Tomorrow is Bermuda Day in Bermuda, so happy Bermuda Day, Bermudians! This is a photo of the real life Censorettes as featured in a story in Life magazine in August 1941.
What was happening in my novel Censorettes in August 1941? Funny you should ask — it is a major turning point.
Without spoiling anything, here is a paragraph from what’s going on in August 1941:
What had she ever gazed at as intently as that letter? Her mother, when Lucy sat at her bedside after her operation, waiting for her to emerge from anesthesia? The night sky, when she lay on a Florentine hillside with Matty and Nonno, trying and failing to find among brilliant stars the shapes of bear, ram, warrior? The receding shore of England as she fumed on the deck of the trawler that brought her to Bermuda?
I recently bought a rosemary plant. She is not happy. She yearns to be outside. So do we all, Rosemary! I wish she would straighten up, but she persists in maintaining her Martha Graham stretch towards a fiercely desired elsewhere. Rosemary reproaches me.
I reproach her.
Yesterday, returning through the back courtyard of my building with weekend provisions, I found my actor neighbor Ian repotting a hothouse of plants — a ballerina of a ficus tree, a robust rubber tree plant, and numerous other flora I could not name. He had large clay pots, great bags of potting soil and bounteous enthusiasm. I approached him for advice.
“Eastern exposure’s no good!” he shouted cheerfully. “Herbs like that need a ton of sun — a ton! Why don’t you take the stems you need, you know, for cooking, and plant it out back?”
“Out back” is the side of the building, where (only in New York) on a tiny strip of yard, certain residents of the co-op maintain miniscule herb and vegetable gardens. They are known as the Gardening Brigade and although I am technically of their demographic (female, middle-aged, unencumbered by caretaking), I am not of their kind. I spend my weekends at my keyboard, illuminated by my scant eastern exposure, and not on my hands and knees, toiling in soil. I respect that toil, but I do not yearn for it.
Ian and I agreed that once Rosemary starts to falter, I will leave her in front of his door, or leave her in the back courtyard with a sign akin to Paddington Bear’s: “Please look after this plant, thank you.”
But something in the way she slants reminds me of a painting I saw years ago — decades ago — at the Whitney Museum, when I was still fairly new to New York, recovering both from a difficult upbringing and the disappointing realization that New York City, for all its possibilities, would not magic-wand away my childhood damage. I saw a painting titled Resilient Young Pine.
For years, I remembered little about it except the delicate, resolute brushstrokes, and the depiction of the idea of being battened by great winds and remaining, if not upright, then still standing. I remembered that word: resilient. “Resilient young pine,” I would remind myself over the years through personal and professional setbacks, breakups and rejections and loss.
“What was that painting?” I have asked myself recently, as people used to ask at the end of an episode of The Lone Ranger, “Who was that masked man?” (Masks: how timely. I will not be exploring that here.)
A google search revealed that Resilient Young Pine is the work of Morris Graves, a mid-century native of Washington State, who was categorized as part of the school a magazine dubbed the “Northwest Mystics.” Resilient Young Pine is currently part of the collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, whose description of the painting, “heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism,” includes the statement that Morris Graves “lived his life in an eccentric manner.”
Since, damn it, “eccentric manner” could mean anything, I researched further and learned that Graves, a dreamer and a high school dropout, took on work as a deckhand on a merchant ship. The ship took him to Japan, where, he has said, “I at once had the feeling that this was the right way to do everything. It was the acceptance of nature, not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air.”
Graves’ painting was to me what Japan was to him. A different air. He returned to the U.S., finished high school, and then painted. He achieved enough early success (and had simple enough needs) that he was able to live out the rest of his life on painting alone. He lived as a recluse on chilly Northwest islands, usually alone, except for the companionship of dogs and cats, all of whom were called Edith. (If this detail does not delight you, I don’t know why we are friends.) All the while, according to Art and Antiques magazine, he created “many depictions of birds, animals, and flora, delicately drawn over abstract backgrounds of gently washed-on color.”
During the war, Graves was painting away on his foggy Pacific island when he was arrested. His application to register as a conscientious objector was misfiled by the army. That happenstance, along with his affinity for all things Japanese, landed him a midwestern brig for a few years. Afterwards, he returned to his Washington island and his Ediths, continued to explore transcendence through painting, and continued to meditate.
He remained resilient.
Screen to screen to screen has been my life this past month — my work laptop, augmented by my personal laptop, and then my desktop, when the workday is through, followed by some viewing on my laptop again. I am privileged to be able to work from home and to live in a co-op building which is well-maintained. But as I have revealed, I have taken to gazing out my window.
Now straight ahead, dead straight, to the left of the streetlight and to the right of the bright window in the building across the street, you can see a bit of colored glass. There. You see it? Had I an actual camera (instead of a phone) or were I a better photographer, I could capture that image — the streetlight, the stained glass of the Ukrainian church beyond.
Last night, I attempted it. The bars of the fire escape were too intrusive and the zoom on the cell phone camera wasn’t sufficient, so I climbed out on the fire escape and did my best.
This yellow-robed Ukrainian saint has been gazing into my living quarters for the past 20 years, but I only thought to think of it now. Of course, I was aware that there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church a block away — I have photographed their fete on Ukrainian heritage day. Beribboned children in native costume dance all afternoon in reluctant troupes. Ornately braided girls and grim embarrassed boys prance and clap on a wooden platform in front of the church, to the blaring of recorded accordion and clarinet music. A street block is roped off from traffic to allow for tables selling embroidered goods and meat-stuffed pastries, and chairs for the parents of those mortified, loyal prepubescents.
These wares, these performances, are not meant for the likes of me. I don’t know the difference between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox but I know neither proselytizes. Far from it. It is from the Greeks that we get the word “xenophobia,” from the Greek xenos meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” Also, “barbarian,” which originally meant “a person who does not speak Greek.” (Non-Greek sounded to Greeks like someone saying “bar bar bar.”)
After twenty years in Astoria, I was not keen to insert myself where I was not welcome.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that the church I look out on every day was not merely a church, but a religious residence. The low tan building I look out on (and appreciate, since it affords me sunlight when a commercial building would not) is not just extra church space, but a dormitory for the order.
How’s your world, everyone?
Here is a photo of mine, when I look out on it.
I am two blocks from a branch of Mount Sinai Hospital, as my friends and social media friends know. A branch where they have erected emergency COVID testing tents. In three minutes from the time I am writing the words “in three minutes,” the applause will start, the applause for the health care workers at the shift change. It seems to grow in duration and in volume every day.
I begin each day by opening the window and turning on the classical music station. I was fortunate in that my remote control broke one week into this isolation, so I no longer have the option to channel surf or listen to live press conferences.
There it is, the applause. Banging of pots and pans, honking of horns.
It should lift up my spirits, but instead it burrows deep into my sinews, like a fishhook, not a knife. This is a trauma not easily extracted. This is an anger not easily assuaged.
When I was on an “Unworkshop” retreat at the Highlights Foundation last fall, I met a woman named Heather Dean Brewer. The Highlights Foundation retreats take place in Pennsylvania on a rural property outside Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Because I admittedly live in an NYC bubble, Honesdale was the first town where I saw an un-ironic “Make America Great Again” sign posted in the window of a small-town business.
Heather was at Highlights for a workshop.(By way of explanation, Highlights offers a vigorous catalogue of workshops for children and young adult authors and illustrators, but also offers space and meals for any writer who might need time and space.) I was there for time and space. Heather was there for a workshop. She is the author of this happy little book which I bought for my sister’s birthday. (Spoiler!)
Heather was sweet enough to send me a bottle of wine from distant Michigan.
My cultural references these days are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, staring out the window and speculating on the neighbors. And Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel about the 1918 pandemic which has been written about by wiser heads than mine, for example, here. I cannot look at it now, not with the sirens screaming in the background, but nor can I forget the story’s final line: “Now there would be time for everything.”
A month ago, my biggest concern was that the 92nd St. Y would cancel the appearance of Dame Hilary Mantel, who was to discuss the third book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I had been looking forward to her talk for months; bonus points for it occurring on my birthday. But of course, it was cancelled. Instead, I ordered the book from The Astoria Bookshop, my local indie, on the last day it was operating live. It is still operating virtually, if you would like to support it.
I am having a hard time concentrating on The Mirror and the Light. I loved the first two volumes. I am pretty well versed in the Tudors. But despite the fact that the circumstances are dire, and that we know how this will end (it’s the world of Henry VIII, after all), I have trouble following along and perhaps need a lighter book.
But one line did resonate. Among so much speculation about succession to the throne, one character observes that it is treasonous even to wonder about the future. “We are trapped,” she sighs, “in the hours we occupy.”
My review of Joan Frank’s wonderful essay collection Try to Get Lost is up at the Brevity website. You can find it here.
Joan Frank was the first Frank to accept a friend request from me on Facebook and among the Franks I have friended in that strangely intimate and arm’s length space, ours is the strongest connection. I buy all of her books. We cheer each other on. I have plans to meet her for a second time (after that bean soup in Florence) when she visits Fort Greene next month to promote her two books. (She might provide snacks.)
Through her I “met” Thaisa Frank , a writer with whom I have never exchanged words, except to praise her lush-coated tortoiseshell cats (such cats must always be praised). I also friended and exchanged warm words with Gabriela Denise Frank after I read her piece “Muzzled” in True Story.
In real life, I have only a sister with the surname Frank. Her children have their father’s name. My brother ceased communication with both of us years ago. His sons have grown up without their Frank aunts. So I collect virtual Franks — send them a friend request when they cross my feed, cheer quietly when they publish (I only reach out to writers) and otherwise wish them well from afar.
In this way, I have created my own little France, a country which, after all, was settled by a tribe of Franks a millenia or two ago. Speaking (again) of France, I do recommend my cousin (but not my cousin) Joan’s collection, if only (but not only) for the piece “The Cake Frosting Country,” which I cannot link to here, although I can link to a coda published by The Antioch Review.
In these days when we are discouraged (if not forbidden) from travel, these pieces will transport you, without the lines or the luggage.
I was nursing my morning coffee — I got up late because I’d stayed up way too late watching an embarrassingly bad Netflix series (embarrassing that I let it break my sleep regimen since I was fast-forwarding through half of it anyway). So, nursing coffee, turned on the t.v. because there’s a Doctor Who marathon on BBC America but it was an episode involving the Daleks and I am that rare Doctor Who fan who really dislikes the Daleks. I had errands but they could wait until I finished my coffee. So I hopped over to Turner Classic Movies, where Eddie Mullen had just begun to describe the TCM premiere of Repeat Performance, a noir from 1947, the prints of which were thought to have disappeared.
Although I am a fan of film noir, I had never seen Noir Alley, or Eddie Mullen, its host. I am a huge fan of Ben Mankiewicz and always hope, when I stumble on an old classic movie that reminds me why I went to film school instead of getting an English degree like everyone expected, that it will end with Ben walking across the terra cotta floor of the TCM studio to tell the viewers of some contractual dispute or gossip behind the making of the film. He has a wry, bemused why-do-I-live-in-this-town approach to his stories, while Mullen is more brusque and professorial.
Still, the story he told of Repeat Performance was a compelling one, spanning the birth of a B-picture studio, Eagle-Lion Films, which was owned by British film producer Arthur Rank and was meant to churn out the B pictures to accompany major British films. When Mullen rattled off the names of the producers who had worked there, he included the name of a grandfather of a friend of mine.
Long ago, I abandoned a novel about a B picture company called Eagle-American. I am currently whiling away the hours on a novel in which a minor character is based an Arthur Rank/Alexander Korda type figure. Let’s say a Rank-Korda type figure. I put my fictional studio in Denham, as Korda’s was. But since my British mogul was only in one scene, I figured it was alright to borrow Denham.
Repeat Performance is just the kind of title I would have given to a film produced in my fictional worlds. When Mullen said that the film had been out of circulation for so long that the people who saw, years ago, had begun to wonder if they had imagined it, I thought of the Julio Cortazar story We Love Glenda So Much, about a group of cinephiles so devoted to the work of a retired actress that they began to steal prints of her films and re-edit them to correct its flaws.
I was now glued to my couch, errands be damned.
Repeat Performance is like a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life if that film had begun with George Bailey shooting Mr. Potter instead of mislaying $8,000, and All About Eve, if Margo Channing had shot Eve. It opens with a celebrated Broadway actress, Sheila Page, shooting a man on New Year’s Eve, then running down the fire escape to a swank nightclub where everybody is celebrating. Among the callow “Say, why’re you out in your nightgown?” types, she finds a friend, William Williams, pleads with him to accompany her to the home of her theatrical producer. As they approach the producer’s door, Sheila says “Oh, William, I wish I could live this year all over again!”
And so she does. Sheila gets a new 1946.
She tries to keep her husband, Barney Page, the murder victim, away from a successful playwright who seduced him away from her in the old 1946. She tries to keep William Williams away from the sugar mommy (played by Natalie Schafer, later to be stranded on Gilligan’s Island) who will bankroll his artistic dreams but have him committed to an asylum when she tires of him. (William Williams had, on the first New Year’s Eve, just walked out of the asylum, and caught a bus to that nightclub, apparently.)
But in true “Appointment in Samara” fashion, Sheila Page cannot alter destiny. She seems little interested in destiny, although than her own, and that of her poet pal William Williams. The United Nations and the Cannes Film Festival both launched in 1946, but aside from a brief jaunt to California to try to keep Barney sober and away from the conniving playwright, the film unfolds entirely in apartments, theaters and nightclubs. (Barney, by the way, is in no way worth any of this trouble. He sulks, drinks, and cheats and carries on like a poisoned Ricky Ricardo.) There might never have been a war, since no one mentions it. Barney wrote a play five years ago, and William Williams has been writing poetry, but apart from one sailor seen in a nightclub, there have been no men fighting the war.
In the end, Sheila cannot alter fate but the one bright spot is that she has a friend (and possible suitor) in the person of the producer, who is played by a man who reminded me so much of George Saunders that I kept checking IMDB, even though it told me the first time that it wasn’t George Saunders. (It turned out to be, Eddie Mullen said afterwards, George Saunders’ brother.)
Unlike Sheila, I do not wish a do-over. Maybe just a better performance, rather than a repeat one, in the coming year.
I returned to the house, which I thought of as a house and not a hotel. The stairway in the entry hall was stately, with landings and a banister, delivering you in a spacious foyer. You could imagine the daughter of the house skipping down the stairs holding a wide-brimmed hat, set to embark on a wholesome adventure—a church picnic, or a drive to the sea with a favorite bachelor uncle. I pictured Sally Ann Howes, who played the daughter of the house in a spooky British film called Dead of Night, in which a group of people at an English country house frighten each other by telling tales of the supernatural, which are then depicted.
When Sally Ann Howes and her bouncing blonde curls enters the drawing room (after one or two tales have been told), several of the adults in the room cry “Sally!” (her character’s name is also Sally) as though now that she has arrived, the real action can take off. The story Sally/Sally tells is pretty generic, a standard why-no-one’s-been-in-that-nursery-since-the-young-Master-was-murdered-there! bit of business. The real star turn of Dead of Night is Michael Redgrave playing a ventriloquist driven insane by his dummy, Hugo.
(And good news, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UCJz617E8s right now, or when you’re finished reading this.)
I didn’t know, seeing this movie as a child, that Sally Ann Howes was the child of one of those British acting dynasties that populates stage and screen for generations. I only knew that she grew up to play Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a film based on a book by Ian Fleming, who makes no appearance in my novel but who was inspired by the floor to ceiling fish tank in the Gazebo Bar of the Princess Hotel (where much of my novel takes place) to include a similar feature of architecture in one of his novels—Doctor No, perhaps?
The screenplay to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was co-written by Roald Dahl, whose memoirs of his time with the RAF in North Africa, Going Solo, I had purchased only days before in the gift shop at the Imperial War Museum and which was in my suitcase in the room upstairs to which I was clearly not ready to return since my mind was forming sentences as labyrinthian as this one.
I went to the bar.
The bar was a small room behind the check-in desk. It was manned by Matthew, who had poured my morning coffee, checked me in the day before, carried my bag upstairs, listened sympathetically to my description of the witch who dissed my push-pin art and now poured me a chardonnay. There were two couples in the bar: an older woman and her elderly mother, and s heavy lorry driver and his wife.
The elderly mother fascinated me because although she was obviously quite old, she still carried an ample amount of flesh quite comfortably, oddly fit with it, like a stocky athlete.
I sipped my wine and listened to them discuss roundabouts, motorways, and dreadful accidents, until the mother and daughter said goodnight. Heavy Lorry Drive and his wife turned to me, eager to continue to chat, belying so much of what I had always believed about British reserve. After a few exchanges of the basic, visiting from where and how long and why, Heavy Lorry Driver told me, “That woman was an evacuee here during the war.”
So the impression I had carried all this while of a benevolent haunting at the Ebury Hotel made sense. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but I accepted that it made sense. And yet, it didn’t.
“She says the house was full of soldiers.”
Canterbury is an hour’s drive from Dover. I’d noticed the motorway signs on the roundabout above the pedestrian underpass that led into the city proper. Why would the Brits evacuate children closer to the invasion point, and more directly under the flight path of the Luftwaffe heading for London?
I chose not to challenge Heavy Lorry Driver. It was not his story and not his claim. Instead, the wine I had drunk and the time I’d spent alone propelled me into telling him and his wife about my novel. They hummed and clucked in a gratifying manner. We talked about the war in general, and our visits to the Imperial War Museum, and then we said goodnight.
The next morning, as Matthew took my breakfast order, I kept a gimlet eye on Evacuee and her daughter, trying to think of a tactful way to approach her and demand her personal history while she buttered her toast. As it turned out, she found me. When I returned from a stroll in the charming and green back garden of the house (everything in Kent is charming and green), the Heavy Lorry Driver’s wife bid me farewell in the bar. The Evacuee, sitting in the bar with her daughter, said to me, “You were here last night, weren’t you?” I wasted no further time.
Her father had been garrisoned in a town nearby and she and her mother moved into one of the apartments around the house to be closer to him. She was not part of the official UK evacuation program, known as Operation Pied Piper (subtle, UK). The house was indeed full of soldiers. Mr. and Mrs. Clare, the owners, whom she spoke of as though they had just left for the market, tasked her with looking after their two young sons, one three years old, one an infant. Evacuee herself was “five when the war began, and ten when it ended.”
She used to take the Clare boys into town. “It was a different time,” she added, as though the past were charming and green and not, say, World War II.
I thought her mother a bloody fool dragging her daughter deeper into harm, and the Clares even worse. Canterbury was badly hit during the war. According to Kent Online, 800 buildings were destroyed in the June 1942 Baedeker raid, and 43 people lost their lives. (A photograph of the monument to the Baedeker raid is displayed in an earlier post.)
They would have been better off in the Highlands, or Wales. But I suppose they were all just keeping calm and carrying on, allowing a six-year-old girl to push a pram a mile to the market town, with a three-year-old in tow. And here she was now, a coincidence, she said; her daughter just picked the place at random for their holiday. I guess they stayed in Kent after the war. Who could blame them. I wanted to stay in Kent forever. However, it was my last day in England. I had one last visit to make, to the Cathedral.
The next morning, I ate a very good breakfast, with a generous cold buffet spread augmented by a hot breakfast to order. B&B’s can vary. I stayed in one in Notting Hill where the second “B” was a croissant with a pat of butter in a baggie tied around the doorknob. But not so the Ebury. It has a proper dining room (and presumably a proper kitchen, since someone cooked the breakfast.) The house itself was a lovely place, a rambling three-story brick Victorian with arched doorways and bay windows. Some of the guests at breakfast were staying in the nearby cottages and apartments that were also part of the place. I knew it had a history. I sensed it had housed many lives. The spirit of the place was a kind of resolute cheer.
Because it was a mile outside of town, and because there was a car park, most of the other guests were English. This tree adorned the car park.
Off to Canterbury! I’m a fan of walking tours, particularly when a visit is short. They are good for solo travelers, so that you have someone with whom to exclaim. One of my regrets about how my library school career unfolded is that when I started the program, the school offered a course called “Researching Local History” whose final project was to design a walking tour (what fun!) but it was taught during the day and then it fell off the curriculum entirely. (My tour, since you ask, would have been “The History of the Piano in Astoria,” and it would not have been walkable except to the extremely athletic.)
I bought a ticket at the Roman Museum in Canterbury (apparently on the basement floor, there is a mosaic going back to Roman times) and then meandered to the signpost at the Buttermarket just outside the entry gates to the Cathedral, where our guide was already addressing the other middle-aged women who were part of the tour.
In order to be a guide and to wear the sash that adorns official guides, you must attend a six-month class that meets twice-weekly and pass an exam. Further education is required if you wish to wear the sash that proclaims you a guide of the interior of the Cathedral. Our guide had both, and was knowledgeable and fun.
The history of Canterbury is haunted by two Henrys. The first is Henry II, whose frustration with his old drinking buddy Thomas a Becket led to an outburst which inspired four knights to gallop off to Canterbury and stab to death Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (The traditional understanding is that Henry II exclaimed “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”)
Two points here: the walking tour guide mentioned that riders into Canterbury, arriving at the crest of the hill overlooking the town, would, should they arrive in the evening, urge their steeds from a trot into a “canter” in order to get into the town before the city gates closed. In other words, the rush for the gate gave the name to the gait.
Second, two of the guides I spoke with during my visit made reference to the four knights: on this stop stood the inn where the four knights are said to have stayed the night before the murder, and, it is rumored that that tree is where the four knights tied up their horses. Both times, this merry band of murderers were mentioned as though they required no further frame of reference, just the four knights, as though they had only recently cantered into history, like the Beatles. Wikipedia tells me that these John, Paul, George and Ringos were called Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton. These very French names prove that the close connection between this part of England and France was not unique to my visit.
The second Henry is of course Henry VIII, who established the Church of England, or, in the words of the guides of Canterbury, “destroyed the monasteries.” He destroyed a lot of monasteries in Canterbury, including the one at the Cathedral. Being a monk at Canterbury Cathedral seemed like a really plum job for a monk, I mentioned to the walking guide. How did one get a gig like that? Did you have to be really good at monking? Was Canterbury Cathedral a promotion? The other ladies on the walking tour thought this a hilarious question, but I admit to a certain ignorance when it comes to religious jobs of the Middle Ages. Women could only be nuns, but men could be priests or monks, bishops or cardinals, friars or priors. (I may be wrong about this; do let me know.)
The walking tour was meant to last two hours, but the guide extended a half hour longer, no doubt charmed by my ecclesiastical questions. The tour took us onto the grounds of the Cathedral, but not into the Cathedral itself. A few of the women decided they would go to evensong that evening so that they could get in free.
Admission is only £12.50 and the Cathedral employs a huge staff, as a display of signs outside inform you—stained glass makers, groundskeepers, medieval manuscript restorers. ecclesiastics and so on—so I wasn’t going to begrudge the place £12.50. Also, I doubted I could make it to evensong. Despite being the youngest of the lot on the tour, I tired first and set the precedent for sitting on a medieval wall while the guide detailed the destruction of the monasteries.
Afterwards, I retired to the tourist bureau, tea shop and gallery on the main drag. At that point in my trip, I had learned to address the three W’s of a tourist’s need—water, WiFi and a place to wee. Roughly five thousand French teenagers were visiting Canterbury that day. The French chaperones herded their wards through clogged streets. But the two German teachers in the tea room next to me were far more enterprising. Indulging in quiet adult conversation, they were occasionally interrupted by groups of panting teenagers, who were being dispatched on some kind of historical scavenger hunt. “Where did Henry II something something something?” the teachers asked them. “Was it A) something something, B) something something or C) I still can’t hear you.” And out the teenagers would troop again, leaving their clever teachers in peace to drink tea and chat.
I bought a ticket to a punting tour. In Cambridge, I thought I was too cool for a punting tour and then realized that I abandoned the quest for cool years ago. Punting along the Cam with a guide was delightful. I determined I would do the same along the Stroud, the so-called river that runs through Canterbury. The next tour didn’t take place until 4:15. I could take in no further fact nor ancient stone.
“I’m absolutely spent,” I said to the young woman who sold me the river ticket. “I need a place to sit and stare.”
“There’s a park by the West City Gate,” she told me. “It’s nice and quiet.”
I walked along to the park and there I met this tree.
The Tree’s Tale
Poems are made by fools like me, the poet wrote. But only God can make a tree.
Poems and cathedrals are made, and turbulent priests murdered, monasteries destroyed and cities bombed, by fools like us. I have titled this post “The Tree’s Tale,” but of course trees tell no tales. We look upon a tree such as this and imagine the tales it could tell. Does it remember the Romans? The Four Knights and their greatest hit, “Murder in the Cathedral”? Does it remember how it absorbed into its leaves the smoke from the burning monasteries? The smoke when the Nazis bombed the town? (They say the Home Guard lit fires all around the Cathedral to give the impression to the Luftwaffe that they Cathedral was already on fire.)
I felt more reverence to that tree than I ever would, or ever will, to any cathedral, or anything made by man. I felt true awe. I sat in its company for a good long time and tried to impress the sensation of being in its company into my brain, so I could hold the sensation forever, so that I could summon it when I was trying to meditate, or pray, or simply silence the clamor in my head with the memory of something long-enduring and majestic, with no ideology beyond living life.
I sat by the tree while ten-year-old boys nearby played football (soccer) and I did not suggest that they paint a picture or write a story. (See: The Witch’s Tale.) The tree and I just let them play.
Let’s take just one more look at the tree.
Perhaps fittingly, I arrived in Canterbury footsore, as Chaucer’s pilgrims did. I had spent three days in London, which was an overcrowded madhouse, and I say this as a New Yorker who works in midtown. My day trip to Cambridge did little to alleviate my stress, as I raced from my centrally-located (and well paid-for) hotel to get to the tourist office. I arrived at 4:54 to find my way barred by a teenager. “We’re closing,” she said. (The office closes at 5:00.) I managed to secure a $5.00 map off of her begrudging self, to attend an Evensong service at Kings College, where my Episcopalian confirmation training kicked in enough to keep my standing, sitting and kneeling in all the right places.
Dinner at my pricey hotel, and then to bed. I awoke to the sound of water rushing, and nearby dripping. Well, it was England, I thought, so rain. But no, the dripping was too close, so I investigated and discovered water dripping from the ceiling in my bathroom. Not a drip-drip-drip, but several streams of dripping, forming a syncopation of rhythm. Also, a crack was forming in the ceiling, just above the toilet, so when I sat, as one must, my head was soaked.
I called the front desk, who said, “OK, we’ll send someone up in a minute.”
Two hours later, daringly showered and packed, I arrived at the front desk. As I mentioned, this, the Hotel du Vin, was meant to be my splash-out hotel, not my splash-on.
“It’s an old building,” said one of the concierges.
“Right, well, there are cracks,” I said. Both concierges, not natives of England and recently enough departed from their teenaged years to remember the masks of eye-rolling forbearance, as in how big a deal is she going to make of this? “Look, it’s your building,” I said and watched their expressions shift to something akin to (had they been actual Englanders) well that’s just it, innit? Not our building, is it?
“That water damage is not going to stop,” I offered as my parting salvo. “Could I leave my bag here, please, until I leave for the station? By the way, is there a bus that could take me to the station, or should I just call a cab?”
“You can walk,” said the other concierge. “It’s an easy walk. Ten minutes. I’ll draw you a map.”
She drew the map, but perhaps a punishment for complaining about water pouring through the ceiling, I was sent on not an easy walk. I was by then walking 8-10 miles a day, so not quite a softie. However, my bewildered exhaustion drew the attention of a nice minister and her husband, and conversing with them shortened the (admittedly beautiful) train ride to London. I was afraid of coming off like a chatty American, because Brits think all Americans are chatty, and I’m chatty to begin with, but I learned a lot about them: that he had proposed to her in New York, at Ground Zero when it was still a steaming pile of rubble (I didn’t enquire why they went there; I will never understand why tourists do); that she used to be the minister in a men’s prison, until she had kids; that they had two kids; that they were having a romantic weekend in London and that this to them was made manifest by taking in the Harry Potter play.
(“Have you read ‘Peter Pan’?” the husband whispered to me, since we were on the subject of children’s literature. “Do you remember the part where the fairies are coming home in the morning from an orgy?” At this, I realized I had not read Peter Pan, but probably merely looked at some Disney picture-book version of it.“My boy Michael asked me what an orgy was and I said a party and now I’m scared to death of what he’ll say at kindergarten.”)
So off to Canterbury on the high-speed train, I maintained British silence until I could stand it no longer. “Why is this train so crowded?” I asked the young woman in the next seat.
“People getting off work,” she shrugged. It was three in the afternoon. “People getting away for the weekend.” It was Thursday.
“Seems a bit of a slog,” I said, although I realized that several of my co-workers do virtually the same commute, and they do it to live in crowded Long Island, not in a verdant countryside, caressed by swollen clouds.
“Kent,” said the young woman when she saw me press my fingers against the window. “You’re in Kent.”
“I love Kent,” I said. “It’s so English.”
“I love Kent, too,” she said. “I’ll never leave it.”
By the time I reached Canterbury, it looked as though we were in store for serious rain. It had only rained once during my English vacation, and at the time, I was in the British Library, having a coffee, watching the lightning fork the sky.
Now pulling up in front of the Ebury Hotel, I only hoped it wouldn’t rain just then, because the Ebury was far further out of town that I had reckoned and I was still holding out the hope of a decent meal in England.
“It is only a short walk into town,” said the hotelier, Matthew.
It was only a mile, after all.
I settled in on the patio of the “very good” French restaurant Matthew had recommended (it was a chain), and it was there that I met the witch.
The Witch’s Tale
The patio faced the cobblestoned court square of the town. In the twilight, pre-teen boys practiced, and failed at, their skateboard tricks. Failure meant that the skateboard sailed one or two feet into the air and then clattered to the cobblestones in a manner that the black-haired woman sitting at the corner of the patio with her husband found distracting.
“People come here to relax,” I overheard her telling the waitress.
She complained about various other things in a manner which made me want to apologize to the waitress (my therapist and I have yet to heal me of this compulsion). But then, bells chimed and I raised my head like a rapturous idiot, like some peasant girl in a movie on her journey to sainthood, played by Jennifer Jones or Ingrid Bergman, hearing the voice of God.
“Is that the Cathedral?” I asked, so dumb and humble that the husband took pity on me, and then so did the wife. Too bad I had come at such a time, they told me, the Cathedral was undergoing renovations. If I went the next day at Evensong, I wouldn’t have to pay to get in. How long was I here for?
When the wife went to the restroom, the husband told me that she was an artist. She’d earned her art degree here in Kent, and then her master’s in London. We then ate and drank privately until a particularly loud clatter of skateboard startled us back into a community.
I shook my head at the sound.
“I know!” cried the wife. “Why must they do that! Paint a picture! Write a story!”
Well, I for one thought they did that because they were ten-year-old boys, and for a ten-year-old boy, mastering a useless physical skill is its own delight. But since she said, “Paint a picture,” I went to her, unwisely emboldened by the wine I’d drunk, the miles I’d traveled, the nice minister on the train, the orgiastic fairies of Peter Pan, the ardent Miss Kent . . .
“Your husband says you’re an artist,” I said. “I do these.”
I showed her my push-pin art on my phone.
She took my phone and began swiping.
“Do you have OCD?” she asked.
“Sorry?” I asked.
“What’s this? Magritte.” Swipe. “Munch. Who’s this meant to be?”
“Am I meant to take this seriously?”
“I just do it for fun,” I said. “It’s relaxing. I work in a cubicle farm. My colleagues like it, and I’ve learned a lot.”
“Oh? Like what? What have you learned?”
And here I confess to an is-that-the-Cathedral level of stupidity. The hostility in her tone was rising like a cobra ready to strike and I should have backed away.
“Oh, you know. How to direct the eye. How to saturate color, how to diffuse it with clear push-pins. I’m limited, you know, because I’m dealing with push-pins . . . ” I laughed but her eyes were by then slits.
“Look, do you want my honest opinion?”
Again, that question never leads to anything good. It never leads to I think you’re the whole package and the only one for me or this is the best manuscript that’s come across my desk in years or no, actually, that skirt makes your butt look quite flat.
“I think it’s absolute crap,” said the woman. “Absolute crap. This paint-by-numbers nonsense, this . . . ” Swipe, swipe, swipe. “Crap. Crap. These people, these people with no training at all, who think they can just . . . I don’t mean to upset you. But it’s absolute, utter crap!”
“It’s just for fun. It brightens up the nine-to-five.”
“It’s crap. I don’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset,” I said.
I wasn’t. My therapist and I have managed to heal this compulsion, of becoming upset because other people are upset. Push-pin art has been to me like those desktop Zen gardens that were popular awhile back, or like a scavenger hunt of the mind. One’s resources are very limited. Even in a mosaic, the artist can shape the tessera (the name for an individual mosaic piece, for you crossword puzzle enthusiasts) but push-pins are almost always round. They come in only a few colors. The challenge of how to re-create a certain visual impact through a standard-issue office supply has been a soothing challenge to occupy me while I try to tease out solutions to the problems of my day job. The cubicle murals, in fact, had attracted so much congregating at my desk that I had decided to cease operations, even before this encounter.
“It’s crap. Crap. I don’t care how many Instagram followers you have.”
“I don’t have that many, actually.” Gently, I reclaimed my phone. Her husband had been laughing this whole time. “I’ll leave you alone now. Enjoy your dessert.”
“Oh, we will!” snapped the woman.
Walking back to the hotel, I reflected on how many times she had snapped “I don’t mean to upset you!” when upsetting me was clearly her aim. Amateur comes from amator, Latin for lover, and I did my push-pin art because I loved it. But there was no ego in it.
And that woman’s rage definitely came from ego. I tried to think of what occurrence, in my own field, would inspire a similar spite from me.
Maybe someone getting a three-book deal from a publisher based on a joke tucked into a fortune cookie? But would I say crap two dozen times?
But there was no money involved, no fame, no acclaim. Just me messing around with the masters using push-pins. I couldn’t figure it out.
The next day, I realized she must have been a witch. The kind the heroine meets on her journey in a fairy tale. The kind who tests her.