Saturday, August 28, 2010

Being Lost

Being Lost

A mist had rolled in after breakfast, so thick it was practically opaque, a silver brume that blurred the horizon between loch and sky and spirited away the fir trees.  It was a day most would no doubt have categorized as bleak, one voted best to be spent inside the atmospheric old hotel with a silver pot of Earl Grey at the ready and a fat Sunday paper within easy reach.  But we had never been able to resist such days, so naturally we were off by mid-morning, hats pulled down low - boots laced up tight.  Narrow as a needle, the road laced itself through the hills above Oban, deeper and deeper into a landscape quite foreign to our eyes and we followed our noses till before very long we were hopelessly, helplessly, deliciously, lost.  We met no one on the serpentine pavement, we had no cell phone, no one on earth knew where we were.  We could have disappeared in a puff of Scottish fog and it would have been days before we were missed.  It was utterly delightful.   After several hours we eventually found ourselves in a town that we knew, where we had a tasty lunch by the sea, later finding our way back to the hotel without any trouble.  I would take nothing for the romantic adventure of being lost in the fog that day.

I thought about that Scottish adventure just last week when I was thumbing through Time magazine and came across one of those lists they are so famous for.  This one concerned itself with the group of children just now starting school for the first time, and all the things that this new “Class of 2014” will never know - things that have been commonplace for most of our lifetimes.  Reading through this list of things so soon to be but a memory, there, just after camera film and landline phones, were two simple words that caused my heart to sink.  “Being Lost”.  I’d never even considered this, but with the universality of smart phones and GPS devices, I could see how this dismaying fact could well be true.  There will soon be no reason to ever be lost, I suppose.  These days, detailed directions are constantly in the palm of one’s hand.  Take a wrong turn and, much like Hal, that dispassionate computer of Mr. Kubrick's film, one’s automobile will coolly point out the error.

Now I realize, and not for the first time, that I may indeed be in the minority, but this sounds perfectly dreadful to me.  To always be connected, answerable, in reach.  To always know where you’re going. To never be truly away, in the middle of nowhere.  To never sit at a crossroads and wonder which way to turn next.
 Unthinkable, to me at least.  
How can one’s spirit of adventure, and the creativity it fosters, flourish in a world devoid of even the possibility of being lost?
If Robert Louis Stevenson had used a GPS to navigate the journey from Edinburgh to Samoa, never once losing the way just a bit, with his curiosity and daring replaced by the cold calmness of certainty, would we have had Treasure Island to read on a snowy night? 
 If Daniel Defoe had used an iPhone to instruct his every footfall across Europe, would Robinson Crusoe have been what it is?  
Middle Earth and Sleepy Hollow, Shangri-La and Oz. 
 How different would these places be had they been dreamed up by authors who were never allowed the enticing possibility of being lost.

Much like poor Gulliver was knitted to the ground by the Lilliputians, I sometimes think that, rather than freeing us up for great things, all this remarkable technology is instead, slowly but surely, lashing us to the earth, hobbling free, individual thought, forbidding adventure, and banishing chance.  For just as “being lost” can often be a wonderful state for the body, it is vital to the heart and the mind.  To let one’s thoughts roam, to work out the answers for oneself - to ponder, to dream - to not know everything at once, all the time.  
To be a bit confounded, a bit lost. 
 Isn’t that how true knowledge is gained? 
 Isn’t that the place where the most wondrous ideas are born?


The view from the car window the day we were lost....

 Back at the hotel after the fog had lifted....
I told you Wilmont went everywhere with us!

Note:  I am very honored that this post was named one of the Posts of the Week by Everyday Goddess!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Edward And the Leopard

Edward And The Leopard

Yet another steamy evening was setting up camp outside the cottage windows, unpacking its fetid array of clamminess, swelter and heat.  Edward stood on his furry hind legs and stared out into the oncoming night, his almond eyes watching as the last light of day turned to orange, casting an unearthly phosphorescence on the whole of the garden.  He thought it looked rather worrying, but as Edward never takes time for worry, he merely hopped down and sauntered away.  
What sort of night would it be, he wondered.  Are the man and the lady going out?  He stopped to observe them with a quizzical gaze.  No, the lady has her yarn in her lap.  Good sign.  He trotted over to stand in front of her.  He sat down.  He stared.  After a minute, she looked up and smiled at him, patting the cushion beside her enthusiastically.  He hopped up and snuggled down in the pillows.  He knew he was always welcome, still he felt it only polite to ask first.  The lady began absentmindedly scratching him behind the ears. 
This was shaping up to be his kind of night.  
The man switched on the big picture box, but Edward hardly noticed.  There was rarely anything in that thing to interest him.  Sometimes he saw other dogs, but by the time he made it across the room, they were usually gone. He settled in for a nap. 
 Faintly he heard the lady say, “Oh good!  Bringing Up Baby, I love that movie.  Let’s watch that!”.   Lazily, he opened one eye to see.
  Both brown eyes immediately flew open wide and his head jerked up with a snap.  There, right in front of him, right in his own home, inside that funny box, was the biggest cat he had ever seen in his life.  Paws the size of saucers!  A head as big as a pie plate!   The cat was covered in spots and walking along on a leash! 
The horror of it flew over Edward like a fever. With a growl that began in the depths of his soul and exploded into the room like a cannon, he leapt up from his spot and sprang into the air, covering the ground betwixt himself and the cat in one blazing blur of white fur.  Barking ferociously, he stared down the intruder. 
Apple, who prefers to go to bed early, had, as usual, already retired to the bedroom windowseat, but now came hurtling into the room, slipping and sliding round corners like a drunken man, ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Edward in protection of her household. 
Knitting flew to the floor, yarn rolled across the room.  Somewhere in the background, Edward heard the lady saying.. “Turn it off!  Turn it off! Change the channel!  Quick!” And suddenly, just like that, the big cat was gone.  The picture box was blank, and empty. 
Ha! He had done his job once again. 
 Shaking off furiously, he gave the cat once last look over his shoulder, one last growl for good measure, and then, head high, he trotted back to his comfortable spot on the sofa.
  The lady fished her yarn out from under a chair, the man held his head in his hands and sighed. 
Apple yawned and headed back to bed, slightly disgruntled.
But Edward smiled to himself and thought, once again... “Whatever would they all do without me?”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Naming Chickens

Naming Chickens

On the morning that my father died, I took a long walk.  After far too many sad hours in the dimness of a sick room, I longed to fill my lungs with crisp December air, feel the winter sun on my face and remember how to breathe.  When a loved one passes away in the South, it is almost as though the ones who remain are basically thrown, quite immediately, into full social planning mode, and I was no exception - I had many stops to make, many plans to see to before all the relatives hit town.  But following my meeting at the funeral home, I persuaded The Songwriter to go home without me and allow me to make my way through the rest of my to-do list on foot.  I needed a walk in the fresh air.

I headed down the sidewalk into town, past the old stone church on the corner where the lovely Nativity scene was already in place for the holidays.  The Songwriter’s family helped establish this church, more than a century ago -  their names etched in the stained glass windows.  Pulling my coat a little tighter around me, I opened the door of the florist and placed my order for masses of red flowers, Daddy’s favourites.  Then on up the hill and right at the stop light, into the gift shop for candles and across the street to the bakery by the park, where they knew what I wanted before I asked.  Every proprietor had asked how I was, each with real concern in their eyes. As I entered our old neighborhood my pace slowed a bit and I tilted my head back to gaze up at the trees towering above me on either side of my path.  Having cast aside their colourful garments of autumn, their arms were now stark and bare in the December light, and they laced grey fingers above my head, sheltering, protecting me all the way home, just as they had on many walks before this one.
I realized anew what a sweet thing it is to feel one’s part in a community, to live where you’re known, where even the trees seem like some of your friends.

In this age in which we live, so many definitions are rapidly changing with every month that flies past. The idea of community continually shape-shifts for me.  Through this magic portal of a computer screen, I feel as though I am part of a new and unique community, for there are wonderful people from all corners of the world whom I consider to now be my friends. 
People who write to tell me they just saw a dog on the streets of Paris who looked exactly like Edward. 
People who send me favourite recipes, favourite books - who write with get well wishes for my dratted summer cold.
Only today I received a postcard from Scotland from Jeanne, the delightful blogger from Collage of Life.  She knew of my love of that country and took the time to send me a note when she was there.  What a treat to find that in my mailbox!
  And recently one of my favourite British blogger/poets, The Weaver of Grass, put a call out for suggestions in naming two of her new Blue Haze chickens. There was something about that phrase, Blue Haze, that brought Marlene Dietrich to my mind.  I could somehow see her, on a foggy night, leaning against a lamppost in Berlin, singing a song of lost love.  And then, that image brought to mind Lotte Lenya, another chanteuse of the period.  So I suggested Weaver name the chickens Marlene and Lotte.  What a thrill it was when she wrote to say those were the names she had chosen!  As I lay in bed that night, it was such a happy thought..... I had actually named two chickens in Yorkshire!  I could not have been happier winning the Oscar.
What a grand community this is.

The other day, another favourite blogger sent me a kind email telling me that she just knew we’d be great friends if I lived in her city.
  I had to write her back to say, “Funny.. but I think we already are!”

“On this shrunken globe, men can no longer live as strangers.”  
Adlai E. Stevenson 

Monday, August 16, 2010



On a stifling afternoon when only a bruised sky in the distance offered any hope for relief from the heat, I was making my way along the sidewalk, still smiling in delight from all the new autumn treasures I had just seen in the yarn shoppe, when I had the uncomfortable sensation that I was being watched.  I had felt this several times during the past week - shopping for Silver Queen corn in the farmer’s market,  serenely waiting on a good friend at a white clothed table at lunchtime, even once while sitting at my desk, clad in pajamas, shopping for new boots on the Internet.  A sharp turn around revealed nothing tangible, only a strange, greenish shadow that seemed to dart around corners each time that I looked, and, maybe,  an almost inaudible echo of a rather wicked laugh.   These were mere figments, most likely, but I was nonetheless left with an unsettled feeling, and a nagging wee wish to run far away.
But then one evening, sitting snugly on the sofa with a book in my hand, and Edward curled up at my feet, it happened. 
 I was caught unawares, with no means of escape. 
 I swallowed, and my throat was on fire. 
And an ache suddenly started at the tips of my toes, working its malevolent way up the length of my spine. 
The Summer Cold had grabbed me at last.  
Immediately, I mentally thumbed through my schedule.  Nothing of importance in the offing for the next few days.  I laid out my favourite pair of white cotton pajamas, straightened the stack of new books by my bed.  I fluffed up that bed to a blissful, downy height and sat a cup of honeyed tea on top of those books.  And then, I climbed in.
Ever the Pollyanna, I reasoned that the weather is too noxious for any outside play, and those books have been calling me for ages.  Edward is the world’s best companion when I am feeling poorly, loving nothing more that to lay atop the bed with his big head on my feet.  And The Songwriter really makes the most wonderful nurse, chicken soup included. 
 So all in all, things could be much worse. 
 But still.  
A Summer Cold. 
 "I was sick and lay a-bed, 
I had two pillows at my head, 
And all my toys beside me lay, 
To keep me happy all the day......."

from The Land of Counterpane by Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Archie and Wilmont

Archie and Wilmont

There are a curious amount of bells that ring throughout the poetry of Sir John Betjeman, whose photograph is seen above.  It is remarkable how many times they are mentioned.  He even named his autobiography, Summoned by Bells, a fact that has often led me to think that a sweet carillon must have played a continual soundtrack in that most English of Englishman’s head.   A rather romantic idea, but one that seems to fit a gentleman so enamoured of the past, his writings so redolent of a simpler time.    There seemed to be a charming air of whimsy in Betjeman, but maybe I feel that way because of Archibald Ormsby-Gore, the teddy bear that was Sir John’s loyal companion.  Archie famously accompanied him to Oxford and was Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration in the creation of Aloysius, the bear of Brideshead Revisited fame.  Betjeman even wrote a book about his bear, entitled Archie and the Strict Baptists, a title that never fails to put a grin on my face.  His abiding friend, Archie was in Betjeman’s arms when he died.  

The Songwriter and I have a similar, though not as constant, companion in our stuffed monkey, Wilmont.  Wilmont has had the good fortune to travel with us on many occasions, and the photographic evidence of these adventures even produced a calendar for friends one recent Christmas.  Far from considering him merely an example of the strange or eccentric, everyone we meet seems to enjoy Wilmont no end.  Hotel housekeepers tuck him into bed whilst we are away at dinner, sometimes placing a book in his paws.  Once we returned to find Wilmont hopefully grasping the television remote, although most frustratingly for him, the lack of opposing thumbs prevented him from successfully operating the thing. 

Wilmont spends most days on the back cushion of my bedroom chaise, a comfortable postition that affords him a lovely view of the back garden.
  Edward occasionally throws a curious eye his way, but never approaches him.  
He seems to realize without being told that Wilmont, like Archibald Ormsby-Gore before him, is special.

"If a man insisted always on being serious, 
and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, 
he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it."

Friday, August 6, 2010



I sit with the white dog and stare out the window. 
 Though our cage is a lush one of flowers and tapestry, we are assuredly trapped here within. Calidity rises from the garden at dawn, bleaching the flowers to paper brown grey and turning the green grass to straw.  Almost audible, it hums and it grumbles round the cottage at noontime, whispers and murmurs on into the night.   Alone in our shadowy chamber of lamplight, we two are in hiding from the hot wrath of Helios, unleashed when his chariot came down near the earth to find something amiss on the waters - the blue waves now obscured by the folly of man, with the great feathered creatures now flightless, the maritime mysteries now gasping for air.

 Orwellian words are heard from our radio, warnings to stay in our homes.  Our eyes redden and burn with each venture outdoors.  So, what can we do now but gaze out our window?  How do we tame these mad torrid days?  As we sit with hands folded, waiting for autumn, are we witnesses to the dawn of a new blistered world - a strange faded landscape void of lushness and colour, against which our windows will always be closed?  
Is this now the new face of summer?

With a healthy cold nose, the big white dog nudges me away from my worry, his reminder that it’s time to play ball.  
For our hallways are long and the yellow ball is squeaky.  
There is still fun to be had, even inside. 
 Bless him.


This is not complicated. We know that our planet is enveloped in a blanket of greenhouse gases that keep the Earth at a comfortable temperature. As we pump more carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases into that blanket from cars, buildings, agriculture, forests and industry, more heat gets trapped. What we don’t know, because the climate system is so complex, is what other factors might over time compensate for that man-driven warming, or how rapidly temperatures might rise, melt more ice and raise sea levels. It’s all a game of odds. We’ve never been here before. We just know two things: one, the CO2 we put into the atmosphere stays there for many years, so it is “irreversible” in real-time (barring some feat of geo-engineering); and two, that CO2 buildup has the potential to unleash “catastrophic” warming. When I see a problem that has even a 1 percent probability of occurring and is “irreversible” and potentially “catastrophic,” I buy insurance. That is what taking climate change seriously is all about.”

Thomas L. Friedman
New York Times, 8 Dec 09

Painting above by Howard Pyle

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who We Are

Who We Are

There are handfuls of inspirational gems liberally scattered throughout every scene of the new film, I Am Love.  They are free for the taking and I walked out of the theatre with my mind brimming over with gleaming jewels of orange and gold.  As I turn them over and over, this way and that, they continue to impart wisdom and beauty even now, days after I gathered them up off the screen.
 In the movie, the main character states that although she was born in Russia, when she moved to Italy, she “ceased to be Russian”.  Bestowed with a new name by her Italian husband, she could no longer even recall her given name and, with no one from her past remaining in her life, she simply forgot who she once was, an untenable state of being and one doomed to evanesce under her feet like beach sand.

I had occasion to think about that character quite a lot these past few days.  When some old friends lost everything in the Nashville floods of May, The Songwriter came up with the idea to put together a concert for them.  It was as though he lit a fire on a mountaintop, a blazing beacon that was seen and answered by the friends of our youth from their respective hideouts all over the country. This collection of sweetly familiar faces descended on Nashville this week, resulting in a reunion of people who had not been in the same room together in several decades.

Years melted away in the hot July sun to the soundtrack of laughter and memory. I heard my name rearranged to "Pammy", something that never happens except with these few people.  Looking in their eyes, I could see my own reflection, and was struck by the realization that the person I once was continues to accompany me even after all these years.
 I thought about that Russian character in the movie, lost to herself in Italy, and I understood empirically how important are those touchstones that beckon us to our former selves.  We all change and evolve, at least hopefully so - we wrinkle and soften, lose some and gain some - and the days flash by like a lightning strike.  It is immensely comforting to all do it together.  Aging leaves none of us behind; we are all sailing the same sea.  What a gift it is to stand in the light of an old friend's gaze and feel the wonder of stopping, even reversing, time - for at least a few days. 
A stopped clock that presents us with time to remember - time to know - that who we were remains who we are.

“Let it go my love my truest,
Let it sail on silver wings
Life’s a twinkling that’s for certain,
But it’s such a fine thing
There’s a gathering of spirits
There’s a festival of friends
And we’ll take up where we left off
When we all meet again.”

 From the song, A Gathering of Spirits, by Carrie Newcomer