Category Archives: Journals

Another nugget from the journal: The Rite Of Spring

I don’t always want to write about my cancer, folks! Some of my best descriptive writing can be found in my journals, so here’s another morsel for your enjoyment, followed by notes.

Dancers in the 1913 production of The Rite of Spring.
Dancers in the 1913 production of The Rite of Spring.

October 23, 2014

We went to hear the IU Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. I worked on the costume crew for the ballet long ago, but there is a huge difference between listening with one ear to the piped-in public address system, or even standing in the wings holding a quick-change costume, and sitting in the first balcony absorbing the blows of the music. My god, this was one of the great experiences of my life. The music was, as Kessler wrote long ago, “…a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.” In the first movement I could hear things being born, and hear precursors of other things dying. The strange thing is that Frank interpreted it mostly the same way as I. “I didn’t hear things dying,” he said, “but I heard them being born.” But why did we, and Kessler, interpret the dissonance and arrhythmic beats as things being born at all? There are no predecessors in this kind of music to make us aware of what “things being born” sound like when translated into music.

The sounds of the Rite of Spring hit my belly like knife stabs. My heart beat faster, tears swam in my eyes, my forehead knotted into deep creases, my breath almost sobbed. I came to the edge of bursting into tears at five different places. The orchestra was so loud in one or two or three points that it could have been a rock performance. The main timpanist certainly got a workout; he deserves a clap on the back and a free dinner at the restaurant of his choice for such hard work. The guest conductor, Nowaks, disdained the evening wear that’s usual in conductors, and instead wore black trousers beneath a — there is no other description for the garment — “frock coat.” But a frock coat made of shining silvery gray with intricate paisley-like patterning in it, very loosely cut and falling to mid-thigh. “He’s a bohemian,” I said to Frank admiringly. There were two musicians playing “Wagner tubas,” which neither of us had ever heard of before. The instruments were laid down beside the chairs of the French horn players, who doubled on the Wagner tuba in the especially loud parts. They resemble the French horn but are more beautiful, with less piping, and the piping arrangement is an oval instead of a circle. There were something like eight double-basses being sawn away at, and a flotilla of violinists and another flotilla of cellists. There were 106 musicians listed in the programme.

We applauded and applauded, and stood in respect at the great accomplishment we had witnessed and shivered in front of. Frank did not nearly weep, as I did, but admitted to feeling as though the music was piercing him. “I’m really glad we witnessed this,” we both agreed.

A Wagner tuba, courtesy Wikipedia.


Note: The initial performance of the ballet version of this work did not in fact cause a riot, as is often claimed; but there was quite a bit of hissing, stamping and jeering from portions of the audience, and some of the loudest objectors had to be removed from the theater. Part of the furor was a response to Nijinski’s choreography, which featured clumsy movements on the part of dancers who stamped, jumped and toed-in instead of toeing-out, the better to represent the ballet’s story of a prehistoric tribe choosing a maiden to be a human sacrifice. But many of the objections were to the music itself, which was of a sort never heard before. To use modern terminology, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring disrupted the comfort zone of listeners to a degree never experienced until then.

Here’s a BBC Proms video of an orchestral performance of the work. Be sure to listen to it with the volume turned up until you flinch! And here’s an interesting BBC drama that depicts the rehearsals and opening night of the original ballet, Riot at the Rite; its last half-hour shows the dancers in real time doing their best to carry on with the opening night’s performance despite disruptions from the house.

Bohemians in Bloomington, 1990s (from the journal)

Bloomington's courthouse square. Image lifted from
Bloomington’s courthouse square. Image lifted from

Jan. 17, 1994. Free Speech Night.

We attended Free Speech Night at the Rose Fire Bay, a group of presentations designed to test the First Amendment. Part Two was memorable. A so-called performance artist got up to engage in the sort of free speech which done thirty years ago would have been sufficient to either get him arrested or else thrown into a mental institution. He had one side of his face painted black, the other side normal, and wore army fatigues with a swastika on one arm. A male buddy at the back of the stage contributed ear-splitting arrhythmic noise and feedback from an electric guitar, while a female friend provided horrible blood-curdling screams. He lit incense, drank liquid from a glass bottle and appeared to be pretending to throw up into a bowl, ranted and yelled, turned his back to the audience and dropped his pants so his bare butt glowed in the spotlights, then turned around to reveal that he had a rubber chicken stuck on over his penis. He then ran through the audience, tearing pages out of a Bible and throwing them at the viewers, his chicken bobbing and swinging from side to side. He removed his chicken, put his pants back on, and ended the act. “Whoa!” yelled Bill Weaver from the back of the room, in the somewhat stunned silence that met the end of the performance. People then began applauding, politely but without enthusiasm. Bill took the stage to read from Henry Miller. His first words into the microphone were “That fellow on before me should’ve used a LIVE chicken.” (Laughter from the crowd.) “But then,” he pretended to reconsider, “this isn’t NEW YORK. This is only Bloomington.” He read the “Georgia Cunt” section from “Tropic of Capricorn,” another piece that would have pressed buttons four decades ago. He read it well and was warmly applauded.

The evening’s impresario, Steve Gardner, mentioned to us after the end of the show that the performance artist was renowned for drinking gasoline and throwing up on stage. I was thunderstruck. “You mean that stuff in the glass bottle was gasoline?!” Steve shrugged. “He didn’t really tell me beforehand what he would be doing,” he explained. Frank told me, “Didn’t you see him throwing up into that bowl?” “I did, but I thought he was faking it,” I said.

[I was deeply disturbed and followed the above journal entry with a three-page musing on the meaning of “art.”]

Aug. 13, 1996. A Memorable Art Show Opening.

Frank and I went downtown to the opening of the Big Little Art Show at the Daisybrain Gallery. Three of Frank’s pieces were on display in this show, hanging alongside big art-scene names like David Ebbinghouse. Paul Smedberg also had two pieces hanging, computer-altered color photos with some degree of talent. Outside, three kinetic sculptures were on exhibit. There was a crudely-articulated cow skeleton mounted on roller skates and driven by a battery so that it would slowly inch its way along the sidewalk, with a brass cowbell around its bony neck ringing, with intermittent “moos” coming from a boat-horn mounted inside its foresection. At intervals it would piss from a sack of water slung underneath its pelvis. Another sculpture was a mannequin with a torso and head and one mechanically-driven arm which regularly lifted and lowered a steam-iron onto a raw steak draped over the top of its head. The name of this piece was the Sade-a-tron. Another mannequin torso, headless this time, gyrated rhythmically from side to side flailing at itself with chains for arms which would strike tambourines mounted on front and back. It provided a steady percussive beat to the proceedings.

The art scene crowd was spilled out onto the street, for the Gallery next door was also having an opening. People were milling around talking, commenting on the kinetic sculptures, introducing themselves to artists; we stood on the sidelines enjoying the scene. A group of four or five undergrads rounded the corner and stopped in astonishment at the sight of bovine bones half-visible behind all the moving, mingling people. “What’s that?” one undergrad spoke aloud to no one in particular. “It’s a cow,” I said, “and it moos and skates along and pisses.” “Oh,” said the kid in relief, “that’s cool.” Another classic moment from the Bloomington streets!

[Did anyone else out there attend these two events? I’d like to hear your own memories.]

Two punk-rock nuggets from the journal

A description of the classic West Coast punk band, X, at the height of their powers, followed by a description of Lydia Lunch in 2014.

I'm not sure who owns the rights to this image, which lives at
I’m not sure who owns the rights to this image, which lives at

October 25, 1983

Bill and I had dinner and sat around for a bit until it was time to head on down to the X concert. We had figured on sitting in front with Brian Wilcox, but his plans had fouled up and he was sitting in the front room far from the stage, having an unhappy fight with his girlfriend. We were at a loss, for the main room was packed full of cretinous black-leather-garbed punk warriors and we could not figure out where to sit. We found a table at last back by the bar, which as it turned out offered as fine a view as we deserved and wanted. Michael C. and Mike Shaw came by and sat with us, along with another friend of theirs. Everyone was primed and ready to party. The opening band was tight, but mechanical and mediocre. Even as everyone hopped up and down on the dance floor, they snarled against the band. I yelled “Go to hell” when they finished, which caused much amusement to Michael. My invective was not heard as far as the stage, I am sure, because of the general noise.

X came on and were greeted by a great scream of welcome. They were extremely tight and played magnificently. Exene had brown hair all in horrid uncombed doggie-clumps. John Doe had his hair slicked back rockabilly-style, but it soon came uncombed and stuck out damply all around his head as he played. Billy Zoom, the guitarist, was the real hero of the night. He let loose tremendous howling guitar riffs the whole night, without looking at the instrument, or sweating, or bobbing to keep the beat, or veins standing forth on neck or forehead. He stood there calmly and mildly, disregarding the all-encompassing eruption of loud music from the band which raged all about him, with a faint smile playing about his lips, and gazed about the hall, first in one direction, then in another, never losing his smile. He was like a smiling automaton. It was the most incredible feat of guitar-playing I’d ever seen, to play so effortlessly and at the same time keep up this hilarious smiling posing. He kept gawking at the cute women in the audience, and every so often would wink lasciviously, regardless of whatever he was playing, never once losing the beat. Michael said, “God, he’s a Nazi! He’s not human! How can he do it?” and Gordon Trubey, who came over to talk with Bill, said, unaware of Michael’s statement, “God, he’s inhuman! I don’t see how he does it!” I danced a bit, and had two gin and tonics, and rough-housed with Michael, who was tipsy and kept laying his hands on me to tickle me or plague me. I really could not pay as much attention to the spirit of the affair as I had wished. I can either appreciate a show intellectually, or physically, but not both at once.

Gordon came out of the flailing mass of bodies on the floor to our table, wild-eyed and lacking his glasses. Bill asked him where his glasses were. “Somewhere on the dance floor,” was the reply. “But I’m going back to exact my revenge!” and he disappeared back into the melee.

X played one long set with no breaks, about an hour and a half of solid playing, and left the stage at about 1:20, early for most shows. We were quite satisfied with the evening, and walked home, ears ringing.

*   *   *   *

Lunch in 2014. No idea who owns this photo.
Lunch in 2014. No idea who owns this photo.

Feb. 7 2014

Last night R.W. came to town and took me out to see Lydia Lunch close out the centenary celebration of William Burrough’s birth, since he had a free ticket. We had a very pleasant time talking at the bar. It was like a date, getting to know someone better by talking and asking questions. I would never have gone if he hadn’t offered me a ticket, because Lydia Lunch is nothing to me (as is Burroughs, for that matter), but it was nice to be offered the option, and to take it. In our talk I learned that his politics align with mine; he believes that 9/11 was planned by our own government; and he has an enormous amount of respect for my journal and wishes there were more of it. “Your journal wasn’t just your life,” he told me; “it was mine as well, because I knew all those people and hung out at all those places at the same time. We were always just two steps away from each other that whole time.”

Lydia got up on stage at last after our pleasant interlude and began to show off. She began by holding up a copy of “Naked Lunch” and pretending that it was about her. She then dissed Burroughs and called him a dead white male who couldn’t do anything in response to what she was about to do, which was to read his book as a “cut-in,” not a cut-up, in which she would segue back and forth between sections that were his and parts that were hers. “And I bet you can’t tell the difference,” she jeered. She read well, slowly and articulately at the lowest register of her voice, with grimaces, grins and leers at the right moments. But I was disgusted by her one-upmanship. If she didn’t like Burroughs, why did she manoeuver to be a part of the IU symposium? If she was supposed to read from his works, why did she seize the chance to bang the drum for her own writing? She seemed to be driven by envy, bile and a deep underlying anger. She’s an anger-junkie. Is that what being a “punk” is about? Because when I think of Patti Smith, the first woman in punk, I think of someone who is kindly, compassionate, benevolent, and eternally willing to support the creative efforts of others. Fuck Lydia Lunch, she’s nothing but a brazen hussy.

[More extracts from the journal will be posted frequently.]

More from the journal: England, Part Four

[For Part One, see]

In early 2006, after a long period of ill health, I traveled to England to take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home.

Photos are my own except when credited to others.

June 8

I had to walk into town from our B&B across the Avon River to get cash to pay our hosts. My hostess got into a bit of political ranting when I returned and happened to express my interest in her thoughts. She’s the second person on this trip who has complained to me about immigrants (particularly from Eastern Europe) ruining England, and the second to remind me, “We’re only a small island, after all.” She expressed the belief that this Labour government and the modern welfare state are sending England to the dogs. It was interesting to hear the same sentiments expressed twice.

We caught the 10:42 for Paddington Station, and checked into our hotel, the Phoenix (Best Western) at Kensington Garden Square. It was horribly hot and even a bit humid, and nothing is air-conditioned (a situation that is bound to change with the global warming). Maddy and I bought passes on the Underground and learned how to navigate, which turned out to be far easier than New York’s subway system because of superior signage and organization. We ate some grocery carry-out snacks and caught the Underground to the British Museum, where we spent two hours strolling through roasting-hot galleries without air conditioning. Maddy was in raptures over some of it, like the Egyptian stuff, and indifferent to other stuff (like the Assyrians, whom she’d never heard of) and the Elgin Marbles, although she did agree, once I had told her their history, that they ought to be returned to the government of Greece.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

When we were properly wearied, we hopped back on the Tube and rode down to the Thames Embankment, then walked upstream to the Houses of Parliament, which shone handsome and brown in the blazing sunlight. The gold on Big Ben was particularly handsome – I had never realized it had gilt decoration. Across the river, the Eye of London (an enormous bicycle-wheel Ferris ride) slowly rotated. Behind the Houses of Parliament was a huge heap of a church built from a pale stone. “What’s that?!” asked Maddy, all agog and totally thrilled and taking photos of everything. I consulted my map and replied with surprise, “that’s Westminster Abbey!” Click, click, went her camera. I had left mine in my hotel room, not wanting to lug it in the heat.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

We walked next west along St. James Park as far as Buckingham Palace, which looked grander in the sunlight than I had remembered from my previous trip. The entire circle in front of the palace was adorned with Union Jacks on standards, so I hazarded a guess that the Queen might be at home, since it wasn’t decorated like this when I was here before.

We walked north through the park to the Green Park subway station and rode the rest of the way home. My feet were in sorry state, and my knees were stiffening after two consecutive days of forgetting to take my glucosamine. We watched an entertaining nature show on BBC-2, and then watched a very interesting documentary about Temple Grandin, the famous cattlewoman and animal behaviorist who has Asperger’s, like Maddy. It was very enlightening. Maddy told me some extremely poignant things afterwards about her own struggles with Asperger’s. She explained that she had trouble with humor – what others find funny she does not find humorous, and what she thinks is funny leaves other people staring at her. “When I was little, I had seen a few movies by the Three Stooges, and I thought they were really funny. I like slapstick more than other forms of humor. So I tried doing that kind of stuff to the other kids, but I just got in trouble.” She said she was too young to realize that the Three Stooges weren’t actually poking each other in the eyes or clobbering each other on the head. I fault my brother for providing that sort of movie to his daughter without explaining to her that it was an utter fantasy.

June 9

I’ve been sleeping with sleeping pills every night; I’ll have to break my habit when I get home.

Today was our last day in London. We took the Tube to the Tower and did the place without a tour, by ourselves. It was not particularly crowded; I had envisioned having to shuffle through long queues for half the day. But it was completely endurable; perhaps the continual heat is putting off the number of visitors. It was nice to get to see the inside of the place, but it was (of course) enormously altered by the passage of time. I liked the old Norman part the best, with the round arches; the barrel-vaulted passages; the garderobes up a step or two and around a corner (did they use anything back them to wipe their bums?); and the lovely arched chapel with its fabulous geometrical simplicity of line. I also really enjoyed the armor and weaponry, but Maddy was completely bored and had no interest whatsoever, so we kept moving along quite swiftly. I barely got a good look at Henry VIII’s tournament armor (with his initials entwined around Katharine of Aragon’s in a lover’s knot) which showed that he had been in his youth as slim as my brother, if perhaps a bit shorter-waisted (although that might have been the styling of the armor). The tournament armor came complete with horse armor as well and was a magnificent sight. Then there was his old-age armor, by which time he had swelled to Frank’s girth (if not slightly more). There was also a set of armor for a man who was well over 6 ½ feet high and who must have been an amazing, almost giant-like figure of a man; and some little suits of armor for boys about Miles’ size; but I had to scurry after the plodding Maddy.

King Henry VIII's tournament armor. Photo belongs to
King Henry VIII’s tournament armor. Photo belongs to

We then got in line to see the Crown Jewels, which were housed in a building filled with gold and silver plate and ceremonial panoply. When looking at the series of tall golden maces, each one with a different date and a different monarch, I wondered aloud to Maddy, “What was wrong with the first one, that they had to keep making them?” The shuffling of the line (the only line we encountered anywhere at the Tower) prevented me from stopping and reading the descriptive cards next to each item. Maddy was even more bored with crown jewels than she had been in the armory, and didn’t even want to go in until I told her that her family would be disappointed if she didn’t. We stepped onto a moving sidewalk that whizzed us past all the crowns with their purple velvet and big shining jewels, and the last one of all was simply sparkling with gazillions of tiny diamonds, and then were outside again, with hardly time to draw breath. We went to the Tower Green where Anne Boleyn, Jane Gray and Essex were beheaded, but there was nothing to see, just a shady grassy place with some paving stones that were being pulled up in preparation for some sort of restoration. We went quickly to see Sir Walter Raleigh’s quarters in the Bloody Tower, which were furnished reasonably well despite the conditions. To an Elizabethan, the accommodation was probably not much worse than at his regular residence. Then we exited, after purchasing some trinkets at the Tower gift shop (Maddy is a perfect addict of gift shots and booksellers).

We strolled down to Tower Pier and caught a water-taxi down to Greenwich, which turned out to be a very pleasant, laid-back place. We toured the Maritime Museum, which was a top-notch museum but sadly lacking in air conditioning. We grew so hot and weary from tramping excitedly from one gallery to another that when I found I had completely overlooked Nelson’s last uniform, the one he died in, in a gallery we had already visited, I declined going back. We trudged out the doors back into Greenwich town, which was sweltering beneath a merciless sun, and I decided it would not be a good move to walk up to the top of the nearby hill to visit the Royal Observatory and see the strip in the pavement that marks zero degrees longitude, and see the place from which Greenwich Mean Time gets its name, because Maddy was faint and dizzy again. I think she’s in extremely bad physical condition and ought to be exercising at least an hour a day to give her growing body the workout it needs to be fit; but she is firmly convinced that she is simply weak by nature. I was strongly reminded of myself as a teenager – always slightly languishing rather than physically active, and wondering why I was so weak, the cycle perpetuating itself. In fact, now that I’m off eating wheat, and recovering from what amounted to a long period of slow food poisoning, I feel fabulous. In the old days I would have wilted in the sun like Maddy. Now I feel strong, even immortal, hooray!

The restored Cutty Sark (which burned after I visited it). Photo belongs to
The restored Cutty Sark (which burned after I visited it). Photo belongs to

After the museum, because of the heat we visited the local market, where Maddy purchased a pentagram necklace from a local witch / capitalist / vendor and we toured the Cutty Sark, one of the fastest China clippers ever built, a noble vessel. Her hold now contains a stunning collection of 1800s figureheads from other ships, which reminded me strongly of American carnival ride animals in their carving style and the thick layer of shiny varnish atop bright paints. The one I liked best was a sultry lady in a scarlet dress that was off both shoulders and half over one swelling breast, her dress plastered against her voluptuous body as if by the wind itself. There was one figurehead of Abe Lincoln, to my astonishment (there was a statue of Lincoln in front of Westminster as well – what does he represent to the British mind, I wonder?).

We caught the water taxi back to Tower Pier, took the Tube to St Paul’s, and got out to walk along Cannon / Fleet street. St Paul’s was not really visible from street level, I mean the famous dome; all we could see was beautiful, lovely pale outer walls rising high above us. Maddy was in no mood for any more churches, and it was 5:00 pm after all, and I was afraid it would be closing its doors to tourists, so we strolled around the churchyard and watched people picnicking atop the old tombs, and we went on down Fleet Street in search of Dr. Johnson’s house. We found it down a tangle of tiny lanes that undoubtedly dated back to the Middle Ages or even the Saxon era; for all I know they could have existed since the city was rebuilt from the ashes of Boudicca’s rebellion. Johnson’s house was not open, or at least, the woman who answered the door told us in a markedly unfriendly way that it was closing in five minutes. I went back down the steps, looking up at the red brick building with regret, but I thought with delight, “Boswell walked here! Johnson and Boswell walked arm in arm through this lane!” The court adjoining Gough Court where the house is, is now called Johnson Court, and there is a building nearby named after Boswell, which is nice. There were two Elizabethan buildings on Fleet Street within the next block or two, one in splendid shape, the other deformed and altered by the years but still handing out over the street. I was amazed by the fact that I could walk through 2000 years of history on one day of walking through London, and see a statue of Johnson’s cat (“A very fine cat indeed”) to boot.

Johnson's cat, Hodge, adored oysters. Photo belongs to
Johnson’s cat, Hodge, adored oysters. Photo belongs to

Maddy was doddering with exhaustion, so I bought her a Cornish pasty and we took the Tube home to the hotel, where we hung out and relaxed after another grueling day in the sun. We are both glad we’re going home tomorrow. It’s been good, but it’s time to go.

June 10

We had a long talk last night, and Maddy wiped tears away as she told me agitatedly about how her parents had to put down their old dog, Zorba. “He didn’t want to go!” she cried in a passion. “And they killed him! They kill all their dogs – Shondo, Sadie, and now Zorba. I hate it. It’s totally wrong.” I said gently that the dog probably didn’t want to leave Maddy, but animals know when their time was up, and since he was old and very ill with cancer and congestive heart failure, it was a mercy to put him to sleep to spare his suffering. “Maddy, if I’m ever in a position where my own survival is hopeless, I’d want someone to help me along gently,” I said; “Frank on the other hand wants to be kept on life support forever, even if he’s a helpless blob.” Maddy said savagely, “I don’t care what happens to PEOPLE when they get old and sick. Animals are all that are important to me.”

We got up, breakfasted and strolled a little in the Bayswater neighborhood around the Phoenix Hotel, then checked out and caught the Tube to Paddington, then the Heathrow Express, then a Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK, then a Delta mini-jet to Indy. Actually I’m in the Delta jet right now as I write. It’s almost seven in the evening, which is midnight English time, yet I don’t really feel weary (yet). I have time to think about what I did, and learned, on this vacation.

First, the British are infinitely superior to Americans in politeness and friendliness. Secondly, their public transport is splendid. Thirdly, whenever British people express satisfaction with something, they say “It’s lovely!” Fourthly, I left part of my heart in Cornwall on the cliffs and moors and in the sudden secret lush valleys. Fifthly, Maddy proved to be excellent at navigating the airports, train stations, and buses. The only place I equaled her was the subway – am I slipping in my old age? I feel distinctly “blurry” in comparison with her instant comprehension of the arcanities of English transportation. I used to be far more accurate, I feel sure. So what has happened? Countless times during this trip I stood holding a schedule or map, puzzling, working it out slowly in my head, only to have Maddy say somewhat impatiently, “Oh, we just have to do such-and-such.”

I'll never forget the cliffs of Cornwall.
I’ll never forget the cliffs of Cornwall.

And lastly, I found that Maddy and I have a lot in common. Her Asperger’s is quite mild; she said on a scale of one to ten, she might qualify for a three; but if so, where does that leave me? A one? or a fraction of one, perhaps? I’m literal and often can’t tell if someone’s telling a joke if they do it deadpan, at which I often become annoyed instead of laughing. I used to have problems making eye contact. I used to be physically weak and clumsy like she is. I used to be a social “bug” whom the other kids made fun of, and when I was with my peers in an enforced setting, they’d draw back from me because of my over-enthusiasm and gaucherie. I have problems handling light in my eyes, and I have problems with noise, and with crowds in tight public spaces. But that’s the extent of it, really. I become more “Aspergerish” when I’m pre-mensing, and it goes away altogether when I’m not.

And that’s the end! “Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”

More from the journal: England, Part Three

[For Part One, see]

In early 2006, after a long period of ill health, I traveled to England to take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home.

All photos are my own except for the ones that are credited to others.

June 4

We ate a good breakfast and Maddy was able to walk as far as Mousehole, another mile and a half from Castallack Farm. Again it was blazingly hot and searingly sunny. I cursed my foolishness in not bringing a hat, but who’d have known that England at the beginning of June would be like this? Apparently, up to a week or so ago, they had been enduring one of the coldest and most rainy springs in recent history. And now it’s in the mid-80s and cloudless. Go figure! The “normal” temperatures for this part of the country for this time of year generally range from the upper 40s to lower 60s.

Mousehole is pronounced
Mousehole is pronounced “Muzzle”.

The thing that impresses me is the number of other walkers we’ve spoken with who think nothing of striding off for a good ten or twelve miles’ walk. A couple who were at our B&B this morning had walked from Sennen to Castallack in one day. The German we spoke with yesterday on the cliffs said he’s been coming every year for years, to walk from X to Y along the Cornish Coast. If I had been by myself, or with another reasonably fit adult, I could have walked much farther than we did (5.5 miles the first day, and about 7 the second). I’m astounded at how good I feel (notwithstanding perhaps the most extensive sunburn I’ve ever had, on arms, upper chest and face). No arm pain, no bad numbness (except while writing); nothing to report save a muscle cramp in my left calf. Compared with Maddy, I’m a model of physical fitness. I could not believe I carried both packs yesterday (even though it was not for very far, really). I’m so amazed at the physical change in my body – it’s like being reborn, or having an all-new body to marvel at and inhabit and enjoy. When I did my stretches yesterday I could touch my toes with no problem, and could perform all the other exercises that used to be painful and onerous. And instead of 17-year-old Maddy running circles around me, I ran circles around her.

We strolled slowly through part of Mousehole and ate luncheon at a tiny eatery, and looked at gimcrack tourist gifts through the windows of the many shops. All the shops had names like “Cat and Mouse” or had piratical or nautical themes. The village was perched on impossible hills above the water, with a handsome stone jetty sticking out into the water. Boats were tied up in the water and shrieking children ran chasing each other through the water at the shore. A stream issued from a culvert and spilled out over the rocks down to the sea. Gulls wheeled and cried overhead. The sun was blazing and we had little energy for touristing, what with our packs. We learned too late that we didn’t need to pack our bags on our backs each day; we could have chosen one B&B and taken the excellent bus system to anywhere on the Penwith Peninsula effortlessly without worrying about getting back. We could have walked from Sennen to Lamorna in one day, like the couple we met this morning, without being encumbered by heavy packs. But we didn’t know, so we can’t be faulted. Next time I do this, I’ll carry only a small bag with snacks and binoculars. (Sadder and wiser.)

Cottages in Mousehole.
Cottages in Mousehole.

Mousehole was very cute, with tiny stone cottages on narrow streets of appalling gradients, but it was filled with wandering tourists and one had the distinct impression that it was not real, but part of Neverland. So without examining it more closely, we caught the bus (which was standing right there) back to Penzance. We found our next B&B, unpacked and relaxed for a while, went to the Turk’s Head for a second lunch, strolled through the Morrab Gardens and the grounds of Penlee House, and did a coin laundry. It was notable that Penzance, which had looked so exotic to us upon first arrival, now looked rather seedy and unimpressive compared to the lofty cliffs along the coast, the beautiful cove of Penberth, the lush hidden valley of St. Loy, and the incredible quaintness of Mousehole. “Oh…’s Penzance again.” Our B&B this time was much less noble than Camilla House had been (although perfectly adequate for our purposes) and life seemed a bit flat in comparison to the adventures we had just been through. I had a headache from the constant blazing sun. We ate dinner at the Admiral Benbow (he’s the chap who finally caught Captain Kidd, apparently) and were amused with its décor, which was garish faux ship-style, with curved beams in the ceiling, ships’ wheels, bright paint with thick shiny varnish, and a fake hatch in the ceiling. We went “home” to our B&B, read, and worked Sudoku puzzles. Maddy has become a complete Sudoku fiend, thanks to me.

June 5

All these B&Bs are charmingly done up with flowered duvets with ruffles, but who wants to sleep under a toasty duvet when the day has been 80 degrees and the nighttime temperature is scarcely any lower?

Everywhere we’ve been, except for Castallack Farm, had seagulls everywhere that screech and wail like peacocks, all night long. One of them sounded exactly like a whining puppy in the middle of the night, a puppy that had been locked outdoors with no friend, food or shelter. Yet I’m sure it was a bird. At breakfast this morning a woman at the next table asked the host about the poor puppy that had been locked outside. “I nearly phoned the RSPCA even though it was the middle of the night,” she said, “I was so indignant.” The host looked blank. “I never heard a puppy,” he said, “none of the neighbors have one. It may have been a gull. It’s breeding season and they do make quite a bit of noise at present.” “It was a dog,” the lady insisted. She began making conversation with me; it so happened she was from London. I asked the population, learned it was 15,000,000 (twice the size of New York City – that’s something to consider) and then her face darkened. “It’s that size because of the immigrants,” she told me. “Everywhere you go you see Poles. And people from Eastern Europe.” She looked as visibly disgusted as if she’d been a white Mississipian in the civil rights days, talking about blacks. I found it striking that she would agitate herself more on behalf of a dog than a Pole, but of course said nothing.

We settled the bill, shouldered our backpacks and set off for the post office (to mail another batch of postcards) and the bookstore (to get a Cornwall book before it was too late) and then the train station. I looked at the city with affection as it shone in the bright, warm morning sun, and realized I didn’t want to leave Penwith. I could very happily spend the entirety of my next vacation in Cornwall. As the train moved out of the station and rolled past Saint Michael’s Mount, I found I had tears in my eyes, and wiped them furtively several times until I mastered myself.

Poulteny Bridge at Bath, on the River Avon
Poulteny Bridge at Bath, on the River Avon

The trip was long and was made longer by mechanical problems with the next train up the track. We pulled into Bath around 4:00 pm and found our B&B, which was totally swank, with a ceiling featuring floral bas-reliefs in the plaster and great swags of salmon-colored curtains with sheer lace behind them. The garden outside was to die for; the poppies were in full bloom and were as wide across as my fully-extended thumb and pinky (eight or so inches across, magnificent flowers). We strolled back across the river into town to get Maddy something to eat, so we therefore missed out on getting in to see the Roman Baths and the Pump Room before they closed. We walked beside the River Avon, looking at the lock, the weir, and the charming old bridge with shops built along it, and we climbed up to the Circus and the Royal Crescent.

Maddy found the whole place off-putting instead of exhilarating, because she does not like anything that is swank or classy, and the sheer magnitude of it gave her sensory overload. I began to regret having brought her there, since it was so obviously wasted on her. Tomorrow we are signed up instead for a day-trip tour to Stonehenge, Avebury and the edge of the Cotswolds. The next day I had hoped to “do” Bath, since Frank and I missed doing properly long ago, but now I’m wondering whether I should try to get us into another different tour instead, to Glastonbury and Wells. It’s a shame to come to a World Heritage Site and not make the most of it, but it’s also no good to have a bored, diffident teenager on my hands who says that she despises this sort of thing in a voice that rings through a crowded street. She has no idea how loud she talks. I wonder if I was the same when I was her age? I suspect I was very similar to her in many ways, but I do know that I was quieter in terms of decibel level.

She confided to me how she feels she was born in the wrong era and in the wrong country, and how she believes that things like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and other magical worlds actually exist on a different dimension and how sometimes a person can make the dimensions come together and touch. Suddenly I had a strong sense of déjà vu, recalling my awful first year at IU and how I took refuge in fantasy to block out my unhappy “real” life. I had completely forgotten.

June 6

We took an all-day bus tour of Stonehenge, Avebury and part of the Cotswolds today. Maddy was thrilled with Stonehenge and exclaimed over and over how excited she was. It was WAY more crowded than I remembered from 19 years ago, several tour buses from London having rolled up just as we arrived, the visitors all crowding through the gate and shuffling past holding audiophones to their ears. I myself like Avebury better for its vast scale and its picturesque qualities, but Maddy was less impressed because she had never heard of it before. She is now totally enthusiastic about ley lines and believes implicitly in them, although she thinks dowsing for them is bogus. Our tour guide demonstrated the dowsing rods at Avebury, just as Harry had done at the Merry Maiden stone circle, but I realized when I handled them again that the rods naturally cross (as they’re reputed to do if you’re on a ley), and they flip outward if you raise or lower the tips slightly. I think any crossing of the rod tips is completely due to the holder’s own subconscious desire to find a ley, and Maddy is of the same opinion.

Maddy being unimpressed at Avebury.
Maddy being unimpressed at Avebury.
Sunburned selfie at Stonehenge.
Sunburned selfie at Stonehenge.

We drove on past Silbury Hill to Lacock, an astonishingly handsome mellow old medieval-Tudor village with limestone buildings and wider streets than is common (were they built wide perhaps for market purposes, or for driving droves of sheep?). We ate at the King George, which dates to the 1380s and has the oldest continuously-operating pub license in England (although for obvious reasons it cannot have been named the King George back in the 1300s). I had my first hard cider: bubbly and sweetish-tart, a little like sparkling fruit wine. We strolled down to Lacock Abbey after lunch and got in to take a super-quick tour of the cloisters; the rest of the building being closed. I had no idea that it was used as a backdrop in the “Harry Potter” movies. I took what I think are some good photographs inside the ruined old galleries of the cloister, impressed at having just found out that William Fox Talbot (the inventor of the photographic negative process) also lived there for some time.

A lovely medieval lady carved into the church at Lacock.
A lovely medieval lady carved into the church at Lacock.
Lacock Abbey was one of the many places that the Harry Potter movies were filmed.
Lacock Abbey was one of the many places that the Harry Potter movies were filmed.

We drove on the Castle Combe where we spent a half-hour, a ridiculously charming picturesque village only one street wide, with old stone houses of the same era as Lacock. Our guide told us that the villages with the most remaining historic atmosphere are the ones that suffered the worse economic privation in the past and therefore found it impossible to afford any alterations that would have modernized the appearance. The town was undeniably beautiful, but its narrowness seemed almost stifling, and its quaintness almost oppressive. Apparently it costs over half-a-million pounds to buy a cottage there nowadays, so it’s very gentrified.—We went into the little churches at both Lacock and Castle Combe. The first had several original brasses left in the floor, behind velvet ropes, and the second had a Crusader effigy tomb, very impressive.

Picturesque Castle Coombe has been untouched by time because for centuries it was too poor to tear things down and update.
Picturesque Castle Coombe has been untouched by time because for centuries it was too poor to tear things down and update.

We came back to Bath with enough time left over to see the Roman baths. Maddy seemed less interested in the Roman ruins than I thought she might. And she definitely dislikes Georgian Bath, finding it boring. I resolved to forego one more day of exploring Georgian Bath in lieu of taking another day-tour tomorrow to Glastonbury and Wells, since she’s so interested in ley lines and New Age weirdness. (It’s funny that after arguing that she hates Christianity, she’s now apparently interested in looking inside churches, having seen two in Cornwall, two today, and the Bath Abbey yesterday.)

We ate dinner at a little café just above the oval-shaped weir, and then went out at sunset for a “Bizarre Bath” comedy walk with a local stand-up comic and sleight-of-hand artist. Maddy, being completely literal, was barely amused by any of it and asked loudly several times if he could explain. When the comic tonight made a gentle jibe at her expense, even though I had told her in advance to just smile and take it silently, she told him “Same to you” in a tone that sounded exceptionally rude. I should have known that comedy would be problematic for her. I regret having gone on the tour, even thought she had asked yesterday in particular if we could go see this attraction.

June 7

We took the day tour to Wells and Glastonbury. Wells was initially interesting, having a medieval cathedral, the first we’d yet seen (and a magnificent specimen), but it was market day in town and the place was filled with day-trippers, literally thousands of them, and my phobia of crowds kicked in with a vengeance. By the time we left, two hours after getting there, I was completely fed up with the place and could not wait to leave.

This scissor brace was added to Wells Cathedral centuries ago to help brace the sagging vaults above.
This scissor brace was added to Wells Cathedral centuries ago to help support the sagging vaults above.

Glastonbury was different. I had looked forward very much to the tour and knew what we were heading into. When the tour guide was driving down from the crest of the Mendip Hills, he pointed out Glastonbury Tor, which lay straight ahead of us across the Somerset Levels, and my heart leaped at the sight: a high, perfectly shaped tall hill on a misty horizon, surrounded improbably by a flat plain. A tower jutted from the top. The tour guide stopped the bus at the foot of the Tor, which was itself atop another broader, lower elevation, and let all of us off except those who had no interest in climbing (three elderly ladies). There was no way I was NOT going to climb; I had come a long way to get the satisfaction of doing exactly this. Maddy had had enough of climbing hills in the sun, and she stayed at the bottom while I and the others charged up the path to the top.

At the top, sweating and out of breath, I felt no ley line energies prickling the hairs at the back of my neck. I felt peaceful, and reflective, and I walked slowly about on the small top of the hill, examining the 1300s ruined tower and the silver shining “compass” that shows you what you are looking at in each direction, and how far it was. I sat on the grass on the brink and watched the jackdaws fly past beneath me in the air. The Tor is so very high that the viewer can see in all directions over three different English counties. The pleasant pattern of fields and hedgerows stretched in all directions to the far-off hills. I was perfectly happy, sitting there with a gentle hot breeze flowing past, baking in yet another day of unseasonable English heat. I chatted with a fellow American on the tour, a man from Seattle who was interested in King Arthur. He was friendly, a fellow American in a strange but fascinating land. I never learned his name, but I warned him about stinging nettles and taught him that the crows with gray heads were jackdaws, and told him how lively Cornwall was. By the time we descended together, we were friends.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

When we descended the hill to the bus, which had driven off to town with the elderly ladies and then returned for us, I found that Maddy had gone with them without telling me. “She said she was tired of ley lines,” the tour guide told me. I was horrified at the prospect of searching through all of Glastonbury in every Magick shop and emporium for my niece, and explained that she has Asperger’s. This of course concerned the others quite a bit. But as it turned out, Maddy was fine. She had been hanging out in a New Age bookstore just across from the bus parking lot, and came out when she saw us (“us” being me and the tour guide, who felt somewhat responsible for losing a passenger thus). I ended up allowing her to continue her shopping by herself after lunch, since she expressed the desire to do so, and promised she’d stay in one of the two shops opposite the car park. I went up along the high street to check out the action.

Glastonbury is the very heart of New Age weirdness in England and I saw two practitioners of Wicca striding the streets in black hooded robes. (I must say, black is not a good color for a hot cloudless day, but they DID look impressive.) There were shops selling incense, tarot cards, tattoos, hippie clothing, Wiccan costumes, books on astral projection, Native American beliefs, and Egyptology stuff. The number of groovy individuals walking back and forth was impressive, not to mention the fact that they all seemed very interested in the free exercise of the capitalist system. I bought a lovely little hand-embroidered hippie-chick blouse for £12.50 and went away, quite satisfied, to have a quick look at the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There I met my friend from the Tor, and we strolled around the grounds sociably together. He had been there for a while already, and showed me where “Arthur’s tomb” had been, and the cutting of the Holy Thorn (not a cutting any longer, but a tree the size of a crabapple). The ruins were lovely and I was glad I went to see them. Even in a state of ruin, they radiate serenity. I very much enjoyed Glastonbury in contrast to Wells.

Glastonbury Abbey was intentionally destroyed by Henry VIII, its bishop brutally executed.
Glastonbury Abbey was intentionally destroyed by Henry VIII, its bishop brutally executed.

On the way back our guide took another road, this one through Cheddar Gorge, and stopped at the side of the road so we could marvel at the formations towering high above us. The limestone cliffs were brownish, not the color of grey Indiana limestone, and the rocks fell apart along ragged cleavage lines instead of separating in neat layers.

Cheddar Gorge is one of England's most spectacular natural formations.
Cheddar Gorge is one of England’s most spectacular natural formations.

The gorge was several hundred feet deep and very steep and winding, and as the bus labored up the long, long road, the cliffs above were visible through the van’s skylight – indeed, they filled the skylight entirely. When we parked and got out and looked upward, the effect was vertiginous. There were wild (or feral) goats making their way along the sloping grassy shelves halfway up the cliffs. The guide said they were an actual rare species, but they were all multicolored (browns with white markings) instead of uniformly drab, which made me privately suspect they were simply feral.

My feet are killing me, particularly today. I’m simply grateful they did not act up on the hike last week. I have a seeping large blister on one toe, and both little toes have been driven completely beneath the adjoining toes because the boots turned out to be too narrow at the ends. I shall gladly dispose of them when I get home. When I think of how straight and independent my toes used to be, and then look at them crushed and constricted today, I wonder if I’ve caused lasting damage.

[Find the fourth and final installation of this travel journal at]

More from the journal: England, Part Two

[For Part One, see]

In early 2006 I traveled to England to finally take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home.

All photos are my own except for the ones that are credited to others.

June 2

“My dogs are barking,” as Lissa used to say. We hoofed it to the bus station with our packs this morning after paying our bill (over £160), which included two people for two nights, and dinner the first night – a bit steep, but the accommodations were luxurious) and caught the bus to Land’s End, a corny assortment of tourist gift shops and amusement arcades. A young man in the bus also got off with a backpack, like us. “How far are you walking?” I asked. “The whole way, to John O’Groats,” he answered in a soft Scottish burr. “Awesome!” I said, “good luck! How long will it take you?” “Eight weeks,” he replied. He went inside to officially register, as all the “End to Enders” are supposed to do, and we walked on, past the arcades and sweetshops to the astoundingly blue Atlantic. There was not a cloud in the sky and the day was hot. In the distance, 28 miles away, at least two of the Scilly Isles were plainly visible. We strolled slowly along the promenade over the water, gazing at the lighthouse out a ways on rocks called The Longships, and could see the Scillonian making its slow way toward the distant islands on the horizon. I told Maddy how the Scilly Isles are probably the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Lone Islands in the Narnia books; and reminded her that this was the closest she would be to home until we flew back. Then we started our walk along the Coast Path.

The rock formations were simply spectacular. We wasted a lot of time in the first 30 minutes lining up good camera angles to document the dark, deeply-scored rock formations and the blue sea beyond. We trudged along slowly, me striding excitedly in front then stopping, hands on hips, to wait while Maddy caught up. Eventually, after I helped her adjust her straps, she managed to get up to stride and keep pace with me. The Coast Path split into several pieces every so often, and was unmarked, causing us to scratch our heads in perplexity quite a bit. We finally realized that when it splits into two trails, that we should follow the one closest to the cliffs.

The rocks just south of Land's End.
The rocks just south of Land’s End.

The trail, in places, went so close to the edge as to be terrifying, with a narrow way and a precipitous drop upon our right, and crashing waves several hundred feet below. I thought to myself that if Maddy’s mother could see her now, she’d absolutely freak. I thought also to myself about how Maddy was intrinsically clumsy and prone to slipping and falling, and hoped in my heart that she wouldn’t topple off the edge. Fortunately she was able to keep her footing.

The view was incredible, the sun was hot, and soon I was thoroughly sweat-drenched and puffing from hauling myself up so many steep inclines. Steps had been cut into the rises, and I told Maddy, “Makes you think of the Endless Stair the hobbits climbed with Gollum when they went to Mordor, doesn’t it?” To which she replied, very literally, “But that was all ugly, and not green like this.”

The colors were impressive. We were striding across an actual moor, the only one I’ve ever seen. The treeless landscape was covered in brownish heather (unfortunately not in bloom) and with small gorse bushes in yellow blossom. Harry had told us yesterday, “When the gorse is in bloom, kissing’s in season; and it’s always in bloom, fortunately.” The gray weathered rocks were covered in patches of brilliant orange and gold lichen, and the heathland was covered in flowers that included pink spurge and a white bladder-like blossom that I did not know, and things like our own prickly lettuce with yellow, dandelion-like flowers.

A Cornish cove, with the Coast Path in the foreground and visible again on the far bluff.
A Cornish cove, with the Coast Path in the foreground and visible again on the far bluff.

We marched along under the hot sun and soon began to burn. I ordered Maddy to take off her black polyester jacket since it was almost 80 degrees, even though she said she was perfectly comfortable. She is apparently oblivious in large degree to physical discomfort in addition to her other characteristics. She is not unintelligent but has no sense of common finesse. She has been over-protected by her family and I think it high time she was out on her own, learning some new things.

We came across another holy well at St. Levan, but if the saint lived in the cell here, he (or she) could not have lain down on the tiny rock-slab floor, which was only large enough for a person to stand on comfortably, but perhaps he sat leaning against the wall. And if the saint drank from the well, he would have to negotiate a bit of scum, a scattering of duckweed, and a few fat black tadpoles. “We come here every year,” said a pair of walkers to us, “and the tadpoles are always here.” I wondered to myself where the duckweed originated – you can’t simply dig out a receptacle for water and have it spontaneously generate.

A cove with sea caves along the Coast Path.
Another cove along the Coast Path.
The vistas were outstanding.
The vistas were outstanding.

We passed coves with beaches, and people swimming and playing with children and dogs. “Those were all smugglers’ coves once, Maddy,” I told her, looking enviously at the frolicking people. At Porthcurno, to my great disappointment, we could not see the Minack Theatre due to an afternoon matinee performance. We descended a truly frightening set of steps to the valley, my heart in my mouth most of the way. We attempted to get in to see the Museum of Telegraphy, for Porthcurno is where the Trans-Atlantic cable came ashore, along with many others, but the attendants regretfully and very politely told us that we could not park our backpacks while we looked at the exhibit, not could we (of course) take the backpacks inside. It was unfortunate, for it looked very interesting. They let us browse the gift shop, where I picked up a postcard for Hugh Heinsohn and found that 17 cables originally came ashore there. Porthcurno was chosen to be the site of “the Victorian Internet,” as they call it, because there were no large ships that harbored there whose dragging anchors could snag the cables.

Towering echium spikes near the Minack Theatre.
Towering echium spikes near the Minack Theatre.

I had wanted to press on to Treen and eat at the Logan Rock Inn, but we could not locate the proper trail and were furthermore extremely weary. My feet were killing me because of my boots, which were fine on level ground but terrible on descents, which pressed my toes painfully together. We gave it up, and went to the bus stop to catch a ride to St. Buryan, our destination for the evening’s B&B. The bus was an open-topped double-decker, and even though Maddy professed to have no interest in riding on top, I made her do it because to do otherwise would be feeble. I have never had a more terrifying ride, nor a more thrilling. The double-decker lurched through the Cornish countryside like a runaway dinosaur, tree branches lashing the rails at the top, rocking from side to side, squeezing through the narrow lanes past stopped cars whose passengers flinched, whipping past the second-floor windows of houses. It was like the Knight Bus of the Harry Potter books. The narrowness of the roads and the San-Francisco-like steepness in places made it really frightening, but pleasurably so. “I don’t see anything so scary about it,” said Maddy unflinchingly.

The main street of St. Buryan.
The main street of St. Buryan.

Our accommodation in St. Buryan turned out to be a rather grubby cottage with a very social hostess named Deb. We had a conversation about neopaganism; she expressed genteel contempt for the whole circus that has grown up around Glastonbury, and I told her about our ex-tenants who were neopagans and did “skyclad” rituals and had a stolen human skull that they did ancestor worship with. “The skyclad part is all right, I sit in my own back yard naked on sunny days,” she said; but to steal a human skull is completely disrespectful.”

We strolled down to the large diocese church at the crossroads and saw a Celtic cross in front of it, along with a crude stone cross inside the churchyard dating to Saint Buriana’s day (in the 600s, I think). The church had many interesting ancient features, along with a beautiful wooden screen carved in the 1400s or 1500s and still bearing traces of the original paint. There was an arch at the front/side of the church, now filled in, which dated to the time of King Aethelstan. “I don’t like Christianity,” said Maddy. “Why?” I asked. “It’s contradictory,” said Maddy. “In what way?” I asked. She could not articulately explain, but I gathered that she’s currently enthusiastic about her friends’ neopaganism (they spent last weekend at the Elf Fest down at Lothlorien, near Bedford.) “Well, I’m not a Christian either,” I said, “but I have a lot of respect for anyone, of any religion, who has a true spiritual calling.” I told her about the radiant and activist nuns I had met at Oldenburg who felt that a true worship of God should include raising one’s food organically and showing others how to do it, but she was not impressed. “I don’t like Christianity,” she repeated. “Have you read the Bible?” I asked. “I tried but I got bored,” she answered. I told her I didn’t like evangelicalism, or any form of orthodox religion of any sort, but that I had a lot of respect for someone who simply worshipped his or her god without a lot of trappings or liturgy or congregation, as a matter of heartfelt faith. “Like old Saint Buriana probably did,” I said, looking up at the weathered stone cross in the churchyard, “or the hermit at the holy well yesterday, Saint Creed in his little stone cell.” “I think Christianity is stupid,” she repeated. “The problem with neopaganism, however,” I pointed out, “is that it doesn’t represent a real spiritual tradition. They keep saying that they’re following a worship that has been passed down for thousands of years, but all of that was lost to Christianity over time. What they’re doing has been reinvented recently, in the 20th Century.” “It’s meaningful to them,” said Maddy. “Well, it would be more meaningful to me if it didn’t mix-and-match, with a little bit of this, and a dash of that, a bit of Native American beliefs thrown in, and a side-bit of Buddhism for good measure,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?” asked Maddy. “It’s not a belief system if it’s all scrambled together like that,” I said. “Well, a lot of people believe in it,” said Maddy. I gave up, and because she found sitting in the pleasant, sunny churchyard looking at Saint Buriana’s cross to be irksome because of the presence of Christianity, we left. I was sorry she couldn’t see the beauty of the church, where the organist was playing, and swallows swooped and dived around the tall tower. To me, a non-Christian of the staunchest sort myself, it was a lovely place of peace and quiet. On the wall inside the church was a stone coffin-shaped tombstone of a French lady of the days after the Norman Invasion, with an inscription in phonetically-spelled medieval French. It interested me to think about her life and what experiences she may have had, leaving France to come to Cornwall with her lord almost a thousand years ago.

St. Buryan's church also has vaults that resemble inverted ships.
St. Buryan’s church also has vaults that resemble inverted ships.

We ate at the St. Buryan Inn and went home to our B&B. Maddy was exhausted and fell into bed. I elected to take a shower, as I was exceedingly sweaty and grubby, but could not figure out how to turn on the hot water with the arcane British water heater. The water issuing from the jet was not just COLD water, it was ICY water, as if straight from a cave, or an underground cistern. Thinking “this is going to be a character-building moment,” I stepped resignedly beneath the spray. I had not been so cold since skinny-dipping at Griffy Lake in December, years ago. I gasped instead of breathed, body rigid, arms furiously working to soap and wash my body so I could get out again. Goose bumps were still all over my arms when I went up to join Maddy in the bedroom.

June 3

I went down early to breakfast, leaving Maddy to sleep in. The other people at my table were a young couple from London. We chatted politely; I mentioned that I had been alarmed to read about the English crime wave. “What crime wave?” snorted the young blonde woman in genuine amusement. I told her I had read that London right now has a similar crime rate as New York in the 1980s. “That’s nonsense,” she said firmly; “Of course, you have to watch out for pickpockets. And you shouldn’t go walking through Brixton with a laptop.” —I asked my landlords if it was true that a rough estimate of the age of a hedgerow can be made from determining how many species of plants live in it. “That’s quite true,” said Deb. “So how old are the hedgerows around here?” I asked, “they’re simply filled with plants.” “Oh, they’re quite old,” agreed Deb and Bob. “Medieval?” I asked. “Some near the coast probably go back to the Iron Age,” they thought.

Maddy and I caught the bus in front of the post office and rode back down to Porthcurno to set out on the second leg of our coastal walk. Today we ended up escaping disaster by a hairsbreadth. Maddy was tired and was not physically ready to set out on a walk. Being out of touch with her own body, she could not articulate it to herself or to me. She did not pack any water in her water jug for the walk, as I had done, nor did she take along any snack to eat on the trail, as I had done. She plodded slowly instead of walking briskly. The day was hot and the sun was blazing down. “Maddy, can you try to walk faster?” I asked kindly; “The slower you go, the longer we’ll be out here, and it’s exhausting to move slowly rather than fast.” She was completely blown by the time we reached Treen, which was only an hour along the coast. We trudged up an extremely steep long hill for three-quarters of a mile to reach the Logan Rock pub, where we ordered lunch, and Maddy was scarlet-faced and dull-eyed. “What ails the girl?” I kept wondering, half annoyed and half concerned. She ate scampi and fries and consumed an ice cream sundae. I stuck with vegetable soup and a salad, but had some ice cream as well, topped with a big yellow dollop of clotted cream which I ate a third of, then removed in one slab-like mass to my plate so I could attend to the ice cream, unimpeded.

The rugged coastline near Logan Rock. Photo belongs to perfecthotelcornwall
The rugged coastline near Logan Rock. Photo perfecthotelcornwall]

We set out again after lunch, around 1:30 by then because of our poor rate of progress. Maddy’s pace was one that a 3-year-old child could have easily matched. I began to get annoyed. I’d stride on leading the way at a very reasonable pace, a pace much slower than my usual workout pace, then realize that Maddy was far behind me. I’d stand and wait, again and again and again, until she would labor into view, then I’d set off again. She simply could not match my pace, and I began to look at my watch, checking the time, and began to grow concerned.

Maddy at a stile.
Maddy at a stile.

We came to St. Loy’s cove, the most beautiful place I have ever seen, a fairyland of trees with blessed shade, rushing and gurgling water, tall ferns beneath the shade and most unexpectedly, a house with a B&B that offered cream teas and cakes on a terrace with picnic tables, surrounded by a fabulous garden and greensward. I was hot and my tee-shirt was completely wetted with sweat under my arms, all across my back and on my chest, and I was embarrassed about how I looked, but I felt it only right that we stop for liquid refreshments and let Maddy rest. It was 3:30 before we moved along again. Before we trudged on, I made a quick detour around the garden to check out the amazing plants: burgundy-colored succulents with shiny, pad-like leaves; tall blue spikes of echium that must have been at least ten feet high; cardoons that put my own to shame, being already almost six feet high without even having flowered yet; and great blazing banks of purple, orange, yellow and white daisy-like flowers. The grass was carpet-like, perfection indeed. At the foot of the garden was a narrow view of the boulder-strewn St. Loy beach. I think I might actually consider killing someone in order to have a house and yard like that. My life goal is now to become rich enough to afford a villa in a Cornish cove.

St. Loy woods. Image belongs to
St. Loy woods. Image belongs to

We set off again on the trail. I had hoped that Maddy would be reinvigorated by our stop, and she expressed the determination to march around the coast to our destination at the next night’s lodging, Castallack Farm, but she began lagging again. Soon it was clear that she was in trouble. A passing German tourist (Cornwall is simply filled with Germans) told us it was another two miles to Lamorna Cove, where we needed to get off the Coast Path and strike inland. Maddy began to fail, with clear symptoms of sunstroke – nausea, cold clamminess, dizziness and weakness. I made her sit down and rest every 10 minutes and take water. Then I found out she had not packed her own water jug. Knowing that the consequences could be serious, I gave her my own water.

Soon she was not able to walk even for ten minutes. I said. “Let’s just keep moving, as slowly as you need, and we’ll rest every time you say so.” She lay down on the dusty, blazingly hot Coast Path with her head on her wadded up jacket, and I wiped her face with her bandanna, upon which I had poured some of our precious water. “I’m cold,” she said plaintively; “I’m so sleepy.” Looking at my water jug for the first time (it was lashed onto the back of my own pack where I could not see it, but she could reach it) I found that each time we had stopped for water, she had had only a sip instead of really drinking. Dehydration was obviously an issue here. I tried to figure out what to do. I sat so that she was lying in my shadow, shielded from the sun. “Maddy, no one can come and rescue us off these cliffs,” I said gently. “We’re going to have to walk off them somehow, by ourselves. We can rest here as long as you like and move on when you’re ready. Maybe it’ll be easier for you if we move on when the sun is lower and it gets cooler.” My concern was that we were late for our B&B and had no way of phoning ahead to let them know, and that they might give up hope of our arrival and rent our room out to someone else. An additional concern was that we had a good mile or more to go AFTER we reached Lamorna. Maddy sat heavily on the path. “Is that Lamorna?” she asked, indicating where the next headland cut off the view of the next cove. “It must be Lamorna,” I agreed after consulting the map; “there’s a little rock in the water off the point of the far headland, and the map shows one at Lamorna.” She got up wearily and we started on again.

This time I strapped on her pack as well as my own, hers in front and my own on my back. Unfortunately, as we neared Lamorna, the path disappeared and became a rock-strewn passage with another sheer cliff on the right hand. I could not see my feet with Maddy’s pack on my chest, and I switched to carrying one pack on each shoulder. I clambered up over a particularly difficult place and looked back to see that Maddy had collapsed again on the path on her hands and knees and was throwing up. She barfed copiously, probably eight times, and completely lost her lunch as well as her breakfast. She lay gasping and spitting for a few minutes, then got up and found she had gotten vomit all over the knees of her pants and the sleeve of her jacket. Using our diminishing water, I carefully rinsed off the bad parts. She looked up. “I feel much better now!” she remarked cheerfully. She could even carry her pack again. We climbed around the cliffside path into Lamorna; all the while I was worrying, “Please, don’t fall on the cliff after getting this far, Maddy.” But all was well. We stopped at the public toilets and Maddy washed her hands and face and brushed her teeth.

We painfully hauled ourselves up another long incline to the top of the cove, where I used the public phone at the pub to call ahead and leave a message on the answering machine at our B&B. I also got directions from the helpful man at the bar. We walked along a narrow lane lined with hedgerows, painfully ascending still more inclines. Maddy was beginning to drag again. Finally we reached Castallack, where we found our hostess, Rachel, the owner of the farm, and collapsed gratefully into our room. I made Maddy go take a shower and shampoo, and when she was done I did the same myself.

Image courtesy
Image courtesy

While she rested in our room I talked with our landlady and described what we’d been through, and how grateful I was to be down off the cliffs. Rachel gave me a Bach flower remedy for sunstroke, to administer to Maddy in her water. I went back to the room and made Maddy slowly drink two and a half glasses of water with the remedy dissolved in it, and I read aloud to her from a Bill Bryson book that was on the shelf in the room. We went to bed at ten, Maddy exhaustedly and I for one extremely grateful that nothing terrible had happened. As I lay there, I kept seeing over and over the image of Maddy lying on her side in the dust of the path, throwing up, and imagining what could have happened – her toppling over the cliff, stunned by heat and sun. I got up and took a sleeping pill so I wouldn’t have to see these visions over and over.

*   *   *   *

[Find the next installation of this travel journal at]

More from the journal: England, Part One

In early 2006 I thought my days of action were numbered due to worsening autoimmune illness, so I resolved to go to England to finally take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. Two weeks before leaving I drastically altered my diet, with outstanding results, and thus left for England with what amounted to a new and improved body.

My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me on this trip. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home. Neither of us knew what to expect, but we turned out to be excellent travel partners who enjoyed each other’s company.

Following is the first part of my travel journal. All photos are my own except for the ones that are credited to others.

May 31-31

Sat next to a 300-plus pound man on the overnight flight from Newark to Heathrow. The armrests obviously gave him great pain, and I suggested that he feel free to raise them. He did this gratefully, but then his enormous bulk pressed all against my side and thigh. I spent the night squeezed painfully away from him, unable to sleep at all despite having taken half an Ambien. It sent me into a drowsy, murky twilight but gave me no sleep. Maddy, who had been inexplicably seated by the airline four or five rows in front of me, played Tetris on the personal TV set built into the back of the seat in front of her, then slept. It was a long, long night. My tailbone and legs protested. I declined the in-flight food but gratefully accepted orange juice. In the early morning we flew over what I supposed might be Wales, a coastline adjacent to impressive rolling hilly country, and we landed at Heathrow soon thereafter. We tried to fix our tickets which were all messed up for our return flight, since I deemed it better to fix it then and there (which they were unable to do) rather than wait ‘til the last moment next weekend, and this made us late for the bus to Reading, which made us miss the train to Penzance by about three minutes, causing delays that expanded and grew as the afternoon wore on.

Reading was filled with handsome little tri-colored brick houses all joined together, their original yards now taken up by parked motor vehicles, everything with a sad, shabby air of run-downness. We passed a Staples, a Toys-R-Us, and a Burger King. The view from the highway between Heathrow and Reading had been very similar to what we could have seen at home (save for the Victorian buildings). I thought of Oscar Wilde on the platform at Reading, in his prisoner’s stripes; and thought about homogenization of culture, and about the vanishing of true national character due to global ugliness. Past Reading, the countryside grew prettier, with herds of cattle and hedgerows and blossoming wildflowers, yet even there I could see traces of homogenization.

We ran for train connections and sweated over timetables all day, after having run for our flight in Indy and again at Newark. I tried to phone Frank with a credit card but was turned down by the machine. I found that I was sick of schedules and itineraries. If I ever do this again, I want spontaneity instead of regimentation. Long live my own spontaneous spirit of adventure, untrammeled by global standardization.

Later—near Exeter, which was pronounced “Axter” by the heavily accented conductor—the countryside drew increasingly beautiful. Maddy slept on the train seat beside me, head forward, mouth open, breathing the heavy slumbering breath of the truly exhausted. We passed old churches, ruins, farms; an estate filled with probably at least a hundred spotted deer moving about grazing in clumps like pale African gazelles; a farm field filled with huge lolloping rabbits; and briefly (just around Dawlish) the train ran at the very side of the sea. At first I saw on the left what looked like an exceedingly muddy marsh, then I realized it was a tidal estuary with the mudflats exposed; then suddenly the train window was filled with gray ocean and small whitecaps. Then we went inland again, the train going slower and slower the closer we came to Penzance. Finally we reached the end of the line and we climbed out, half-dazed by weariness.

Train running along the Dawlish estuary, courtesy
Train running along the Dawlish estuary, courtesy

I don’t remember when I’ve been so tired, except perhaps the last time Frank and I went abroad. All the way on the train, my head kept nodding as I sat beside Maddy, and I’d begin to fall asleep, only to jerk awake again with a start. If I had fallen asleep I would have missed the alpaca farm! and the huge plateau that looked like an enormous Iron Age hillfort! and the ruined tin mine buildings! and a castle! and a huge brown bird that I later learned was an English buzzard. Packs on our backs, we trudged into town, following the written instructions I had for our B&B, Camilla House. We arrived, I rang the bell, and our host, Simon, opened the door with outstretched hand of welcome, expecting us. He sat us down in the parlor of his 1836 house and plied us with tea, and answered questions. We washed up, combed our hair, and went down again for dinner. I was famished in addition to being mortally weary, and tucked into a meal of sautéed fresh sole, new potatoes with homemade butter, and steamed green beans, carrots and summer squash. I drank about four glasses of water, being dehydrated. I had had no food on the airplane, no breakfast, and almost nothing to eat all day. We went to bed by 9:30 or 10 and slept like zombies. Or at least Maddy did, whereas I woke at 2:30 to pee and then suffered insomnia due to being excited to wake up and remember that I was in England, not my home. I took half another Ambien and slipped back to sleep peacefully.

The handsome front of Camilla House, courtesy
The handsome front of Camilla House, courtesy

June 1

In the morning we had breakfast and then went on a “Harry Safari” hosted by a local personality, raconteur and singer-songwriter named Harry. We were the only ones in his tour van this morning and received a personalized tour. “What do you girls want to see?” he asked, and I said at once “Ancient sites!” He took us first to Sancreed holy well, where the mossy hole in the ground was rock-lined, filled with ferns, and topped with a hawthorn tree covered with strips of cloth tied on by neopagans. On all the crevices of the stonework inside were little offerings (including a small plastic dinosaur). I left an American quarter, sorry I had nothing better. “See the flowers floating on top of the water?” Harry said; “they’re recent offerings. Usually there are many more pieces of cloth tied in the tree but there was a baptism here two weeks ago and the Christians removed them all. These have been tied on since then.”

Offerings in the hawthorn tree beside the well.
Offerings in the hawthorn tree beside the well.

He showed us stonework in a rough square which was the ruins of Saint Creed’s monastic cell. “This was the local water source, so people would come to get their water, and the saint was living right here and could see who was coming and going, and he’d talk to them and convert them,” said Harry, who appeared to be warm on neopaganism.

He drove on through impossibly narrow lanes lined on both sides with hedgerows, and stopped so we could see the masses of wildflowers growing naturally at the bottom and sides. Navelwort is a sedum-like plant that grows in cracks between rocks and has round conical leaves with a gentle indentation in the middle, like a belly button, with little spikes of colorless flowers; English bluebells drooped their little blue heads; Queen Anne’s lace was a different sort altogether than ours, being juicier, with a different sort of umbel at the top and a similar but distinctly different leaf (Harry claimed there were over 10 types of Queen Anne’s Lace); foxgloves – digitalis purpurea – with huge fat inch-thick stems [including some that stood as tall as myself]; wild alliums with white clusters at the end of a triangular stalk; Herb Robert; and yellow buttercups. Harry wadded up an herb that looks similar to sweet woodruff and showed how swains used to toss it at their girlfriends, and if it stuck to their clothes (as it always does, like natural Velcro) their love was returned. He showed how the hedgerows in Cornwall have stone at the bases, and he showed us a fox run that went over the wall and down the bank, across the road, up the opposite bank and over the opposite wall, the hedgerow rising up on both sides of it but kept from growing by the constant comings and goings of generations of foxes.

Fox traffic keeps this part of the hedgerow free of plant growth.
Fox traffic keeps this part of the hedgerow free of plant growth.

He showed us rabbit scrapes excavated between stones in a wall near the holy well. He showed us English buzzards soaring in the sky above a field, an English buzzard being not a vulture at all but a large brown hawk almost the size of an eagle. We drove to see the Merry Maidens stone circle, where we met with a family who were hiking along the public path. Harry went into his tour guide spiel for the strangers and told us all about how there are many things that stone circles could have been – worship places, astronomical observatories, public markets, or gathering places for tribes; and how the number 19 may have been significant since it appears over and over again across Cornish circles, but how we can’t know for certain.

The Merry Maidens.
The Merry Maidens.

He produced dowsing rods and let everyone try their hand, claiming that when you walked along the path to the center, the rods would jump in your hand when you passed the spot where the two ley lines crossed. (Maddy refused to try, being completely annoyed with Harry’s constant teasings about how he was going to divorce his wife and marry her.) I tried the dowsing with great interest, having read of this many times, but although one rod twitched strongly, I attributed it to mishandling the rod combined with wanting to feel an effect. Harry said that some people can do it, while others can’t, and expounded a theory of the earth covered with a complex network of lines of magnetic intensity, pulsing invisibly. The strangers were happy with the free show. I put a buttercup blossom on the top of a stone, since neopagans had done the same on many of the rocks, and we moved on and examined the nearby standing stone called The Fiddler (as opposed to The Pipers on the opposite side of the stone circle) and the nearby stone burial chamber, now despoiled by destructive early archaeologists and almost bisected by the road. The tomb was a round circle of rocks with a capstoned round burial of the Beaker Folk in the middle, a neat and symmetrical bull’s-eye. Harry told us how the existing stones across the top had been pilfered from a nearby stone wall and were not original, and how the multiple-holed quernstone in front of the tomb was simply a lichen-encrusted cement replica, to deter thieves. “Hmphhh….inauthentic,” I sniffed to myself.

Harry took us to a lovely 1400s church at Sancreed with the most beautiful graveyard I’ve ever set eyes on, the sort of place I’d like to rest in myself had I not already planned on cremation. The church was locked and Harry was disappointed since it was nearly always locked nowadays to deter theft. “Thieves took the carpets out of the church at Tre——-,” he told us, shaking his head, “and they took the furniture from the church at ——.” The key-keeper for the church saw Harry’s van parked in front, and came next door to unlock it for us, which we thanked him for. Inside it was musty, damp, and with a slightly dank odor, with green patches on the wall from too much disuse and not enough human activity. The pews were handsome but of a later era; the spectacular window was turn-of-the-century; there were indeed original carvings left at the base of the medieval carved screen, which had been cut down to table height much later, and the roof was exactly like an upturned boat hull. It makes perfect sense for a seafaring people to build rafters like that.

The ancient stone cross at St. Creed predates the church.
The ancient stone cross at St. Creed predates the church.
The flooring is very old, perhaps even original.
The flooring is very old, perhaps even original.

Harry was an original, and was well-informed. One pale blue eye roamed off to the side independent of the other eye, and his hair and scraggly goatee were very gray. He kept teasing Maddy mercilessly until I explained in an aside to him when we were at a teahouse having a midday break that she had Asperger’s. Then he cooled it. — The teahouse had fabulous baked goods as well as pottery tchotchkes and gewgaws for tourists. I had a big slab of treacle tart and Maddy had apple pie, both with huge gobs of clotted cream on the top. Maddy tasted hers and pushed it off to the side, but I ate most of mine. It was buttery in texture but not in taste, or perhaps I should describe it better as ice-creamy in texture but not sweet. It was thick; it was rich; it was satisfyingly schmaltzy. A bold chaffinch landed on the end of the table and begged for scraps; his song was like that of the song sparrow. An iridescent black-green magpie landed on the next table over. A tiny English robin perched on the fence and a jackdaw flew over. I was in heaven in that beautiful tree-shaded yard.

Harry took us also to Carn Euny, an Iron Age settlement with ruins of circular houses (of comfortable size, I must say) and farm enclosures, with a curious underground place called a fogou, reachable by a low passage in which we had to walk doubled over. Then we could stand inside the roomy (but damp) inner chamber, which was corbelled with heavy blocks of rock. It was used perhaps for cold-storage, perhaps for defense, or perhaps as a way to worship the womb of the Earth Mother. A curious phenomenon – when you moved and caught the light on the wall just right, the moss lit up like the reflective strips on clothing meant to be worn at night, bright green. When you moved only slightly, the green glow winked out completely. I really was struck by the eerie effect.

The unique light-reflecting moss at Carn Euny.
The unique light-reflecting moss at Carn Euny.

Harry gave us a lift over to Marazion after the tour was over, where Maddy and I went to see St. Michael’s Mount, an English version of Mont Saint-Michel in France, founded by the same order of Benedictine monks. We walked across the causeway to the island and walked up through the little village to the castle, where we paid a stiff price (£6 each) to watch a bad introductory movie and tour the castle, which was swathed in scaffolding and was having work done on the exterior. The castle was actually quite interesting despite being largely Victorian.

The view from the top, looking down at the gardens and the rocks falling down to the shore, was completely vertigo-inducing. “How would you like to be a workman up on the roof, looking down at that?” I asked Maddy. I found with surprise that in addition to being dyslexic, she has no depth perception. Although she sees the drop-off and knows it’s a good way down, she cannot estimate distance nor judge relative danger and even more interestingly, perceives no difference at all between looking at it with both eyes open and one eye shut. “There’s no difference,” she said a bit defiantly, confused as to why I was asking. “Do you see things flatly, or in three dimensions, like when you look into a View-Master?” I asked. “I can’t look through those things,” she said with disdain, “I don’t know what you mean by three-dimensional.”

View of St. Michael's Mount.
View of St. Michael’s Mount.

We walked back along the causeway and all the way back to our B&B in Penzance, along the Coast Track. Maddy, being dyslexic, also cannot tell that English traffic flows along the opposite side to ours, and cannot tell the difference between the driver’s wheel being on the right as opposed to the left. “Couldn’t you tell that Harry was sitting on the side of the front seat that’s opposite to your mom or day when they drive your car?” “What do you mean? Is it different?” asked Maddy, blankly. I think, myself, that she ought not to get a driver’s license.

I went out for a little walk after dinner by myself, Maddy choosing to stay in the hotel room playing Sudoku. I felt a bit apprehensive about being by myself in a strange town, walking narrow lanes with no company, but nothing happened, and I put in another mile or so of walking. Tomorrow we begin our trek on foot around the Penwith Peninsula.

Snail on a gravestone in Penzance.
Snail on a gravestone in Penzance.

*   *    *    *

[Part two of this travel journal is posted at]

Nuggets from the journal

I have been meaning to post selections from my journals, as per my previous blog, but have not yet found a convenient time to wade through my notebooks making transcriptions. Here are a few excerpts from my travel journals from last November when my family traveled to Florence and Rome.

Doing the Dome Climb in St. Peter’s in Rome:


The day was waning and we decided to do the Dome Climb first, since it closed earlier than the church did. I’m glad I’ve been exercising because it was all I could do to make the ascent. I had to skip off twice into niches or windowsills to let others pass. My heart pounded painfully and my breath came in gasps. Jim was unfazed, having already done the Duomo climb in Florence; he chose to climb from the bottom of the stairs rather than take the elevator up to the balcony level as we were doing. He met us at the top, looking cool and unbothered. The light was fading and the city’s lights were already on. The Vatican Gardens beneath us glowed deep green like moss, and haze lay over the city so we could not see the Victor Emanuele monument in the distance. There’s something amazing about being 400 feet in the air, the height of a 40-story building; it’s an incredible accomplishment of mankind, to have imagined such a great building and then to have built it. We stood on the magnificent invention of Michelangelo and I pondered technology, and human courage, for surely the men who built the dome were uneasy as their workplace rose higher and higher. It might have been my imagination but it seemed as though the dome intermittently quivered beneath my feet. More likely it was my quivering post-climb muscles.

Visiting the Uffizi Gallery and Medici Palace in Florence:

portinari altarpiece

The sight of so much Christian imagery depresses me. What would a visitor from outer space think of the collection? So many images of a man nailed to a cross; a mother inexplicably folding her hands together while a rat-like newborn lies on the bare earth in front of her; people standing stiffly at attention with grave expressions; people with wings sprouting from their backs. I do not particularly like this sort of art, and it’s not for lack of training because I had art history in college and still own my old copy of Gardner’s Art. I read several books on Renaissance art before coming here, and understand to a greater degree than the man on the street the difference between Masaccio and Giotto versus the flat medieval art that came before. I just don’t like the stuff, intrinsically, and the shuffling crowds put me off. I love Botticelli but did not enjoy seeing his work under such circumstances. And the place was so big, at least for one who was footsore and still jet-lagged and weary. Jim bailed out early, and went and sat in a café near the rear exit while we slowly made our way through. When we got out we went and had a look at the water. The sight of the water was uplifting and yet calming, a seemingly contradictory thing. On the other side the hills rose up with Italian houses clinging to the distant slopes; nearer they lined the far bank in a solid mass.

The afternoon passed agreeably. We strolled the roads and narrow alleyways; we returned to the apartment to play Fio’s guitar; we laughed and talked. Jim slipped away on his own again to explore, and I explained to Fio, “he travels parallel to us but not necessarily with us.” Frank and I, and Esther and Fio, went to the Palazzo Medici just at twilight. The dim moistness of the courtyard with its pebbled paths and potted orange trees and climbing vines was superb. I looked up at the 30-foot ceilings and decorated walls and thought with a sort of amazement, “Lorenzo the Magnificent trod these very halls! Women gave birth and died upstairs. Young Michelangelo ate here. Dignitaries came to beg loans. They saw these same walls as I do today.” The decorated chapel with the famous images of young Lorenzo on a horse with his golden hair was wonderful, far better than the Uffizi. The chapel was far smaller than I had thought but even so it was admirable as a work of art. We all lingered, looking. I liked the freshness of the colors, the shapes of the legs in their tights, and torsos in their doublets, the hair, the eyes, the sky and greenery, and most of all the shape and position of all the feet, both human and equine.

“Young Lorenzo on his horse.” Click on the photo to enlarge, and examine all those feet in the lower part of the image.

A quick visit to Siena

We strolled onward after lunch and discovered the great Cattedrale di Siena, a magnificent structure of striped marble and inlaid floors. I have never been inside such a spiritual space; the whole interior breathed grace and serenity and peace. We wandered through it in amazement, we six, stopping to stare upward through our travel binoculars at details of the ceiling and vaults. One of us pointed out a tall side window; all up and down the sun-filled side of the stained glass, vast dusty shelf-spiderwebs were visible, each one stacked above the next. The floors were outstanding, gigantic works of incision and precision-cutting. There were sybils all along the sides of the church, with larger scenes in the center. One of those scenes represented the Massacre of the Innocents, with many pale dead babies stacked in ghastly piles, and mothers with contorted mouths shrieking silently as their babes were torn from their arms. It actually drew tears of horror and sympathy from my eyes. I stepped hastily away as though I had inadvertently witnessed an atrocity.

Off the side of the cathedral is a library filled with huge old music texts written by hand on huge sheets of vellum and containing decorated scores with square notes, many of the illustrations gilded heavily. But better yet, up below the ceiling was a fabulous series of frescoes illustrating the life of Aeneus Silvio, who went to England and Ireland to evangelize to the barbarian Celts and Anglo-Saxons, and who met the Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor of Castile, then came home and was elected Pope, and who was present at the death of Catherine of Siena. The frescoes were like beautiful comic-strip illustrations, picked out with dollops of gold, filled with lovely landscapes in the background. The English/Hibernian landscapes were rendered Italian in the artist’s imagination, and he depicted himself, standing in tights and long curled hair and in alert stance, gazing directly down at the viewer. It was the most beautiful set of colored church frescoes I’ve seen since Orvieto.

The two men facing the viewer are the artist, Pinturichio, standing with Raphael. Image:
The two men facing the viewer are the artist, Pinturichio, standing with Raphael. Image:

I will post additional selections at intervals as I make the transcriptions from the handwritten notebooks.

Keeping a journal

The early spiral notebooks are now yellowing, which is why I have switched to acid-free bound books.
The early spiral notebooks are now yellowing, which is why I have switched to acid-free bound books.

I’ve kept a journal for 32 years, starting at the age of fourteen. Over the decades it has become an intrinsic part of daily life. I don’t leave for vacation without packing it; and when important events happen I set aside time in order to record things properly. My pens need to be dark and the paper smooth and frictionless.

By this point, scores of notebooks and bound books fill two heavy plastic storage bins in my basement. My entire life is in those bins. There I am as a teenager, giggling with my girlfriend, learning to drive, getting drunk for the first time, and going off to college. Then come the trials of early adulthood: lovers, adventures, hopes and fears. Then comes marriage and parenthood; then middle age with its calm confidence and new abilities. The journal has recorded my life better than any photo album.

When I began keeping the journal in the ninth grade, I had no clear idea what I was getting into. I never considered whether I’d still be keeping the journal as an adult, or whether the journal might evolve over time. During the ninth grade my only goal was simply to record the things that happened each day in school: sneaking out of class without permission, annoying the French teacher, doing gross things with food in the cafeteria:

In science class, Mrs. Detwiler was unpacking 20 gallons of frogs and several more gallons of starfish, clams and baby pigs. We gotta dissect them later, ecch! Clark Watts came into our room to “help,” as he put it. He snitched a starfish and went around tossing it onto girls’ desks to make them cry out. Detwiler chased him out. I got out of English to go downtown to see the matinee opera, which was Le Bohème. It was pretty good, considering it was just an opera.

I soon became more interested in the world around me and began to describe non-school life:

The little rabbit was still there this morning, all stiff and covered with dew. I brought him in and Mommy and I cared for him all day, giving him a mixture of milk and baby cereal with a little sugar, like someone told us to do. We marveled at his beauty. His lovely fur was brown on top, shading off to white on his stomach. His two ears were flat upon his neck, and his eyes had not yet opened. He was one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. Towards evening he lay listless, refusing the eyedropper with food, and he grew colder to the touch. At last, near midnight when Mommy went to check him, he was dead.

At sixteen I discovered Boswell, a king among journal-keepers. Boswell’s journals, begun at the age of 22, describe him making the rounds of 1760s London society, imposing upon others, collecting famous men as others collect stamps, picking up strumpets in alleys, and reproducing the conversations of people who had no idea he was listening. Boswell appealed to me because he was only a few years older than me when he wrote these entertaining accounts. I liked that he could be sensible and sensitive one day, but a complete idiot the next. Despite the fact that he obviously thought very highly of himself, his flaws were very visible. This provided an important insight for me. Although a journal-keeper might try to depict himself in the best possible light, the reader has the advantage of objective distance and will generally see through any attempt at deception. So I adopted a more honest narrative voice in my own journal, which allowed me to admit my own frequent failings.

When I got home from work I discovered to my horror that the back zipper to my skirt had never been zipped up, and my bottom under my tights had been clearly evident all afternoon at work, and down Kirkwood on foot. The zipper, of course, was of the gaping variety. I was horribly perturbed.

When friends read excerpts from my journal they’re surprised to find themselves actors in my drama instead of the other way around. Nevertheless, they are fascinated by the difference between my journal accounts and their own memories.

After work I was weary. I decided to go to the Trojan Horse for dinner. Halfway along Kirkwood I was hailed by Bill D, who had been driving his motorcycle and stopped when he saw me. Since I saw him last week he had managed to wreck a car belonging to his employer, and fracture three vertebrae into the bargain. He was in a body cast when I saw him, bitching bitterly about the inconvenience, swearing he’d by-god better find a doctor who would agree to put him in a back brace in no more than two weeks, or he’d take a jacksaw and cut himself out, regardless of losing his 100% medical insurance coverage. He was out riding around on his motorcycle looking for friends to complain to.

I reproduced conversation whenever possible:

Emily related various adventures. “We found Tristan Tzara’s grave,” she said. “It’s not in Pére LaChaise, it’s somewhere in Montparnasse. We came upon it by chance. We danced on his grave!” General laughter. “Yeah, well, we looked all around, to see if anyone would see us, and we got up on the flat square marker and danced away” —she executed a swift flamenco—“and giggled like crazy.” “You danced?!” I said; and she grinned, “Yeah, and we spat and cursed too!” —I suppose it was the Dada thing to do.

On days when little happened, I looked for an observation that could be pursued on paper for a couple of lines:

I worked in the garden until nightfall, laying stones for my pathway until well into the dusk. Heat lightning lit up the haze in front of the slender new moon. The aroma of the valerian blossoms hung with heavy sweetness in the air and seemed almost evil, like the scent I imagine Nimue to have worn while seducing Merlin. Something gleamed pale yellow in the soil in front of me, then another a few inches off. They were not fireflies, although the color of the glow was similar; they were larvae or grubs, I assume of the firefly. I have never seen a glowworm in my life before. Almost 40, but never until tonight a glowworm! I haven’t lived, in many ways.

One unintended consequence of journal-keeping is that as a young adult I often intentionally plunged myself into chaotic or picturesque situations that made good reportage.

I have never sat through so much loud music as last night. Band succeeded band, each one louder than the one before. The noise resounded and reverberated off the walls, turning the room into a hissing hell of din. The big drum on the kit onstage vibrated inside my guts each time it was struck, in a most unpleasant fashion. P. sat next to us smoking cigarette after cigarette. B. drank beers and shouted at the various performers, “Make me come!” I very swiftly grew hoarse from shouting and inhaling smoke. The smoke was worse than any I’d ever experienced before, making my eyes sting at intervals as if I had been chopping onions. Each spotlight over the stage had a pale beam hanging below it, the smoke showing up as an almost-solid outline beneath each bulb. But it was fun. Why? How could such physical distress be so amusing? Good company, a succession of beers, a good audience to inspire us, and one band following another at 15- or 20-minute intervals. One band was an all-woman group called Cruella DeVille, a spin-off of the sort of ghoulish punk that the Cramps used to do. They had an automated mannequin at the front of the stage, with a skull for a head and a wig for hair, which repeatedly stabbed itself in the chest with a long knife through a rip in a red-stained shirt. This was called the “Stab-a-tron,” and it kept plunging its knife into its heart for the duration of the set.

In the following entry from young adulthood, I inadvertently captured a moment when one chapter of my life was ending and a new one just beginning:

I was pensive all day. In the evening I walked up to Seventh Street to check out an apartment advertisement I had seen. The apartment turned out to be the house right behind the Bluebird on the alley. A band was playing and I could hear the noise as easily as if I stood inside at the bar. It was a hot night and the alley smelled of stone-dust. The house had no yard and looked dismal. I went away in disappointment and returned home by way of the Old Library. I heard fiddle music, and looked into the basement windows. Folk-dancers were whirling to Irish jig music, men and women holding each other close, children running around their parents’ legs. A feeling of desolation overtook me. I watched from outside the window while joy and peace reigned within. I was shut out from this happiness. I went home slowly, head down, musing.

The journal has captured countless little moments of human existence that would otherwise be lost forever:

I caught a shuttle bus back to Bloomington, and a taxi from the Union to my house. The driver got out of the cab to get my baggage out of the trunk. The night air was amazingly clear, with hundreds of stars shining overhead. “Look, there’s the Big Dipper,” he said, pointing to the east instead of the north. “That’s not the Big Dipper,” I said politely, “that’s Orion, the hunter. See his belt and the sword hanging down from it? And if you look down low in the sky, right over that rooftop, you can see the Dog Star, Sirius, following his master on the hunt.” I paid the fellow and left him scratching his head, still staring up at the sky and muttering to himself, “Orion!?”

I’m not just a smart-aleck telling off a poor schmuck; I have also been the taxi driver. For every time in my life when I’ve corrected someone else, there’s been another point when I’ve stood flushed with chagrin while someone else set me straight. It’s all there, in the journal: the good, the bad, the ugly. Often the things described were foolish, but sometimes they were noble. I look at the two bins filled with notebooks now and understand that it’s not simply a daily record. It’s much more than the private conceit of a narcissist. Instead, it has cultural and historic merit. These thirty-two years of journals are probably more interesting and relevant than anything else I’ve ever written, including my eleven years of reportage for the newspaper and my book for IU Press. I look forward to posting additional excerpts from it on this blog.