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]

 

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A Walk Through Lichfield Cathedral

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Some people have life-lists of the birds they have seen. Some people have collections of autographs of rock stars or artists. A fair number of people pay a ton of money for signed baseballs; signed by Ted Williams, Goose Gossage or Ron Guidry.

That’s great. Many of these things can be framed and mounted on the wall of the hallway or the study in  their home. Signed baseballs can be kept in glass boxes on an office desk of an attorney who is handling your divorce or settling your estate.

But some lists need special attention.

My particular list is visiting all the English Cathedrals that I can manage. I’ve not completed a “to do” a list yet, but I can add two for this trip.

A word about the “to do” list. This post is not about things. It’s about memories, faith, beauty of architecture, hope and thought. I’m not visiting these Cathedrals just to tick them from my list. I’m not visiting and photographing and saying…”I’ve been there and done that.”

No, I wanted to study the Gothic and Norman architecture of each place. Who is buried where? What Baron or Lord or Lady is buried against this wall? What Vicar is buried under our feet in the nave?

What farmer or mason worker lay beneath the grass outside, on the lawn, under the green grass…not invited into the floor or walls of the Cathedral?

But time was not on our side. Nor were many rules.

“NO PICTURES IN DURHAM CATHEDRAL”

So I discovered that I would be near Lichfield Cathedral. I knew this one was a winner from what little research I did before the trip. We went in and the size and structure of the nave and alters took your breath away.

Some images:

[The effigies of an older daughter and young son. William and Mary]

[The Nave of Lichfield Cathedral]

These are places that do not belong on an “to do list”

Places like this, of beauty and peace and contemplation can’t be kept in a photo file, only in your heart.

[All photos are mine]

[Note: I will post a video with organ music of the the time we spent in Litchfield when the opportunity arrives.]

 

 

Her Husband Is Poorly: A First Walk In Yorkshire

[Grassington, Yorkshire.]

We’re staying in Grassington, Yorkshire. I saw somewhere it was called the “Swiss Alps of England”.  I can get the sense of that. No snow-capped peaks and Matterhorns, but the Dales are pure and English and brimming with grand vistas. There are enough walking paths to satisfy the Swiss Alpine Club, the Sierra Club, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the odd afternoons when the Grassington Horticulture Society has run out of gardens to visit.

Today was the first day that I felt like taking a walk. We’d been traveling a great deal and travel, as we know, is broadening, but also very tiring for a guy who just turned 71 years old. So, we chose a very short walk from the town center to a small church at Linton Falls. The entire hike was a bit over a mile.

But, I got my scenic jolt among the stone walls, the fields of sheep and the church at the end of the walk.

[Yes, that’s me.]

We found the small church and spent some time inside studying the Norman columns and arches. There was a Norman baptismal font. A few crypts were on the floor of the nave. One man died in 1665. Only his initials were given.

[St. Michael’s of Linton]

Then, after sitting in quiet contemplation for a short time…I noticed the window.

It was really a place that I would call a ‘prayer alcove’.

[The prayer window/alcove]

There was a small pad of paper. A pencil. A few prayer cards, some stick pins and two cork boards.

I took a moment to read a few prayer requests. After the second one, I felt an unexpected sorrow and pity for the person who wrote it. I’m assuming it was a woman…but I’ll never know. It was a simple note, not even a real request. Just a simple statement which read:

A good friend who’s husband is poorly.

 

[Another part of the prayer board.]

The word ‘poorly’ hinted to me that it was a British person who wrote this. As usual I began to wonder where she lived, who was her friend? How poorly was he? She clearly felt desperate and desolate enough to go to a remote church and post this humble note. Did she light a candle at Salisbury Cathedral?

But, most of all, I failed to notice the date (if there was one) and I wondered if the husband was still alive…

We began to make our way back to downtown Grassington. It was sunny and hot. The sheep I saw earlier were all laying down in the fields. We stepped aside for many walkers. We side-stepped for many dogs. The Brits love their dogs. So many signs about keeping the dog leashed…so few leashes.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead. I took pictures of the ferns and wildflowers growing between the rocks of the walled path.

I wondered about the ‘poorly husband’.

I’m not a praying man, but…

[All photos are mine]

 

Joshua Tree Diary: Christmas in the Desert

[Desert view outside Joshua Tree. Photo is mine.]

This is where it all began, right?  I don’t mean California…I mean the desert.

The Nativity story is set in the desert; much like the one I see from my bedroom window.  Very much like it, except that desert, with the Star, is half a world away.

Two years ago, we celebrated this season in Fort Myers, Florida.  There, the temperatures were in the low 90’s.  I remember wearing shorts and sitting outside my favorite Java cafe, sipping an iced coffee.  I had to position myself at an outdoor table so I could catch the AC’d air rolling out of the brand name outlets.  The palm trees were wrapped in holiday lights, Bing Crosby was singing on the PA system, shoppers were hurrying into Bass, or Tommy…but the feel of the season wasn’t inside me.  Red and green lights and Bing didn’t fulfill the images on Christmas cards.

Now, this year, we are enjoying the high desert of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Yucca Valley and the Mojave Desert.  And, it’s chilly if not downright cold.  Yet I know there’ll be no white Christmas here this year.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Yule without even the probability of several inches of white powder.  That’s because I was raised in Upstate New York, where snow was mostly guaranteed.  I built snow-people, skated with my childhood friends and tobogganed the longest slopes I could find.  I studied the crystals of the flakes when I caught one on my mitten.  I believe it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike.

But deserts are alike in many ways.  Strange and exotic plants, sand, crying coyotes and the limitless sky…filled with stars and a crescent moon.

Ironically, though, it’s here, in the California desert, that I can feel the true sense of the Nativity story.  When you’re raised with religious images of Joseph and Mary traveling across the desert, it’s hard to meld that into a backyard in New York, twelve inches of snow and a snow person.  I’ve never traveled to the deserts of the Middle East so I can’t speak to the winters there, but I can’t believe that the winter in the Holy Land is much different than it is here.

True, they probably don’t have storefronts like these:

[Souvenir shop. Photo is mine.]

Or,

[Storefront lights in Joshua Tree.  Photo is mine.]

But, maybe they do.

I can imagine the solitude, the expansive star-filled sky…and the silent peace that fills those scenes we were raised with, in the pages of the Bible.

About an hour from where I write this, a raging fires is destroying hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.  Peoples lives will be ruined.  No holiday cheer for them.

No fires will come to the desert.  There’s nothing much to burn.  It’s vacant and austere backed up by isolation and loneliness.  That’s the way deserts are.  Places to get lost and places to stand and contemplate the ways of the world and to confront the Great Empty.  That’s when you find that the Empty is not only a physical description of a desert…but also of your own mind.  The Desert Fathers of the Old Testament sought these places out.  The three great religions of the West were founded in the sands.

How different the high desert is.  There is, outside my window, all of the above (along with our rented Toyota), but there is something missing.  Beyond our sandy yard, beyond the Welcome to Joshua Tree sign, beyond the glow of Palm Springs and Los Angeles…something is dreadfully missing.

The peace.  Where is the peace and love that the whole Nativity narrative implies?

It’s just not there.

[Note to my readers: The next post is very special to me.  Please take time to read and comment on it.]

 

 

 

The Road To Zzyzx And Down The Boulevard Of Dreams

BlvdDreams

I wrote a version of this post several days ago, before I went to this Place of Healing, before I walked along the Boulevard of Dreams.   After the visit, I deleted most of what I had written…and began again.

Yes, I began again when I made the right turn off I-15 and took the road to Zzyzx.  I was taking a drive that thousands of people took, from the mid-1940’s until 1974.  Me? I was going to write about arriving at a ghost town of a health spa, a place of healing.  I was going to describe how I felt the need to wash away the sins of my youth and expunge the guilt of my impure and sin-laden thoughts.  I am Irish and raised a Catholic…I carried my guilt like a biker’s tattoo.  I find the idea of “cleansing” of body and soul, an interesting concept.  The ritual of washing away impurities and rebirth is a very ancient practice.  The Christians have Baptism and the River Jordan.  The Hindu have the Ganges River.  The Native American’s have the sweat lodge.  The Jewish people, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, gather for the Tashlich, and symbolically cast pieces of bread into flowing water to atone for transgressions.  As a former teacher, I simply erased the chalk board to begin something new.

But, my problems were not the kind that would draw me to this mecca in the emptiness of the Mojave Desert, to be cured of my aliments by a supposed man of God, a self-described healer.

Preachers and healers, hucksters and quacks, gurus, life guides and snake-oil salesmen have fascinated me for a long time.  I sometimes wish I lived in the days of Billy Sunday or Aimee Semple McPherson.  I wanted to hear the real Bible-thumpers who, sweating and strutting on a wooden stage under a circus tent, would tell me that Satan had my soul and my impure thoughts would send my soul to bake and fry for all time.

I accepted this guilt/burden for many years.  But, I never fully understood, until I was well into middle age, that instead of being a path to freedom, those kinds of beliefs can keep you from growing in countless ways.

After a bumpy ride along a blinding white salt flat called Soda Lake, I saw the palms a few miles away.  This was Zzyzx.  This was my destination.

This location, in the heart of the Mojave Desert has been providing water for travelers for over a thousand years.  The indigenous people would stop here on their journey across the desert to fill their gourds and rest.  One Chemehuevi woman is thought to be buried here.

blvdofDreams

But something troubled me.  I was merely a tourist here.  I arrived with a notebook and two digital cameras.  I did not arrive the way that most people did, for several decades, clutching a Bible in their hands and a prayer in their hearts…and a tumor or a case of TB or nervous exhaustion or a void where their soul used to be.

I needed to rethink the reason for my pilgrimage.  I needed to get inside the mindset of a true believer…a true sufferer…a desperate human being hoping to get mind and body repaired.  I didn’t want to be a mere tourist…I wanted to feel the dread of fear and the elation of hope that the pilgrims of the mid-century, had experienced.

I had to get imaginative…I had to get creative…I had to invite into my heart and mind, the suffering of thousands.

These were the real people who came, praying for their own lives or the lives of a loved one.  For many, I’m sure that making the journey to this health resort with the strange name, was their last hope for a cure or a blessing from the founder, Curtis Howe Springer.

RoadSignZzyzx

He named his establishment Zzyzx Mineral Springs. Why Zzyzx?  The story is that he chose the name because it would be the last word on a list of geographical destinations. Is it the last word in the average dictionary? Not in my copy of Merriam-Webster. The last word in my book is zygote.

They heard Springers voice on the AM radio station, broadcasting out of Mexico with 50,000 watts of power.  The sick and the lame could hear him in Los Angeles.  You could hear him in Chicago.  You could even hear his reassuring voice in Bangor, Maine.

The main avenue leading to the bath houses, cabins, meeting room, dining hall was the Boulevard of Dreams.  I stood at the base of the sign and began the walk, past the old pond that once had a spraying fountain.  Now, the fountain was a mere pile of rocks.

PondZ

[The Pond with the broken fountain]

blvdofDreams

[The Boulevard of Dreams]

I let my mind drift back to 1953, or 1959, or the year I was born, 1947.  I put myself in the mind of a pilgrim seeking a cure.  Maybe my mother was seriously ill, perhaps my wife had a growth in her breast, possibly my father returned from the war in Europe with a changed mind.  I began to feel the power of hope.  What lay ahead of me, the baths, the healing waters, the relaxation…the great white plain of Soda Lake, blinding in its glare from the Mojave sun…what lay ahead of me would save me or someone I did not want to lose to the shadow of death.

OriginalRooms

[One of the many original apartments…now in ruins]

Hidden behind a grove of palm trees was the original bathhouse.  Everything was empty…cracked and broken cement and peeling adobe.  I stood over the individual “tubs” where the ill could soak themselves in the briny solution of desert minerals.

MineralBaths

[The old mineral baths]

I poked about the old buildings.  Some structures have been restored and are now part of a Desert Studies facility of the University of California.  A few students strolled past us and went onto the parking lot, got into a black Taurus, and drove away.  Now, Mariam and I were the only people in the area.  I stopped at an old table on the Boulevard and looked up at the old bell tower.  I assume this once rang to call the patients and guests to prayer or a meeting or to a meal.

BellTower

[The bell tower.  Original part of the structure..??]

Were we really the only presence here?  I began to feel that we were not totally alone.  I felt that the ghosts of patients and preachers, children and adults, the sane and the insane, were walking among the palms alongside us.

No, we were not alone here.  Too much energy, pain, prayer, hope, loss, death, disease, promises, disappointments, grief and joy dwelt along the Boulevard of Dreams.

We drove away, leaving the little settlement to the rightful residents…the spirits of those who came with only a plea for life.

 

 

 

The Snow Moon Over The Mojave

DSCN0093

Last night the Snow Moon rose over the Coxcomb Mountains of the Mojave Desert.  It’s the fifth full moon we have watched since our journey began

There will be one more to witness before we are home again.  Will we see the Warm Moon from where ever we will be in the third week of March?  I’ll bet a finback that it will be a cloudy night.

That’s the reason I miss so many celestial events like meteor showers, aurora and eclipses back home in the Adirondacks.  Cloud cover is a way of life when you enter the states east of the Mississippi River.

Out here, in the dry clear air of the Southwest, the skies have been spectacular.

But, my pleasure is mixed.  I feel enchanted and mystical when the full moon is lighting my night-time environment in the soft glow of paleness…like a lingering campfire or night-light that is bright enough, just enough, to illuminate a book or allow me to walk without a headlamp.

This post is celebrating the full moon, but I should be writing one, in two weeks, that speaks to the awesome and dazzling population of stars and planets that a desert sky displays on nights that are moonless.

Last night, I could barely make out the belt of Orion.  I could hardly see the Milky Way…but I could read a poem.

Last night, the giant globe passed by Jupiter (which sits near one of the feet of Leo) and rose high and proud.  The goddess Luna, was strutting her stuff and her act could make you halt in your steps and look up…look up and think sublime ideas.  Think romantic thoughts, poetic phrases and sad memories.  Sit on a rock and look up, look around you, look inside your mind and soul.  Remember someone you loved once…or still do.

I have had many conversations with Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon.  Sometimes she sends her Greek sister, Selene to sit with me and talk of melancholy things.  I’ve been reminded that I’ve been alive for approximately  825 full moons in my life…and I still don’t fully understand how the human heart works and why it’s so fragile and why the moon plays such an important role in our thoughts and beliefs.

I think I need another several hundred lunar cycles to fill in the gaps of my own nature.

“Drink in the full moon as though you might die of thirst.”

–Sanoben Khan

 

 

 

 

The End Of The Line

PalmDesertSunset

Like, wow…I can’t believe we’re in California.

What a magical and special state this is.  It’s no wonder that all the famous people live here.  It’s the “land of opportunity”, where an anybody like me can become a somebody like…George Clooney.  We weren’t here an hour when I drove to a service station to get a bag of ice and fill the tank.  On a whim, I bought two $2.00 scratch-off lottery tickets.  Would you believe I won $25.00 from those two tickets?  I was elated and felt that my time had come, until I paid for the gas.  When we filled up the tank one afternoon back in Tucson, AZ, it cost me $1.43/gal.  I nearly spilled my Starbucks Latte when I saw the California price (at this particular station) was $2.79/gal.  I thought there were oil wells out here??  I think I saw a Clark Gable movie once and he got soaked from the gushing crude from a well.

Maybe that was Texas…I can’t remember.

lottery

[This probably isn’t legal to post winning lottery tickets online, but I’m from New York…]

This is as far west as our journey is taking us.  If you’re a faithful reader and you’ve paid attention and taken notes, pick up that Rand McNally Atlas that’s sitting on your coffee table…the one with coffee stains and rings left by the condensation of the Bud Lite cans during the Super Bowl.  Turn to page 15 (I’m using the 2013 edition).  We are at the Emerald RV Resort located on the map page at coordinates “15/SJ”.

I feel so…so important being here in the Golden State.  Our RV Resort is located on Frank Sinatra Drive, which is separated from Dinah Shore Drive by Gerald Ford Drive.  (If you don’t believe all this, just Google this place).

We had a long hard drive behind us today.  We left Yuma in the late morning warmth of 88 F.  We sped past the western part of the city and I glanced at the Yuma Territorial Prison…the topic of my last blog.  Ok, maybe misery, murder, death and forgotten graves may not have been the best choice for a Valentine’s Day post, but we were having WiFi issues and I needed to get something out before things got worse.  Note to those planning on RV’ing any serious distance all: Whatever the Resort tells you about how strong their signal is, don’t believe it.  There are some days you can forget email…you’d be better off mailing a letter through the USPS.  Nearly all my posts were composed and posted from Starbucks or McDonald’s (say what you want about the Double Cheese Macs, their WiFi smokes!).

We attended a real rodeo while we were in Yuma and I intended to write something about how excited I was to finally see one in person, for real.  I have to admit that it was impressive.  I’m including a few photos just to prove that we were really there.

RodeoYuma2

[This guy rode like the wind.]

MissSonoranDeserts

[In case you’re confused: The Happy Camper is on the left and the bored Miss Sonoran Deserts Queen is on the right.]

RodeoYuma1

[Woman rider]

Just across the California-Arizona state line were the Imperial Sand Dunes.  I parked in a kind of base camp for the dune buggy people.  I took a picture of one of the beautiful dunes and made it even more stark and raw by filtering it through my Instagram app.

B:WImperialDunes

[A lonely bush in the Imperial Sand Dune National Recreational Area]

After a few miles along I-8, we turned north on Rte. 86 and drove through some of the agricultural (and highly irrigated) parts of Southern California.  We passed truck loads of carrots, groves of date palms and vineyards.  I also caught glimpses of the smiling happy faces of the migrant workers as they leisurely picked cabbage and turnips.  They were so fortunate to have such jobs, out in the open fresh air, getting a tan…instead of being stuck inside some awful office building or factory.  I was tempted to stop and pick a bushel or two just to get the exercise, but we had places to go and I couldn’t see any convenient parking places.

So, is this the end of our trip?  Have we reached the farthest point from our home?  Well, no and yes.  The eastern slopes of the Rockies are still between us and home.  The prairies of Kansas are still ahead of us. (The last state in the Lower 48 I have yet to visit).  We still have to get home…and there is a place I must visit.  It’s not far from here and it is the magical and mythical destination of the trip…for me, anyway.

I’ve been dropping hints about this place since I first started posting these blogs.  It’s a real place.  Thousands of people came there to get healed…to get clean…to wash away sins, ancient and recent, that have darkened souls that were pure as snow at birth.

Water has been a healer for thousands of years.  Spas and hot springs have saved the lives and repaired the souls of countless individuals.

Now, it’s my turn.  Sometime next week, I will arrive at this strange place that has a strange name…and see if anything remains of the healing waters of seventy-five years ago.

Will I find sage and tumble weed and cracked concrete in the old pools.   Or, will the ghosts of those who came to find succor still roam about in the weedy driveways and dying palms?  If the spirits are walking around the now-empty fountain, will they take a moment to tell me their stories?

I’ll tell them mine.