Wayfaring in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I have a lot to say.

I had my last day of work on a Tuesday and by Thursday I was on a plane heading across an ocean for the first time in years. The man in my row didn’t have much English, but smilingly offered me biscuits over and over throughout the flight, and solicitously slipped an extra pillow under my knees when I curled them up onto the empty seat between us. When my client Bonnie had said goodbye, she worried aloud that no one was looking out for me. I thought of this, tucked up in that tight plane seat, and smiled.

My sister picked me up at London Heathrow on Friday morning, and, driving with aggressive delight in her little Honda Jazz, brought me back to her place for a shower. Then, within an hour I was with her and friends in the park in Southall doing book table, and a few hours later at youth club: eating pizza in a church basement, then sitting under a tree by a water cooler dreamily watching teenagers play a frisbee game that was slowly devolving, and thinking that these kids were so nice and funny and going back into teaching sounded not so bad after all. I slept very well that night, suddenly in a different place.

Mary took me out into the countryside the next day, to the Royal Standard, supposedly the oldest pub in Britain. I had pickled kidneys for lunch, and then we went on an idyllic walk over rolling hills while I chattered on to her about my uncertain plans for the future. That evening back in Southall her friend made us biryani. I realized that it had been a long time since I had seen Mary in her place—this bright, noisy, curry-scented corner of England—and it had sunk its roots deep into her. In response, she stepped into every room she entered with loud, dependable confidence.

By Sunday evening, my family had all arrived and we went to my sister’s church, Masih Ghar, and then to the back garden at the local pub to celebrate Father’s Day. It was one of only two dinners the five of us had together over the course of the week. It was good and easy and certain. 

Over the next few days I climbed St. Paul’s with George (where I found out that my brother—who for decades has given the impression that he can leap tall mountains in a single bound—does not much like heights) and went to a traveling circus with my family (where we clapped and laughed and gasped while women hung by their hair, and men hung by their chins, and a human pyramid of acrobats jumped rope together). I found myself at the kids club and the parent-toddler group my sister runs and having huge dosas for lunch, sitting in red booths. I’ve spent the last year or two pulling the shutters of myself closed—metaphorically, physically, even metaphysically—but nothing here would let me do that. Something was always in the way. The latch was broken.

*

By Wednesday afternoon, I was walking along the river in Cambridge with my brother and mom, brightly painted canal boats on our left and a park full of lolling students on our right. I wore a long skirt and sandals, like summer. The conference on George Herbert that my dad had planned began the next morning and I gave my paper very first, on a panel which included one of my professors from undergrad as well as a nice man who remembered me from a conference ten years previous. But the whole weekend was full of odd-but-good connections like that: ties to Vancouver and Pennsylvania and Madison and home. Herbert people, like Herbert himself, are gentle and warm and humble, and I liked talking to them, appreciated that they were always eager to remember my name, though when they realized my family connections, they would say, “So your whole family’s at this conference? I’ve never seen that before…” And I’d laugh and say, “I know. Neither have I. Don’t worry about it.”

Throughout the week, anxiety was sometimes still gnawing at my belly, but slowly, cracks began to form, letting the light in. The first night we sat in Little Saint Mary’s for a poetry reading. I had been, more than I think I understood, wrestling with the place of writing in my life—with what seat to give it at the table, with how to keep it from becoming a bugbear—and my heart slowed its irregularities, felt healthy and hungry again, as I listened to people faithfully present the words they had strung together. One poem was called “Reading the Desert Fathers While Eating a Donut.” The audience knew what she meant.

Then there was the banquet in the great hall at Trinity College—ornate wood paneling reached all around us and hands reached over our shoulders to refill wine glasses again and again, and I think I might have had duck five different ways. Afterwards we sat in Trinity Chapel while a vocal ensemble sang baroque arrangements of Herbert’s poems, harmonies rising over us into high stone space like a woven canopy. They were accompanied by a lute player who just looked like a lute player. I could’ve picked her out if I saw her on the street in Kansas.

And on Sunday, Malcolm Guite led us in a Eucharist service at Clare College Chapel, and the words of the Anglican liturgy tumbled around in my head, where they’ve been nesting for more than a decade now—Ye that intend to lead a new life, they say. There was one more keynote talk that afternoon at a church in the countryside where we were greeted with change-ringing from the bell-tower. As I sat on a centuries-old wooden pew, I watched the leaves behind the leaded glass at the far end of the chancel bobbing their heads in the breeze. Yes, they said, new life, yes, yes.

After that we went to Little Gidding where we were served cake and tea in the garden and one of the poets who is also a latinist read T.S. Eliot’s poem in the place of its birth—because what else could we do? “We shall not cease from exploration,” he read, projecting over the windy blusters which shook the tent and made the tent poles creak. That evening a friend I hadn’t seen since 2020 picked me up in Cambridge and we drove through the night up to Edinburgh. I sometimes slept and sometimes talked and was content without pretense.

*

After a negligible amount of sleep in Edinburgh, Tze and I were on the road again by midday, this time in a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender with another artist in tow. I listened to the tick of the windshield wipers and looked out the window. I realized that over the last couple years as I’ve been busy latching the shutter of myself—I know I have—I may have been missing some things. It was as if there had been a rush of water—a rush of newness—over old glass, and now it was time to look out again and see how the views had shifted. So as we traveled north and north, I paid attention.

There are so many blues and greens and browns and greys and purples in the world—more than I ever knew. Gorse and heather grew up over the country, which was sparsely populated by sturdy buildings with little rows of chimney pots. For the last hour of the drive there were constant vistas to our right hand side: wide, slow hills crested by winding stone walls that did not seem to know they weren’t there to crown a king. Beyond that lay the blanket of the sea, striped with sand, and above that the clouds, a landscape unto themselves. 

We talked most of the time, too. I pulled out my clothing interview questions from my project last spring and we all three went through them as we sped past legions of sheep and cows who were living in glory and didn’t even know it. 

We arrived at Freswick Castle, up north of Wick, in time for dinner, a place where they take in artists and strays and seem determined to leave the latchstring out. So I spent the next few days with warm people, people who tell you encouragingly that you seem so comfortable and confident without realizing this is due to their kindlinesses. Our wine glasses were refilled constantly at dinner. I felt more “looked out for” than Bonnie sitting worrying in her chair back in Madison could have imagined, and was often on the verge of tears. It was a combined sense, I think, of inadequacy and gratefulness. It didn’t get all the way dark there, even at midnight. On clear nights in midsummer, the sky just gets drowsy blue-gold-pink and hangs like that for a few hours before the sun comes up again. Murray, who owns the place, gave us a tour and spoke confidently about where the theater and the film studio and the pool would go. In the midst of all that cloudy diffusion of light, it was hard not to believe him.

In the mornings, I sat in the window in my room and attempted writing exercises and struggled over the skeletons of poems—unsure where to direct all my words and thoughts. And one day, using spotty wifi, I managed to obtain an apartment back in Greensboro (a place all my own) and a job (teaching literature back at Caldwell—And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we first started…) The castle is large, but also small, and everyone there had a front-row seat to the tumult of my transition. My friend was filming a video for Wayfarer Trust, which operates out of the castle, and I shot some moody b-roll and a less moody interview with him and continued to wonder where writing would fit for me now. I watched candles reflected in the mirror each night while we drank whiskey by the fire, noticed how the old hearthstones lay flush with restored floors, and took deep breaths.

I took walks, of course—with others at Duncansby Head, where we saw a puffin, and along the cliffs on my own, clammy with clear sweat. In that part of the world, the wind was such an active participant that it was visible in all things, like the Spirit. The grasses bow to it, the water ruffles under its touch, and the birds—hundreds of them—coast trustingly on its back.

*

I was tired by Friday, when I left Freswick. But it was the tiredness of progress. The pages of my journal were beginning to feel safe again, not like a wilderness. Tze and I dropped off one friend in Inverness and immediately picked up three more and headed west to the Isle of Skye.

While we drove and chatted I watching the highlands outside becoming more and more themselves, and thought of too many ways to describe the hills: the lines of the slopes rise like Icarus climbing into the late-day sun…wrinkled knees under sheets in the lamp light…mountain peaks are arms reaching up side by side like Moses at the battle against the Amalekites. 

We did a far-too-large grocery shop before crossing onto Skye, and then the back of the Defender was so crowded that I spent the last hour with a lap full of raw poultry and a bottle of wine in my skirt. Even so, when we got to the cottage we realized we’d forgotten butter, so half-hysterical, and with varying amounts of encouragement from friends, I beat heavy cream till we had enough for the next morning’s toast.

We spent the next couple days scrambling around the island. I liked seeing friends dotted into the muddy creases of a steep green hillside as we climbed, and I didn’t mind it when I stepped in a bog, went in up to my calf, and almost lost a shoe. The sludge that was left on my leg was green at its top edge, like the earth itself. Hiking there was much more about making your own way than following a path, and as we traced along the side of the mountain at Quiraing I always found my feet drifting up and up, unconsciously choosing the high road. At Fairy Glens there were loud American voices that made me smile. “You’re makin’ me nervous and I don’t even know you!” one woman shouted to a Scot high on the rocks, who immediately shot her a look of disdain. Another repeated over and over and over to Lord-only-knows-who, “Lookit the dog working the sheep across the valley!” 

I carried my journal with me everywhere and squinted as the sun reflected off its pages, managing to scribble anyway about the benches cleft of mud and grass, the plush black moss at the tops of things and the ankle-deep mounds of springy orange growth on the descent. My hair whipped all the time into my peripheral vision, so I could only see what was just below my feet. 

At the Old Man of Storr, it was gusty and threatening and while the rest hiked I stayed tucked in my seat in the back of the car and re-read my journal. I found I’d used the word “visceral,” over and over to describe the trip, as if it were a brand new discovery each time—that goodness could be real, that I could taste it. I heard a passerby say loudly to her boyfriend, “You think she looks sad back there?” But all I was thinking was, What a funny place for flowers to grow—in wind and rain and chill.

The last day we left Skye slowly—on the way I bought a very nice felt hat and a sheepskin hot water bottle cover. We stopped at a distillery where they made storm-matured whiskey, a phrase I loved. We stopped for photos by a bridge and by a castle and by a valley and by a beach, and got caught in the rain again and again. Back on the mainland I made them listen to me read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud, even though it was July. We drove along Loch Lomond, which is very long, and listened to sad Scottish songs, and then eventually to James Taylor as well as Peter, Paul and Mary, because it was, after all, American Independence Day.

*

I slept extra the next morning, back at Tze’s house. Then he showed me bits of Edinburgh—from low tide and from a high hill—and we bought pasties at the train station and he saw me off.

I was sad on the train back to London. So I listened to a Kate Atkinson novel and then saw a pure white horse in the middle of a sheep field, which made me feel hopeful I was T.S. Eliot, on the verge of something great and somber. “Costing not less than everything,” I thought (lines from “Little Gidding” kept coming back to me with dramatic import.)

Then the last day I put on a crop-top, a white linen skirt, and the new hat itself, and went into central London alone. I wandered around the V&A, going up stairs and more stairs till I’d climbed out of the way of most of the other people. I looked at tiles and stained glass and golden miniatures and modern furniture design till I was all full up and warm. I got lunch in Hyde Park, and took the tube to Hampstead Heath where I meandered around for a while, ineffectually but peaceably. Then I came back and had dinner in Southall with Mary and some of the short term teams there for the week, scooping up butter chicken and paneer and dal with pieces of naan till I was satisfied, my fingers oily, but clean.

On my travels home, I made friends—on the plane, in the customs line, on the bus—or rather they made me, drawn by my cool new hat or maybe just their own anxieties. And I thought a lot about the Luci Shaw poem “The chair without distinction,” about just sitting on the edge of things, windows and doors wide open, available to be walked into, to be leaned on for a moment. I had walked into the kind doors of so many other people in the past few weeks, more than I could count.

The point is, this trip gave me much. That’s what I’m trying to say with all these too many words. But the thing it did most is it busted me open, cracked through dry skin, and began what may be a long process of cleaning me out. It told me that I must and can write and that I must and can love. I’m already doing them both anyway and I was made for them. So best not hold them in. Christ walks on the water, the wind, the seemingly impossible, and he’s calling me to meet him there, holding out open hands, always open.

As it says over the door of the Royal Standard when you cross the threshold, “Go gently, pilgrim” (but, by all means, go.)

Beauty Past Change

On Sunday, I got back from an overseas trip that was the product of many very long-term dreams and plans. I find that I’m grateful for so much.

On a Friday a couple weeks earlier, Karen and I drove up to DC. We listened to old high-school era mix CDs of my sister’s, and got Chik-fil-A. She put her feet up on the dashboard, and then when it got dark and poured lashing rain for the last couple of hours, both of us got worried about my driving. It all felt very 2009, which was fitting, since that was the year we had sat in a booth in a Chik-fil-A back in Greensboro as teenagers and made a list called “Alice and Karen: London Extravaganza 2012!” Five years late is not that late. As we waited at our gate at Dulles the next morning, I thought that a lot of things were being fulfilled.

We stayed the first few days with my sister in Southall, which is in southwest London. They call it Little India. I always think that coming into Southall as a white American is double culture-shock, because you’ve got all the neat, well-worn British infrastructure, but it’s overwhelmingly, full-to-bursting South Asian.

On Monday night, while we watched a wonderfully ridiculous Bollywood movie, and ate wonderful chicken curry and paneer, one of Mary’s roommates covered our arms with henna, and for the rest of the week when we were out around Southall, we got surprised and approving looks from the locals. I bought a really great coat for £5.50 at the charity shop Mary helps run and stared longingly at the beautiful saris that I have no clue how or excuse to wear. And of course the whole family plus Karen ate at Mirch Masala our last night in the city. Mary ordered for the table: lamb on the bone, two kinds of chicken, naan, veg, more paneer, and pitchers of mango lassi. Then we walked back down the sunny crowded streets, full and happy.

Of course, we saw Central London too. The first day, I dragged Karen and George from Kensington Gardens, where we saw the wonderfully ridiculous Italianate memorial a grieving Victoria had built for her Albert, past various important landmarks, all the way down to the Thames, entirely on foot. We ended up at a pretty sliver of park called Victoria Tower Gardens, where we sat on a bench and watched the river go by. That was my favorite part of the day.

I like the quieter corners of cities best: Karen and I walked around Notting Hill another evening,  and when we went to Oxford for the day, best of all was walking through Christ Church Meadow. We sat by the stream there, watched people go leisurely punting past, and took polaroids.

Later in the week, when the whole family had gotten there we went to Hodgkins Certified Favorite London Places: the British Library, Hampstead Heath, and Apulia for an early birthday dinner for Dad. Mom had gotten us all to write poems for him, and after we had read those out and were full of Italian food and wine, we walked around the corner to see an emotional Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest. I had seen The Mousetrap the night before with Karen, but I didn’t compare them. I just enjoyed them both.

 

Then on Saturday Karen left for Brussels and the continent, and my family strapped on our packs and took a train to Birmingham and then another one to Welshpool. Out the window of the train as we were crossing into Wales I saw a field crowded full of solar panels with dozens of sheep wandering between them. I knew that we were getting close.

Back in the eighth century, a Saxon king called Offa decided that he wanted to invade Wales. When this proved more difficult than predicted, he forced his slaves to build a very long earthen wall between his territory and the Welsh, so that they couldn’t invade him back with more success. So now there is a 150 mile walking path named after Offa’s Dyke which winds along the present-day border between England and Wales, back and forth across (and sometimes right on top of) the Dyke itself. Our plan was to do about seventy miles of it, heading south. (Except apparently what the British call walking is what we call hiking, but it’s probably for the best that we didn’t understand that beforehand.)

We got off the train at Welshpool, and it was raining. So we pulled our ponchos over ourselves and our packs and lurched into the town like hunchbacked swamp-beasts to find lunch in a shop. I got a Scotch egg (and others got other things, like sausage rolls,) and we set off down the canal. By the time we reached the actual entrance of the path (marked by the marvelous yellow acorn that we all learned to love so well), the sun was out, and we stripped off our ponchos and marched forth through various wonderfully rolling private pastures, confident in the Right of Way Act for walkers.

Then our precious guidebook announced that there were double arrow climbs ahead of us, and we realized that we had not quite counted on this level of exertion. It was the sort of hill that would almost certainly have had switchbacks in the US, but of course it was just someone’s farmland, and you don’t put switchbacks on that. So we toiled up it for a good hour or two, with a very important reprieve at what was marked as a “special bench.” (All benches henceforth became special.) But after that first painful climb was finally over, there were golden barley fields to cut straight through, which, when you were in the midst of them, went on and on, only stopping at the sky, and then there was a shadowy pine forest that our guidebook called “Grimms’ fairytale,” and a country estate with tall, tall trees, and tame pheasants dawdling past our feet. And then there were hot showers and an enormous dinner at our inn.

The days after the first one blend together more, (or, rather, I’m not going to subject you to a play-by-play,) but I consistently wrote in my journal about the beauty and my tiredness and my contentment. I said that none of these things could be overstated, and I wasn’t being hyperbolic. It was the most beautiful–you did not really have to climb for a view–the view was everywhere. I was the most tired and the most content. We played Spades in pubs at night while waiting for dinner, we picked and ate blackberries as we walked, we had cake at the top of a windy hill and read Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Psalms aloud to the livestock, we took advantage of the free tea and biscuits for walkers in country churches, we squelched in our boots when it rained, we ate bought sandwiches in the ruins of the castle where George Herbert was born, and we saw thousands upon thousands of sheep and marched along daily in their droppings. We even, inevitably, came across a couple of them in various states of decomposition, one with a monarch butterfly fluttering in and out of its ribs. My mom said there was a poem in that, and I agreed with her, but I couldn’t think what it would be.

I realized as we walked up and down and over the hills that I was capable of much more than I had thought, though I resented the fact that while you climbed, the best and farthest views were at your back. (I knew there was a life lesson in that as well, but I decided simply to learn it by osmosis, rather than by dwelling on it.)

We cut our walk short by a day to spend time in Hay-on-Wye, a little Welsh town with more bookstores per capita than anywhere in the world. We split up in the morning and then met back at a bench near the town square with our individually accumulated book piles, and in the afternoon took a cab to Llathony, which has a beautiful ruined Priory and only about three other buildings. Our driver gleefully played chicken with the other cars on the narrow Welsh roads, and drove so fast along the side of the mountain and through Gospel Pass, that I said seriously to myself, “Well, if this is the way I go, it’s so beautiful that I don’t think I’ll mind.”

That was a symptom of the way I felt the whole two weeks, though. Once I got past jet lag in London, and adjusted to the fact I was somewhere new, everything in me seemed to simplify and slow and fall into its own groove. The rain which had been terrifying on the initial drive up to DC became friendly as I squinted through wet eyelashes, looking for the next path marker. The sun brightened the things around me: the grass, the roofs, the crowds of sheep, the crowds of people, and I was able to appreciate the shades of difference it made. The practice of gratitude became easy and easier.

Common sense says the feeling will not last, but I’ve been home for a few days now, and it’s still hanging on. On the plane on the way back, I wrote a haiku about the clouds outside the window, unconsciously inspired, I think, by the legions of sheep I’d witnessed staring so stolidly at me earlier that week. So who’s to say that doesn’t mean something?

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                            Praise him.