Sanctuary Sunday and Mid-Week Pilgrimage

 

Sunday morning is my sanctuary.  One of the dogs wakes me, and I slowly roll out of bed and walk ten minutes to a yoga class in my neighborhood.  When done, I walk ten minutes back in a neighborhood of old-growth trees and creeks.

This past Sunday was beautiful, with just the right flavor of breeze to make the trees sway a hypnotic dance and remind me that I hadn’t gone on in a long hike in a couple of months.  It was enough to make me rush home, grab Nic and the dogs, throw everything in the car and head west.  Unfortunately on my agenda for the day?  Home repairs.  Yes, in this extra wet summer we’ve endured here in the South, one of my gutters decided it needed to be free, and I need to convince it to stay, lest I continue to have rain leak behind the paint of my bedroom wall.

Ordinarialy I enjoy home repair as well as a root canal.  Look, I get the virtue of it, and the cost/benefit analysis for it.  But do I enjoy it?  No.  I always find myself mulling the opportunity cost…where I’d rather spend the money and time, which takes a ding on the “job well done” feeling.  Not to mention I feel our culture has a strange fetish with home perfection that I never have been able to buy into, what Kahlil Gibran calls a “lust for comfort” that “murders the passion of the soul.”  However, today while in the last few still minutes of class of yoga, I found myself at peace with my chores, and realized that if approached them thankful that I had a sound house in which to dwell that my attitude toward repairing it might improve, that I should love my house and love the work I do on it.

It also didn’t hurt that I was going to go hiking later in the week, making the tedium of the labor easier to endure with that on the horizon.  When your only day off is a weekend or a holiday, spending that time sweating on housework is soul-crushing.  However, when you’re on vacation, not only can you wait patiently, you can wait until there are fewer people with the day off and you can have sweating on the hiking trails all to yourself, a sentiment posed beautifully in the song below–when you have every day off, weekends and holidays is when it’s crowded for you. One of my friends once posed that this NOFX song should be the summer anthem for every teacher, and that remains to this day the smartest thing he has ever said.

So while everyone else went back to work on July 5, I threw the furry beasts in the back of the truck and headed west to Wilson Creek, kind of a modern no-man’s land, if you will.  All the trails are off dirt roads, and you can’t really use a conventional driving GPS to plot it, so it feels like you are going deep in the middle of nowhere to get your hike on.  If Sunday was working on building the sanctuary from the storm, Wednesday was my mid-week pilgrimage to hike unknown (to me) paths, to find undiscovered (by me) waterfalls.

The goal for the day is Grogg Prong Falls–I know, a mouthful–for a turn around.  According to one website, it will be about a 6-7 mile out and back.  According to the same website, this hike and this waterfall can be treacherous when wet.  As I walk down the trail, I hear a distant drum roll of thunder and realize that my rain coat is in the car, not in the pack.  Too far down the trail to want to turn back around at this point, I shrug it off and make my peace with the potential rain.  It’s summer.  There’s always some threat of thunderstorms out here.  When it does rain, it’s usually just enough to cool things down.  Unless it dumps, then, of course, you’re all wet in the muggy, muggy woods, hiking yourself into certain rashes and abrasions.  If only there were a roof and gutter system to keep me dry and comfortable.

But rain does create other dangers as well.  Rocks slicken.  Rivers bloat.  Trails muddy and erode.  And in this part of the world, when things get wet, they stay wet.  It’s clear from early on the trail that rain has been here recently.  Slippery roots frame muddy bogs on narrow trails that overlook the river.  On one section, maybe six inches wide and thirty feet up, it seems that the trail has completely eroded.  A family camps across the river, and they later tell me the had to but slide down and wash it off.  Ugh,  river crossing, the gentle dance of the trail.  Always a game of “do I take my boots off or do I rock hop?” which includes the extra obstacle of the dogs getting them all good and wet before I start.   But seeing this ubiquitous wetness as a series of obstacles is a very “hiker-centric” orientation.  The continuous moisture animates a world of colored fungus and fauna that puts any pre-planned garden to shame: life–vibrant and unpredictable–sits around every corner.


About an hour and a half into the pilgrimage, I reach the turnaround–Grogg Prong Falls.  The water begins in a pool atop then slides down in a serpentine twist down a gradual rock face into an open valley flanked by tall cliffs on either side.  The solitary swimming at the bottom is enticing, but the path is treacherous.  Someone has even taken the liberty to paint yellow arrows to the best possible path to the bottom.


However, the rain that has glazed the rocks and churned the dirt has made its mark here as well.  Though it is sunny and warm, all the rain in the soil atop these cliffs have slowly bled down the rock face, creating a continuous, mossy slick.  I begin to inch my way toward the bottom, but Atticus is a good bellwether.  At 100 pounds he does well, but he’s not always the most feathery on his feet. As he stares at me panting,  I remember a maxim good for hiking and life in general–any thing you climb up,  you need to be able to get down, and anything you climb into, you need to be able to get back out.  True for humans, but more so since the dogs are my responsibility.  By the time I’m twenty feet down, the whole time sliding butt to ankles, I catch my center of gravity precariously turn just enough when I look and see that the sheerest part of the face is all wet and I imagine it turning past the point where I can catch myself. A few more inches and I may find myself sliding another twenty feet. I’ve reached my limit for day.  Maybe another day during drought situations this place is safer to scale, but today is not that day.

“Pushing your boundaries” is one of those classic outdoors cliches that people use to justify all manner of risk-taking.  I’m not saying to don’t push them, but I’m also not an adrenaline junkie.  Sure, I’ve taken risks when they’re available, but I’m pretty good at looking before I leap.  Also, I didn’t come out here for that “rush.” of pushing to the edge of death.  I’ve been down that trip before.  But I do make my way into the woods to find things deep inside that I can never get sitting in the four walls of my house, staring at my television.  I never really know what it’s going to be, but opening myself up to those possibilities–the touch of fingers on rock, the wild rush of water, the slight fear at the edge of danger–always yields something that makes the pilgrimage worth the effort.

A clap of thunder breaks me out of this eddy of thought.  I gauge my time, probably an hour back to the base of the trail, where Hunt Fish Falls and a gorgeous swimming hole await, and another 30 minutes to the car.  So to play it safe in case the rain decides to fall, I start to hustle back to the south. By 3:15, I’m out on the rocks underneath the falls looking for a quick dip in the water before the patches of grey overwhelm the patches of blue and break a deluge on me.

Every thread of my hiking clothes are drenched in sweat and my legs and shoulders are getting the beginning of fatigue.  I figure this will be a short swim with the storm looming, so I change quickly.  The thunder rumbles behind me to the east, so I waste no time diving into the water, climbing up the rock face next to the pool, and jumping into the waterfall current, swept back to a large, mostly flat rock jutting into the river.  Atticus romps happily through the water while Juno explores all dry areas to eventually lie in the shade with utter indifference.  Soon, I am back on the rock, and the grey has receded slightly, seemingly moving to the south of the area, so I sit on the rock to dry.


But just as quickly, the storm returns.  The leaves flutter in the soaring wind, warning of the deluge to come.  Then the water starts: small droplets, medium droplets, but curiously never enough rain to chase me from the spot. just enough to cause discernable coencentric circles in the waters surface, a slight percussion just enough to edify the dreamy melody of this perfect afternoon.  Then the sun returns, its light refracting through the river surface to create a fractured golden glow beneath the falls.  Its glow is the perfect temperature for a brief nap on the rocks, lullabied by the gushing water, the calls of birds, the receding timpani of the sky.  The very molecules of my body vibrate to this harmony.  I rise to find a part of me will always stay here, and a part of here will always stay with me.  As I gather my things, a group of fellow hikers make their way to the second level of the falls and melt into the waterfall.  The life without me and within me flows with effortless connection.  I find myself in a subtle, peaceful bliss as I head up the trail.

It’s a moment now etched in memory, one I could have never grasped had I allowed myself to be consumed by a “lust for comfort.”  Through these journeys over muddy trails and through muggy air, there are often these moments that are too beautiful and perfect for words, too unpredictable to be planned and packaged.  I cherish them in sacred space of my memory. But they come only to those willing to brave the storms to take the blind pilgrimage to receive them.  As Gibran says, those who can not be tamed by the lust for comfort see their house as “not an anchor but a mast.”  And so, the glow of the afternoon fading into evening, I make my way up the 30 minute climb out of the gorge and point my ship to the sanctuary of my home, the comfort of my bed, where I will sleep dry, rested, and sated–the best sleep I ever have–until the call for the next pilgrimage comes.

Dancing on the Edge of the Event Horizon

Math and Science people don’t always like us Humanities people, taking their objective scientific laws and converting them into subjective ambiguous metaphors.  But in a pre-Thanksgiving warm-up, we decided to bring the tribes together–Physics and Philosophy–to see if we could find some common ground exploring the infinite minutiae of space and time.

Black holes.  That’s what sucked me in.  Gravity consuming.  Time dialating.  There’s so much of the normal confluence of our everyday existence that they turn on its head.  A student asks Mr. Shoaf why light is lost, since it has no mass and is therefore immune to gravity.  “It bends space-time,”‘he says.  “Imagine a bowling ball falling into the sheet of space-time.  It pulls everything down.  So photons follow the curvature of space.”

Science people and their metaphors.  Poor photons.  Creatures of light, still incapable of escapable of keeping their trajectory out of the black hole.  A student of mine asks Mr. Shoaf what this means for free will.  In the philosophy class, The Physics Master is appropriately philosophical:  analyzing the multiple possibilities of the answer, hedging a committed yes or no, laying out how the proposition is both true and false, dancing on the edge of the event horizon.

It’s a beautiful place to be, skating that very line between grave and certain philosophical positions.  You’re floating through time and space, believing you’re in complete control, the possibility that you’re not begins to exert its gravitational pull, bending your universe.  You can let yourself get sucked through that hole.  Unlike real black holes, you won’t die, shredded by the unfathomable force it exerts upon you, but you will come out the other side a bit different, a bit out of step with your contemporaries.  Time has slowed for you.  The thought has changed you.  As you yield to this contemplation, the rest of the world has continued at its normal rapid pace while you have deepened experience in your still body.

Thoreau, himself an intellectual time traveller, mused this possibility in one of my favorite parables in Walden, the artist from the city of Kouroo.  He posed the idea that we can get lost in contemplation or in the pursuit of some perfection and time slows down for us.  While the world wastes away around us, we exist out of time.  On the surface, it sounds like a magic elixir for staving the ravages for mortality.  But as Thoreau discovered, such timelessness has its cost: you find yourself somewhat isolated from the community.  In a very real sense, it’s the surprise Cooper in Interstellar finds as he eventually returns to communication with his family to find they have all lived full lives, reproduced and grown old without him–the other side of the travel through the black hole of timeless pursuit.  Thoreau venerated this as non-conformity, which is great when you choose it, but it could just as easily be labeled as a crippling isolation if you’re nothing more than a photon getting tossed around by the curvature of space.

 https://youtu.be/MoLkabPK3YU

 

 

Thanksgiving break thankfully came right after this intense lesson, so as I took long walks down the greenway with my dogs, I watched the leaves fall, the seasons slowly rotate, and mused about black holes, physical and metaphorical.  Don’t go for the easy interpretation:  this is not where this blog slides into depression.  Rather, I mused on the time-warping nature of seeking a goal or idea at the exclusion of all others.  How there are endeavors in life that we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly, and then come out the other side recognizing how much the world has gone on without us as we have followed our single minded pursuits.  Sometimes, these are obligations, like when I go into a paper grading hole for three days to finish up a set of essays I need to return.  Some of these are thrust upon people, like when a loved one becomes ill out of nowhere and we are forced to re-order our lives to participate in their care.  These seem out of our choice.  But some of these are pursuits we willingly enjoy, like learning an instrument, planning a wedding or vacation, or exploring a new hobby.  At least on those, we are choosing to move in a new direction, intentionally re-ordering our life, becoming who we more want to be?  But even as I followed that line of logic down the black rabbit hole, I ran into a personal conundrum as  I found myself agreeing with David Brooks.  Even as I look at the pursuits I want to enjoy–deeper companionship with my wife, with my friends and family, improving my middling guitar skills, furthering my yoga practice, writing more, pursuing higher education–I wonder how much I’m setting sail on a new uncharted course of self-exploration and how much I’m following the sheet into the bowling ball.  In either case, I ponder the opportunity costs.  I wonder once I follow those pursuits and I come up for air on the other side, how will the universe have followed its own course as I have been pulled into my own  personal black holes.

Somewhere on my mat at my favorite Saturday morning yoga class, this all comes rushing back on me.  It’s difficult to find balance, and my upper body and lower body seem out of harmony.  But I try to stay faithful to the process, though I find my muscles quivering at times.    I step back from the gravitational pull that black holes have been exercising on my imagination.  Backwards I pull to the lip of the Event Horizon, the millisecond before dive is made.  Here, on the rim of possibility, I see I have perhaps been staring into the abyss for a bit too long.  Here on the rim, I feel the pull of possibility on one way, and the awareness of being in the world in the other.  Can one develop the strength to skate over the surface, to look  into the abyss but daintily dance on the edge?  Here on the edge is the birth of the ecstatic shivering.  I find this in my practice this morning.  I come with my will and push myself to the limit of my will: forced to yield to limitations of body, I yield, only to find a deeper place of understanding, this gentle oscillation of the will and the not-will opening new windows.  As the Tao says, know the male but hold to the female.

Soon, class is almost over.  The woman on the mat next to me utters a gentle imprecations:  “my mother muscles are shivering.”  She has pushed herself to the limit.  Our society venerates it as the athlete pushes themselves just to the edge of breaking.  Einstein talks about pursuing cosmic wonder in the name of science to the point of spiritual edification.  In our common parlance, we hear this cropping up in the exhortations to “find balance” but this seems insufficient, especially in a society that seems to put such a premium on identity based on what we achieve, so much so that we blindly dive down rabbit holes unconsciously to fulfill these needs, treating our limitations as mere suggestions that keep us from having it all.  Often this is more juggling than balancing, trying to keep all our balls in the air and not letting any of them fall, we touch them just enough to keep them afloat, working to counteract gravity at the last possible second.  But sometimes, attuning our will to the curvature of space might yield us more than a simple juggling and balancing circus act could ever do.

It’s a week later on Saturday morning as I wrap this meditation up.  The musing on black holes that captured my imagination last week seems far in my rearview mirror, though I have to admit that by throwing myself pell-mell into a week of work that included grading, lesson planning, meetings, student conferences, and talent show practice, the universe has continued its workings while I’ve tended to my little plot of existence.  But as I take one last look at this meditation, I consider the strength necessary to pull one’s conscious mind out of its pursuit and will to be aware of the universe around it.  Perhaps pursuing its will while maintaing this awareness is the greatest trick of all, exercising control while yielding to the lack of it.  Simultaneously in and out of time.  Dancing on the edge of the Event Horizon.

 

Down Dog to Child’s Pose

Disclaimer:  This blog post will not cure your post election hangover, whatever flavor it may be.
October was the cruelest month.  I’m pretty sure someone more famous than myself may argue April, but he never had traverse the dry, parched rockbeds of my transition from summer to fall:  riots in the streets of my beloved city, the discomfort of a classroom move, the chasing of post-Matthew storm damage and renovations, all complicating the normal rigor of grading essays and writing college recs, distracting me enough to miss a race day registration.  Was there some mirth and merriment in the month?  The cider and bluegrass fest says “Of course”, but there were enough days of getting up an plunking myself in PJs at the kitchen table to scribble cryptic notes to my students that I began to feel like I was measuring out my life in writing critiques.  I barely dared to eat a peach, let alone disturb the universe.  Pair that with the punch-drunk feeling of perpetual political ads in this clusterfuck of an election, and I was starting to feel like quite the hollow man.

 But there is always is hope at the passing of deadlines.  As the month ended, grades submitted and recs uploaded, a brief breath of respite emerged.  While there are always essays to grade and lessons to plan, the weekend before a three day week interrupted by Election Day and Veterans Day seemed an apt day to carve out time and space to have a day of no plans, to wake and let the day take me where it would.

Nic had abdicated the house early for an all-day photo workshop, so the house was serenely still as I came to consciousness, recognizing the fur-bellied husky curled up in a ball beside me.  Slowly, I rolled from bed.  I found a book I had been putting off–“Drumming on the Edge of Magic”, Mickey Hart’s memoir/study into ethnomusicology.  I let myself get lost in the words–evolution of percussion, musings on rhythm–and a warm cup of tea for a good hour before finding my way to the red yoga mat in our library.

Well, that’s one use for it.  Atticus calls it his bed, so whenever I get into my practice, he keeps a close eye on me.  At times, he can be an active participant if he’s feeling frisky.  But today, his stomach was playing a percussion of its own, so he was content to watch my morning practice with a leery eye.

Etymologically, yoga derives from the idea of a “joining”, “a yoking”, or “a union.”  In spiritual interpretations, it is a practice of yoking the self to the divine; but in more secular, modern interpretations, it is often described as yoking the mind and the body, which gets loosely rolled in to “being mindful” or “being present.”  In either the case, stilling the mind seems so much easier when you get to sleep in and read leisurely.

At least it would seem so on this morning.  With the house still–one dog happily in the yard, one staring at me half asleep–I fell into an easy breath and flow, moving in gentle rhythm with the lazy Saturday morning.  But as it does sometimes on the mat, the frustrations we try to forget come bubbling through the dry stones of the subconscious.  Without a teacher to call poses, this upswell of past stresses hijacked the rhythm.  The body followed the unloading of the mind, perfectly yoked.  The move.  The grading.  The Red Sox loss.  The recs.  The election.  Jesus, the election.  Quick movement between poses.  Right side warrior.  Left side warrior.  Mountain climber.  Cheetah.

Up dog.  Atticus is agitated by my rapid movement.  He rises from his stupor. Down dog.  He nudges me with his massive head, licks my face, slumps beneath me.  I look down.  Front paws out.  Belly prostrate.  Rear paws folded underneath.  Perfect child pose.

He’ll do this sometimes, and often I’ll step over him and continue.  But today is different.  Today, I am yielding to the day, not carving it to my purposes.  Today, I yield to Atticus in child’s pose.  I lower myself, head beside his, arms outstretched so I can softly give him the scratches he wants so badly.

 Some yoga teachers more experienced than myself in this ancient art have called child’s pose “the hardest pose,” which always befuddled me.  It’s the first pose you learn, the pose of rest and yielding.  But so often, we want to rush through it to get to the crazy stretches, head stands, and spine-pretzling twists.  On Saturday, my head beside the bowling ball head, I found the will to stay unmoving in child’s pose, save for scratching the ears, head, and belly of a downward-lying-Rottweiler.  His breath and mine yoked–a deep, rhythmically contented ujjayi.  He settled down.  I settled down.  Entrainment.  That’s what Mickey Hart called to rhythms synchronizing over time–drums, walking gait, and here breath.  Slow, slow breath.

After what seemed a day floating in the ocean, I back to the down dog and flipped my canine over my canine, still resting softly on his favorite bed below.  My practice flowed softly to carry me through the rest of the day.

With all the chaos that has gone on in the last month and a half of life, lying on the mat with my dog doesn’t solve much.  I won’t even pretend like if we all found a Rottie with whom to share a yoga mat that the world will be a better place.  What I wil say is that the morning of letting things follow their course drew me into a strange but beautiful mediatation, and somehow afterwards the the anxiety that had threatened to overwhelm receeded into the background behind the calm streams of breath washing over the dry stones.

Past the Point of Nostalgia

I knew it was time to go when the posters came down.  Tipping point on a Thursday morning: the day before, stormy with sunshine, the building to myself, Thank You for Smoking on the projector.  The walls are bare.  Nothing left but Taoist blocks and boxes.

Six years in this classroom.  Nine years in this school.  Seventeen years in this career.  Another move, and it’s about time.  In any move you pass the point of nostalgia, where packing and sifting and trashing puts your fingers on items long forgotten, tucked away for rainy days that didn’t need those umbrellas:  half used reams of paper, CD’s of old computer files.  And then at some point, the nostalgia begins a slow fade.  The best memories have been packed or discarded to make room for the new.  The old and familiar becomes colorless white walls, void of meaning, primed for demolition.

If you’ve ever moved, you know the moment I mean.  Moving, like grief, has its stages.  For years, I’ve been hearing they’re tearing this building down–with its glorious windows and thriving cockroach population–and for years I’ve denied it would ever happen.  But the boxes came, and with them a six-month flurry of email instructions contradicting the previous ones.  I put off packing for another day.

But the building is up, and the date to abandon these old walls has come.  There are only these brief hours to stand–as Thoreau once said–on the brink of these two infinities.

Gone to the waste or recycled are old papers I once felt important.  Old student projects. Resources used rarely if at all.  Books that went from workshop to shelf, never to be cracked again.  Two LCD projectors and fracked, fifty-foot cables that I used to drag my classroom’s 20th century ethos into a 21st century digital technology through one dusty, misplaced internet port.

The future is new, clean, technological.  The past is faded bricks, large windows–beautiful light and vistas with horrible energy efficiency.  A two-tiered HVAC that roasts or freezes.  Tall ceilings.  Wood paneled walls.  Ceiling tiles where a yearly battle against the mold is waged.  Cockroaches and dead mice. Pat’s face.   There is no room for these beautiful inefficiencies, in the new and modern world.

As we move into new space, there is an attempt to bring continuity from the old.  Perhaps the water is the same, if just in a different container, one with newer pipes that I’m not so leery to drink from.  There are still lessons on rhetoric, discussions on dualism, viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  There are essays submitted in the old building that will be returned in the new, passed out and cringed over on new and shiny desks, devoid of drawings, ongoing interclass conversations and “Thug Life” etchings.  Behold the old become new.

Inevitably the last purge comes, where the wheat and the chaff, the necessary and extraneous are divided.  A roll of white bulletin board border.  On the surface?  Valuable.  But as I drag it from the recesses of my wardrobe, four adult cockroaches scurry up my arm and shoulder, angry I have disturbed their ancestral home.  I’m fuming.  I’ve lost all  nostalgia.  I want to strike a match and walk away. But I must push through the anger and revulsion. There are more decisions to make.  The cardboard guitar–a gentle exchange among friends, changing hands for over fifteen years.  It goes down with the ship, standing proud stop the bow until the bitter end.  

 And then I find the jewels, tucked away in the top left drawer of my desk.  My secret stash.  A treasure trove of cards and messages from student’s past:  Hannah’s philosophy puns, Shelby’s stick figure cartoons, a grad invitation to the Kumars, Anna’s get well soon from my bout with pneumonia, my department’s sympathy card when Dad died, a newspaper article that Nic submitted after our wedding, thanks and thanks for letters of rec.  So many moments frozen in time, snapshots of full-fledged adults, many now graduates of college or nearly there.  I see them online in their current iterations, but here our interactions, our moments of dynamic learning, sit memorialized.  It’s not the lessons you teach, it’s the people you touch, and who touch you.


Monday. Move in day.  Everything is a flurry.  Old teachers come in to wish one last good buy and marvel at the new ivory tower.  We work all day to make a new conducive environment for our current crop.  Tuesday comes, we meet once more for twenty minutes to give our students new marching orders.  Then the building clears.  One more trip to the governor’s mansion.  There’s no space for Pat in the bright new future.  We say one last glance of good-bye. The building is locked.  The east sun now rises through a hermetically sealed window in my room.  The dawn of a new day, acceptance of the present day, looking oddly askance at the infinities beyond.

This is what democracy looks like

The sky over Charlotte as I drove home Thursday evening was a molten pastiche of pinks, oranges, golden rays behind clouds, and gray.  On many nights, I might marvel at the beauty, but tonight I think of how Emerson claimed that nature reflects our heart back to us.  My head has been swirling with thoughts all day, and my heart has been heavy.  The sky seems an appropriate blanket of sorrow and confusion for this night.

Five nights ago, the sun set on my city as I danced among orange-clad drummers at the Festival of India.  Tonight, I watch those same streets clogged with riot police, protesters, tear gas. Chaos of a different order.

Fortunately in the world of social media, everyone seems to have an easy solution.  I probably should have put myself in a media sequester.  But watching events unfold, I found myself in conversations with half a dozen people and curating the stream of opinions online.  And while some of my friends’ opinions were predictable, I also watched people who often agree on most political issues arguing about the community reaction to the recent police shooting.

Yup.  Everyone’s got a solution.  If people would just ________, everything would be cool.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to be that easy this time, that it’s not going to be easy for a while.  

These are the voices I hear in conversation over this unrest.  My own rhetorical voice tells me that “unrest” is too euphemistic, but I fail to codify it otherwise.  So, I turn to another voice for help.  John Steinbeck.  Writing about the swirling winds and currents that brought the Great Depression, he watched the downtrodden, driven off their land,  turn “I” into “We”, the revolutionary step.  “…if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive.”  Throw BLM and these protests into that list.  Street protests and civil unrest is often the “after” of a chain of events, not the beginning.

I’m not trying to absolve anyone’s moral culpability for violence, but watching these protests from the comfort of my couch, flipping from the news to the Bosox and back, I feel that all the armchair quarterbacks suggesting “what they ought to do or not do” could use some of Steinbeck’s insight.  One policeman shooting a citizen would not bring people into the street.  But put into the larger web events, and we have people compelled to take the streets to stand up for their lives.  Social media and video technology have allowed what were once the “isolated incidents” of a “few bad apples” to aggregate into data.  People read this narrative and integrate their own experiences, their own run-ins with the cops, their own frustrations.  Keith Lamont Scott dies at the hands of police.  People stand in solidarity with each other.  People clash.  These things are results, not causes.

It’s easy to ignore these webs of causality, these warning signs, sometimes, especially when we don’t want to see them.  Every time a new story fits this narrative of police mistreatment of African Americans, we dissect the facts of the case to judge culpability.  We evaluate the prior record of the victim to see if they deserved to die.  We evaluate statistics to see if discrimination and judgment the victims claim is true.  I’m all for truth and empirical data, but it doesn’t always tell the story of the experience of individuals, frustrating experiences that when ignored fester and boil over.  The facts are still in dispute in this case.  The ambiguity fuels the frustration, the mistrust.  And even if the facts absolve the police, we are likely to see more protests, more civil disobedience.  And again, people will blandly ask if we can’t just all get along, move along.

But the signals have been there.  A few weeks ago, I kept thinking the Colin Kaepernick story was a media grab for ratings, a non-issue, a sensationalist celebrity debate meant to draw eyeballs and mouse clicks.  But now I look at how that story became about the honor of soldiers and the patriotic obligations of football players and whether millionaires have the right to stand up for the underprivileged and whether or not you can criticize America and still have the right to stay here.  But it ignored what Kaepernick and activists have been trying to articulate:  there is discontent with justice that is not always impartial and color-blind in this country, no matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much we want there to be peace without having to deal with the underlying causes of the disruption.  And when we refuse to deal with people when they protest calmly and rationally, we invite them to turn up the volume so they can be heard.

Many people in the hope for a cessation of turmoil and unrest have invoked MLK. He wouldn’t want this, they say.  He would want people to protest peacefully, they say.  It’s a nice thought, but it is inaccurate, as Clemson Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika accurately noted to Coach Dabo Sweeny when he invoked MLK over the Kaepernick issue.  While King did advocate non-violent protest, he did not do so without qualification.  “Obnoxious negative peace” is where people simply accept injustice in the name of order, simply the absence of tension.  “Positive peace”, however, respects the dignity of all humans, built on the principles of justice.  Simply wishing for order without justice, without real change in our heads, our hearts, our social inequities is only asking for the problems–the distrust, the violence–to rear its head and the next catalyzing death.  As King smartly predicted, failing to deal with injustice can boil over into violence.

Late Wednesday night, I was unable to pull away from CNN in the center of my city.  It’s two nights later and I’m still glued.  Late Wednesday night, William Barber came on with Anderson Cooper.  Barber, who has been instrumental in Moral Mondays, rattled of a litany of cases he was pursuing, instances of injustice broad and specific that have fed the distrust many Aftican Americans feel.  Later, the street reporter caught a public defender who had been on the front lines all night  and tried to pin him down to condemn the violence.  He refused to give a simple answer.  He could not separate the actions of the protesters from the actions of the police.  He was there to protest, too, “to keep my brothers safe”, he said, a statement with so many layers.  

He spoke with a clarity of vision I could not match.  As I watched late into the night–the news, the running superficial commentary–I wanted to say or do something meaningful, but A quick Facebook post seemed too shallow to hold the complexity of my confusion.  So, I tried to sleep with all my these cloudy impressions.  The next morning, I wanted to curl up with my laptop and write and write until I figured out this swirl of thoughts weighing on my heart.  I wasn’t going uptown.  What was I going to do to bring positive peace in my community?

But duty called before I had an answer.  I had to be there for my students, my school.  I had to engage with people, teenagers and adults.  By six I was out the door, but lessons about Descartes, Tim Burton, and argumentative writing seemed hollow, not quick enough, pertinent enough for the needs of my community.  In the brief spaces of contemplation, I’ve spent the rest of the week trying to figure it out.

I teach King’s “Letter” every year, usually in context of other essayists who discuss issues of justice.  A couple of weeks ago, before Charlotte erupted in protest, some colleagues and I started kicking around some new ideas with these texts in the context of this national conversation.  Somehow, I feel a new urgency rising within me, an impulse that I feel will inform my teaching and my interaction with with my students for some time.  For better or worse, my city has been awakened in a way it can no longer ignore.  Sitting back, lobbing abstract ideas on social media or yelling at the television are insufficient for the changes we need.  These are not abstract ideas.  These are the issues we still grapple with, the ideals we should still strive for, the problems we must solve to have that “positive peace” that respects justice for all.  And if we want positive peace, hopefully my talents can be used to help give that change a push, even if I don’t know what that looks like today.

At the end of his sometimes ranting poem “America“, Ginsberg, after calling out the litany of injustice he saw, claimed patriotically and calmly “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”  So, this morning, maybe in this blog post–where I usually try to remain as apolitical as possible–I’m putting my white shoulder to the wheel.  It’s inconclusive.  It doesn’t solve anything.  But words are the work I know and use to try to push us in the right direction.  I don’t know what else that work will be, but we all have a responsibility in bending our community to a more just place for all to live.  This is what democracy looks like.

1 down, 179 to go…

Monday’s got me in a weird place…an out-of-body experience.  I look at my hand, moving across the page in a foreign way.  What are you doing?  What is this strange motion you are under taking?

Oh.  Right.  Grading student essays.  I almost forgot how this felt.

After stepping off a plane two weeks ago and moving right into a three-day PD workshop, I haven’t really had time for the typical bemoaning of the end of summer.  No ritualistic last day celebrations.  No symbolic funerals for the summer sun.  Just the quick passing of one phase of life for another.

This is probably best for me.  Teachers can be downright cranky about the end of the summer, worse than the students sometimes.  At least students can claim the excuse of compulsion.  Legal or parental, they will argue, this is not their choice.  The argument from necessity.

Teachers try this trick sometimes.  We have to go back.  And sure, in contrast to a whirlwind vacation, honeymoons, or even lying on the couch binging Bob’s Burgers, rising before the ass-crack of dawn, putting on “real shoes”, and being conversant and authoritative over teenagers can seem something of a drudgery.   So, up we rise, if somewhat resignedly, to face our destiny.  Sometimes, you just gotta get up to make the doughnuts–our own argument from necessity.

These were the type of arguments that used to piss Sartre off before he became a full-blown Marxist.  Acting from “bad faith”.  Acting like you have no choice.  Making excuses so you can bemoan you life.  What a slow, sludging march the grave.  I know.  Sounds depressing.  But too many days where you get up and go to work because you have to eventually leads to a life that you meet begrudgingly, morning after morning.

But I can’t say I don’t embrace necessity at some point.  When I was twenty, I had accepted a NC Teaching Fellows (May it Rest in Peace) to school, but was still unsure that this is the path my life would take.  And somewhere in a dark night, after drinking entirely too much coffee, after reading entirely too much 17th century British Literature, I knew that my life would somehow serve in the vein of transmitting knowledge to the younger generation.

At different points in my life, I’ve fought this idea that this was my place in life.  Other friends have left the profession for more lucrative or at least less stressful occupations.  What can seem like daunting futility in trying to reach an unwilling audience can breed a special spark of soul-crushing nihilism.  Sometimes the flashy cars you’ll never drive and the jet-set life you’ll never live becomes more confrontational than you’d like.  And if you’ve put in the years, the thought of jumping ship and starting a career anew sounds like a poor financial decision on top of a daunting existential one.

So, resignation becomes a weird form of gallows humor, a sarcastic protection against the struggle.  Teachers know how many years they have to retirement on command (13, in case you’re wondering).  We can get cagey against change because the old and familiar is so…well…old and familiar.   After all, we’ve got all the lessons down, so why do more work?

For me, however, I suppose I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where teaching still fulfills my intellectual curiosity.  Sunday morning before the first day of school, I lay down in yoga class, and the last thoughts on my mind before it emptied for a bit were all the strands of thought and idea that I had for my class this year, brimming with possibility, busy  but not anxious.   That evening, I took my kayak out to paddle on the waters in a bit of solitude.  Not because it was the “last day of summer”, but I wanted some time and silence to prepare my mind for the next day.  When Monday rolled around, I woke excitedly.  (I can’t say I’ll still be doing that in November, or even next week for that matter).  And by 8:00, I thought about what I was going to get to talk about for the next four hours.  Theorizing about democracy in Philosophy.  Analyzing Speilberg in film.  Discussing rhetoric and speech in English.  God, I’m such a dork, but this sounded exciting to me at 9 in the morning.  Say what you will about this job, but it is rarely monotonous.

 

I don’t want to get preachy and say we should relish our opportunities or that our day is what we make of it or attitude makes all the difference.  Because that’s the kind of stuff that makes up cheesy affirmational yoga blogs, the kind of talk that makes people want to punch you in the grill, especially if you pull it before they’ve had their morning coffee.  But for all the crappy back to school ads, for all the late sleeping in the middle of the week that I won’t see until next summer, for all the blog posts postponed two weeks and completed only after two hours of grading essays, I’m trying to embrace the ups and downs of the struggle, in all its absurd glory.  At the least embracing this life in all its foibles is worth a good chuckle at least once a day.

Here’s to the new year, fellow teachers:  11 down, 169 to go.

 

 

Surfing the Seas of PD

It’s a bike challenge.  District-wide PD is at a school close enough to my house that I can pedal there in under 15 minutes.  But predictably, I’m still late, and I scoot in near the back corner a little sweaty to an already-begun presentation on writing revision.

Yay.

The axiom “teachers are the worst students” is proven true every year.  There’s a faux TED banner in the front lobby, but there’s one notable difference here:  TED bans tech use in the lecture hall.  Not here.  From my perch in the back, almost everyone has at least one screen going, maybe two.  We all think we’ve got lots to do, and could all justify individual work over being here.  But the book looks good.  It has good resources and ideas.  I’m going to try to be good.  Try to pay attention.  Try to learn something I can use in my classroom.

But the ladies behind me are having a riveting discussion, re-capping word-for-word a conversation someone had in church last week.  So, I’ve got the presenter through the left ear and “So I told her…” through the right.  The struggle to pay attention has begun.

The presenter is reading a children’s book about Pablo Neruda, while a friend sends me a Sporcle game.  I’m drowning.  Throw me a life jacket.  I’m trying to suppress my snarky urge, but it’s threatening to overwhelm me.  I decide that blogging this one out might be my saving grace.  If everyone else can multi-task, why can’t I?  If this is about writing revision, is blogging about it meta-learning?  I grasping for a raft anywhere I can.

9:05:  We’re into some pop-neuro-biology:  playing music, being nice to your students, lighting candles release dopamine.  Think of ways to release dopamine in your classroom.  That could get dangerous.

9:10:  First clever teaching acronym of the day.  Think about the TOE.  T is for talk.  I’ll tell you about the other toes later.  Just stick your toe in the water.

9:15:  I give into the Sporcle urge and fail.  I can only name one RedSox 3rd Baseman from the last decade.  My right ear is a PowerSchool conversation and student gossip.  So, at least it’s kind of work.  But Little Pablo has been put to bed; there’s some playing with student stereotypes and boilerplate inspiration.

9:20:  The waves of cynicism subside as I begin to see some value.  I start to get into this.  I start seeing how this can fill a need in my classroom.  My kids often fall down at revising sentences.  I mean…revising sentences often befuddles them.  I stop blogging and start using my phone to shoot these seeds of beautiful lessons to my colleagues.  This is called “back channeling”.  Instead of snarky ways to release dopamine, my brain is creating masterful syntactical mini-lessons.

9:40 Attrition has begun.  I see the first person leave with all their gear.  In my right ear, somebody’s on Prozac.  I think it’s a dog…or at least a child who goes through a bag of food every three weeks.  I don’t know.  I’ve started closing my right ear to amazing efficacy, and one of my Park homies sends an authoritative “Shh” and stank eye across the bow.  The harpies lower their cackles to a grating whisper.

9:50:  We have a quiet free write based on a passage the speaker has read.  He’s done some neat things with books.  I write about invisibility.  I’m not sure I can see where I’m going with this, but I let it roll with the current, not looking for a reason to hate this.

10:00: Break 15 minutes.  Lots of people pick up all their stuff and swim off under the cover of temporary exodus.  I walk and get sunshine.  Streams of teachers to the parking lot like rivers to the ocean.​


This school has great rain barrels and gardens.  I walk around and meet a guy who used to teach with me, now here.  Learn lots just by talking for five minutes or so.


10:20ish?:  I’m really bad at coming back from break on time.  But by the time I dive back in, it’s clear how many people have jumped ship.  Thankfully, the harpies behind my backpack  are among them.  I sit down and we’re re-arranging syntax on our pre-break freewrite.  This is a pretty good activity, and I feel like my treading water all day, resisting the urge to bail, to swim away, to hide in a well of sarcasm has been rewarded by some boon.  I start recording lesson ideas and collaborating on anti-plagiarism seminars at the same time.

I don’t want to act like I’m walking on water, but the room has become more productive.  People volunteer.  Somehow, everyone who couldn’t make it through seems to have left, and the people who have bobbed along this long have begun to see some value.  This is no small feat.  Most teachers see early year PD with a mix of dread and revulsion, and can often react with grudging contempt or outright rebellion.  Lots of times, you can’t blame them: presenters often affix new buzzwords to old strategies presenting the new and improved wheel.  And in our system, there have been epic fails–the presenter who led off to an auditorium full of English teachers with “we’re not teaching novels ’cause no one reads them” comes to mind.  

Teachers aren’t perfect in PD, either.  This cynicism–often well-placed–can make us miss some valuable tools as well. Luckily, mine didn’t capsize my boat, and I made it to safe port after all.

11:20:  He ends early.  No sense in drawing this out.  The crowd is generally satisfied.  I find some former colleagues and catch up–the only time I see some of them all year.  My buddy and I walk out, bullshitting about Ryan Lochte and how his idiocy is  likely to drown out his success in the pool.  Pedal home.  Surprise the dogs.  A good morning that included District Wide PD?  It’s a miracle.

Epilogue: On our Brexit and Wanderlust

We began our own personal Brexit early on a Monday morning.  Big hugs, thanks for coming, and thanks for having us–all exchanged as the Uber drove to take us from corner of Arlington and Denbigh for the last time.  The corner flat that had been our home for 19 days began to recede in the distance as we made our way through Ealing to Heathrow.

The flight home to the Promised Land was a tale unto itself.  While we were in line to check our luggage, a family queued behind us, and their three year old went into full Linda Blair meltdown mode when their six year old wouldn’t relinquish his suitcase to his little brother’s whim.  “Hate to be on that kid’s flight,” we said.  In London security, I lost a jar of English Mustard and Horseradish respectively.  Apparently, I didn’t figure out they were liquids.  Also, I forgot to switch my knife from my backpack to my suitcase.  So, while I am down one knife, at least they didn’t think I was a terrorist and give me the full cavity search.  

The plane was full, and I hoped to get some sleep, as Nic noted that I was barely awake as I was walking through the airport.  I even began eyeing the full empty row of seats to my left as a crash spot.  But as the doors closed, Nic said, “Ooooh…. Fuuuuuudge.”  It could only be one thing.  The terror slid right in beside me.  So, long story short, I caught two movies on the international flight along with two complimentary Goose Island IPA’s.  Back to American brew.  The mom was not so lucky.  Her precious little darling threw her wine on the floor, so she had little succor as he bit and hit her and repeatedly kicked the seat in front–seven and a half hours.  Sweetheart, would you please stop?  Here’s a better question.  Where’s a Benadryl Blow Dart when you need one?

In Newark, our turn around from one plane to the next was under two hours.  We had to grab our luggage, check it back in about 200 hundred yards (not meters–back in the States) further.  We had to go outside one terminal to get to another to make our connecting flight, which got us caught on a train with some very confused and oblivioius French girls with large suitcases, so Nic pulled out the teacher voice to move them, much to the pilots’ mirth.  But that gave us little special status, as we had to go through security again, which means the water you put in your water bottle on the plane from London is no longer safe to board on the plane to Charlotte.  The guy thought he was doing me a solid by letting me back in at the front of the line to empty my pockets again after I poured the water out–and I guess he was–but I’ve still to travel through an airport security in any city that has not make me think of the term “security theater.”  Down, down, down, all the way to the anus of the C concourse in Newark.  We had to hurry cause in twenty minutes we’d be boarding at the terminal gate.  Somebody help me get outta New Jersey, just help me get to Queen City town.  The flight just long enough for pretzels and a cup of ginger ale.  Swing low chariot, come down easy.  The flight was over, and we had or bags soon.  Kristen met us at the front and took us immediately for Mexican food and Mojitos with Drew.  Nic’s chips and salsa reserves had been depleted and she needed a re-up stat!  In fact, two days later we went and re-upped just to make sure she didn’t lapse.

The journey is over.  There’s lots of weight and implications in those four worlds.  Back home.  Laundry in process.  My backpack has switched from travel to toting books.  Back to work tomorrow.

Wanderlust sated?  Not bloody likely.  Inevitably, you can get roped into the “next time we come here” conversation, imagining how you would do it differently.  Inevitably, you begin to realize all thing things you didn’t get time to do or see, things you didn’t even know you could do or see until you got here.  And then there’s the “where do you want to go next” conversation, which for Nic and me began at some point over the Atlantic on our London to Newark flight.

To put an even more modern twist on this, by penning these epistles the last few weeks, I’ve connected to others in the online community who do the same: travel, write, photograph, document, share.  From reading these tales, I’ve begun to daydream about other out of the way places where my boots and backpack may take me in the future.  You fellow bloggers have read this blog as it chronicled our travels, and I have read yours.  I imagine your wonder and hope you’ve enjoyed us sharing ours.

But for now, our world traveling is on pause.  Soon (after our end-of-trip awards–coming soon!!!), this blog will become a bit less travel-centric for a while.  I’ll still be taking camping trips on the east coast, and Nic and I will continue to find new adventures, but the mind that churned the UK over the last three weeks, looking for ways to piece it together in this written space, will now turn back to the classroom, the students with whom I engage everyday.  My blog posts will turn back to the mundane and domestic–to school stuff and philosophy and yoga and race training and everyday life.  The memories, preserved here in these words and in Nic’s amazing photography, will be catalogued here and in my mind, but my imagination will run wild in a slightly different direction for a while, still trying to piece it all together one day, one post at a time.

Memories that are so vivid today–being swarmed by minges at the Fairy Pools, nearly being blown off the mountain over Edinburgh, a late night Roti with Gary and Ash–are all so vivid now, but as time passes they will become a bit more shadowy.  Even in re-reading, I recognize all the small details that were left on the cutting room floor, moments not caught in picture or writing–like the old man dancing on the street at Camden market, conversations over drinks at the Robbie Burns pub (“I hear all people from Texas are crazy…but good crazy”) or Nic’s proclivity for making people laugh on the Underground (“But really, thanks again for that laugh.”).  At the same time, the seeds that found root in our journey will continue to blossom over time–like improving my repertoire of Scottish folk songs from 0 to 2 (so maybe I can play along next time, though Nic will surely punch me if I pursue my dream of writing one about the Jalpeno Pasta at Pizza Paradise), or learning how to turn around blog posts, not letting them sit in the draft folder unfinished.  Hopefully, these fruits continue to bloom.

It would be easy to lament this change and worry that soon these beautiful days will grow dusty on the shelf in their disuse, but doing so would undermine the gratitude I feel for having this experience.  For the sacrifices we both made to make it happen.  For the opportunity to travel.  For Gary and Ashely’s warm hospitality, their kindness, their love, their laughter, their honest conversation in quiet moments.  For having the great fortune of landing serendipitously in Chelsea’s flat.  For people along the way (the old man at the castle, Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia, the Dutch teachers) who gave us memorable community in our travels.



Gratitude is often easier to cultivate in extraordinary situations.  In travel (as Blanche du Bois once noted) “the kindness of strangers” becomes an amazing gift.  You put yourself into the strange and unfamiliar and you often prove that not only can you do amazing things, but that other people are capable of amazing acts of kindness. large and small.  One of the political speeches I heard at the RNC before I left characterized the world as a dark and scary place, and sometimes in our country we often view the rest of the world with suspicion.  Fortunately in the pocket of the world we just traveled, that turned out not to be so.  People were kind and conversant everywhere we went.  But now as we slide back into the familiar, the known, it becomes easier to take for granted our everyday opportunities, our potential, and also the small contributions people make in our lives both large and small.

It’s inevitable, I guess, to see your own culture through the lens of the one you just left.   And the comparison goes much closer to the skin than which side of the road is correct or the difference between trousers and pants and underwear.   Our roads are wider and we drive more.  We don’t have 70 degree summer days.  We don’t have screeching fox roaming our neighborhoods at night.  We don’t have venison or cider as readily available.  We do have free refills on soda in most place and thunderstorms, as well as fairly accessible public restrooms.  Not everyone has to be like us, and we surely don’t have to be like everyone else, but seeing how it’s done differently can both give you gratitude for what you do have and give you a reality check for what you could really do without.

Hopefully, that drama will play out on another stage for us soon.  I remember the day we walked into Blackwell’s in Edinburgh and thought of all the books I had yet to read.  Traveling, it seems, is having the same effect.  Taking one trip fills me with wonder and happiness, but it also makes me aware of all the many glories on this Earth left for me to explore.   Perhaps temporarily satisfied, the wanderlust, the daydreams of seeing things, observing customs, and meeting people I’ve never seen before will still hold sway in my mind.  Where next?  Belize? Prague?  Bali?  Kilimanjaro?  I guess we’ll see what happens when our paths take us there.

Day 16 and 17: Sometimes, You Get what you Need

Weekends are for relaxing.  Leisure.  Late day pajamas, Hanging on a Saturday Evening date, doing the Sunday puzzle, seeing if you can find all the hidden clues.    21 in total, I think.

Our turnaround day left us much more exhausted than anticipated.  Although we got sleep on the overnight, by the time we fell into sleep after Roti around midnight, night-day-night of being Midnight Ramblers left us exhausted.  So, we decided for the next day to wake up slowly without plans–a leisurely weekend for the last days of our vacation.  Gary cooked breakfast (not “proper English,” because nobody in this house needs baked beans with their eggs) while we showered, folded laundry, and read leisurely.  Around noon or so, we made our way to the Underground.  Our goal–the Saatchi gallery.  More art for the day, it seems.  However, our plans were foiled as the regular exhibit had been shunned to the side like a bunch of dead flowers.  Well, I guess you can’t always get what you want.  In its stead was a pay exhibit–Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism.  While I love the Stones, the Saatchi was not about to pry £20 from my sticky fingers.  We were trying to play it cheap and easy for the last two days, and parting with more of our money can’t get us no satisfaction.  So, we walked around the market outside the Duke of York square with all the other men of wealth and taste before we hopped back on the Tube to hit Tower Hill.

With no set schedule, Time was on our side.  We passed back by the tower and over the Tower Bridge–rated the most popular selfie spot in London–to get to Tower Centre, where we would find a public viewing venue for Team GB in the Olympics  We got some food and found front row seats.  While Olympic fever may have had London under its thumb in 2012, the crowd seemed more a light afternoon party rather than a frenzied sports crowd.  No dancing in the streets.  No one stood to save the Queen when the music played.  After eats and a Pimm’s Lemonade (a great summer drink), we wandered back down the Thames bank, down an back river alley where we stumbled into a bridal shoot.  Nothing to see, we made our way back to the bridge.

There, a facsimile Mississippi riverboat-dredging water deep from the Delta across the Thames–made the Tower Bridge rise, so we had to wait.  Foot traffic slowed to a halt.  Across the bridge, the bridal shoot party had caught up with us and posed under the tower.  A tourist mom asked if her children could take a photo with the bride.  The bridge lowered.  

Foot traffic began again, and soon were were on the Tube back to Tottenham Court where we could renew a weekend tradition British style–bookstore date.  Only this time instead of our local B&N, we plopped at the 6-story Foyles In Westminster.  To be fair, one floor is a meeting space and one is a full cafe’; nevertheless, it’s a pretty monstrous store. In our haste to find shoes, we had walked right by it on Day 1.  It was not to be missed today.

We agreed to work our way down and meet on the ground floor.  Nic gushed at the seven shelves of drama.  She nearly wept at the sight.  I started in on the fourth floor–esoteric knowledge–and worked my way down to history and politics.  Nic found a number of humor writers making mint off Donald Trump’s expense.  I moved over to philosophy to hear a dad and daughter discussing Camus while their mom tried to muscle in with a book about tidy living.  They seemed to get the absurdity of it all.  I then moved to the music-racks and racks and racks of Jazz, Blues, Avant-Garde, and Americana.  Under a tapestry of Sarah Vaughn, I flipped through the names:  Dylan, Cash, Waits, Davis, Coltrane, so, so many live Monk shows.

I made my way out with two discs and wandered under the traipsing voice to the film section, plopped on the floor and enjoyed the show.  Soon, Nic was wondering “Has anybody seen my baby?  We reconnected and eschewed the night life, reading the map without having to shine a light on it, heading back on the tube before the sun fell of the horizon.

 There have been days where we felt like we had to see it all, when wild horses couldn’t drag us back home.  But today, we were glad to have a slow day and an relaxing evening back in Ealing where we could get some shelter.

Sunday flowed at a similarly leisurely pace.  We left the house around 11, starting at St. James Park wand working our way park.  The park abuts Buckingham Palace, where we passed hundreds of tourists, huddled in queue to enter the building.  Outside the gates, people waited turns to have their pics snapped in front of the large insignias.  Not our cup of tea, so we made our way over to the Victorian Monument, also festooned with people tourists and Sunday morning park goers alike.  We decided to make it a nice Sunday, grab some ice cream and amble through the park like it was our own lazy Sunday afternoon.


Signs are clearly posted throughout the park to not feed the birds, but far be that from an impediment to some tourists. You can asks them to have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste.  But polite signs are oblivious to some little devils.  Two young boys caused a traffic jam on one path by bringing an entire bag of uncooked rice to feed pigeons, drawing about thirty of them to fly at and away from every pedestrian who walked by.  We crossed the bridge where the Eye could be seen over the river.  Our walk took us near the parade grounds, near the back of Parliament, past the Churchill War Rooms.  On the south side of the park, we found to boys playing “Pull the Bread from a family of swans.  One pulled so hard that he lost balance and fell on his roly-poly behind, and I got the vibe that some people walking by were pulling for the swans to pull away his fingers  But otherwise, morning was uneventful in its beautiful simplicity.  From the park, we made our way to Earl’s court for a very specific purpose–to see the TARDIS.  That moment in time accomplished, we got back into the station when a mysterious Inspector Sams was paged repeatedly, for a brief moment like it’s own surreal Dr. Who episode, we expected chaos to come.  But none did, and the train took us away–right on time.


Our last stop of the day was the Notting Hill neighborhood and the Portobello Market.  Known to most Yanks for a Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts rom-com (and yes, you can buy the t-shrit),  Notting Hill was a photo destination for Nic, its pastoral rainbow row houses basking in the afternoon sun.  The market held the streets with open air antique, clothing, jewelry, and knick-knack dealers.  Knock-off pocket watches interspersed with fine China.  Cat and Dog Pillow covers.  Art prints (not the cheap Chinese crap copies, the stall assured us).  A beer mug of Churchill’s head (Would I love it? Yes, but not for £250)  The uniquely and stereotypically British to the strangely ubiquitous (it seems you can buy a poop emoji anywhere on earth, even a rainbow one like the Squatty Potty ads).  Among it all, crepe makers raked at their discs of dough with the tranquility of sand in a Zen garden.  We grabbed lunch at a deli, then hit the “Unofficial Banksy Shop”–pretty sure there’s not an official one, so I hope he got a cut of my quid–and caught the Central line–our last tube ride–to Shepherd’s Bush to meet Gary and Ashley at their church.

Later that evening, we settled down to watch the Olympics.  Curious to how Britain–Ealing specifically–would be watching the Andy Murray gold medal match, I walked up to the corner store to get a beer, but stopped in at the Drayton Arms.  The match was on, but there seemed little interest.  There was a guy challenging some Honky-Tonk Woman–some bar-room Queen from Memphis–to her first Jaeger shot.  Otherwise, the pub was tame.  Apparently, gold medal tennis doesn’t inspire the same sort of street fighting man as football or rugby does.  I walked back to Gary and Ashley’s house, staying up into the wee hours of the morning to watch Bolt win the semis and Murray take the gold.  “Hope your boss is a sports fan tomorrow,” said the British announcer.

It’s now 10:30.  I’ve been up since 6, which is 1 a.m. at home, where I’ll be in a few hours.  We’re on the plane, but a bit behind the take off time, but hopefully I’ll get some sleep to start changing the jet lag clock.  Time to close my eyes and paint it black for a bit.

 

Day 14 and 15: Trains, Turnarounds, and Tunnels:  new twists on old paths.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once quipped, “You never step in the same river twice.”  The same is true for traveling.  Whether you or the path or both, the return journey always differs.  Largely, when you have reached the turning point, when the vector of your journey points home, you’re more prone to think about the comforts of a familiar bed and the exuberant welcome of your pets.

Our turn point started on the Lochalsh to Inverness line.  What was once exciting.  What was exciting as hurtled northwest toward Skye was shrouded in rain and travel stress on the return.  Inverness itself was cold and rainy.  We tried to make a go of exploring, but we were so spent that when we entered a giant book store in the shell of a 16th century church, Nic came over to me and said, “I can’t even…I’m so overwhelmed.”  Yes.  You read that right.  Nic turned down a two-story book store.

We were happy to find that the Caldonia Sleeper, the overnight train from Inverness to London, had a complimentary lounge where Nic entertained the Scottish host by regailing her with descriptions of Moon Pies.  We crossed the street to have dinner at the Ash Hotel.  Back in the lounge, we availed ourselves to the free beer and tea, rested, and waited for departure.

Several sites I read claimed the sleeper train, which left Inverness at 8:48 and arrived in London at 7:15 the next morning, was the way to go.  Let me add my support to this notion. We saved an entire day of travel, though we certainly learned a new meaning of “close quarters.”  Our suitcases took up half the available floor room, but it was a relief to get out of our boots and clothes that we had been wearing since we’d been soaked at Elgog, damply clinging to us all day.  Newly shod, we settled into the lounge car for a drink–she a cider, me a Glenlivet—and quiet reading.  A British couple next to us kept trying to name the station, while Nic briefly chatted the girl at our table about her book.  Her cider finished, she headed back to her bunk while I finished my whisky.

That done, I order a Bailey’s and Hot Chocolate.  Train sleeping, I assume, will be like camping sleeping: wear yourself out and add a stiff drink or two and you can sleep through damn near anything. My nightcap combo intrigued my British neighbor, who has been talking to a Scottish man at the table behind me about the stops.  He joins my table and I find out why.  They rented a car in Dalwhinnie (a whisky destination to drive to Inverness only to have the train drive back through Dalwhinnie–there and back and there again. We all share the tales of our travel, and the Scottish fellow starts spinning a yarn of his friend who “hunts Nessie”‘and charters boat tours on Loch Ness: they haven’t had a sighting in a decade, and–according to his friend–they could use one soon to keep the Yen rolling in.  I laugh, and they move into local references that are lost to me.  I finish my night cap and his them a good night.  I climbed into the top bunk, donned my complimentary mask and ear plugs, and slept through pretty much everything, including the switching of locomotives in Edinburgh.

By 6:30, we awoke.  Our breakfast arrived.  I’m eating smoked salmon and eggs sitting in my bunk: for the third straight Friday, we’re waking up in London.  Off the train at Euston Station, we are walking into the teeth of London morning rush hour.  After our Scottish excursion, we feel a bit out of place.  While we are still dressed for Scottish wind and rain, people in London are clean, perfumed, wearing shirts and skirts. We, by comparison, are crunchy.  I haven’t wanted a shower this bad in some time, and we still have to get on the sardine-packed Central line back to Ealing before we can be clean.

By 11, we are back out.  We meet Gary for lunch and head to the Tate Modern.  We still had a weekend in London, and even with all the time we’ve had, it’s impossible to see it all.  Today was going to be an Art day.  The Tate sits on the banks of the Thames, a former power station with several floors of both rotating and free exhibitions.  We had passed it on the way to the Globe last week, its festivity adding to our walk.  Today, we entering the festivity, contributing to the huge crowd by entering.

Here, dear reader, it would be easy to slide into a “what is art?” discussion.  And with a wide array of art–abstract shapes to portraits to political statements; paintings, sculptures, audio and video installations; traditional, trippy, and bizarre, such as a giant room filled with what looks like overgrown potato sacks–this could be an appropriate discussion

Perhaps another time.  Perhaps what was just as interesting was the hordes of people and how they interacted in the space.  Photography was allowed, but not flash, which meant some people still used flash.  Every time  people spied a Dali, Matisse, or Picasso, they leapt to have their pic snapped or take an exuberant selfie, regardless of the mod of the actual work.  Not trying to be judgy:  I grabbed a few pics myself.  There was a girl who went old school–plopping beside the pond of abyss of her journal in the middle of the floor, penning a reflection on Dali’s Metamorphisis of Narcissus.  Parents wrangled their kids to get just the right shot.  Perhaps most entertaining were the girls taking goofy-faces selfies in front of photographs of genocide and torture.  Funzies!!!


Ashley joined us at the Tate, and we enjoyed a leisurely cup on the terrace.  Friday afternoon turned into 5 o’clock here.  The crowds grew.  The pubs swelled.  The walk beside the Thames grew busy as the after-work crowd met the tourist crowd.  We passed trees petitioned to stand, a skate park, a statue of Olivier, then cut left between Jubilee Gardens and the eye for a different type of artistic experience.

Leak Street Tunnel has Has been closed off from the main road for seemingly some time, so it has become a de facto museum of street art.  A little-known underbelly of London but to photographers and street artists and a handful of innovate tour guides, much art is every bit as worth as the Tate without the ropes, security, or reverence.  Paint a beautiful mural and see it replaced with the mundane.  The tunnel has all the feel of entering into a seedy underworld, but after the madness of the Tate, the quiet, dank tunnel was something of a welcome relief.  We saw a couple of artists in action, one who traveled from Greece and was making his way around Europe tagging in major cities, but his tag bled into the hundreds of artists who have painted and re-painted these hallowed halls beneath the city.  As we exited the tunnel, a taxi exited a blind garage like it just got a GTA paint job fix up.  Three streams of city-bike tours flew past us, one lady precariously driving with her selfie stick in hand.  “Five bucks says she eats it in the next mile.”




Back in the sunlight, we cross the bridge in front of Parliament, always slammed with tourists, entering the Underground at Westminster, always graced with street buskers.  A long tunnel from Kennsington turns directly ito the Victorian Albert Museum, open late and free on a Friday night–12.5 acres of exhibits.  We caught the Renaissance European Artifacts–desks, instruments, guns, swords, wood panels, paintings, etc.–in the basement before making our way to the Asian artifacts collection, or as one visitor quipped, “Where we can see what they stole from everyone else.”  In both religious ideas and design, however, the line of appropriate is a bit less clear.  As we move through the Middle East with heavy influence on geometry (including an ancient rug lit only twice an hour to preserve its colour–British spelling, sorry) to India to Southeast Asia, we see cultures both distinct and continuous.


There really is too much to see and ponder in this city.  As Gary said, “If you’re bored with this City, you’re bored of life.”  We noticed that there was an underwear exhibit  (Note: pants= underwear  and trousers=pants), but we were too tired to dig into our trouser pockets and go that close to the bare naked human experience.  After such a whirlwind 36 hours–from Elgog through rush-hour London and back out in the city–we had logged over nine miles walking for the day, exhausted to the core.

We made our way back to Ealing, our familiar path home every night in London, to grab some dinner at Gary and Ashley’s local pub–The Drayton House.  We arrived about 9:55 and mulled over the menu for about seven minutes before Gary went to the bar to order and have them tell him the kitchen closes exactly at 10.  The hangry anxiety began to set in.  We went to a fish and chips/Chinese joint that was still open, but they were cash only.  Again fail.  Rotisserie Chicken and egg rolls had sounded mighty tasty.  Gary said he thought we could find one more place and he led us onward.

There, for the first time, we found Roti, a Trinidadian dish that is about twice the size of your average burrito, rolled in dough, cooked, filled, and cooked again.  Julian–who had also lived in California, Colorado and Massachusetts–was about to close shop, but he saw us roll up in despair and agreed to stay open long enough to feed us.   As we were the only patrons, he was giving with his time and knowledge. The spice palette was uniquely Carribean, and Julian swears this is pared down to have more mass appeal.  The slaw, the chickpeas each had their own specific heat, as did the mango chutney and the pepper jelly.  Gary broke out in a sweat and I gulped my bottle of water halfway through the Roti.  Nic and Ashely swore of the hotter additions.  But we were all satisfied and grateful, a new twist, a new stop on our path home, one that Gary and Ash agreed to visit again.  As we left, Julian wished us safe travels back to the states.

The turn around travel from Skye to London was probably the most frenetic day on our tripBy the time midnight came ’round, we literally fell into sleep and agreed to take it easy the next day.