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]

 

 

 

 

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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.

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 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]

For Me? It Was a Hard Days Night

Lennon

[Source: Google search.]

There were no classes scheduled for that Monday. It was parent/teacher conference day at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. I was assigned to meet the parents of my students in an office close to the front entrance. I sat at the head of a large conference table made of a dark wood. Mahogany? Perhaps.

The parents were on a set schedule. I had a list of those in line waiting to discuss their sons/daughters academic performance. I didn’t have a lot to say to many of the fathers, mothers and couples that sat down, each at their appropriate time, since 99.9% of my students (grade range was from 9th to 12th) were serious about their work, were not discipline problems and were polite to me as their teacher. The most critical remark I made most of the afternoon was: “Your child needs to raise their hand more often”.

Sometime in mid-afternoon something in the air changed.

[Meanwhile, in New York City, a young man was hanging out near the entrance of the Dakota Building on Central Park West and 72nd Street.]

The door opened and a man and woman walked in and took a seat. The man’s head was covered by a fair-sized bandage. The couple held hands. The husband spoke first.

“I hate to waste your time, Mr. Egan, but I’m not really concerned very much right now about my daughter’s behavior in your class.”

I stared at him and waited.

“Four days ago I was caught in a fire at the Stouffer’s Inn where a conference for the Stouffer Company was being held. I’m sure you read about it. Twenty-six of my fellow employees were killed. I ran out of the building and into the arms of firemen. The guy behind me didn’t make it.”

I noticed the couple’s hands tightened their grip.

“I am more thankful for being alive and ready to celebrate the holidays as a family than I am about my wonderful daughter. No offense, Mr. Egan, but I have more important issues to deal with right now.”

I was speechless. “Your daughter is a great student. I’m so very sorry about…”, I couldn’t finish my sentence. The couple rose from their seats. We shook hands and they were gone. I sat in silence hoping the next set of parents would be late.

After the conferences were over, a small group of teachers gathered at the front door. Someone suggested we go to a restaurant/bar to have a drink. I followed.

We sat with our beers watching some kind of comedy show. I wasn’t laughing. Suddenly, the TV was switched off and the lights came on. The manager came out and said that the bar just received a bomb threat and that we would all have to leave.

[The guy was still standing near the main entrance of the Dakota on 72nd Street.]

Most of the teachers drove away leaving three of the science teachers in the parking lot. Two of the teachers shared a small house beside a lake just north of Ridgefield. One of them suggested that we drive to their house and have one more beer.

I remember sitting on the sofa. One of teachers was stretched out on a Lazy-Boy chair. My other friend, Jeff, was in the kitchen rummaging the fridge for two beers. The TV was on.

Whatever show was being aired, it was interrupted by a “news bulletin”. The man was standing in a Manhattan street with his hand-held microphone. What he said next made me stand up.

“Jeff,” I said, “come here quick!”

Jeff came in the room. The other teacher sat up in the Lazy-Boy.

The reporter said: “It’s official. It’s now been confirmed that John Lennon is dead. According to NYPD, he was shot by a young man who had been waiting for John and his wife Yoko Ono to arrive in their limo. All this happened just a short time ago here.” He pointed to the archway of the Dakota entrance. The camera followed his arm.

My friend Jeff visibly paled. I felt nauseous. We watched for a few minutes and I left.

Never have I felt the sorrow that hung in my heart as I slowly drove home that wretched night.

newspaper

[Source: Google search.]

 

Autumn And Gravestones

[Sitting and thinking at Forest Cemetery, St. Regis Falls, NY.]

Now that there is six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the trees are bare and the world outside our picture window is monochromatic, I can admit that I miss the late summer, the coolness of autumn days and the color of the trees.

I’ll also miss my favorite cemeteries. The best time of year to roam the country graveyards has come and gone. I’ll have to wait until mid-summer, after the mud and the bugs, until I can go “graving” again.

Does it all sound morbid to you? Too melancholy? It shouldn’t. I enjoy old cemeteries where I can learn local history and make up life stories of those who are interred beneath my feet.

And I have a perfectly good reason to wander the burying grounds. I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com. I get requests from people who live in places like Iowa and Nebraska asking for a photo of their grandfather’s headstone, or a memorial to an aunt’s grave they will never visit…never have a chance to leave a flower or a penny on the gravestone. They reply in emails how glad they are to have such a photo. It helps them build their family trees on Ancestry.com or some other genealogy site. Or (as they have written), share the photo with a grandchild, son, niece or spouse.

I love doing this for these people. I ask for nothing in return, except for a simple “thank you”.

Every human has a story that tells of their lives, even those who have been buried 150 years ago. I’ve stood over the graves and photographed headstones of suicides, murder victims, children who lived two days and men and women who lived to their 90+ years. I’ve wept over the graves of people whose families could only manage a hand-made headstone made of poured concrete and wrote the name and death dates with their fingers.

So many stories. So many headstones. So many epitaphs. So much grief.

But, time heals those wounds…they say.