious aspects, but by the mind that had such a vision…such a vision that I failed to grasp its true meaning.

Maybe only Gaudi knew.  Legend has it that he was walking backward, looking at the early stages of his creation, the Basilica , when he was hit by a tram and died in a nearby hospital…at the age of seventy-four.

Perhaps he had a new thought about how to solve a problem in the construction.  Perhaps he was lost in a vision.

Perhaps he wanted to talk to his God and get some final instructions.

[All photos are mine}

The Enigma of Knowlton Church: The Excursionist VII

[Knowlton Church…front facade]

In the middle of Cranborne Chase, a hilly and breezy open region in north Dorset,  is the shell of a Norman church.  Nothing special really.  These churches are found in many villages and hamlets of Dorset.  What is unusual is that it is built-in the middle of a Neolithic ritual henge (a ring of ridges dating from ancient days).

The church sits alone…surrounded by earthen works built by Pagans.  The building is a shell, built with stone and flint.  It looks lonely.  There is an aura of melancholy that pervades the site.  If one sat on the henge, took the time to contemplate the view…I believe a sadness would fall upon you.

According to my google search, the Knowlton Church is one of the ten most haunted places in Dorset.  The visions that have been reported include a rider on a horse that charges through the grounds and vanishes as it enters the church.  A weeping woman, sometimes described as a nun, has been seen.  A face has been observed looking out of the upper window of the tower.  A hooded man, tall and quiet has crossed the path of a visitor in recent years.

The enigma?  Why is there a Christian church built within the walls of a pagan ritual henge?  Why is the church only an empty shell now?  And, most interesting, is why is the village of Knowlton no longer in existence?  History tells us that the town was hit hard by the Black Death…those who survived drifted to other regions.  Remains of the homes are visible on the grounds to the west of the ruins.

When Mariam and I stood on the ring earthen works, the wind blew with a force that nearly blew her glasses off.  I was wearing my L.L.Bean coat and a chill cut through me like a razor.  I wanted to stay and absorb the atmosphere , the solitude, the isolation and the loneliness, but Mariam and I could hardly stand upright in the wind.

Was the wind telling us something?

Were we on sacred ground?  Haunted ground?  Unforgiving ground?  The melancholy began to take hold of me.

But, as we drove away, I sensed something.  I need to return to this place, this lonely place and spend some time…thinking, dreaming and imagining.

[Another view of the church]

[Photos are mine]

[Historical information: Google search]

The Holiday Card

[What follows is pure fiction. It is a short story that I hope you will enjoy. It’s not funny, but it’s what I wanted to write. Please don’t read anything into this post.]

It was during a brief April thaw, when a chance breeze blew the snow and a few minutes of sunlight melted the white crystals.  That was the moment I saw it.  I picked it up and slapped it against my thigh.  I could read my name on the envelope. I could read the return address in the upper left corner.

It was too late.  Things would never be the same now…never.

It’s a fairly well-known fact that men do not bond easily with each other.  We have trouble sharing.  True friends are hard to find and keep when you pass your fifties.  Friendships that last into ones seventies are indeed rare.  The thread that holds these long relationships are usually rooted in childhood.  If you’re lucky, one or two childhood buddies will grow old with you.  Such was the case of the one-time friend whose holiday card I held in my right hand.

We met in elementary school.  Played in each others back yards.  Entered into adolescence together.  In high school we traded secrets about girls…those mysterious beings that we thought constantly about.  We talked about first kisses and puzzled over the best way to find and unlock those strange bra hooks.

We had our first legal beers together.  We played high school sports together.  We went on camping trips together.

We were the best of friends.  As the years passed, other playmates drifted into different social circles.  But we stayed close.  We celebrated our jobs, listened to the same music and showered affection on each others children.

My friend and I went through divorces, sat in empty bars, looked at younger women and talked to each other and into our pints of beer.

When our retirements approached, things began to change.  He called less.  I emailed less.  Our visits to each others homes became more and more infrequent.

We were growing apart, something that seemed to me to be the opposite of what life would be like after retirement.  The phone calls went unanswered and the postcards stopped arriving.

In the late fall, I became quite annoyed by being ignored.  I unfriended him on Facebook.  I deleted his email address.  I stopped making meaningless phone calls.

I decided to put the issue to a test.  I sent him a holiday card.  If he sent one back, then I knew something of our friendship would survive.  If I got nothing, I knew that for some reason, he did not want to be a part of my life.

So, I waited.

A few holiday cards arrived but never did much to fill our mailbox.  Facebook and email greetings were slowly out pacing the USPS.

On Christmas Eve, I picked up the mail.  I placed the few cards on our bed.  There was nothing from him.  I knew then that our life-long friendship had come to a slow and sad end.  It would be a lie to say that I did not weep a little over a friendship that had lasted for over sixty years.  Men do have emotions.

* * *

It was in early March that I found myself browsing the internet.  I came to a Facebook page devoted to people in our class who had passed away.

I felt the blood drain from my face and I went numb when I read that my friend had died of a massive coronary a week earlier.

Then came the April thaw.  I had pulled the envelope from the snow and placed it on the top of our mica lamp to dry out.  When I felt it time, I sliced it open.  It was a holiday card from my friend…apologizing for not returning my calls.  I knew then that the card arrived before Christmas, but as I struggled to get out of my car, trying to avoid the unplowed snow, the card had slipped from the rest of the mail.  That afternoon, the snow-covered card was concealed…until April.

“Let’s meet up in the summer and take a hike,” he had written.

So, now I feel I know the real essence of loneliness.  I have no true male friends up here in the North Country.  My wife has always been and still is my best friend…but I don’t have a buddy.  A guy to shoot a game of pool with at the local Irish Pub, a friend to bounce writing ideas off,  a pal to sit on our deck (or his) and sip a cold beer.  We wouldn’t even have to say anything.  After all, its common knowledge that men don’t bond easily.  We have trouble sharing our personal thoughts orally, but we know each other’s minds.  Or so I thought.

But what men can do is sit, side by side, just sharing a beer and assuming we know what the other is thinking.

There is a large blank space in my life now.  My wife has to be two people.  The woman I married over twenty-five years ago and a mate that I have been close to for six decades.  It’s going to be a big job for her, but she’s more than up to the task.  The presence of my wife makes these things more tolerable but not less painful.

Me?  I can stare at our campfire and remember details of the adventures with my friend.  I can watch the ripples on the lake and remember my friend.  I can look to the far range of the High Peaks and remember the trails, snow-covered, rain-soaked and sweltering in the August heat…that I hiked with my friend.

Or, on a cold night like this, when the temperature outside is in single digits, our fire-place is crackling and warming our house and my wife is reading quietly beside me on her Kindle, I can sit mutely staring at the flames, throw on another log, watch the flames leap even higher.  I am thinking of the holiday card.  As the flames rise to the top of the wood stove, the loneliness for this old guy gets deeper.

[Photo is mine]