As one of the recipients of a #NYCArtist Corps grant, I did a reading last weekend of my work in progress, “40 Days at the Dog Cafe,” at the market adjacent to the dog cafe, Marche le Woof. After my reading, I conducted a workshop called “A Sense of Place,” inspired by the fact that I was inspired by the dog cafe, Chateau le Woof, to begin writing about my changing neighborhood, over the summer.
I am toying with the idea of offering a regular, free, low-key generative writing workshop for writers of all levels. The workshop was my favorite part of an already rewarding day. Here is the “teacher’s edition” of the handout I provided the participants. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Sense of Place
A Chateau le Woof workshop
When we read stories, we often don’t think of place as a primary element. In the earliest stories we heard, place hardly mattered at all. The story happened in a place – far away? enchanted? A kingdom? A village on the edge of a dark forest? A cottage by the sea? We had just enough to orient ourselves.
When we think of stories, we think of plot, characters, and the rise and fall of action. If we think of place at all, we think of where a story “takes place.” To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama, or, if you move in, in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone else, or, if you move in more closely, on the front porch of the Finch household and in a courtroom.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros, in King’s Landing, and in the throne room where the frankly ugly chair that everyone is fighting for actually sits.
But I’d like to explore how place can serve a story. How it can act as character, or metaphor, or place setting. Place setting is most common in the movies, where a bleak western landscape or a busy heartless city can set up a conflict for the hero. something to conquer.
But place can also be one of the main characters. the examples below are from essays. Let’s see how descriptions of place can be used.
PLACE AS CHARACTER
Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong’s energy and flash contradictions; Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of stick-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor’s pass. Hong Kong has a way of turning on your internal monologue. Walking becomes an act of silent storytelling, figuring people out. You feel like you are lost in some prelapsarian novel in which the plot has begun but the characters wait for you to name them. In some time, at some place, we step into an underground Cantonese restaurant and I see a grey-suited, red-tied man act like a parody of the States. American, I say, with an American accent: good-natured smiles, occasionally the slow English dispatched on foreigners and children, and a slightly uncomfortable look, as though he’s worried he’s outnumbered.
Ken Chen, “City Out of Breath,” 2005
This essay by Ken Chen describes a visit he made with his father to Hong Kong. His father spoke Mandarin but not Cantonese. Is Hong Kong a character? Perhaps an antagonist?
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions—the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold—keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink, as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption, rain that delivers itself with thunder, with lightning, with a rise of scents in this place so pure that moisture, dust, and the various bushes all have their own smell in the sudden humidity. Alive with the primal forces of rock, weather, wind, light, and time in which biology is only an uninvited guest fending for itself, gilded, dwarfed, and threatened by its hosts. It was the vastness that I love and an austerity that was also voluptuous. And the man?
Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” 2005
This essay by Rebecca Solnit describes a landscape and a love affair. She ends the passage with the question, “and the man?” but what do we already know about the man, from the way she described the desert? Is he fat or lean? iI the sex good? Is he emotionally available? What clues do we have?
PLACE AS TABLE-SETTING
In the bar up ahead waitresses slam sloe-gin fizzes down on wet tables and men point pool cues at each other in the early stages of drunkenness. The singer in the three-man band whispers test into the microphone and rolls his eyes at the feedback. The sound guy jumps up from a table full of ladies and heads over to turn knobs.
We crunch over the parking lot gravel and wait for our song to finish. I’m over my head, but it sure feels nice. The bar is low and windowless, with patched siding and a kicked-in door; the lot is full of muscle cars and pickups. A man and a woman burst through the door and stand negotiating who will drive. He’s got the keys but she looks fiercer. In the blinking neon our faces are malarial and buttery. As the song winds down, the drama in front of us ends. He throws the keys at her as hard as he can but she jumps nimbly out of the way and picks them up with a handful of gravel, begins pelting his back as he weaves into the darkness.
Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” 1995
Where are we? When are we? What do we make of the fact that the writer describes what’s going on in the bar before she and her companion even arrive? What kind of evening is going to unfold, and how do we know?
Whenever the experiment on and of
My life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
And be held.
Jane Mead, I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss
Write about a place that held you, how it held you, what it felt like to be held there.
Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced.
Write about a place the gives or gave you energy, that inspires or inspired you. (It doesn’t have to be artistic inspiration – it could have inspired you to make a move, or a declaration.)
Write about anything you like.
But it was not to be. When the bus reached the place where Vernon Boulevard becomes Astoria Boulevard, I hopped off, turned my back on the road to Astoria Park, and headed east down Vernon, towards Chateau le Woof, as though drawn there by a magnetic barking.
I had only a few times approached Chateau le Woof from this side, and I was curious to find this “3-40 Vernon Boulevard” which my research had informed me was the address where the public artist Mark di Suvero, in the 1980s, had set up a studio before he wandered over to a dumpsite on the East River and decided it would make an excellent sculpture park, what is now Socrates Sculpture Park. My problem with this research was that no such address existed.
I walked past the Two Coves Community Garden, a recovered and nurtured former dumping ground turned vigorously busy garden, replete with bags of mulch, stacks of pots and gardeners standing arms akimbo as they survey their plots, wearing the restless frowns that belie gardening as a mild past time, rather than the fruitless battle against nature that it is. I walked past Hallett’s Playground and the public housing apartments known as Astoria Houses, past the wharf for the ferry which whisks Wall Streeters to their jobs across the water, past the remains of an old loading dock, reduced to splintered black timbers emerging from the river like the hands of drowning ghosts, past a nudely clean, recently completed building on my left, with the wee chrome-fenced balconies favored by the new developers, festooned with banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter” and regular American flags, past a corrugated metal warehouse on my right, with a sophisticated buzzer lock and a heavy steel\ door bearing the sign “Space Time,” below the glued-on tin black and gold rectangular numbers available at any hardware store, indicating the address. “30-40.” I stepped over a patch of sidewalk deeply stained with seasons of trodden berries from the overhanging mulberry tree, reminding me of my Missouri girlhood. I glanced at the tip of the cove, inhaled the mildly brackish river scent and nodded a greeting at the water fowl waddling ashore on the ribbon of sand and . . .
I backed up. I didn’t turn around and walk back, but walked backwards, not quite a graceful moonwalk, but with a similar magic in the movement: Space Time. 30-40 Vernon Boulevard. The accounts I had read of Mark di Suvero had left out a zero. Problem solved.
I continued walking (forward) along the comma of the cove until I reached the entrance of the park. I paused at the gates to look at the dog café, looking in from where I usually look out – at the cove, the park, the vacant lot in between – and saw the barista Curtis waving at me hugely, like he was bringing a small plane into an airfield in heavy fog. I crossed Vernon Boulevard and entered the dog café. Curtis had found an apartment! He was now an Astorian! He gave me the address.
“I just came from there,” I said.
Curtis asked, “Did you see the memorial? They were having a memorial service. It was like the two year anniversary of this big explosion.”
An older woman fishing in the refrigerator for a bottled ice tea straightened up. “It was longer ago than that!”
“The sign said two years,” Curtis said.
“No,” the woman said. “I remember it. There was a fire, and then there was an explosion, and three firemen were killed.”
Had I been her drama teacher and she an acting student, I would have advised her to conserve her anger and not release it so early in the scene, but she was immediately enraged. Curtis said, feebly and unwisely, “They said two years?”
“I remember it!” the woman said. “I was here. How long have you lived here?”
Curtis stood stupefied in her glare until I attempted to distract her, “Where is this, exactly?”
“On Astoria Boulevard,” she said. “By Astoria Provisions.”
I shook my head. Astoria Provisions? A market? A food bank?
“By the library? You know where the library is?”
“The Carnegie library?” I asked, and watched a cold rage settle over her face as she told herself that no one in this godforsaken dog-addled café was capable of uttering a word of sense.
She probably thought, when I said “Carnegie library” that I meant a library close to Carnegie Hall, but I meant, in fact, the little library on the intersection of 14th Street, 28th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard. It is one of the New York City Carnegie libraries, of which 52 still exist as libraries. Only four of those are in Queens. The Astoria branch was designed by the architectural firm Tuthill & Higgins,whose partner William Tuthill did in fact design Carnegie Hall in the early 20th century. But the Carnegie libraries, roughly 2,500 built worldwide between 1880 and 1930, are a certain breed of library, and ushered in the public library as we know it today. Before then – that is, before 1880 – most libraries were fee-based, and almost none allowed the public to roam freely through the stacks, plucking out books at will. Andrew Carnegie, whatever else his robber-baron failings, is known as the “patron saint of libraries.”
Carnegie would build, at his own expense, a public library for any community that could demonstrate a willingness and ability to provide the building’s, and the collection’s, upkeep and maintenance once the building was up, and to pay a staff. Towns also had to commit to spend ten percent of the civic budget to the library and to make it available, free of cost, to all. The first Carnegie library was built in Carnegie’s hometown in Scotland; the next several were erected in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. Many of them are similar in architectural design, and beholden to a theme of “enlightenment.” Broad stairways lead to wide front doors (representing an ascension to knowledge), between two lamps or torches, either functioning or symbolic, representing the intellectual illumination promised within. Patrons are greeted by a large horseshoe-shaped reference desk.
I wrote a paper on the Carnegie libraries for one of my core classes at library school, which I attended so late in life that I was the same age, easily, of the parents of many of my classmates, and older than nearly all of my professors. Library school had only fertilized and hothoused the seeds of my nerdiness, so I did not attempt to explain the concept of a Carnegie library to the angry iced tea woman. Instead, I asked, “By the community garden?”
“What community garden?”
“The . . . community garden,” I repeated, because there was really not much more to say. One might know nothing of Carnegie libraries, but surely a triangle of thriving green amidst warehouses, the art-funded sanctioned graffitied walls of Welling Court, and the Section 8 housing of Astoria Houses, would not escape notice? “Two Coves Community Garden.”
(The garden, by the way, is less than 500 feet from “Astoria Provisions,” which is a restaurant.)
“It was 2001,” the woman suddenly remembered. “June 2001. Father’s Day. There was a fire, then an explosion. Eight kids lost their fathers that day. One of them was called Fahey . . . and the other two were something Irish. You don’t remember this?”
“No,” I said.
“How long have you lived here?”
“My current apartment? Since the ‘90’s.”
“And you don’t remember?”
The other “something Irish” were John Downing, who had spent that morning studying for the lieutenant’s exam, and was planning a trip to Ireland later that month with his young children to see his wife’s parents and his own grandparents in their respective Irish counties. And Harry Ford, a 27-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, who had been cited ten times for bravery. The fire occurred at the Long Island General Supply Company, across the street from the Astoria (Carnegie) Library. Long Island General Supply was a community fixture, a hardware store which kept paint, lacquer and thinners in its basement, which had no sprinkler system. Once the fire reached the basement, the explosion blast “sent rubble streaming like confetti across Astoria Boulevard and tossed firefighters about like rag dolls,” according to The New York Times.
Downing and Ford were killed by falling brick immediately upon the explosion, which injured fifty other firefighters. Brian Fahey, whose name the iced tea woman remembered, was plunged into the basement when the explosion blew the floor out from under him, He gasped into his hand-held radio, “I’m by the stairs. Please come and get me.” He was found by his frantic colleagues, four hours later, dead from smoke inhalation.
The men were honored by unanimous resolution in the House of Representatives—unanimous, across party lines, reflecting a different time, but also a different time made manifest by remarks made from then-representative Anthony Weiner, and then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The news accounts from the time – the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, The New York Times and even CNN and the Associated Press – are truly heartbreaking. Nothing this bad had happened since . . . nothing this bad . . . but of course, it was June 2001. What was I doing in June, 2001? On Father’s Day? My father was long gone by then, and a June Sunday twenty years ago is wiped from my memory, perhaps because of the sky-ripping, worldwide tragedy which occurred three months later. No. I didn’t remember it.
“2001,” I said to the iced tea woman, and turned my head to include Curtis. “So it was the twenty year anniversary. Not two. You probably just missed the zero.”
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.
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.
April 28 was Independent Bookstore Day, a day I usually let pass me by, although I do patronize my local bookstore, The Astoria Bookshop, for most of my book needs (the exception being out-of-print books or university presses). The Astoria Bookshop was the first (or last, depending on where you live) on the Independent Bookstore Day Crawl, trek through Astoria, Long Island City, Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
I recently experienced a professional setback that sent me down a spiral of sadness. Further, it has been rainy, cold and overcast throughout our so-called “spring” in New York City. I was grey inside and out. But Saturday was a lovely sun-kissed day, and I decided to embark on a literary adventure.
All biblophiles will say they have too many books, but, having recently packed up two bookcases in anticipation of a living room remodel, I can state firmly that I have too many books. They are sitting in boxes and piled on a table in my bedroom. No amount of purging—or, as we say in the library trade, “de-accessioning”—seems to cull the population. I have been researching and writing a novel about young women in British Intelligence during World War II for what seems like a quarter of my life, and between Atlas Obscura alerting me to new weird facts about the war, and AbeBooks on hand to supply me with obscure volumes, I keep acquiring and now own more books than I could read in a year if I quit my job and wrote nothing.
So to acquire more books simply to lift my mood seemed extravagant. I determined I would make one a gift, as my grand-nephew (that’s right; deal with it) is coming up on a birthday. Also, I would make one a goal, as I want my friend Sam to read William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Sam and I have recently read John Williams’ Stoner and Augustus, and after reading Stoner, I thought he would like So Long, See You Tomorrow. Williams and Maxwell are both sad, dead, twentieth-century American males.
First stop, the Astoria Bookshop. No William Maxwell, so I decided to go for Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. With it in hand, I edged toward the register (it was very crowded, and it was story hour), when I saw Galia Bernstein’s I Am a Cat, and chose it instead for my grand-nephew, who lives in a household without a cat.
After the Astoria Bookshop, I hopped on the Q102 to take me to Long Island City, crossed the Plaza, and became thoroughly lost. Every person I asked for directions seemed also to be lost, until I found a young father with a baby in a stroller, who sent me in the right director to Book Culture.
Book Culture was celebrating the day with coffee, donuts and orange juice. No Maxwell there, either. I went ahead with How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and the friendly young women at the counter helped me determine how I could best get to Word, in Greenpoint, without having to cross the Pulaski Bridge on foot.
I took the B62 over the bridge and into Brooklyn, then walked, a lot, until I found Word. No Maxwell. I purchased some sticker books for the grand-nephew. I also bought a novel by Henry Green, whose novel Caught, about the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during the Blitz, I had just bought at the Strand kiosk at the southend of Central Park earlier in the week, on a rare sunny day.
I hope you’re sensing a theme.
Word was having a “blind date with a book,” where any purchase scored you a book wrapped in brown paper. Mine turned out to be a galley of a book about childbirth and drug addiction, so I politely handed it back. Word was also the first place I encountered a fellow traveler, who was coming from the other direction. She seemed confident about Book Culture but leery of The Astoria Bookshop, and waved away my attempt to tell her about how to use buses.
I paused along Franklin Street for sustenance, a bathroom and better Wi-Fi. I was trying to live-tweet my journey.
Then I walked down Franklin Street for a little over a mile, until the cross streets changed from named streets to numbered ones. At 4th Street, I turned left and made it to McNally Jackson.
And there I found Maxwell!
My card was now full!
My completed card was confiscated by the man behind the counter. It will now be entered into a raffle in which the winner will receive . . . well, I’ll let you guess.
I took the B32 up Franklin, over the Pulaski Bridge, all the way to Long Island City, where I was lucky enough to catch the Q69, which took me down 21st Street and left me at Broadway.
I then returned to my home base.
And then I came home, footsore but sunny.
The rule of four
Bookstores visited: four
Books purchased: four, plus three sticker books
Buses taken: four
Hours taken: four
Miles walked: 4.89
Ollie had a rough weekend, apparently, like most of us last weekend, and decided to leave her enclosure at the Washington Zoo, which she shared with two male bobcats. The full headline of the article in The New York Times was “Ollie, a Standoffish Bobcat, is Missing From the National Zoo.” The Times was merely quoting the Zoo’s “curator of great cats” (why, I wonder, has my library school never posted a position quite that cool-sounding on the school listserv?), who described her in rather lengthy and judgmental detail, adding that she was “not super friendly,” and that “it would be extremely easy on us if she were a cat who would come when called, but that’s not who this individual is.”
I puzzled that the curator of great cats was so perturbed by her aloofness. Is he not the curator of great cats? Has he met a cat? Does he taxonomize them by friendliness, rather than species? Are Ollie’s two enclosure-mates models of affability? The curator of great cats added crankily, “We’re looking for a cat who could literally be sitting in a tree right next to us,” as if elusiveness and tree-climbing were traits peculiar to “this individual.” (And who refers to a cat as an “individual”? Back in my youth, “individual” and “this person” were ways in which my gay friends would seek my romantic advice without outing themselves: “This individual is very possessive, so I don’t want to upset this person.”)
On the #Ollie the Bobcat Twitter feed (because of course), one individual tweeted: “Ollie has been criticized as “very standoffish” and “not super friendly.” Because I guess there’s no right way to be a female BOBCAT either.”
And then Ollie returned. Or perhaps she never left. (She could have literally been sitting in a tree right next to us.) She was spotted near the birdcage by a keen-eyed tourist and returned to her enclosure, after receiving two stitches in her left paw and a round of booster shots.
Her escapades generated twelve pages of news headlines on Google. Ollie stories were reported in France and the U.K., and her return provoked a number of think pieces in which she was used as a great symbol of whatever the writer had in mind.
“She was every American worker, underappreciated, shunted to the side,” wrote Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post. “The bobcat habitat wasn’t even on the zoo’s main circle around Big Cat mountain, just a little culvert, no more glamorous than the accounts payable or customer service department.”
This is the only news I wanted to follow this week.
I have recently finished a novel which I spent eight years researching and writing. I am also nearing the end of my master’s degree in library and information science; I’m at the beginning of the semester of my second-to-last class. I also quit my part-time gig reviewing books for one of the trades. Finally, the current political climate is one I find distressing. All of which combines to send me into literature. I can read what I like and I have more time to do it.
For the past two years, most of what I’ve read has been focused on WWII or library science, so to plunge now, hedonistically, wantonly, into reading what I like is a heady experience, and I intend to document it.
Going forward, I will do it in real time, but for the month of January, here is what I’ve read.
Title: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Where I got it: Christmas gift from a colleague
What I thought: Nicely built world, with Mitchell a bit of a show-off with his prose. The entire long middle section, which someone else described (quite accurately, I think) as a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go could have used a firmer edit.
Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery
Where I got it: Second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue
What I thought: I just adored the characters and the setting. The misanthropic, sneaky concierge: “To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age,” and the rebellious bourgeois 12-year-old who is one of the residents in the luxury building the concierge tends, who are soulmates unbeknownst to them.
Title: Margaret the First
Author: Danielle Dutton
Where I got it: ARC from publisher
What I thought: A vividly imagined and uniquely crafted novel about Margaret, Duchess of Cavendish, a free-thinking, dream-hounded, imaginative noblewoman whom the newspapers of her day dubbed “Mad Madge.” Poetic, almost hallucinatory prose takes us into the restless, unhappy, seeking mind of Margaret, a woman born in the wrong time.