Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

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Lancelot, The Spotless Starling And The Blogger

 

[Spotless Starling. Source: Google search.]

I’m perched on a chimney near the Ashfield House B&B with my friend, Tristram. We’re Spotless Starlings. You can find us on page 303 of Collins Pocket Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. You might not find us in Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of  America, but we’re in the British edition.

My name is Lancelot. Some other Starlings think my friend and I are named for two of the Knights of the Roundtable, but that’s nonsense. The whole King Arthur thing is vague and not really provable, historically speaking. But, this Blogger that I’ve been watching…he believes. He’s been to the Glastonbury Tor and desperately wants to believe that Arthur is asleep, deep inside the Tor, awaiting the time when England will need him once again.

But, I digress.

Lance, I saw you keeping an eye on the American Blogger while he sat on his little balcony, sipping wine and eating cheese with his wife. What’s the deal?

Well, Tristram, as far as I can make out, he is a bit sore of foot and hurt in the lower back. And don’t even mention the pollen. It’s awful this year here in the Yorkshire Dales. He and his wife both sneeze enough to chase away the Morning Doves.

[Map is by Contour Designs Gloucester. Copyright Ordinance Survey, 2016]

So, Lance, has he gotten out into this awesome countryside yet?

Oh, yes indeed. Come let’s take to the wing and I’ll show you where I’ve spotted them. The first hike was short and hesitant. They walked between the stone walls to the River Wharfe and crossed the footbridge at Linton Falls. He wanted to visit the small country church at the end of the road.

How sentimental.

Yes, Tristram, he is a very melancholy person. Old mossy graveyards attract him. My theory is that he spends too much time thinking of his own mortality…but, hey, I only have a bird brain.

The next day they hiked down to the river and along a path that went beside some of those stone walls that everybody talks about. As I said, he was sore of back and his right foot was causing him grief. He didn’t feel he was going to make the entire 4.5 miles as described in the Short Walks in the Yorkshire Dales so he left his OS map and guide back in his room.

So, Lance, did he make it?

Funny thing happened. The two of them came upon a couple from Australia. They had a map but were unsure if they were going in the right direction. The Blogger once taught Geography so he knew maps. Then they met an older couple coming from the opposite direction.

Oh, don’t go up that way, the woman said. Me husband slipped and slid downhill on his bum. It’s like bloody mountaineeeering.

Soon the four of them, after walking up the steep bit, found themselves in an open and pleasant woods. The Blogger knew then, I could feel it from soaring over their heads, that he wasn’t going to retrace his steps. So, on they went.

Soon they came out of the woods. I could see them again. The wife seemed to find the wettest place to cross two pastures. And, by wet, I mean with recent cow pies.

Before I could find my favorite chimney, they were back in the center of Grassington and sitting at a pub. The couple from Australia joined them. They felt satisfied with completing 3.5 miles. I have good eyesight…the old guy took something called Alleve. It seemed to help.

But, somehow, Tristram, I could read his mind as he tried to photograph me. (I didn’t let it happen.) The old guy with the gray hair, gray beard and sore back wanted to hike again. He wanted to see Coniston Cold, East Marton, Sharp Haw, Winterburn, Ewe Moor, Captain Moor and Old Cote Mill Top.

But he never got there. They left two days later.

So, Lance, where are they now?

How could I know, Tristram? My range isn’t that far. Look it up in the pocket guide. But, I did hear them say one thing said as they were loading their car: the old guy said I wonder how Lichfield will be. Mariam, he said, do you think they will have Starlings waking us up in the morning?

No, it’s a Cathedral City, silly. They only have doves…doves of peace in places like that.

And they did.

 

 

 

Yesterday Afternoon And An Afternoon Thirty-Three Years Ago

[The tomb of Joseph and Caroline Damer]

Thirty-three years ago I parked a VW Polo in a small space a short distance from the village of Milton Abbas. I was an exchange teacher at a school in Dorset, England. A teacher friend told me that I must visit an Abbey near Milton Abbas. I was open for any suggestions so off I went on a Saturday afternoon.

I can recall the day in great detail. It was crisp and clear and the air was chilly enough to slice like a razor through my new heavy wool sweater. I walked along a gravel path. There was (and still is) a private school on the grounds of the Abbey. I was told it was where “To Serve Them All My Days” was filmed. The movie was a sort of “Mr. Chips” kind of story about a teacher who spent his entire professional life…teaching.

But, I digress.

I wasn’t there to see the school. The Abbey was my goal. I can’t say it was an easy place to find. It’s basically located in the middle of an isolated part of Dorset. The roads were narrow and the hedgerows were brushing against my left rear-view mirror. If I met an oncoming vehicle, one of us had to pull over and let the other pass by.

[The fields near the Abbey]

After walking the path, I stood at the front entrance of the Abbey. The exterior was covered with moss and lichen. It was a cathedral on a small-scale. The flying buttresses were almost reachable.

I opened the door expecting to enter a typical English church. Instead, I held my breath and stood, trying to take in one of the most awesome sites I had seen so far in England.

To my left was a marble tomb. The ceiling had vaulting that would make an architect sigh.

[Vaulting]

That was more than three decades ago. Yesterday, I revisited the Abbey with my wife. I needed Mariam to see this place. Nothing had changed with the exception of the organ that was wrapped to protect it from the dust of some interior work.

People had worshipped on this site since 964 B.C.E. That’s over 1,000 years of prayers and funerals, weddings and quiet contemplation. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a millennium.

The building I stood in yesterday is not the original. The first structure burned in 1309. Changes too confusing and complicated for this space occurred over the centuries.

In 1752, the Abbey and grounds were taken over by a Joseph Damer (Lord Milton). He had a wife, Caroline, whom he loved dearly. Death separated the two. She died young. Joseph commissioned a tomb of white marble-topped with an effigy of the two of them to honor their marriage.

I approached the figures. I reached out and stroked Caroline’s marble hair. I glanced up and saw Joseph staring into my eyes. His white marble orbs unnerved me.

“Take your hands away from my wife’s forehead,” he said with white accusing eyes. I ran my hand down her cold marble arm. I squeezed her delicate fingers.

All of it was cold white marble.

 

[A full view of the Damer tomb]

I still wear the heavy wool sweater that I had on that day, thirty-three years ago. Some things like well-made sweaters and Abbeys are made to last and last and last.

 

[Beauty and Death]

[The view from the entrance of the Abbey]

[Information source: britainexpress.com (Google search)]

[All photos are mine]

 

If I Was A Good Dog And My Time Came To Die, I’d Go To My Reward, England

Some years ago, when I wore a young man’s clothes, someone told me that when dogs get old and die, they go to The Dog Star. Now, as a man with gray hair, I know the truth. When dogs pass on, they go to England.

When I was a child I had a dog. His name was King. He was a good dog too. Except the one day he wanted me more than our large back yard…so he followed me to school.

“King! Go home!” I yelled. He would stop and then start following me again. I forget how that day turned out…it was more than sixty years ago. He probably went back down Front Street and sat in the back yard until one of us got home from school.

We didn’t ‘play’ with him in the way some dog owners do. We never threw a stick, a frisbee or a tennis ball. He just enjoyed playing around us as we played our own games.

I cried when King was “put down”…something that my parents did when I was in bed with the flu. I heard about it later from a friend. It was the right and humane thing to do. King had damage from being struck in the hind quarters in front of our house. He was old. He howled when the train blew the whistle as it came near our house. I was sad but didn’t blame my parents. I was quite ill and they didn’t want to make my misery any worse.

I’m okay with all that.

But, here in England…they love their dogs. Pets are even allowed into the bar area of a pub…where people can eat. That is not legal in NYC, or most other places.

In front of almost every shop along the High Street of any small town or village, there are stainless dishes for the dogs to drink from. That’s a good thing. I thought the Upper East Side of Manhattan was the place to open a pet supply shop. No, it’s in every village in England.

I do have to object to the fact that many walkers (and England is full of walkers) don’t keep their dogs on a leash. The dogs “worry” the sheep and lambs. That’s not right.

But you should take a walk along West 92nd Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Hardly anyone obeys the “pooper scopper” laws. It’s a problem all over (and I mean that literally).

I love dogs. I really do. But I’m the one who wants to be the master.

.

That’s why I love cats more than dogs. The cat’s attitude is: “I’ll get back to you.”

The dog:

“FOOD’

[All photos are mine]

 

 

 

 

An American In Brussels

Trust me. I can say a few words about how this grey-haired man is exhausted from what is only the early days of his European Tour. I was there, every minute…waiting for the train in Bruges and sitting in the hot humid air of Brussels Midi station wondering whether he should jump into a taxi or sit at a spaghetti restaurant across from the train station.

The guy decided to go to the restaurant and share a beer with his wife. He was unnerved. He knew nothing about the geography of Brussels. They took a taxi to the B & B they had found on an online booking service. When they got there, it was three flights up to a room that was very artistic, but lacked a desk, chairs and a fan. It was humid in Brussels that afternoon.

They spent a night there. He sweated through most of the dark hours. They took a walk and found the Grand Place.

It was the night before his birthday.

They made an unusual choice to depart the B & B and take a room at the Marriott. Not something he had planned to do…he wanted small hotels, European-style. But, he didn’t want to sweat another night.

They booked a room at the Marriott. Once they were allowed into their room, this tired old man took a nap.

Now, a little history:

This man, after he passed his mid 60’s, began to feel that each birthday had to include something somewhat unusual.

On his 67th birthday, they were in Paris. They climbed the steps to Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. On the 67th step, they stopped and embraced.

On his 68th birthday, they were in Dorset, England. They went to Salisbury Cathedral. They walked 68 steps down the central aisle of the nave, stopped and embraced.

Some years passed. They didn’t find themselves in a foreign country on his birthday, so it was all low-key. Should we take 69 steps toward the local post office and stop and embrace?

That wasn’t going to do it for him. So, how did it all play out today in Brussels…a city he knew very little about. The answer was beneath their feet.

The cobblestones!

He chose a side street with a beautiful cobblestone pavement. They tiptoed 71 tiles (cobblestones?) and stopped and embraced.

Then it began to rain very hard. They ran to the restaurant that was enthusiastically recommend.

As he ate his cod dish, he was already thinking about number 72.

[All photos are mine]

Bruges Makes Me Sad

[Mariam and her husband after dinner at the Market Square.]

Occasionally, during your life you arrive at a destination that forces you to hold your breath, for too long, and then exhale with an audible gasp. Your heart can hold off on a beat and then give you an extra pump. And a part of your thoughts fade…you lose a sense of time. The view before your eyes alters your senses in more than a few ways.

This happened to me the first time I visited Bruges (Brugge, if you wish) in the mid 1980’s. I walked beside the canals, then lined with lace and chocolate shops. I paused with my friend who was traveling with me. I had to lean against a tree. I was overcome by a deep and very intense sense of melancholy. I began to cry.

I was in Bruges and I was sad.

In my heart, I knew why this was happening, but I was reluctant to put it into words. How could anyone really understand my inner thoughts?

I never forgot my visit from that year. We were given a choice, after studying posters, of a free Mozart concert in the City Hall or a one-ring European circus just outside of the old city.

We chose the circus. I don’t need to tell you how I fell in love with the trapeze star. She was beautiful and she soared back and forth like an undecided angel. If you ever see the film Wings of Desire you will get an idea of how I felt. (Spoiler!) In the film, the main character is an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist. Of course angels can’t do that…so he pays the price…by losing his wings.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet,

I see her walking now away from me,

So hurriedly. My reason must allow,

For I have wooed, not as I should

A creature made of clay.

When the angel woos the clay, he’ll lose

His wings at the dawn of the day.

–Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh

I cannot separate this poem (later a song by Van Morrison), from my experience in the 1980’s. You feel special and celestial, one moment and then you feel human the next. But love, beauty, art, youth and history were in the mix of tea leaves I drank the following morning.

So, now I’m back in Bruges with my wife, Mariam, thirty-three years later, and I’m feeling the same melancholy thoughts that made me lean against a tree so many years ago and begin to cry.

My thoughts now are the same as they were then. As our train came to a stop at the rail station, the very same emotions overcame me.

But is all this simply about the love of beauty and the beauty of love?

Why did I lean against that sycamore tree? It was because of a question that became evident the moment I walked into the Market Square so many years ago:

Why can’t the world have more places as beautiful as Bruges?  Why is art defined by the amount of steel and glass?  There are beautiful buildings in New York City, but not that many.  The Woolworth Building. The Chrysler Building. The Empire State Building.

But, this isn’t a post about Manhattan. It’s about how one young man found beauty in an old Belgian town…and, not knowing how age changes perspectives, found the same feeling decades later. Laying expectations on someone, like your wife, is blatantly unfair. Even so, I needed Mariam to see the beauty of this town, as I did.

When we visited the Louvre, Mariam and I had a conversation about beauty and art and the feelings of the soul. I told her that many of the great paintings (please don’t ask for examples) made me sad. She replied that great art should elevate the soul and evoke happiness. I said that really profound art, like Venus de Milo, did the opposite for me. She is most beautiful in her sadness.

Beautiful art, beautiful men and women, ancient Roman and Greek female nudes and beautiful cities make me yearn for a better world…one without hatred and violence. The destruction of art in the name of any god, is a godless act.

I suppose this post is about love and beauty.

 

[All photos are mine]

It’s A Girl!

There is this girl who  my heart and she calls me Daddy.

–Anon.

[My Little Cowgirl]

I got the call when I was assembling computer components at a bench in Building 18, IBM Endicott, NY.

Actually, the manager took the call.  He came over to my work place and said that there was a message for me from Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton.

It was June 9, 1972.  I was expecting the call.  I was about to become a father.

When I arrived at the hospital, the nurse took me to the waiting room.  In those days, fathers were not allowed in the delivery room.  Expectant fathers are usually depicted on TV and in movies as nervous, bumbling jangled fools.  Not me.  I calmly read the out dated magazines.  I do believe I even read an entire article in the Reader’s Digest.

How long did I wait?  I simply don’t recall, but I was approaching that boring stage, when a doctor entered the room.  He asked my name and extended a hand.

“Mr. Egan, Bernadette is here.”

With those words, my life changed.

Let me backtrack for a moment.  After the IBM manager told me I had a phone call I went to him and told him I had to leave for the hospital.  On my way to the door, I stopped to tell the news to a guy whose job it was to keep the assembly people (me) supplied with diodes and transistors.  He shook my hand and wished me luck.

“Oh, more thing,” he said.

I went back to his window.

“Boy or girl, doesn’t matter.  But a word of advice.  Play with them.  Love them.  Watch them because they will grow up faster than you can possibly imagine.”

“Thanks, I will,” I replied as I headed for the parking lot.  I really didn’t believe him.  How can time go faster just because one becomes a parent?

I can say now, without hesitation, that that man was absolutely correct.

There was a song I remembered:

Turn around and she’s one, turn around and she’s two…turn around and she’s a young woman going out of the door.

Erin (her middle name was fast becoming her first name) did grow up quickly.  I took her hiking in the Adirondacks, canoeing on the Susquehanna River and showed her London, Paris and Moscow.  I took her to Broadway shows.  I watched her skate on New Years Eve at Rockefeller Center.

In college, she earned a double major, English and Religious Studies.  She’s a trained Paralegal, she proofs and edits the books I’ve published and she beats me without mercy in our ongoing online Scrabble game.  Now we play chess on our iPads.  She lives in the Pacific Northwest and I live in the North Country of New York State.

Now, she is a mother of an adorable five-year-old boy, Elias.  I gave her the advice that I was given.

[Erin and Elias]

“Erin, it all goes by so fast…love him and play with him…it all goes by so fast.”

Generations come and go like water over Niagara.  Being a parent isn’t for everyone.  It’s not a requirement for life.  But the experience of holding a tiny girl baby one day and then cuddling her tiny little baby boy is a part of life that I wouldn’t trade for a brick of gold.

[Erin:Thanksgiving 2017]

[All photos are mine]