29 June 2011

On finding a quiet place

Another photo from my travels, and one of a monument you likely recognize, of course. Stonehenge. I chose this image because it did what I wasn't quite able to: minimize the presence of people, of noise, of crowding. You can see a few folks in the background on the righthand side of the photo, but that's mostly it.

Stonehenge, which came after Strawhenge and Woodhenge. (*hat tip to Eddie Izzard*)
The reality of the situation is that the site was a constant stream of people. There is a paved pathway around the monument, and the stones themselves are (rightly) cordoned off and protected. (In touristing eras past, it was possible to hire a hammer from the smithy in Amesbury and break off a bit of magical Stonehenge souvenir. Stonehenge was also used for target practice during the Second World War.) Around the paved pathway, throngs of tourists (myself included) circle, mill, snap photos, recite bits of stand-up comedy routines, and think about how much more grand the postcards look. I won't lie--I have always thought the stones were a bit taller. They're still incredible, and even more incredible to think that a full third of the upright stones is still buried in the ground, to think that all of these things were cut and hauled and erected by hand. To think that, regardless of our technology, our advancements, our radiocarbon dating, we still don't know what Stonehenge's purpose is with any degree of certainty. And, it seems that no one, at the point of Britain becoming a literate land, knew, either. It had long been abandoned. There are early medieval mentions that the monument is attributed to Merlin, who built it to demonstrate Arthur's might. By most accounts, if there was an Arthur, the prime time for him is in the wake of the Roman occupation (let's have round numbers and say 400 A.D.-ish), leaving a scant few hundred years between Merlin's creation and the people who were making a connection between Stonehenge and Arthur. Stonehenge is, of course, much older than that. 

The long and the short of it: we don't know much. We know it does work as a solar calendar. We know it was built in stages. We know where the stones come from. But we don't know who. We don't know why.

These were two questions I was trying to think on, shuffling around the great stone circle, trying to avoid stepping into someone else's photo, trying to avoid jostling toddlers and the people paying more attention to the audio guide device than anything else. I'm disappointed to say that all I really thought about was space, how I wanted it, how much I wanted to be alone in that place, to sit on the grass and "think deep thoughts" at it and about it. I thought about how all of these people were keeping me from thinking, from hearing whatever it was that I might hear. And I thought, if I couldn't do that, I wanted to walk out through the farmers' fields on the Salisbury plain and stand atop one of the many barrows that dot the landscape, and look from there. From the nearest barrow--probably a third of a mile? just a guess--Stonehenge would look even smaller. One would be yet further removed. I didn't do that, either--the forty minutes our bus tour allowed us there were fully eaten up by the queue, the circumnavigation, a trip to the necessary. 

Then we were on the bus, zipping off toward Bath. Stonehenge: check.

It seems selfish now. To capture, to take that photo (and thirty-two more), to pretend in some way that I have that place. I do have it: the image, the brochure, the memory. To wish that I'd had it all to myself (I do that a lot--living in Wyoming, where the population is rather low, makes me even more of a misanthrope than before because now I'm sort of surprised to see other people, wherever I go), to think that I could get more from it alone than in company. To think that I could hear something if I could only listen carefully enough (and damn all the other people there trying to do the exact same thing).

I've been trying to distill all of those thoughts into something useful. (Tip: being annoyed at people for simply being in the same place one is isn't very useful. I continue to work on this.) What I've come up with: I don't think anything's been unduly harmed by the consumption of the place through gawking and photos--Stonehenge has been there for thousands of years, and it will be there a mite longer, too. That's not so much useful as it simply is. There are beautiful and mysterious places in this world. I'm all for seeing them in a non-destructive way. 

But the desire to have the space to listen--I think this is a useful want. (And desire is at the heart of all suffering, but art is also suffering, if you believe a lot of people who've talked about it. Ouroboros.) It's a difficult thing to achieve, though. 

One neighbor is doing a very ambitious renovation that involves the removal of a garage, an asphalt driveway, and the re-addition of those things plus a new kitchen. It's going to be rather beautiful. It's also been crazy loud (but bless him--all of the jackhammering and backhoe work have been done well after sun-up and have ceased well before sundown). There's no other way to do construction, and it's happening in as neighbor-friendly a way as is possible. 

I live in a residential neighborhood. School is out, and so the kids are out. Children running about causes an equal number of excitable neighborhood dogs to voice their candid canid opinions on things. I was a child at one point, and I used to have a dog. None of this is surprising.

I have one cat who has declared lifelong enmity against her own tail. This results in her yowling and hissing and screaming at her own back half while running from room to room. This happens about five times a day. 

I have a laptop that connects to the internet, where I can follow Facebook and Twitter and a thousand awesome blogs and can browse for recipes and books and obscure bits of knowledge I never needed until right this very second. 

I have a phone that sends and receives texts to and from people I love. (And yes, phonecalls, too, but not nearly as often.)

I have MLB.tv. That's all I need say about that.

I have courses to plan.

I have books to read. 

I have a lot of things that I think stand in the way of my being able to listen. Of my being able to hear whatever it is that something is trying to tell me. And right now, that "something" is my novel. When I can't hear it, I can't write it. And if I can't write it, what am I doing with my life?

There isn't ever going to be a (good) way to close all of the "noise" out. I certainly shouldn't want to. (Though I'd be forever grateful if I never got another Farmville Request or had to hear someone in the neighborhood screaming at their dog or child or missing left sock.)

And so what does one do? Find ways to listen. Set aside moments for clarity. This requires a certain kind of selfishness. I've certainly heard of this before. No, the laundry doesn't actually need to be folded this very second; no, I don't actually need to refresh my e-mail seven times in ten minutes because someone might need me; no, I don't actually need to go to Sportsman's Warehouse with my BFF to help him pick out a new pair of waders. Make the time where one is free to listen.

There's also the selflessness. Maybe the forgetting of self is what I really mean. Forgetting the ego, the part that likes excuses that protect vanity. Push back the self(ish)-pity that wants to say, "Well, my neighborhood was loud. I couldn't concentrate." My neighborhood will never be quiet. Push back the self-indulgent impulse that says "one more game of Bejeweled before I start working" because I'm not actually enjoying playing that damn game; I'm just avoiding starting because I'm afraid. Afraid that if I listen carefully, I won't hear anything. That the work has nothing to say to me.

Some days, of course, it might not. Not all days are marvels of creativity. So on those days, listen to something else. Or beat the work with a hammer until it talks. Don't take no for an answer. Wait. Wait. Be patient. (Everything talks, in the end.)

And, of course, do visit some of those places where no one else is. Where whatever speaks is there for you alone.
On the island of Tjärö, Sweden  

22 June 2011


Okay, so this title is a bit misleading, since I've been unpacked (and back from my travels) for quite a while. But let's go with the metaphorical version of this, since this is the week when I feel like I have an actual chance to mentally unpack. The week after returning from the UK adventure, I spent trying to figure out what timezone I was in and getting the garden and such in place so that we could enjoy a few days of my sister-in-law visiting. Which we did, and that was awesome, and it involved a trip to Denver for delicious food and the Real Pirates Exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Before I say anything else, let me say that if you're anywhere remotely near Denver, you need to get yourself to that exhibit before it closes in August. It presents the story of Captain Sam Bellamy and the Whydah (as well as the recovery of the wreck of the Whydah), and it is a damn fine story. (Peter Jackson, would you please make the film adaptation of this?)

But. I have no photos of that. I do have a few photos from my UK extravaganza, though. (Operative word being "few"--I took almost 300 photos, but you don't really need--or want--the minute-by-minute play-by-play. This post is by no means a catalog of everything I saw. It's just a few representative of the things I liked.)

Death's head marker at Greyfriar's Kirk. Lots of Memento Mori goodness there.
Greyfriar's Kirk is in Edinburgh, which was--and still is--my favorite place anywhere. I've been trying to figure out why that is, and the best guess that I can come up with is that Edinburgh was the place where I first was on my own in any substantial way. In 2003, between finishing my BA and starting my MA, I did a 3-week summer program at the University of Edinburgh, and it was the first time I'd flown by myself, my first time out of the country, my first time negotiating a real city on my own. It was also a place where I met many, many wonderful people, two of whom I had a chance to meet up with again on this trip. (And somehow I managed to neglect getting photos of either of them. I am significantly useless with a camera.) But one thing that I did do, after seeing one of those friends in Edinburgh and chatting rather late into the night, was walk across the city at midnight, under a light rain and strangely warm skies. And that was the greatest peace that I've felt in a very, very long time. Edinburgh feels like home. I've been there three times. Every time I love it more.
Meconopsis flowers at the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. I adore these flowers. 
 It's a fairly difficult to find truly blue anything in nature, and that's perhaps why I am so fascinated by blue flowers. The Edinburgh Botanic Gardens were lovely in all ways, but most particularly for this blue flower. I fear Wyoming is rather dry for such a plant, but I can think happy blue thoughts about them, anyway.
The Brazen Head, Dublin. The oldest pub in Ireland (dating to 1198) where we saw storyteller Johnny Daly and had the best Irish stew ever. Apologies, Mr. Man, for taking your picture while you were trying to take a picture yourself.
One of the major highlights of the trip for me was this trip to The Brazen Head. It was a night of stories, music, and excellent food. If you're in Dublin, check out Johnny Daly and Irish Folk Tours. You shan't be disappointed.

For the fountain pen folks: in London, I found Penfriend, in the Burlington Arcade, which was a perfectly lovely little shop. The clerk was very friendly and kind to me, even though I clearly was not going to be the object of a large sale (or any sale at all, actually). Definitely worth a visit, particularly if one is interested in vintage pens. (They do have things for sale through the website, too.)

I had only one real disappointment on the trip, but it was a big one: Beowulf wasn't on display. Despite what the British Library website said. It was off for conservation. I didn't weep openly, but that was a very near thing. It was crushing enough to completely put me off my game, direction-wise, too, which also hurt my pride. I suppose that simply means I'll have to go back. (Gawain and the Green Knight was also off. That's two reasons.)

I did, however, see the Sutton Hoo hoard and the Franks Casket. Yeah, for medieval nerds, that's like seeing Becks and Posh. You don't even know how much hand-flapping there was in the British Museum (which, by the way, is completely overwhelming and brilliant and lovely).

I'm going to leave you with a Rodin sculpture that I couldn't stop looking at. It's housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (which is a thousand times more awesome than any of the descriptive blurbs in travel guides make it sound). The sculpture is titled La France, and it is a likeness of his pupil/assistant/lover, Camille Claudette.
It doesn't matter where you stand. She isn't looking at you.
In future posts, perhaps, I'll toss in another photo or two from this trip, as they seem relevant. Really, I'm no photographer. I take pictures to remind myself of the narrative of the trip, to remember structural details for research purposes, to please my inner Boswell. The best course of action, claro, is to see all of these things with one's own eyes.