A Walking Timeline Through History

Trafalgar Square

When the best laid plans go awry, pathways to new adventures often show themselves. We were to have spent our morning watching the changing of the guards and our afternoon at Westminster Abbey. The cancellation of the tradition of pomp and circumstance at the palace had sent us scurrying to the Gothic church far earlier than intended, so once we were finished with our tour we became untethered and aimless wanderers around London.

The roads almost inevitably lead us past the halls of Parliament where protests centering on the Brexit issue were a constant feature during our time in the capitol city. We glanced disappointedly at Big Ben which was shrouded by the apparatus of reconstruction save for the face which never changed because it was not working. We wondered as we longed to hear the famous chimes if somehow all of our planning was doomed to go up in flames, but we soldiered on, walking past a highly secured area that housed the home of the outgoing Prime Minister.

There was much stirring behind the gates. We saw official looking men wearing formal  jackets filled with medals leaving the premises with grim expressions. It told us that Theresa May was no closer to creating a plan for transitioning Britain from the European Union to a  more nationalist entity. There was a noticeable tension in the air that hovered over the halls of government and the silence of Big Ben added a metaphorical touch to the chaos.

After walking for what had seemed like many miles Trafalgar Square was in view and husband Mike became quite animated by the thought of seeing the iconic tribute to those who had fought so valiantly in World War I. First, however we would pause for lunch in a nearby pub where I admittedly struggled to find something that appealed to me on the menu. I generally eat a very light midday meal and there was very little of that sort to be found among the traditional English food being offered, so I essentially skipped eating and instead enjoyed a lemonade and a much needed rest for my feet. I used the time to find and purchase the tickets that we would use later that night to see the choral concert at Westminster Abbey.

Once everyone was refueled we headed to Trafalgar Square which was quite joyfully bursting with life, mostly from tourists and street artists. The atmosphere reminded me of the area around St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were accomplished musicians and singers entertaining the crowd with performances worthy of Albert Hall. Using only chalk and their imaginations many individuals drew masterpieces on the grand sidewalks of the square. A gigantic fountain surrounded by enormous lion sculptures served as a photo opportunity for everyone who passed by, and of course there was the famous obleisk honoring the courage of those who defended the nation in World War I.

This was indeed a happy area where the tension surrounding the government buildings was replaced with a kind of serendipitous celebration of art and humanity. It felt good to be there and somehow made up for the botched intentions of our morning. We all realized that while we had not achieved what we had planned, we had stumbled upon something that was nonetheless glorious.

Just beyond all of the revelry lay the National Gallery which like so many sights in London was open to the public at no cost, so we decided to partake of its vast collection of paintings and sculpture in the time remaining before our evening engagement. This would prove to be a wonderful decision because some the the most famous artists the world has ever known were featured in the multi-story galleries.

I enjoyed so many of my favorite painters and was filled with appreciation for some about whom I had known nothing. Without a doubt, however, the experience of wandering without warning into a room containing the work of Leonardo da Vinci was the highlight of the visit for me. The funny thing is that I had spied his drawings from out of the corner of my eye and had noted that I felt drawn to to them before I realized that the great master had created them. There was a kind of lively charisma to even the preliminary sketches that elevated the pieces to a level unmatched by any of the other artists.

I might have stood transfixed in that room for hours were it not for the fact that we had agreed upon a meeting time in the coffee shop, and that hour was drawing near. It was with great reluctance that I took one final glance at the glorious paintings and headed down to meet with the rest of our party.

We enjoyed a bit of respite and a great deal of animated conversation over steaming cups of Earl Grey tea as we spoke of our favorite works of art. We all agreed that we had somehow been led to a most enjoyable afternoon by the “gods of travel” and we promised that if we had some additional time later in our trip we would gladly return to this wondrous place to be certain that we had not missed anything.

When we emerged into the late afternoon air we saw that the festivities taking place in Trafalgar Square had not abated. It seemed to be an oasis of cheer and goodwill which was perhaps the intent when it had been designated as a memorial to all that is good about Britain. After the horrors of World War I the citizens needed to remember, appreciate, and celebrate the many sacrifices made. I thought it fitting that the joy of peace time was still very much in the air.

We walked away with an even greater sense of the spirit of London and its people. In a single day we had looked far back into their history and gazed at the gravity of their present. It had been like walking a human timeline during which we witnessed the resilience of the people. We realized that they had made mistakes before, and perhaps were enduring them even now, but always they seemed capable of adjusting their course and moving on the right side of history.

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Wonders of the World

British MuseumThe Bloomsbury area of London is the home of the university of London, Kings Cross Station, and the British Museum. A short stroll in almost any direction leads to lovely sights. In May the gardens and window boxes are filled with lovely flowers of every hue. Tiny markets offer fresh fruit and sweet bouquets. It’s a pedestrian world in which the sidewalks are filled with walkers strolling more leisurely than in the heart of the city. It is a place where lingering just a bit longer is in fashion.

On the first full day of our trip we chose to eschew hurry, and instead enjoyed a scrumptious English breakfast buffet in our hotel. We feasted on fried, scrambled and poached eggs with little English sausages, baked tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms. We enjoyed steaming pots of Earl Gray tea or tasted the brew from the latte machine. Crusty loaves of bread beckoned us and a bounty of pastries were ours for the taking. We had our choice of cereal and fresh fruit, cheese and pancakes. It was a good way to start our adventures for we would walk ten of thousands of steps, many miles in a single day.

Our quest was to visit the British Museum about which we had long heard. The building in which great treasures are housed is an imposing structure which would be worth a look even without ever going inside. Once we had entered we were in awe of the great halls and sensed that we were about to see magical things that we had only before read about in books. After gathering and studying a map we decided to go first to the Egyptian section where we were immediately taken aback by the presence of the Rosetta Stone, an imposing treasure that would have been worth the trip all by itself. 

From that first moment we were in awe of the treasures that were displayed for what seemed like miles. It was difficult to know where to first look or what direction to follow. The trove of artifacts was so expansive that it gave me the feeling of being an adventurous archeologist who had suddenly stumbled upon a great find. I felt humbled as I gazed at items so exquisite and so old that I had difficulty processing an image of the creative and skilled people who had made such things in a time when tools were simple and scarce. I found my mind going far back into the history of mankind, and I marveled at the human connections that I felt with the people who had left such incredible marks on the world. I also thought of those who were simply nameless persons attempting to deal with the challenges of living, often under great duress.

I was brought back to present day reality only when I saw a group of young school boys careful taking notes about what they were seeing. They were so cute in their jackets with crests on the breast pockets and their earnestness in deciphering the mysteries of the many artifacts that they passed. I suppose that I will always love children and feel proud of the tiny contribution that I have made in the long range history of a generation. I think that we humans create because we have always desired to find some kind of purpose to our existence,

I was so caught up in seeing Roman statues, Greek urns, and Chinese porcelain that I hardly noticed that six hours had passed and it was time to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea gathering. Our group ate little sandwiches filled with chicken, salmon and eggs. There were scones and cakes and tiny cookies. We relaxed and chatted about what we had seen and how we felt. We worried just a bit about how so many things had been brought to Britain from the places where they were found. We wondered if they had simply been confiscated or if there had been permission, agreements, and payments for taking such things. I suppose that there are many different points of view as to the ethics of having such museums, particularly when the items include actual mummies. Is it wrong to raid a sacred tomb, or should we honor the purpose of such rituals by leaving them intact?

After refueling ourselves and debating the pros and cons of how and whether or not we were somehow complicit in the rightness or wrongness of such a museum we continued our study of the many different rooms. We saw Mayan carvings, and intricate woodworking from Abysinnia. We walked past glorious creations from India and Japan. Our heads were swirling from trying to read the descriptions of what we saw and achieve some kind of understanding of the magnitude of the glories of each culture represented in space after space.

Soon it was nearing five in the afternoon, and we realized that we had literally spent an entire day mesmerized by what we had viewed. Nonetheless there was still more to see, but that would have to be for another day, perhaps on another trip. The doors were closing and we were explorers forced to reluctantly set our adventures aside.

Russell Square near the museum was by that time filled with tourists and locals enjoying the coolness of the afternoon under enormous trees. They lolled in the grass and sat smiling on benches. There was an unspoken collegiality between all of us as we exchanged smiles and greetings. We felt as though we welcome in this place and it felt so good.

We finished our day in Callahan’s pub in our hotel. We feasted on a variety of food. I chose bangers and mash which were as tasty as I had hoped they would be. I enjoyed a nice glass of wine while my travel companions chose ciders and beers. We played a game on a large table and watched soccer on the television above our heads. We got to know some of the locals who came to the pub of an evening just to have a swig and a bit of conversation. It was a fun closing of a perfect day in Bloomsbury in London town.

And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?

“Shut Up He Explained”

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“Shut up he explained.” —-Ring Lardner

Words, words, words.,,they matter, but sometimes we get so caught up in them that we place more meaning and importance on them than they were ever meant to convey. As an English major in college I was privy to a number of academic conversations in which the peers of my chosen field of study derived strange meanings from the writings of noted authors. I recall countless discussions focused on interpretations of what various writers actually meant when they chose certain phrases. Sometimes those discussions devolved into silliness, and I found myself wondering how much of our own thinking is responsible for the meanings that we derive whenever someone says or writes something to which we become privy. Perhaps what we think is being said is not what the originator meant at all.

How many times have you found your statements being misinterpreted? I know that as someone who spent a lifetime speaking publicly in front of countless audiences I often had to explain my intent to people who had ascribed some profoundly insulting meaning that had never even crossed my mind. We bring lifetimes of experience to every situation and often how we hear something is based far more on the kinds of experiences we have had than on any maliciousness from a speaker or an author.

When I write blogs each day I expose myself to constant criticism. Quite often someone will twist my words into contortions that had never occurred to me. Without the ability to immediately correct the misconceptions, I have made an enemy or two. Writing or speaking publicly is risky, but attempting to cloak words in cautious sentences sometimes backfires even more. Honesty is required to be believable, but such willingness to be true to ones’ self has its price, particularly in a world in which people are parsing every single word that is uttered or written down. Anyone who says something deemed to be unacceptable may find themselves losing friends or even jobs. We seem to be in an era that categorizes everyone in one way or another, and woe be the consequences for anyone who chooses to utter the wrong kind of statements regardless of what he/she may have really meant.

A few months back The Atlantic magazine hired conservative writer, Kevin Williamson, to balance out the staff which was mostly composed of liberals. Kevin is a Texan who has a rare gift for writing. He chooses vivid and colorful words and phrases that bring his work to life. I enjoy reading his columns just for the sheer appreciation of his craft in a world where true artistic talent with the written word seems to be quite lacking.

Kevin Williamson has strong points of view. He has had no problem speaking loudly against Donald Trump since before the man was even elected. His critiques of the President have not abated. He has made it quite clear that he sees Trump as a rather ignorant buffoon, thus I suppose that The Atlantic may have seen him as a good candidate for giving the periodical a veneer of diversity of thought. Unfortunately trouble ensued from the moment that Mr. Williamson became a member of the staff, mostly because of his unwavering view that abortion is murder. The reality is that Williamson was adopted as a baby, given up by a mother who did not have the wherewithal to raise him. He has often expressed his thanks that he was given a chance to live a wonderful life rather than being denied that opportunity by experiencing death before he was even born. His comments regarding abortion have angered many people over the years but he has steadfastly stood by them. Once he was hired by The Atlantic a furor arose that resulted in his being fired within days. It was a sad commentary on freedom of thought and speech regardless of what one’s views on abortion may be. More recently we have seen others relieved of their public duties for various and sundry slips of the tongue. Among them is Megan Kelley. 

I have admittedly never been a big fan of Megyn Kelley. She is bright and beautiful and appears to be quite sincere, but I never quite understood the admiration for her journalistic skills that were so prevalent. I suppose that my respect for her grew by leaps and bounds when she was willing to openly criticize then candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election. I understood how much courage it took for her to voice her concerns given that she worked for Fox News. She stood her ground even as Donald Trump hurled unseemly insults at her, and her popularity among conservatives took a plunge. I was happy for her when NBC hired her to host part of the Today Show lineup. I found her programs to be far more informative than the drivel that most of the morning entertainers provide. She attacked difficult topics with honesty and I slowly came to like her. At the same time I sensed that her coworkers still held it against her that she had at one time worked for Fox. 

While I was off camping last week Ms. Kelley had a segment on Halloween and the idea that some costumes are deemed to be offensive because of cultural appropriation. She had a panel of guests to discuss this rather recent phenomenon. She made the cardinal mistake of insisting that there may actually be times when wearing blackface is not as egregious as it may appear and her guests soundly disagreed with her premises. Admittedly her arguments were thin and I do understand how some may have found them offensive, but after much thought she reversed her thinking and apologized first on Twitter and then on air the following morning. Sadly it was too late for her. The executives at NBC decided to let her go in spite of her mea culpas. She has become yet another pariah in a world that allows no mistakes even knowing that erring is human.

Any magazine or studio has every right to hire and fire whomsoever they want. Still it bothers me that people who disagree with the general thinking of the organization are let go with very little provocation. There seems to be a fear that contrary thoughts and utterances should be quickly excisized rather than allowed. It is as though we are no longer able to accept ideas counter to our own. Rather than debating the merits of one argument or another, we prefer to shun those who do not think like ourselves. Such lack of reasoning is dangerous and we should all be concerned that it is happening more and more frequently both on the left and on the right. There is no room for differences or even for changes of heart. We must march in cadence with a particular group or leave the ranks.

I had not really thought of writing about this until I read a plaintive comment  from a dear friend regarding her sadness that Megyn Kelley had been fired from NBC. She spoke of how much she admired Ms. Kelley and how she would miss her program. My friend is such a sweet and compassionate woman that I began to think of how sad it is that very talented people are being forced to toe the prevailing line rather than being encouraged to think, debate, pose questions, suggest alternatives. We really should not want to become people who think like one of Ring Lardner’s characters, “Shut up he explained.”