Friday, July 3, 2009

Coming home


I walked out of the hospital after a busy day. From the hilltop overlooking the Potomac toward Virginia the sky lay like a landscape on the tops of the trees. It was that time of the evening when the light balances the dark. Long past sunset the crescent moon was a solid ball of gray cupped in a hand of bright flesh. It caught me and I stopped to look at it for a moment and take a big breath. The waning of the light and the mystery of the visible/invisible moon made me think of how we were slipping from one life into another.

After having returned home from our long journey, it has taken some time to get used to the now unfamiliar routine of things. Work, home, family, friends, and church, pets, houseplants, mail and dishes were all things we left behind when we went away. Now they are once again a part of our everyday existence. The things closest to our hearts and our everyday life were for a time far away from us. We ventured away from our home, our center, our life, creating a new one as we went. The time and energy we had focused on mundane tasks like opening the mail and washing dishes we spent on new tasks. Daily questions like, "What should we have for dinner?" changed to "What will happen today?" The first question presumed so much - a routine and a familiarity unnoticed until we left it. The answer to, "What will happen today?" depended on the time, the place, and our purpose in being where we were at the time. Dinner in Africa was cooked by the wonderful Matron Nancy and was brought to us, a surprise every day much like the rest of our visit there. Returning to England from the raw newness of Ghana, we were grateful when our friends fed us because it felt like Thanksgiving dinner every time - familiar, comfortable, and delicious. We rented a flat for some periods and so the dinner question like the place we stayed became familiar, the only new thing was locating the local grocery store. For the rest of the trip, we ate by a combination of necessity, chance and planning, following tips from waiters, fellow travelers, hotel owners and guide books with the inevitable failures and occasional memorable successes.

Daily life was dictated by our ever-changing circumstances. The heat or the cold, the room three stories up or the one on the ground floor, a place with a kitchen or a place with no refrigerator, a car or no car - all of these strongly influenced what we did and how we did it. It changed our life of habit to a life of infinite variety that demanded constant attention and adaptation. In the end we longed for sameness and habit, returning to the same Kofte shop in Istanbul 3 times just because it was familiar. The waiters knew us and laughed when they saw us coming, ushering us to a white marble table where we ordered the same simple thing every time - Kofte, white bean salad, and Ayran, a drink like buttermilk.

Doing things differently every day for 4+ months shed new light on the life we had left behind. We began to wonder, "Why, in fact, do we do things the same way every day, anyway?" Coming back, I am afraid I will forget important things and not act on perceptions that we had. I worry that the lessons we learned on sabbatical will be overshadowed by the demands of the life to which we return. Then I realize we can't un-see things truly seen or un-learn them if we truly learned them. We did not really leave a life behind but took our life with us in a new direction. And even if memories fade, like the moon at the balance of day and night, there will be times in the lulls between things when we can remember clearly. And then there are all the pictures....

Friday, June 5, 2009

Canterbury Cathedral



This visit had more than its share of serendipity, enough to make us feel blessed and satisfied that we had made an fitting end to a wonderful voyage. Serendipity might not go far enough actually, but I leave that for others to ponder.

To begin with, there was the meeting in Hatchard's bookstore in Piccadilly Circle in London. While I stayed on at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Craig left, making a bee line for the bookstore. Browsing in a bookstore for a couple of hours was his idea of heaven on earth. Evidently Bishop Lee of Virginia had the same idea. As Craig was hunting for a title on the ground floor of the bookstore, he spotted our soon to be retired Diocesan Bishop coming up the stairs. In the course of their conversation they discovered they were both headed for Canterbury Cathedral that Sunday.

We stayed on the grounds of the Cathedral in the Lodge, a stone and wood Romanesque looking structure next to the Cathedral with lovely rooms facing on a courtyard. The courtyard was filled with green lawn and white roses following a flagstone pathway to a gate. As we walked back out of the courtyard toward the car to get our bags, Craig noticed a small oval plaque on the inner wall of the gate which thanked the Diocese of Virginia for supplying the funds to build the courtyard.

Then we kind of forgot that Sunday was Pentecost. So when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury processed down the aisle to a packed cathedral including Bishop Lee and Mrs. Lee in the front row and the new Lord Mayor of Canterbury and his cabinet and their families, it was pretty wonderful. More wonderful since we had a great seat which we got because Craig convinced me to unpack his clergy shirt.

Craig had to work to convince me (the queen of packing) that maybe it was a good idea to wear his clergy shirt to Canterbury Cathedral. I needed a lot of convincing because the shirt was (tightly) packed on the bottom of the (biggest) suitcase (separate from its collar of course) in the car in the parking lot in the dark. (Look, I'm not saying I was being appropriately organized here - I was just focused on getting HOME.)

The next morning we came into the Cathedral crossing by a side door next to the lodge. We noticed that all of the seats in the front were reserved. Becoming more and more disappointed, I kept looking further and further back in the nave for a seat. But because Craig was wearing his clergy shirt, an usher seated him 15 feet from the altar in the front chair of the choir. There was not a stick of furniture or a person between Craig and the primate for the whole Eucharist. Craig said it made it hard to think. He just couldn't believe he was there.

Then Bishop Lee disappeared in the middle of the service. But that was alright because he shortly reappeared, processing up the aisle with a smile on his face during the offertory. He was bringing a gift from an organization called the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral of which he is president.

While being at Canterbury, the center of the Anglican universe, seemed overwhelming, seeing Bishop Lee walking down the aisle made it seem a little like home. It bound up the familiar and the unfamiliar, the grand and the comfortable - reminding us of what was shared by everyone in that cathedral - a history, a communion, and a liturgy found around the world. But we share more than that.

Thomas a Becket was murdered a few feet from the present day altar of Canterbury Cathedral. Three thick black wrought iron swords pointing ominously at a single spot hang suspended over the spot where he was killed. The sculptor captured the evil in the deed. The swords made me shudder. I felt hollow. I felt a grief for the man, but also I grieved for the loss of innocence. The murder of a priest in a holy place mocks the very idea of innocence. Thinking of all the conflict in the world, I mourned that we all shared that capacity for evil, too- if not directly, then by complicity. In my dark turn of mind, I thought, "This cannot be all we share." As I walked around the choir of this church that has stood for centuries, the rawness abated. I had time to think about where I was and what that meant. Canterbury is a vibrant and welcoming place. For generations, it has been a beacon of what was best in the world. With a thankful heart I thought, we all share this, too. We share in the love of God, and we share grace."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Santorini: A little time with Andrew

We took a week to do nothing. Santorini in the Cyclades Islands north of Crete sounded like a good place to do it. Plus Craig had been talking about it for 30 years. High on a ridge overlooking a harbor where cruise ships looked like ships and not land masses, we opened our door every morning to whitewashed villages strung along the spine of the C - Shaped island. On the inner side of the ridge, villages with cobble stairs instead of streets spilled down the hillside clinging stubbornly to the rocky cliff underneath. They bubbled with barrel vaulted white washed houses and hotels built one on top of the other. On the other side of the ridge the sloping mountainside fell away into terraced farmland. The land gave way to small black sand beaches before it slipped into the salt water.

Legend has it that Santorini (or Thira as it is called) was the lost world of Atlantis. After erupting thousands of years ago, the center of the volcano is now 500 meters underwater on the floor of the sea. Lava has bubbled up slowly over millenia forming islands in the harbor. Occassional puffs of steam came out of the ground and rolled down the hillside until they disappeared. One person told me there was a tremor on the island at least once a week.

Thira was a thriving part of the Mycenean world whose
center was on Crete. The Myceneans were the fathers and mothers of the the Greeks to whom Western cultures especially owe so much. This was the world of Homer's Odysseus. It was sort of like putting words to music to read The Odyssey on this island. After having traveled around the Aegean, I recognized the names of Kings and kingdoms as I read them. What was once a world away and unfamiliar became real - so real that the three of us vied for the one copy we purchased. Andrew got first dibs, of course, and he couldn't put it down. I don't know why I was surprised. High drama, a son coming of age, adventure, action, loyalty, treachery and love, it was all there all the time, I just didn't see it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cave of the Apocalypse

May 12, Patmos

We leave for Kos tomorrow on the afternoon ferry. We've been on Patmos for 3 days now, and it has made us realize how tired we were. We found a place to retreat overlooking one of the bays of the island and it is enough to simply sit and be. At least for a little while.

We visited a tiny convent. After winding our way along cobbled alleyways through canyons of whitewashed walls and blue and green doors, we arrived at a small courtyard and a gate. The sign on the side of the gate instructed us to ring the bell. We wondered if they meant that big brass church bell hanging over the gate. After pausing to gather our courage, we tentatively pulled the rope, rocking the bell until the it made a sound. Our loud summons was answered by the arrival of a black habited sister with the keys to the church. She let us in, sweeping aside curtains and giving explanations in Greek when she saw us puzzling over the identity of a saint.

One morning we drove toward a high hill topped by high crenelated walls. We found a monastery and church full of the wonderful frescoes in a town called Chora. Far below on the hillside was the "Cave of the Apocalypse" where St. John the Theologian was exiled and was said to have written the Book of Revelation.

"Cave of the Apocalypse" sounds so ..well..apocalyptic. There is no human scale to this phrase. I am just self centered enough to want something I can identify with in any story or image. That is how I connect and understand. The cave had a shrine-like quality, untouchable - from the small silver framed recesses of the cave where John is said to have laid his head to the church built into and around the cave. A guard stood watching our every move. No pictures were allowed. We walked around the silent church, the low undulating roof line of the cave on the right side gave way to the left, a stone addition made to enclose the cave. Windows were built into the wall looking over the island, into the fields and and beyond them, the sea. I sat in the window seat and just looked out over the valley. It occurred to me that if John sat in his cave he would have seen this very same thing. I thought that was good because now when I read the book of Revelation, I will have that image in my mind and I will know that when his mind was on human things, that is what John saw.

Craig left and went back in wanting quiet and a place for himself. At the doorway there was a basin of sand and a wooden rack of tall thin honey colored candles. We lit one saying a prayer for St. Peter's and our friends back home.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Disappearing clouds

May 10th

We left the tourist town of Kusadasi, Turkey this morning on a boat for Samos, an island in the Greek Dodecanese. We're plying toward Patmos, the island in the Aegean Sea where John is said to have written the book of Revelation. I'm sitting on the top deck of an aged orange and white Greek ferry boat named the Nisos Kalymnos. Followed by dolphins, the boat is throwing white froth in its wake on a clear blue day in a topaz sea. We're sharing the ferry with a cement truck which is making the boat list heavily to port, but no one cares

After circumnavigating the Aegean Sea from West to East we have finally ventured into it. It seems like it has taken a long time to get here. The blues of the water and the blue of the sky tranquilize me like a drug. As we sit looking at the water, I notice two wispy white clouds. Dwarfed against the great open sky they float in the blueness. As I watch they disappear. The two clouds are the vanguard of a bank of weather that hovers just out of view over the Turkish mainland. As one solid white sentinel after another is blown over the sea, each one melts into the blue sky like cotton candy dissolving in your mouth - there and then not there. Like magic.


The magic of the disappearing clouds seems like the magic of the sun and sea on our fatigue. After weeks of rain and mud, neither the clouds nor our fatigue can stand against the perfect beauty of the turquoise sea or the sun. If Patmos is like this, I'm not sure I will be able to do anything except sit and look at it.

Paul in Ephesus and Philippi

Ancient ruins and stone columns on their sides don't usually excite me, but as we walked the great wide marble streets of Ephesus together with hundreds of tourists, I got a sense of what it must have been like being home to hundreds of thousands of people. Ephesus is set between two hills. A broad marble street leads downhill past elaborate fountains and mosaic floored hill houses to a great lighted marble street (one of only 3 or 4 in the ancient world) leading grandly down to the port. As we walked we got a sense that the stuff of daily life here wasn't so different from our own and that Paul, the man who walked these streets preaching a new faith to a tough crowd (who owed their allegiance to Artemis) must have been more convincing than even the most skilled present day salesman. He did get in a bit of hot water by dissing Artemis and threatening the livelihoods of those involved in her worship, causing a riot to begin. Only the calming voice of a city official cooled the flames and foiled the lynching that surely would have proceeded had he not intervened.

In contrast to the narrow focused setting of Ephesus, Philippi's great open square lay in a valley where the distant hillsides surrounded it on all sides. The city seemed to ramble on and spread out forever. About 20 Km from the sea, Philippi seemed like home to normal people. Not so lucky in Philippi, Paul ended up in jail. There are various theories as to where, exactly Paul was held prisoner. Some contend he would have been in the area of the main square. I on the other hand thought he would have been held out of sight and out of mind over nearer the theater.

The remains of a large Byzantine church towered over the agora. Roofless, its shadows fell long across the stones in the encroaching evening. The characteristic terracotta and stone courses reminded me that one civilization builds on another. Craig's recollections of the site were formed long ago when far less had been excavated. I could see him reconciling his remembrance with the present and both marveling at their progress and mourning the gates and ropes, guards and admission booths that had not been there before.

Just the distances involved were impressive to me. Philippi, on the north shore of the Aegean in northern Greece was about 2 hours east of Thessaloniki or 6 or 8 hours west of Istanbul by car. Ephesus was about 6 or 8 hours south of Istanbul on the east coast of the Aegean in Turkey. Imagining the life Paul must have led traveling so far and wide selflessly proclaiming the Gospel made me read his letters in a new light. His trade - a worker with canvas and wood - seeming not so important when reading his letters without a context - seems crucial now as we imagined how he must have survived, living in and among the townspeople as a teacher and a craftsman. The real stones and structures begged the image of a real life.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Catching the Wave

It was such a little thing, but it made me gasp. We were driving back from the Ihlara Valley south of Cappadocia across a broad and treeless green valley covered with the short green grass of early summer. Through the raking late afternoon sunlight we barreled down the two lane road that was meant to get city drivers from point A to point B without having to fiddle with the local dirt roads. At an intersection an oncoming dump truck, its front seat crammed with 2 or 3 men and 2 women, turned in front of us. We slowed to let them lumber across our path and as the passenger window came into view, I saw the weathered face of a woman, her headscarf tied in a traditional manner. Next to her sat another woman, similarly dressed. She waved. Then her friend at the window did the same. As the truck turned and accelerated on its way, I saw a blue tarp covering the back. Half standing, half sitting on top of the tarp were 5 or 6 women dressed in what for them were work clothes, but to my eyes the skirts, blouses, and scarves seemed beautiful and exotic. I must have been waving because they all - one by one - caught the wave and in the end all of us were waving with both arms. I felt that if I stopped waving the slender thread of that moment would break and then it would be over. Both they and I waved as if we were long lost friends soon to be separated forever.

I have missed the company of women on this trip. Particularly in places and cultures where we are unlikely to meet "normal people" and especially in cultures where women are still sheltered and sometimes patronized, I haven't had a chance to talk to many women. I have a shadowy awareness that the way I look at life is uniquely my own and that it is different from a Turkish woman (read Ghanaian, Greek or British)(or Turkish, Ghanaian, Greek or British man) But being an American woman makes it improbable that I will never fully understand the generation and perpetuation of a life that is not mine.

When I lack a way to communicate with other women in words or in real time I have looked for alternatives to words and conversations. As I looked at the textiles made in Turkey I realized I was most likely looking at the work of the hands and sometimes the heart of a a Turkish woman. I am sometimes dazzled by their beauty and their skill. I never fail to appreciate the time and energy taken to create what amounts to a national product, but sometimes - especially in the older pieces woven in hopes of a home and family, in the spontaneous and sometimes quirky design of a horse blanket or a cradle, the voices of the women I will never meet speak to me. They speak of family pride, the dangers of jealousy, the hope for happiness and children, the strength of love - the weaving itself a language written with the hand passing over and through the wool or cotton or silk threads for many hours every day.

I think that's what made me gasp. The recognition that I had finally seen the woman that made the weaving. Women who are living a kind of life that is handmade; a kind of life that is passing away. These were the women who work for their families with the same hopes and concerns, loyalties and pride as the weavers I would never meet. And they waved at me with smiles on their faces and excitement. For once I was not a tourist but maybe someone like them.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Leaving Urgup

Cappadocia has been amazing. The landscape, the caves and cities, the wall decorations and frescoes came from so many times and so many people. There was an infinite variety of style, but recurring stories and themes that, interpreted by different artists, gained new meaning every time we saw them. I got lots of ideas for things like needlepoint and graphics and (if Irena will allow :) icons. It did't hurt to look anyway!

We're sitting at a dark wood table in what used to be the refectory of a monastery and is now the dining room of our hotel where we have a breakfast of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, bread, yoghurt and cheese every morning. Oh and I can't forget the Nutella. The incredibly strong tea which one is supposed to dilute with water but which Craig thinks is just fine the way it is and my instant coffee wake us up every morning and power us through until about 11 AM. We don't fear because there is nowhere in this world so much tea as in Turkey. Any store will provide it for the price of a discussion about a purchase.

Just for fun, we walked through the grocery store on our way to dinner last night. Along with the things everyone eats, one entire aisle provided a selection of tea in large bags, fresh smelling and colorful. Of course if you didn't like black tea, there is always Emla Chai - Apple tea. My new favorite.

The van to the airport will pick us up in about 15 minutes. We will fly to Izmir, then drive to Kusadasi. Tomorrow we will see Efes, or Ephesus where Paul visited and preached. I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cappadocia




About half way through our week in Istanbul we took courage and made a plan to go east to Cappadocia. At one time, Cappadocia was a hotbed of Christianity. Living and worshipping in relative safety here, Christians retreated from the danger of persecution into the caves, tunnels and underground cities that lined the canyons and riddled the tall tufa "chimneys" in this volcanic landscape. When danger threatened, the inhabitants rolled large rocks resembling millstones across the entrances to the cities. The inhabitants could live for a month or so without leaving the safety of their citadel as even the water wells were inside the chimneys.

So far 26 cities, innumerable cave houses some still inhabited, and hundreds of cave churches have been discovered. It is believed there are many more. The unique soft volcanic tufa landscape is constantly changing with rain, wind and exposure, new chimneys forming under foot as the tufa crumbles and is washed away, some huge vaulted chambers, sheltered for centuries suddenly exposed as a cliff side falls away for lack of strength. Once a unique and useful defensive location along the Silk Road, the principal trade route across Asia, some of the caves and cities have existed from the time of the Hittites while later Christians adapted the cities, carving into the soft rock multi-storied networks of tunnels and ventilation shafts sometimes reaching 8 or more stories underground.

A striking feature of both the cities and the smaller cave houses is the number of churches found among them. Ranging from small chapel-like structures with simple red line decorations to large barrel vaulted multi-story basilicas complete with frescoes, the number of churches is estimated to be around 600 in this area. Sometimes high up in the canyon wall, and sometimes far below ground, each one is different having served a unique community. The largest and grandest churches among them however are no bigger than the Nave of St. Peter's.

There is one church that puzzles me still. As we approached the chimney from the outside, there was no hint of what lay inside the cave. We walked up 2 stairs cut into the rock entering a five domed basilica, its geometry perfect, the 5 hemispheric roofs were cut and smoothed supported on classical columns. The architecture of the space echoed the grand architecture of imperial courts and urban design. What confused me was the contrast between the architecture and the painted decoration. Primitive red line drawings and stepped graphics abstractly represented Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A rooster, crosses and a figure that looked like a turtle standing on its hind legs decorated the domes. Whoever decorated the church drew freehand lines representing stone blocks on the arched entrance vault overhead. As I looked at the drawings, I felt a need to know who drew these red line drawings. The work of the their hands lay so near the work of their heart I could almost see the painter. He or she is many centuries gone now, but part of the painter survived to speak to me. It is these works of the hand that pull at my heart strings - the ones that show not the skill of the artist, but the human hand and the human heart that made them.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Colors

May 3, 2009, Urgup, Turkey

We left Istanbul this morning on a Turkish Airlines plane with turquoise leather seats. We arrived in Nevsehir an hour after we left Istanbul, traveling by van to Urgup where we will be staying for the better part of the next week. I loved the turquoise seats. This is not a color one would pick as a neutral. I think that is one thing among many that I will remember about Turkey. Color is everywhere. From the shades of a Kilim to the deep reds and blues of the carpets, from the thousands of textures and colors in every textile imaginable to the yellows and browns of the Ottoman houses and the brilliant glazes on the ceramics. Color joyfully inhabits everything.

Americans are taught that stripes don't go with other printed fabrics. Oranges don't "go" with pinks. You shouldn't wear 2 prints together. Who made these rules? I for one want to know. Whoever it was has not been to Turkey.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Starbucks


I'm at Starbucks. OK, it's in Istanbul. I swore I wouldn't go, but I couldn't stand it any longer. As we were wandering around Taksim Square, lost and in need of a a fix of caffeine we noticed no less than two Starbucks. After we had passed the umpteenth Doner Kebab shop and not really being all that hungry, the dark and familiar doorway of Starbucks literally sucked us in. So now I'm sitting here with my tall Americano and Craig with his Chai trying to orient ourselves to a new part of town. Starbucks is Starbucks, no matter where you go.

Another thing I've noticed no matter where we've gone (and I've said this before) is that when you strip away the environment and material of the world, people everywhere are pretty much the same. There are kookie whistle blowing street people in every city. There are kind people everywhere. A good sales man or woman is good in Turkey, Greece, or New York. People everywhere have to work for a living, doing the best they can. People everywhere agree that prayer is important as every tolling bell and call to prayer attests, but most people don't pray as they should or could. I don't see any more people running to the mosque when the call to prayer comes than I do to church when the bells toll. No matter how long I live, I will never see the whole world, but the more I do see of it, the more hopeful I am that if we could learn from one another rather than try to convince one another that our way is better, that the world would thrive.

Staying in the Sultanahmet, in the midst of religious and secular monuments like Hagia Sophia jealously plundered by both Christian and Muslim forces in their turn reminds me of the cost we bear for living in competition rather than companionship. I'm not talking about the kind of competition found in sport which involves the heart and soul of the competitors, but the kind of competition that cares nothing for the other person except to take away a prize. Competition based on covetousness depends on ignorance. In competition based on covetousness, to know the "other" is to be weakened. Companionship on the other hand, implies knowledge of the "other." Even the word implies a sustained period of togetherness which permits one person to know another and even to share with another. In our world, distance and language separate us from one another and don't easily permit companionship, but the world is shrinking, so both the opportunity and need for companionship must increase. If distance and language are the problem, then in every opportunity I have on this trip to bridge distance and language I find hope. And I hope for more.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sheep


Everywhere we go I seem to notice the sheep. Driving over the Yorkshire Dales, over the mountains of Greece, and even in the stone carvings of early Christian Churches in Turkey, I see sheep. I don't know what it is about the furry little creatures, but I love them. Maybe it's because we had sheep when I was a child. Well, first we had pigs. My parents' first house was a farm in western Pennsylvania 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. The house, barns, corn crib, fields and woods were our playground and they figured prominently among my first memories. I'm not sure why we got the pigs. My dad worked in the city. Maybe it was a little like the television show "Green Acres", except our pigs were confined to the barn and one of ours was named Twinkle Toes. After the pigs disappeared, (my brother and I wouldn't eat pork chops for a while) we tried sheep. Patrick and Matilda were the Adam and Eve of our little flock. After that came Joshua and Jericho, then not in any particular order and not necessarily of the tribe of Patrick came Granny, Mary, and several others. The Ewes tried to nibble our leather shoelaces when we came down the stairs into their pen from the upper barn, but Patrick tried to board us into the wall like a 250 pound hockey player with a grudge. We steered clear of Patrick. When possible.

Sheep figure into early Christian decoration of churches, too. We went to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - a soaring monument to power, it has served as a the "center of the universe," the imperial church, the first church in Christendom where the Byzantine Emperors were crowned and a great mosque after the fall of Constantinople. Now a museum, the building overtakes my senses with its scale. Easy to miss after all that grandeur was a small area off to the side dedicated to the fallen arches, columns, and decoration surrounding a drawing of the earlier Hagia Sophia. (The first St. Sophia was destroyed and the current church built over and around the site of the older church.) There on the grass were two long carved stone lintels decorated with sheep following one another nose to tail along the line of the carved molding. I noticed them immediately and thought, in the midst of all this imperial architecture and grandeur, in the vacuum created by the prohibition of figural art, the sheep were so welcome and familiar looking that they became at once one of my favorite things about the day.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Istanbul


Craig and I have decided that airline food has reached a new low. As if that were possible. When Olympic Airlines says there will be dinner service on a plane, eat before you go. We think there was a film of tuna salad in the dry hot dog roll wrapped in saran. We're still not for sure it was tuna. I did however have a split of red wine with it. Followed by something like a frosted twinkie which cracked when you bit it. I kept thinking we hadn't had dinner, but we had. Just unsatisfying.

However things looked up when we arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and were met by a welcoming man who helped us with our luggage and drove us to the hotel in the Sultanamet overlooking the Blue Mosque. Craig found this hotel from our guidebook. It said it was in the center of the old city. That sounded good to us. The picture of the hotel, a yellow wooden Ottoman looking house with a warm wooden front door, was charming. They had internet and breakfast and a reasonable rate. We arrived tired and a little anxious. The man at the desk took us up to a small classic looking room with a comfortable looking bed. So far so good. I went over to the window and, seeing a door, decided to open it. It led out onto a small balcony. Looking out into the night, I saw the spires and domes of the Blue Mosque filling the entire skyline, lit from below like a fantastic castle. This made me completely forget about the crummy tuna sandwich.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stairs




The muscles of my legs are tender. I didn't realize how mountainous Greece was. For the last 4 days we have visited late Byzantine sites in Greece. Mystras in the Peloponnese and Meteora at the foot of the Pindhus Mountains were both built on mountaintops. In both places the only way up is on foot. Hundreds and hundreds of stairs allowed us to thread our way up and down the narrow roads and passageways of Mystras and scale the towering rocks of the Meteora. Stairs of weathered marble, worn and dark with age, stairs of brick hollowed by the feet of generations, stairs cut out of the rock face of the cliff, reconstructed stairs, stairs of earth and wood, you name it, we did it. Remember the scene in the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only" where the Bebe the ice skater and her lecherous patron (the bad guy) along with the blond haired thug who wants the nuclear triggering device are hiding out on top of one of the monasteries? We were there. It turns out that they won't bring you up in those little nets and I don't rock climb. So the stairs were it. I don't care if I ever see another stair.

Mystras, cleared of its last inhabitants in the middle of the 1950s, is now a World Heritage site. The mountainside once inhabited by kings and princes and 45,000 inhabitants is abandoned. Only the bricks and stones, stairs and empty buildings are left. Some are ruins, visible only by the outline of their foundation peeping out of the early summer (by our standards) grass. Some of the brick and stone buildings have been preserved or renovated, terra cotta tiles banding the building, their barrel vaults and domes creating an intricate skyline. Inside the churches, frescos and stone carving tell of a church closely allied with power, its angels clothed as soldiers, the , finial on the bishop's throne the family crest of the ruling Paliologos. Walking between the ruined walls and narrow cobbled streets overgrown with wildflowers and red poppies made me wonder what life must have been like for her inhabitants.

A fortified city, Mystras was the last capitol of the the Byzantine Empire. Built on a mountainside near Sparta, its 3 defensive city walls circled the hillside like curtains. The population, made up of skilled artisans and craftspeople came to Mystras to seek the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful. Although the frescos and stone workmanship, the architecture and artifacts tell the story of Mystras, they are at the same time a ghostly reminder. Walking the same streets that thrived with life 700 years ago called a culture to the imagination.

Unlike Mystras and 6 hours north by car, Meteora is a collection of monasteries built on top of towering islands of rock. Built about the same time as Mystras, many of the monasteries are close together, each one on top of its own rock island. Viewed from the road approaching the mountains, one monastery looks as if it is about to slide off its precarious perch into the valley below.

Unlike Mystras, the churches are still in use by the monks and sisters. The architecture is similar but adapted for the unforgiving environment. Meteora's frescos are beautiful, but most lack the surprising beauty of Mystras'. The tour buses have found Meteora, so it's kind of hard to feel like anything other than a tourist unless you watch for an opportunity when there are no tour groups in the churches. One thing about the tour groups, though -- as I watched other people huff and puff up the stairways, I didn't feel so bad for huffing and puffing myself. ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter in Athens

I wish I could tell you that we went to lots of Easter services in Athens, but I can't - exactly. We had some travel delays that made our plans go up in smoke. But the fact is that no matter what you do, Easter in Athens surrounds you.

On our way home from Piraeus after a long and unexpected delay at the gate where we got off our boat, we took the metro back to our flat. By the time we got off the metro, it was fully dark. We knew we had missed the local Easter service when we followed a woman walking up the dark street, pocketbook hanging from her elbow, holding her long candle whose flame she carefully protected with her cupped hand. As we walked down the sidewalk every door was shuttered and every shop closed with three notable exceptions. The confectioners. Each of the three brightly lit stores stood with their doors open to the night like welcoming beacons in an ocean of darkness. Their plate glass front walls were polished, the delicious Galatoboureko and baklava, Easter breads baked with a red egg in the center and short delicate cookies displayed with pride. They seemed like little jewel boxes. Exhausted and hungry, we made a bee line for our doorway and a quick dinner of pasta and the leftover cheese we had bought on one of the islands for a snack. We were just wondering if we had the energy to stay awake and try to go out or give up and go to sleep when the city exploded with the sounds of ringing bells near and far and the furious popping and banging of firecrackers. It was midnight. Easter was here.

The next morning we turned on the television to see how the holiday played out in the media. The first thing we saw was an Greek airforce jet on the tarmac. We waited expectantly, wondering what political piece of news would follow. (Craig can follow the modern Greek a little, so we get a general idea) The door of the jet opened and out of the darkness of the doorway came a monk clothed in his black habit holding a large lantern. Holding the light slightly aloft, he carefully descended the stairs to the runway crowded by excited people. After making a statement to the waiting crowd, and deferring to another politician for another statement, the monk and the politician got into a waiting limosine and were wisked off.

What followed were pictures of the lighting of the first fire in Jerusalem, from which this fire had come, A picture of a man having just lit his torch from the first fire running through the gathered crowd. His mouth open with an unheard cry, he catapulted away from the fire, holding his brightly blazing torch high above his head less like a prize than a banner of victory at the head of an unseen army. The teasers for the news were excerpts of speeches by 3 Patriarchs and 3 Archbishops of the Orthodox Church from all over the world. What followed was the full coverage of the Patriarchs of Contantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. This was followed by the full coverage of 3 more speeches from the Archbishops of Albania, Athens and all Greece, and the Americas. The rest of the news of the world took about 5 minutes. That pretty much says it all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Athens and everyday life


Well, we've been in Athens since Tuesday. The first day was characterized by the now familiar disorientation. The second day, Craig was raring to go, but I was nervous about venturing forth, so we went to the Byzantine Museum on our newly minted weekly Metro pass - what a deal! Since then we have ridden around the metro all day long just for the heck of it, taking in the Plaka and Acropolis, Pireus, and the Kolonaki neighborhood. Today we went to the Archeological Museum near Victoria Station. Tomorrow we head off to Pireus at an early hour to take a side trip to Aegina and Hydra, two of the Greek Islands near the Athens coast.

Sunday is the Greek Orthodox Easter, so tonight (Friday) was Good Friday. Crowds spilled out of the doorway of the church on the Plaka, which amplified the chant so it could be heard outside the door and throughout the neighborhood. Street peddlers were selling candles for the service. They were long honey colored tapers with a red or clear plastic wax guard. We walked over the dark cobbles in the dark of evening looking up at the Acropolis which Athens lights up like Las Vegas. You can pick out every pit of every stone from a long way away. It really is beautiful.

I've had so many thoughts and ideas about things to write, but I find that things are moving too fast. We don't have the long periods of time in one place that afforded me the time to think. I also think that being a little nervous about plans for the future, like where you stay next, makes it hard to think past the necessities. Some of my musings have centered around silly things like, "How come there are so many kinds of toilets in the world?" or similarly, "Why are there so many kinds of door knobs in the world?" These are the things that keep me up at night. But really. not to be too indelicate, it's important to know the mechanical capabilities of various conveniences. I never worked up enough courage to ask my friend Fiona why there were two levers on some bathroom devices. On the single ones do you keep holding the lever down or pump the lever? Or in Greece, I'm happy to just find the lever.

The doorknob question is another thing. Some turn, but some doorknobs have spring loaded buttons which you push and voila, the door opens. Some are just window dressing. Some doors need two hands to open, like the gates in Cambridge. You had to turn a large wrought iron hoop above while pushing down on a modern lever below. 3 times on 3 different doors before you could reach your goal (room). The reason the doorknob thing concerns me is not so much a deeply rooted psychological problem as an experience I had in Italy at a conference in 1996. It was late on the night before I was supposed to give a talk in front of a group of international doctors and nurses. I was a little nervous and couldn't sleep. I snuck into the bathroom to read for a little, thinking it would calm me down. When I felt sleepy enough to try to rest again, I couldn't open the bathroom door. I tried everything I could think of, even getting a little panicky when I couldn't wake up Craig. It turns out that even though these doorknobs look like the standard bedroom doorknob with a push button lock in the center, they are not. The little button which on our doors, locks the door, on the Italian doors, opens the door. Hmmm.

Since my humiliation of that night, I have never trusted doorknobs to be the predictable mundane household items we all know. Indeed, they are capable of causing more than a little problem! So when I have a moment of failure trying to open unfamiliar doors as one would reasonably expect, I move quickly from puzzlement to panic.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Three White Chimneys




After we saw the Mappa Mundi (and the library of course) and had walked around Hereford for a bit, the temptation to cross the border into Wales overcame us. (We were 10 miles away) On the way from Cuddesdon to Hereford the sweeping low folds of the Cotswold hills had given way to the deeper vales and higher hills of the west. This is the landscape that inspired The Shire for Tolkein. There is a roundness about the hills. As we drove closer to the Welsh border, the hills became dotted with farmsteads and sheep.

“Can't you see it? The three white chimneys!” Craig pointed with one hand as he drove with the other. He had spied a collection of white buildings on a facing hillside. The house had three white chimneys.

“That sounds like the name of a house or a book title,” I said. The words, simple and each clear and descriptive, were so catchy together. Had I been a traveler needing to discriminate one farmstead from another I might well have been told to look for the house with three white chimneys. It was visual shorthand. Where the land is mostly pasture, the farms look similar. But a traveler could have picked out a house with three white chimneys. Plus, it sounds good. I wouldn't mind if my house were called Three White Chimneys. In the car, scenery like this passes like a movie, but on foot or horseback, this walk must have seemed long and lonely. I wonder how much the car has changed life for the people here.

As the sun was fading we tried to pack in as much looking as we could. Stopping here and there, we saw the ruins of an old priory, Abbey Dore, that we had to approach by walking down a farmer's driveway, his cows sheltered in a barn constructed on the foundation wall. As time ran out, we noted a British Heritage site called Skenfrith Castle and decided to head there. The signs to the site and our trusty TomTom led us along a narrow twisting river valley first on one side and then the other. We came upon it suddenly. The huge hulk of the castle was unattended and surrounded by spring grass. We parked across from the row of cottages that faced the castle. The daylight quickly fading, the first thing I noticed when I opened the car door were the shouts of 3 or 4 boys and an equal number of girls of various ages as they carried on a rather free form but spirited game of soccer. Their bicycles had been dropped where they stopped. The air had the moist feel of early evenings in the spring when the warmth of the day falls precipitously to the coldness of night, the dew forming on grass almost as we watched. As we made our way around the castle wall to the entrance, the children noticed our presence, but quickly returned to their attention to the game. As walked up the stone stairs, the ball bounced near us on the castle wall and back into play. There were no motion sensors or ropes and guards, no admission booth. No one paid any attention to the 2 strangers wandering through the soccer game and into the roofless castle and keep.

Mappa Mundi


April 1, 2009, Cuddesdon

On one of the last days we were in the south of England, we decided to venture to the west to see the Mappa Mundi, the oldest complete map of the world in Europe if not the world. Created by a medieval monk in Lincolnshire, it is now housed behind thick glass in a special fire and earthquake proof safe beside Hereford Cathedral. As we entered the dimly lit room we saw the pale trapezoidal shape of the skin filled with a great dark circle. The circle itself was filled with all kinds of cartography – oceans were dark, the land masses pale, the islands in the Aegean filling most of the lower half of the map whose center was Jerusalem. Surrounding the busy circle was the realm of the heavens, and at the apex of the piece of vellum was Jesus on his throne. In the bottom left corner the maker of the map pictured himself kneeling. Next to his own figure, he wrote the words, “pray for me.”

From a distance the Mappa Mundi reminded me of a page in an old biology book I saw at an antiquarian bookseller. In this biology book the pages had turned creamy with age like the vellum. The black and white circle in the book illustration stood in contrast to the surrounding text not only because of its size and shape, but also because it looked like a pen and ink drawing where the typeface had a more mechanically produced appearance. The contrast between the type and the picture was jarring. The words themselves seemed like a kind of code on the page, rigid and methodical. The drawing seemed more visceral.

The cell was a doorway to understanding life itself. The cell was not completely understood, but the attempt to make what was known understood was made by using a drawing because the precision and abstractness of words were inadequate to describe this understanding. The Mappa Mundi was a similar attempt to describe what the map maker knew about something not completely understood – the world. Like the cell illustrator, the maker of the map located the known lands and people within the dark circle of his world. In drawing the space the map maker ordered the universe – like a single cell. The nucleus Jerusalem, the walls surrounded by the forces that ruled its world. The perfect circle declared the border of this world as if to say, “This is where human understanding ceases and the understanding of God begins.

The attempt of the author to organize his world into some kind of order is something I look on with a certain amount of wonder. Unitary constructs are so neat - like the lady we overheard in the tea shop trying to organize all the "isms" of the world along a continuum for her daughter. It is tempting to rationalize the world into a line or a “circle.” I also feel a certain amount of affection for the author. I try to order my little world every day and ,with some rare exceptions, it never “turns out like the drawing”. So I feel I understand the urge of the map maker as I think we all can. Granted, the scale of the project - ordering the universe and placing God in his heaven does seem rather a tall order. No wonder the map maker asked us to pray for him. Craig and I miss all who normally inhabit our world, a world that doesn't even make it into the map maker's imagination. I wonder what he would think?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bookbinding and thoughts on the nature of knowledge


My interest in bookbinding began when I noticed the uniformity and condition of the books I saw on our visit to the Trinity College Library in Oxford.

This week we went to Dublin and saw the book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a 9th century manuscript of the four Gospels illuminated by Irish monks. Simultaneously the prize and plunder of epic conflicts in Ireland, the book survived, having been given finally to Trinity College in Dublin for safekeeping. Along with the 4 books themselves, there was a display of the art of bookmaking and binding. As part of the exhibit there was a wonderful video of a book being bound. The process of making a book was the product of many skills. Binding the book, preparation of the materials like leather and glue, twine and paper, and the preparation of print, ink, plates and the putting together of the quires were all separate activities performed by skilled crafts persons and each craft evolved its own set of skills.

For this part of our trip, the old travel narratives, both their content and their form as books were to be the focus. What we learned was that the meaning of books seemed to arise and dissolve with the times and the cultures they inhabited. Books were a way of organizing and transmitting knowledge. The limits of the technology of bookmaking formed the limits of the way we organized and diffused knowledge. (The knowledge could only go as far as the book could travel.) In cultures that evolved in the age of the book, the diffusion of knowledge depended on the availability of scholars and their books. The book was precious because it contained knowledge, and without the book, the knowledge was lost.

These days knowledge - some kinds anyway - travels without covers and without paper or ink. The limits of bookmaking technology no longer apply. The development of content and the imprimatur of peer reviewed scholarship is still done "the old fashioned way" but it is as if the content of books themselves have escaped their covers and scattered, exposing the nature of knowledge to a larger society. Where books and therefore knowledge once seemed finite and distant, a different understanding of knowledge has evolved with time. The big secret is out. Knowledge can be created and it can change.

We have come a long way from the bookbinders.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dublin or Why musicians are special


We decided to go to Dublin.

Every time we have thought about taking a "big" trip we tarry around the idea of Dublin or Ireland. The romance of it is almost irresistible. The contrast of the sheep-dotted fields of green grass and the low stone walls so close to the ocean and its pitiless wind just rings in the mind like the minor chord in a song that pulls at your heart strings. And we've long loved Irish music.

Our friends Bill and Dodie came from Cambridge, (Mass). They stayed in Oxford for a few days visiting with us out in "the country" and making forays into Oxford on a regular basis. Once "the boys" got Dublin in their sites, Bill and Craig were lured by the Chester Beatty Library (the home of the some of oldest known fragments of the gospels), the Book of Kells, and the promise of some awesome Pints in some awesome Pubs in the city where, if popular legend is to be believed, God invented Pints and Pubs.

That and the 29 pound sail/rail deal. For 29 pounds you could take the train to Holyhead and catch the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It sounded so easy.

For the return trip, the taxi driver we called for 6:45 AM came as requested. We told him the tale of our many connections on our way back to the ferry. He said, "Why din't ya jest fly? I flew to Manch'ster far 29 Euros the weekend." Granted we saw wonderful countryside, a part we would never have seen had we not gone by land. The train followed the north shore of Wales where we watched the shore turn from stone to sand, saw the sheep grazing in salt meadows, their lambs at their sides. We had a 3 hour ferry crossing over some cold, grey and wind whipped ocean that made me wonder at the courage of sailors. But I was thinking on the way back to the ferry dock that once was maybe enough.

I decided it was all worth it though because of the "Session." We went to dinner at a Pub called the "Brazen Head" on the South side of the Liffey River that flows through the heart of Dublin. Reputed to be its oldest pub, it was a few blocks from the apartment we had rented with our friends. We walked along sidewalks and over a bridge, the river on one shoulder and the city traffic on the other. We spotted the place and ducked in the doorway to find a pub with a bar, 6 or 8 small dark tables surrounded by low stools and red upholstered benches along the walls. We ordered our meals and a round of pints, glad to be warm, out of the wind, and together. Our plates arrived, their fashionably over sized diameter making it impossible to get four of them on our table without offsetting their centers just a bit.

Just as we were finishing our meal, I saw 2 fellows make their way to the corner table next to ours holding instrument cases and some electrical equipment that looked like small amps and a table microphone. I said to my friends, "This is a very good sign." What followed was the addition of 4 or 5 more musicians, their friends and their equipment who widened the circle to include the corner of our table. The tuning proceeded without too much fuss and when the first note sounded, the pub, already an intimate space, became a gathering of people focused on their muse. After the first bar, the fiddle player set the pace with his heel on the ancient wooden floor. The vibration was catching as it traveled up my leg. I was not alone, as it could be felt by everyone in the room, who, along with the other musicians became part of the music.

Good music doesn't just have a rhythm, it floats you along on a tide of sound over which you have no control. The spoon and the Bodrhan players shape their songs from skin and muscle. The skill and wisdom of the storyteller come from the singer and the song. The humor and heart of all the musicians is evident on their faces and in their music. The volume never oppressive, the music is just loud enough to command attention. When you listen, you can hear the wisdom or longing or the expectation of suffering of a people still here in the midst of life, seeing no contradiction in this. Together, these players, the spoon player, the guitar, mandolin and button box players, the Bodrhan player, the singer and the penny whistle player bore us along with their strength, the work of their hands, their voices and their hearts. Afterward we were not the same as we had been before.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Trinity College Library




Libraries have a mystical hold over Craig. On a tour of Oxford's Trinity College arranged for us by the Chaplain of the college (who happens to be the wife of the principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon where we are staying) we were privileged to learn about the history of the College and to go into Trinity's library and archives. The central quadrangle of buildings of Trinity College, founded by Sir Thomas Pope in the 16th century already existed in the form of Durham College, which from 1286 until the Reformation provided a place of study in Oxford for monks sent from the Benedictine Cathedral Church at Durham. The Library of Trinity was seeded by Durham's collection and most of this is housed in the old library.

Walking under archways and through courtyards, we came to the modern library. As Craig climbed the staircase leading to the door, his face was like a child's at Christmas time, full of anticipation and excitement.  The main floor was surrounded by a two story stack. Short staircases and narrow galleries extended the book collection far up onto the walls. Sitting at the desks, the students had that fatigued end of term look. When we were taken to the oldest part of the library housed in the oldest building in the college the first room we entered was disappointingly utilitarian - pale colored wooded bookcases, the books locked away behind wire screens so thoroughly obscuring the shelf we weren't even sure there were books. But after we exchanged niceties with the man cataloging archives (after 6 or 7 centuries) we came to the door to the old library.

When it opened, my first impression was of dimness, special blue window shades having been pulled down to protect the books from the effects of light. Then I had the sense of extreme orderliness and regularity despite the various widths and heights of the volumes, each shelf neatly arranged, no book protruding over another, no book receding between its neighbors. No frayed bindings or crumpled edges here, either. The volumes with their leather bindings gave the room a uniformity of appearance. The shelves of books marched down the room toward the arched window at the end. The cases extended from the high ceiling to a floor of wide dark and polished wooden planks worn smooth as silk, dipping slightly in the middle of the room with the weight of the volumes that had been there for centuries.

With the librarian Craig was allowed to take down one or two of the volumes. With his usual uncanny talent for picking the right book off the shelf, found a tall slim volume, about the size of an atlas of - Hakluytus posthumus, or, Purchas his Pilgrimes : contayning a history of the world in sea voyages and lande travells by Englishmen and others - chronicling the early explorations and voyages that have interested him for so many years.

After a lovely, but definitely not healthy lunch with some of the fellows of the college and a walk through gardens full of daffodils and crocuses, flowering apples, pear and hawthorn trees, and the special Fritillaries of which the Oxford area is so justifiably proud, we came back to Ripon College, a beautiful spot in its own right. We just let things soak in for the rest of the day which was beautiful and sunny.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Creatureliness




Our camera is great. It is helping us chronicle the daily life of our trip, helping our memory recall sights and sounds, events and insights. We are constantly changing lenses, though and it can sometimes drive us a little crazy. The problem is that there is a proper distance essential for seeing things. Physical distance from an object determines what we will see. Too far and you can see generalities and context; to close, and what detail there is might be a blur and there's no context. There is an neutral distance where there is some detail yet we can see the relation of the object to its environment. I love the "magnifying glass effect" I get with the telephoto lens when photographing a glorious blossom or budding hawthorn.

Then there are the panoramic pictures of the English landscape or the Jungle hills so difficult to take because they always seem to fall short of the reality. How can you capture that sense of smallness and "creatureliness" that you feel when standing under a great blue sky or see a horizon full of miles of green grass terminate at the field's edge under your feet? Or how can your lens take in the enormity of a waterfall not seen until you are upon it?

I have coped with this problem sometimes by taking a tiny piece of the large picture, a component, looking at its smallest parts rather than trying to describe what is too big to take in. I take a veil of water falling over rock instead of the waterfall, or the hedge row with the field in back of it instead of the field with a bit of hedge row. By doing this I try to let the enormity of what I see speak for itself. After all, that feeling of creatureliness is often a composite feeling, made up of seemingly random views that combine to give a sense of scale, a glimpse of a world here long before and long after us, a world of limitless space that by contrast makes us treasure the slightly squishy mud under our feet, the dry curls of last years grass being quickly overtaken by the lush crown of green sprouting underneath them. It is reassuring to be on the side of the grass and growing things. The "world" is too large and multiple to understand. If we understand that we are creatures of the world, not its creators, the enormity of creation is laid before us in all its richness and complexity. We do not saddle ourselves with an impossible description. We can see with the eyes of a creature. We can see little pieces of creation like a garden or a child or a friend and wonder at them or care for them.

Creatureliness is the same no matter what your age. The feeling is the same one I had when I was five. Time seems to be irrelevant to the concept. In fact time seems to collapse under it. That the feeling can connect the years of your life in a short circuit is part of the wonder I think. Of how many things in this world can you say that?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Liverpool



We went to Liverpool this weekend to see Maggie and Michael. We met them when they came to Richmond two years ago as part of a committee called the Triangle of Hope. Although we weren't sure exactly where the work of the committee was going, we liked them and wanted to pay them a visit. So off we went on the train through the west countryside through Birmingham to Liverpool .

The great thing about visiting Maggie and Michael where they live is that they had so much to show us and were able to help us understand the meaning of the places in their context. The experience was infinitely richer for this. Maggie's knowledge and involvement in the life of the church in Liverpool, both in her own parish church and in the life of the Cathedral meant that we benefited from her perspective on many things. This ranged from the deeply telling and close relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops and Cathedrals to the whimsical - knowledge of the particularly ornate bathroom facilities of a pub along the way.

Ducking into the symphony hall, an art deco structure on Hope Street as we made our way from one cathedral to the other gave me an opportunity to talk to Michael, Maggie's husband and an architect, about building in Liverpool. This widened to include the fact that Liverpool is full of sculpture and art in unexpected places. The example, a pile of stone suitcases and guitar cases invited us to sit on one of the scattered pieces of "luggage" was right across the street. On the evening before we were driving down the freeway at night as our car passed underneath an arch of sparkling blue lights fitted to an overhanging stainless steel sculpture. What one would mistake at a glance for a man walking down the sidewalk on the Liverpool docks turns out to be a bronze statue, a tromp l'oiele set against the wide and turbulent Mercy river on one side and the blocks of grand imperial architecture of the merchant city that once dwarfed London on the other.

Liverpool Cathedral could be considered a topographic feature of the landscape. Having almost the highest point in Liverpool at its top, the reddish sandstone structure creates its own weather. The wind picks up around the base of the cathedral on a normal day but today, the first sunny day we've had in a long time, the wind was gusting heavily, capping the waves on the Mercy with white foam and making me feel insecure walking up a staircase. After walking through the shadow of the great building for a few minutes we finally gained the great doorway. We retreated out of the gusts into the huge but surprisingly warm space of the cathedral. The wind was put out of mind for awhile while we had lunch and climbed around the multiple levels of the Narthex. Thanks to Maggie's connections and her magic key we were given a special tour of the Cathedral tower. We made some of the 8 plus floor trip using an elevator, but much of the climb was made by climbing winding narrow staircases. As we climbed higher and higher , the wind became the dominant feature again, the sound dwarfing even the huge carillon near the top of the tower.

At first we entered the bell ringers' gallery, an industrial looking space strung together by steel girders with a large wooden stage shaped like a doughnut built in the middle. The ropes for the heavy bells hung down in order around the circle. One rope hung unobtrusively from the center, looped up out of reach. I learned that rope belonged to "Big George," the 14 ton bell rung only on special occasions and never rung in a peal. I also learned that Liverpool Cathedral's ringers currently hold the record for the longest Peal. (4 and a half or 5 hours I think I heard)

Climbing further up the tower, we heard the shrill of the wind whistling through the pierced stone walls of the bell tower. As we entered, we saw the carillon filling the floor space of the tower, but the dim space above it receded like outer space. In what appeared to be the far distance, a staircase zigzagged up the inside wall of the tower to the top. As we walked around and up, the tower itself sang with the wind and I couldn't help imagining what it would sound like with the addition of the bells. It struck me that the sound generated by the bells might actually be stressful to the masonry of the building. This turned out to be true -the sound had shaken some small bits of the masonry loose last year.

I thought that was a great image. The sound of bells, of music, of joy or mourning was more powerful than stone, brick and steel. Transient sounds like the peal of bells seem more alive than the permanent shell of the great building, yet the bells like the people, need it to contain and shelter them and give them a home.

Merton College Evensong



March 11th, Cuddesdon

Today was cool and mostly cloudy. We trekked into Oxford, trying to find a car park we could afford. We found one off Cowley Street several blocks from the Magdalen bridge. After some exploring and a library visit for Craig, we were to meet at 6:15 at Merton College for evensong. This is the end of Hilary term at Oxford and most of the colleges don't have evensong out of term, so this was our last chance for awhile.

Getting there about 45 minutes early, I took some pictures while the light held, then as the photos got dimmer and dimmer, I gave up. As I walked over small pink and grey cobblestones set in sweeping arcs between rows of flagstones in one courtyard, I caught a glimpse of the green of grass through the stonework of another courtyard. As I walked through the arch, I heard the choir begin to practice in the chapel, so I went in, sitting out of view listening.

When Craig arrived it was time to go into the chapel proper and the music I had heard from a distance now enveloped us. The plainsong seemed to have a physical shape and persistence, holding the hearer in the space of the worship. The singers' clear voices melted together pouring out like liquid and ending soft as a feather into silence.

As the choir members marched out solemnly by twos they skirted the microphones used for the podcast**. The only sound to be heard was their shoes clicking on the floor. I thought how ordinary these young people looked, so different from one another, yet how prodigious was their talent. The singers - each year different - carry on a tradition that has been the hallmark of Anglican/Episcopal worship for centuries. We can hear it now because they and others like them have kept the tradition alive.

(The music and settings we listened to was by Byrd, Tompkins, and Bach. Merton College is home to the Tallis Scholars. For those who like plainsong, or anysong.. this is the group for you... )

**When we looked at the post for the evening service we noticed that it was to be podcast. I went to the Merton College website, and the March 11th evensong wasn't up yet, but the podcast from the month before was there. If you'd like to hear what it sounded like, click on the link on the top to the right and select the podcast mentioned in the body of the paragraph. )

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wool and ink


I was walking through the covered market and my eye caught them through the glass, Skeins of lovely wool in a fairly unlikely store, a shop run for the benefit of hospice care. At first I passed by, thinking, "That's ridiculous. What on earth would I do with that." Later in the day I passed by the same shop and the wool drew me with a power I do not understand. Chunky purple wool, lovely ash colored grey wool begging for a knitter. I could envision the grey in an Aran sweater, but I wasn't up to that. My ambition was a scarf. Yes - there are scarves available here for 3 pounds each, but somehow that was irrelevant. I succumbed to the impulse and bought 2 skeins of grey and a pair of second hand size 7 metal knitting needles for a pound.

As I chatted with the woman running the shop we laughed because I struggled about buying the needles. I have a drawer full of knitting needles at home. As we were packing, I carried 2 pairs of circular needles half way up the stairs, intending to put them in my suitcase. Thinking I would never have time to knit, I turned around and put them back. I am still kicking myself.

I think you just have to resign yourself to certain habits or foibles. One of mine is forgetting or not remembering how much I like to knit. One of Craig's is underestimating how much he likes to write. He has a penchant for paper and pen. I love the feel of wool on my fingers and the creation of something useful and beautiful out of nothing but raw material and effort. Although I am frequently disappointed and frustrated with the result, I keep trying. Craig loves the feeling of the flow of fountain pen ink on paper and the creation of ideas from knowledge and reflection. From the ideas begun many years ago, he makes many beginnings, but a relatively few results see the light of day or the printing press. But he still keeps trying. Craig can't pass up a stationary store. I can't pass up a wool store. The material begs the activity.

So we go through life, no matter where we are vulnerable to our weaknesses but trying to redeem them. There is some kind of strenghth and hope in there somewhere. The persistence of the habit attests to its strength. Then there is the hope that we will someday make that Aran sweater or write that book. Maybe someday we will.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Land of Narnia


Oxford is the land of C. S. Lewis. He taught here, met his good friend, J. R. Tolkein here, and married here. He walked for many years over the same slates and cobbles we now walk, met at same pubs, the Lamb and the Flag or the Eagle and Child with the Inklings, a group of writers whose works are now the stuff of legend. C. S. Lewis became a Christian here. He and the other Inklings, he said, represented "mere Christianity," that is they agreed on the basics, but held differing beliefs. Together their collective talent became a river of creativity from which they all benefited. I get goose bumps when I realize that Lewis and Tolkein traveled the same hills that we do and saw the same fields stretching over the horizon. All that separates us is a few years. And a lot of talent.

In honor of St. Peter's Narnia week, we went to evensong at Magdalen College where Lewis taught. The chapel is long and narrow. Dark wood seats line both sides of the choir leading to the altar in front of a stone frieze covered with a grid of figures that goes from the high ceiling all the way to the floor. The stained glass windows, still light at 6 PM, grow dim during the service. I'm sure in his many years here Lewis sat in the same seats and looked at the same altar. As we listened to the plainsong, we thought of everyone at home so busy engaged in bringing Lewis' worlds back to life. He had so much to say. He said it with his pen and his imagination with truth and kindness and a little mystery.