Beautiful Chaos

chaos 1

Chaos is defined as a state of utter confusion. It can be tiring or exhilarating. I’ve had my share of chaotic moments and I’ve witnessed others in their’s. In spite of precision planning a few of my first days of school turned out to be the very definition of chaos with both teachers and students dissolving in tears before the new term even had time to get started. I once went to Epcot on New Year’s Eve not realizing that it was one of the most popular times only to find myself surrounded by a surging crowd of drunken adults with surly attitudes. I wasn’t sure that I would make it out of the park unscathed and realized that I don’t generally do well when faced with that kind of chaos.

Still there are forms of chaos that are actually quite beautiful and even therapeutic. The Friday nights at my Grandma Ulrich’s house were occasions when anything might happen. Thirty or more siblings, spouses and cousins would cram into her tiny living room where the noise level quickly rose to an almost unbearable peak and little ones ran around in a state of unfettered energy. My aunts and uncles were a rowdy bunch who laughed and argued in a space filled with smoke and more love than one might ever measure. Those evenings were surely nothing less than beautiful chaos, unregulated emotional gifts to all of us who participated in them.

My first generation American relatives were indeed a unruly group, viewed by their neighbors as being a bit wild. With ten children coming one year after another my grandmother had become resigned to having a noisy household. She lost two of her little when they were still infants and it had the effect of resigning her to a bit of disorder in the household. She quietly watched over her children’s antics with a loving smile on her face, not worrying about unimportant things. As long as her children were clothed and fed and tucked into their beds at night she was happy and so were they.

Her days became routine rituals of sweeping and mopping dust from the floors, preparing food, doing laundry, watering her plants, and showing her children that she thought each of them was wonderful. She loved them above all else and they in turn adored her. Their chaotic gatherings filled her with joy, and she sat in a corner of her living room just watching them with a contented expression on her face, happy that they returned to be with her each week. If their discussions tended a bit too much toward anger she had a way of stopping them with a quiet mention of their names. They understood that they had crossed a line and corrected their behavior immediately like the good boys and girls she had taught them to be, but they were rarely in a mode calmer than excited frenzy. 

I have in many ways become my grandmother. I enjoy simply observing my children and grandchildren and siblings when we are together. I delight in the chaos of that wonderful crowd. I quietly serve food and drink and then watch. It is a wonderful feeling to see so much love filling our parties in the form of animated conversations, raucous games, energy running freely. There is nothing boring about our gatherings and nothing quiet about them either. We celebrate our loving connections without filters and it is an emotionally glorious experience. Somehow we each realize that it is okay to fully be ourselves, knowing that each person will always be accepted and loved without reservation. That is the kind of beautiful chaos that energizes and brings confidence.

We humans have built societies based on rules and traditions. We grow up learning how we are expected to act in various situations. We must sit quietly and raise our hands in a classroom. We must stop at red lights, and be polite. It can feel very restricting to always follow the mores of the world. Sometimes we need a place where we can feel safe to let down our hair and speak our minds, be who we are. Most often that happens with close family members, but sometimes it is even better with very dear friends. It is in the informal settings that we most often feel the most relaxed and loved. We know that slips of the tongue will be forgiven, faux pas will won’t change our relationships. There is an easiness that we find with certain people that is quite glorious.

My big, crazy extended family has at times been viewed with a bit of consternation. We actually make some folks a nervous with our quirky ways. We are too loud for them, too inclined to raise the roof with our joy in being together. We have to choose our mates carefully lest they run when we expose them to our frivolity without warning. We definitely do not sit in a quiet circle chatting in a manner worthy of an audience with the Queen. More than one soul has cringed at the chaos that our meetings engender. Others have joined in gleefully proclaiming that we are so much fun.

I love our beautiful chaos. Nothing makes me feel better than spending time with the caring people who have allowed me time and again to just be myself with no expectations or demands attached. Our is a joyful acceptance that more often than not erupts into the most beautiful chaos of chatter and laughter and love.

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The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.

The Final Adventure

All good things come to an end and so it was with our trip to England. On our final day we decided to go to the “High Street” shopping areas of London. We began our adventure at Harrods which is perhaps the most famous of the city’s department stores. To say that we were in awe of what we saw would be an understatement. We literally walked through aisle after aisle of every single floor and soon learned that we would not be purchasing much unless we decided to take out a bank loan.

I’ve never before seen such a variety of handbags, all of which were gorgeous with prices to match. Virtually every well known designer was featured in the clothing areas. I was drooling at the designs but didn’t feel too badly about having to pass on them because most of them were made for much younger bodies than mine. My sister-in-law Becky inquired about a sweater that she like but decided not to purchase it when she learned of its twelve hundred dollar price tag. The interesting thing is that so little of the merchandise came with a price tag which made me think of the old saw that if you have to ask how much something costs it’s probably too expensive for your pocket book. Nonetheless we enjoyed seeing so many lovely things and wondering who the people are who have the income to purchase them.

One of my favorite areas was the home section that featured incredibly lovely china. I actually bought a small bowl for one of my daughters and didn’t break the bank doing so. I also found a unique pot holder that was reasonable. I had to laugh at the idea that only I would walk through Harrods and end up with a potholder, but the truth is that I love to cook and I enjoy a well stocked kitchen.

I also broke down and bought a lipstick. Luckily the cosmetics were priced exactly the same as they are in Macy’s. I wanted a lovely berry color from the Mac Aladdin collection but they were sold out so I settled on a nice pink that I have already enjoyed wearing. Later I found the Aladdin lipstick at Macy’s and bought it there with fond memories of my foray into the upscale world of Harrods.

Eventually we found our way to the basement where all of the tourists go. The affordable items were down there. I bought a little purse for my granddaughter, some toffee for my grandsons, a couple of tea towels, some tea, and a bag that I now use to hold all of the books that I collected at the various places in London that we visited.

From Harrods we went to Oxford Street and wandered over to all of the bespoke clothing stores. These are places where men order custom made suits that are tailored to fit the individual exactly. I was interested in seeing them because one of my former students is hoping to one day open his own bespoke clothing business and also because Mike had told me about the methodical process used to make the incredible looking pieces. I took Mike’s picture in front of many of the establishments and we all joked with him that he should order one of the suits for himself. Sadly it takes six weeks to complete a suit with numerous fittings in between, not to mention a cost of many thousands of dollars.

Eventually we headed toward Selfridge’s Department Store with a few stops at other places in between. Selfridge’s was a fun place but the quality of the items just wasn’t as exceptional as those at Harrods, and yet the prices were not that much lower. We had lunch there and I splurged by calling a strawberry sundae my meal. Not only was the treat quite yummy but the people watching was great fun, not to mention noting that Selfridge’s sells fresh produce and meat right along with clothing and household goods. Who knew that one might do all of the necessary shopping under one roof?

We ended up purchasing some wonderful Earl Grey tea and a tin of biscuits at the store. The tea was so good that I am tempted to order more when we run out. I wanted the tin mostly because it celebrated Queen Elizabeth as the longest reigning monarch in the history of the country. It has a sweet photo of her and has ultimately become a respository for all of my trip postcards.

Ironically we all decided that we wanted to return to Harrods. Mike and I wanted to purchase a few more items from the gift shop but first we stopped for tea and found out that Harrods also sells produce and meat of very high quality with prices to match. We placed our packages on the floor as we sipped on yummy Earl Grey and shared a divine pastry. It was great to just sit and relax for a time before going back to the basement to get the rest of our purchases.

We had no sooner left the area where we had been enjoying our afternoon repast when Mike realized that he had left the package that he had been carrying. It was the one that held the items  that we had purchased from Harrods earlier in the day. We rushed back feeling certain that someone had found it, and given it to one of the employees. Sadly it was not there and the waitress indicated that a woman had briefly sat where we had been and then very suddenly announced that she had changed her mind about ordering something and had scurried off with a Harrods bag in hand. No doubt she had taken our things probably believing that she was going to find something wonderful inside. She must have been very disappointed to learn that she had a pot holder, two tea towels, some tea and a bit of toffee, along with a purse for a young girl.

We actually had a  good laugh and then rushed around repurchasing everything that we had lost. We did all of this with time to spare as we hurried to the designated meeting place where we eventually were reunited with the rest of our group. We felt that other than our driving adventures we had just experienced the best story of our trip.

We ended our wonderful day at an Italian restaurant that was surprisingly good. We sat back and enjoyed various forms of pasta and chattered endlessly about all that we had seen. It felt somewhat bittersweet to think about returning home but we knew that the morrow would be spent winging our way back to Texas. It had been the perfect ending to a perfect adventure and one that would hold a very special place in our hearts.

A Roman Treasure

Bath

We often forget that the Romans had outposts in Britain long before the nation had become organized enough to have kings and its own government. There is evidence of the Roman era in great walls around cities like York, and in the magnificent edifices in the city now known as Bath. We journeyed to that ancient area not certain what we would see as we looked farther back into the history of England than even the medieval cathedrals and towns had been able to take us.

The Romans found the natural hot springs of the area and created magnificent spas and temples around them. At the time of their conquest it was a thriving region where Roman citizens came to worship their gods and goddesses and to bathe and relax. The discovery of the remains of the magnificent structures that once stood there must have been quite exciting to those who accidentally found them, and thankfully they understood the importance of unearthing and preserving the ruins.

Walking through the site is a profound experience. There is something quite humbling about seeing the engineering and architecture of people who walked the earth so long ago. The sheer beauty of their creations is breathtaking, but the idea of witnessing how their way of life must have been is even more exciting. They were unbelievably advanced in their knowledge of how to move and drain water and how to build great structures. It is fascinating to think of them traveling to this distant place from Rome and putting their lasting mark on its landscape. We spent hours inside the complex where all of the ruins are housed, mesmerized by the ingenuity of its creators.

The city of Bath is a treasure not just for the contributions of the Romans but also for the magnificent buildings that were created in later eras. It is a place of elaborate churches and beautiful apartment buildings. There is something exceptionally creative about the place that attracts singers, painters, and artists of all sorts. 

We listened to the singing of a woman with a wonderful soprano voice, and jigged in place when a trio of musicians played English folk tunes. We’ve witnessed a number of exceptional street performers in many cities, but we agreed that the artists in Bath were some of the very best. With the pleasantly cool weather and the preponderance of seating we might have tarried all day in the main plaza of Bath had our tour of the Roman baths not taken so long, and we had another appointment that we wanted to keep. We were hoping to get a glance of Highclere Castle where the television hit Downton Abbey is filmed, so we needed to leave by mid afternoon.

We reluctantly said our goodbyes to Bath and were off again in the hopes of taking some selfies in front of the well known castle. First we paused for some lunch at a rest area and perhaps took a bit longer than we should have. When we finally entered the road to the famed estate we were stopped by a sign announcing that no tourists would be allowed after four in the afternoon. Since it was well past five we knew that we had missed our opportunity to explore the grounds. We had been led to believe that we could walk around the area until seven each day, but soon learned that the late hours do not start until the summer. We were profoundly disappointed because we had gone well out of our way to get there, and besides we might have spent more time in Bath had we known that our trip was to be fruitless.

It was time to head back to London and our old familiar haunts. Soon enough we were back at our hotel and planning to meet up in our favorite pub for some dinner and perhaps a game of Jokers and Marbles at the big table that had in some ways become ours. We had a great time recounting our adventures and looking on the positive side of even our disappointments. I enjoyed a lovely bowl of soup with some delicious bread and we women kept our winning record with the game intact. We also had some laughs with the regulars who seemed to come to the pub each evening and made our plans for our final day in London.

We planned a shopping day in some of the most famous mercantile areas of the city for our last hurrah. We agreed to allow ourselves a bit more sleep time and then we would be off to Harrods, Oxford Street, and Selfridge’s to see what wonders were inside these famous places of which we had only heard stories in the past. There was something quite exciting about the prospect of dressing up and mingling with the in crowd along with a horde of tourists like ourselves. I love to shop whether it is in thrift shops or elegant department stores. The thrill of the hunt has always fascinated me. I only wished that my mother was with us to enjoy the moment as well. I know that she too would have been extremely excited about perusing the wares of London’s most exclusive merchants. I seemed almost like the night before Christmas to me.

The White Rose of York

The Shambles

York is about a four hour drive north of London by car or two hours by train. It has a history as long and important as London, and was home to three kings. The House of York was a branch of the Plantagenets, represented by a white rose. The dynasty was troubled by war and ended with the death of Richard III and the rise of the Tudors. It was once a bustling city of great power lined with shops and industry. The Romans had a settlement there, and much of the wall that they built still stands. It is a unique place well worth the effort in getting there.

We set out for York on a Tuesday morning and arrived by early afternoon. Brother Pat was so adept at driving on the highways by then that we were rather carefree on the journey, spending most of our time enjoying the the landscape which became more and more magnificent the farther north we traveled.

We had rented a flat for the night in York that housed all six of us. It boasted a full kitchen, three large bedrooms, two baths and a living area all for less than two hundred pounds a day. It was clean and modern and within walking distance of all of the major attractions. We all agreed that we had done well in finding it even though we were generally unfamiliar with the area, relying only on photos to give us an idea of what we were getting.

Since we had tickets to visit York Minster, a magnificent medieval church, the following day we headed to the old town area known as the Shambles. Some say that it’s ancient cobbled streets lined with quaint shops were the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories. The hooks where butchers once hung their meat still hand over the walkways, and the tiny stores are filled with all sorts of interesting delights.

At the edge of the old town area was an open market place where vendors sold baked goods, antiques, jewelry, crafts, and even fresh meat. I came upon some Willow Ware dishes that included teacups, plates, a pitcher and a bowl. They were exactly like the traditional ones that I collect save for a different hue of blue. I was quite taken by them and knew that I had to purchase them when the seller offered the entire set to me for only twenty two pounds. It was a real bargain.

As she bubble wrapped each dish for me we spoke of York and the things to do there. Then she mentioned that if we had time we should definitely take a short side trip to a place called Robin Hood’s Bay that was just east of the area on the North Sea. She explained that she always took visitors there because it is a unique and beautiful place. By the time I was ready to leave with my purchases she had convinced me that we needed to find a way to include the town as one of our destinations.

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Christmas stores, sampling fudge, sipping on tea, eating ice cream, and laughing in magic shops. I purchased several art prints of both York Minster and the Shambles to go with the pictures from other cities that I have gathered over the years. I felt as though I really was in another world in another place and time until we eventually found our way back onto modern streets.

We decided to cook some spaghetti for dinner, so we purchased some fresh ground beef, known as crumbly beef in England, from the open market meat vendor, some fresh loaves of bread from a little bakery, and the rest of our food from a tiny grocery store. We walked back to our flat enjoying the beautiful weather and the flowers that seemed to be blooming everywhere.

It was a very pleasant stroll even with our heavy parcels. By then we had grown accustomed to walking  several miles each day, and the views in York were particularly enchanting. I saw trees, bushes and flowers unlike any that I have ever known and we all stopped often to snap images of the loveliness that was so bountiful.

We spent the evening enjoying a great meal made by my brother Pat. His skills in firefighting and driving are only outdone by his abilities as a chef. We ate his home cooked meal with gusto and then we played games and laughed and joked until late into the night. It is amazing how relaxed we had become and how much we had adapted to a slower way of life. It felt as though we had landed in a happy little bubble where there were no problems, and no bad feelings. Everything and everyone seemed as quaint as the programs on PBS that feature little villages where folks are friendly and life unfolds at a slower pace.

Of course we understood that real England is no doubt different from vacation England. We had set aside all of our worries and cares for a time, but indeed they must exist for those who live there. Still, it was nice to be free from any sort of concerns and to just live fully and happily in the  moment. Best of all was the opportunity to spend so much time with my brothers and sister-in-laws. There is something quite magical about sharing a trip with people that I love. The memories will now and forever bring a smile to my face.

We retired that evening feeling quite content but also excited about visiting the magnificent church that so dominates York. We were also more than curious about what we might find if we actually decided to travel to Robin Hood’s Bay.