My Friend Tim

[Left to right: Jo, Anna, Tim at the White Lion Inn on our last night in Dorset]

It was August of 1984.  I was about to begin a year in Dorset, England, when I first met Tim Ovenden.  He was destined to be my house-mate in Wimborne Minster (actually a burb of Wimborne, Colehill).  He was a hard working right-out-of-University rookie teacher.  We both taught in the same school and we both taught Geography in the Humanities Department.  We did not socialize much because I’d rather do my paper work in the school and not take it home.  Tim took everything home.  He was energetic, enthusiastic and a very fine teacher.

But we shared few pints in the local pubs.

A few weeks ago, my wife, Mariam and I left Tim’s house in Gillingham, Dorset.  They had an apartment above their garage…and it was ours to use…gratis…a supreme gesture.

A few personal items:

Tim adores his wife Jo.  They have a blended family two sons (George and Thomas) and their daughter Anna who is a talented ballerina.  Tim swipes the towel over his shoulder when he cooks, which is often.  He bakes veggies and cheese.  He listens to Motown on the radio while he holds court in the kitchen.

[Part of the Stour Way Footpath]

Tim is in his 50’s and is more fit than I was in my 30’s.  He golfs, does pilates and walks.  Something I wish I could do again without foot pain.

I’m awed  by Tim’s vigor for life.  His sense of political rightness.  (He was anti-Brexit).  His kindness, his intelligence, love of family and his friendship.

Thank you Tim and Jo and Anna for your hospitality, friendship and remembering me after so many years.  Not to mention wine o’clock.

We’ll be back.

[Photos are mine]

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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]

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 Glastonbury Tor Blog: The Excursionist XII

[The Tor at the start of our climb. St. Michael’s Tower crowns the hill]

Glastonbury is an ancient town nestled on a broad plain near the Mendip Hills in the county of Somerset.  It comes with a reputation, like that guy that sat in the last seat of your school bus.  You can shop for anything in Glastonbury, but you probably won’t find it.  What you can find is esoteric bookstores, more than one crystal shop and places where you can purchase a Druid-style cape (purple).

I love the town.

On my first visit, back in 1984, when I was an exchange teacher in Dorset, I found myself wandering the High Street.  After climbing the stairs to the second floor of an antique shop, I saw something I really wanted.  It was the part of the jaw bone of St. Basil.  There was even a Bishop’s seal on the glass box indicating its authenticity.  Best of all, it was reasonably priced at £50.  I didn’t buy it and I regret that to this day.

Now, I’m here with Mariam on our second visit.  We dined at the George & Pilgrim Hotel which dates back to about 1452.  It has three ghosts (according to some).  I never saw anything except a fantastic Steak and Ale Pie.

[The well-worn floor of the George & Pilgrim Hotel]

But our real goal that day was to climb the famous Tor.

The Tor has a ton of lore and myth that connects it with the figure of King Arthur.  Did the man ever exist?  Some say yes and some claim he was a combination of several of war-lords in the Saxon days.

[Nearing St. Michael’s Tower]

Whatever.  I love mythology and I love the Arthurian legends.  And, it was the Tor that made it all so real and believable.  According to legend, Glastonbury was the mythical Avalon.  This is where Arthur was taken after he was wounded in his final battle against his own son.  He is said to be buried, alongside his wife (?) Guinevere.  He is awaiting the call to bring his army, once again, to save Britain.

[Mariam contemplates the landscape]

[Parliament is voting as I write this on the Brexit…is Arthur stirring in his grave?).

I stood in the doorway of St. Michael’s Tower and looked out over the countryside.  I thought of the history that is so ancient, it’s sobering.  For more than 1,000 years people who climbed the Tor, worked the fields, herded the sheep, drank the ale, sipped wine, smoked old pipes with old tobacco, kissed in the churchyard, held firm to a quartz crystal, loved someone, lost someone and eventually died were all within my field of vision.

If you are a cynic, that’s okay.  But, if you read history, study myths and let your mind travel, you won’t be the same after a visit to Glastonbury.

[Me. Thinking about ancient times and myths]

[All photos are mine]

 

 

 

 

Words From A Footpath: The Excursionist X

[Older footpath signs]

It must be my age.  It could be my imagination.  It certainly is something I don’t fully understand.  But, the truth is I think that the English Public Footpaths sometimes call my name.

There is a legend among the Northwest Indigenous People that when you hear an owl call your name…you will soon pass on into the next world (read death).  I think that when I pass a Public Footpath sign, a similar thing happens, except that instead of passing on…I will be walking.

That is one of the charms about Britain.  Public footpaths are literally everywhere.  You can walk across yards, fields, etc…the public have rights here that don’t exist in the USA.

I’ve blogged about such things in the past, but, hey, get a good subject and you can blog it from here to Friday.

[Newer sign posts]

Sometimes I have a guide-book to help me locate interesting routes.  And, at other times, I just wing it and strike off, hoping to find the next marker, hoping to not get off on a wrong path.  But, are any paths really wrong?  Following my instinct I find such places like this:

[On a Dorset walk a few years ago]

Or this:

[A walk in Yorkshire last year]

There are a few rules a walker must obey.  It’s all common sense:

–Keep your dog on a lead

–Close the gates behind you

–Don’t litter

And, to help you through one field to the next, there are a variety of stiles.

[A wooden step stile]

[An old over-the-wall step stile]

[A kissing gate. You can figure it out]

So, what’s the big deal?  Well, for me, this little portion of England is a walker’s paradise.  And sometimes that all I need.

Many times, it’s what I really need.

[All photos are mine. Some have been used in other posts or on Instagram. But, hey, if you follow me you already know that]

The Fly Over: The Excursionist V

[Photo of a page of the Guardian newspaper]

I like fly overs.  The jets roar over a stadium during halftime…or more interestingly, the  Italian Air Force planes that swept over the church in Italy the moment when Pavarotti’s coffin was brought out of the church.  But deep down in my conscience, I see fly overs as a glorification of the military and by extension, a glorification of war.

So while they’re sometimes thrilling…they often send a message that I do not agree with.

Then I ran across a short article in a British newspaper yesterday.  After reading it, I felt quite moved…very moved.

The old fellow you see in the photo is eighty-two.  His name is Tony Foulds.  In 1944, he was eight years old.  He and his mates were playing in a park.  A B-17 Flying Fortress was having problems.  They needed a place to crash-land.  The pilot, an American along with nine other Yanks aboard, intended to land in the field.  The pilot spotted the children running around the field.  He purposely avoided the playing area and ended up crashing into the trees nearby. All ten Americans on the plane were killed.

Tony watched in horror.  And this horror is still with him today.  Years after the tragedy, the county council erected a memorial stone.

Every year since then, Tony has tended the memorial…planting flowers…and remembering.

A few days ago, a combined UK and US teams of pilots did a fly over.

Tony will be there.  Tony will probably cry.  Tony somehow feels responsible for the ten deaths.

He was just playing a game with his mates.

Fate is…it just is.  Isn’t it?

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]