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.

Thoughts on writer’s block

Image lifted from
Image lifted from

Lately, probably due to my cancer, it has become increasingly difficult to write regular blogs. And that has made me consider the miracle involved in simply sitting down at a keyboard, or with a notebook, and expecting anything at all to happen as a result.

For more than eleven years, as a newspaper columnist with a weekly deadline, I never had the privilege of writer’s block. I had a job to do, so I would sit down and hammer out a story each week. Sometimes, when preparing to leave on vacation, I would write two or even three columns in a single week so I wouldn’t have to struggle after returning home tired and jet-lagged.

That said, I acknowledge the fact that countless people experience enormous difficulty when writing. Writer’s block is generally characterized by the inability to start a project, or the inability to complete something that has already begun. There are several very different reasons for block.

One problem might be perfectionism. You stare at the page and imagine the brilliant things that could cover it, but none of the sentences you come up with are good enough to meet your exacting standards. But bear in mind: perfectionism is not your friend. No piece of writing is 100% perfect, even when written by Tolstoy or Shakespeare. Perfectionism is all too often an excuse to defer the task of writing to another day. To break the stalemate on your blank page, write something, anything, regardless of its merit. You can always change, or delete, that substandard opening passage later. The important thing is to get started. Remember, all good writing will get revised again and again, so it’s simply not reasonable to expect a passage that’s immediately perfect.

Sometimes distraction is the problem. You say to yourself, “I’ll check my emails, but I’ll be really quick about it”, but you invariably find a message that requires careful response, ASAP. The next thing you know, breaking headlines capture your attention for another fifteen minutes or so. At that point you rationalize “As long as I’m here, I’ll just check the stock market, and the weather, and play a quick game of solitaire.” Thus precious time gets frittered away. The same is true of distractions such as restless pets or wakeful infants. Distractions and productive writing are like oil and water… they just don’t mix. Clear your immediate environment of impediments, at least temporarily, and make it a habit to avoid going online while writing.

Writer’s block can sometimes be caused by problems of scale. Don’t set yourself the task of writing a thousand-page triple-volume “Lord of the Rings” if you’ve never written anything that size before. Start with a modest and attainable “Hobbit” instead. When stymied by a massive outline that threatens to result in an overly complex work, think smaller and simpler. Think how you would tell your story, or explain your work, to a highly intelligent fourteen-year-old, then scale your work down accordingly. Making your writing project shorter and more concise will not dumb-down your work. It will make it better.

Difficulty in writing can be caused by overthinking. Don’t devise a crazily detailed in-depth outline that features multiple levels of subheads and bullet points. And don’t fill several large file folders with notes on ideas, sources, and footnotes. Don’t worry about the level of detail in your preliminary text! Write minimally at first, enough to get the bare bones in place, and fill in the flesh and muscles later.

And don’t feel pressured to write a work in consecutive order. As long as you have a solid and workable outline, there’s no reason why you can’t write the ending first.

Don’t let old criticisms hold you back. Many people have writer’s block because they suffered repeated mental torment from a difficult language arts teacher many years ago. You might remember bitter afternoons in Mrs. Henry’s class, and the cutting remarks that she used to make in red pen in the margins of your papers. But there’s nothing she can do to upset you any longer. She’s not hovering behind your shoulder, smirking. You have my permission to shove your memories of Mrs. Henry out the window (and into heavy traffic outside, if that gives you pleasure). She no longer matters, and you have moved on.

Stress can be a big problem. If you have recently moved, or divorced, or had a baby, or have a dying family member, you will find it considerably more difficult to write. If this happens, don’t beat yourself up for not living up to your former standards of productivity.

The inability to complete a partially-written project is often due to a nagging awareness that there’s something wrong with the project. The story is not what you’d hoped; your characters lack inner lives; the tone is wrong; and/or you’re out of ideas. Put the project away in a file and turn to a new project. The solution to your dilemma might become apparent after you’ve given it some distance.

Finally, laziness can lead to poor writing habits. I experimentally googled “types of writer’s block” and was amused to find that many of the top results had cadged an identical list from each other (a bad list, at that) and had barely bothered to paraphrase. Passing off someone else’s work-product as your own is arguably a form of writer’s block because it avoids the responsibility of every author to write authentically, using individual work-product.

What other writer’s block mechanisms can you think of? Let me know in your comments.

Carpe diem

IMG_2595Despite having a terminal disease, I’ve experienced some of the greatest happiness of my life during the past year. I feel as though I am young again, with each day filled with keenly-felt wonder and enjoyment.

I made a conscious decision at the beginning of my experience with cancer not to let my diagnosis get me down. Although I can’t change what has happened to me, I CAN choose how I respond to the situation.

Statistically, I’m likely to live one to three years with this carcinosarcoma, half of which is already gone. If I have only X number of months remaining, then it makes sense to enhance my experience of those remaining months as best I can. There’s no point sinking into depression and wasting the time that’s left, or harboring thoughts like “this is SO unfair” or “my life is ruined”.

Instead, I do everything I can to enhance my enjoyment of each day. I traveled to Italy for a last adventure, and I regularly spend time with my closest friends and with my family. Projects keep me busy and engaged, and I’ve been enjoying a great burst of expressive creativity.  

Each day, as I’ve done throughout my life, I record thoughts in my daily journal. Each day I spend half an hour or so in the yard and garden, examining plants, pulling weeds, looking at the sky, and experiencing the sun and breeze and humidity. Each day I walk for 30 to 60 minutes, either on the treadmill if weather is bad, or outside if weather is good. Lately I’ve been identifying The Most Beautiful Thing of each day, or sometimes The Coolest Thing I’ve seen during the day.

For example, The Most Beautiful Thing two days ago was a Siberian iris bud that was ready to open the following day. It was tightly furled like a little umbrella, deep purple, beautifully delineated, and with a most perfect spiral line circling down from its velvety top point. The Most Beautiful Thing the day before that was a gigantic old catalpa tree with a massive trunk, a perfect shape, and covered with white orchid-like flowers. The Coolest Thing this morning was spotting a mass of tiny gnats all dancing in a transparent cloud that glowed as it was backlit by the sun, and then noticing as I rode in the car’s passenger seat that countless similar glowing clouds of gnats were hanging suspended above lawns, like shimmering ghostly globules, all the way between May’s Greenhouse and the city to the north.

Another Cool Thing: spotted just after sunset, anticrepuscular rays in the sky caused by the vanished sun shining past clouds on the western horizon.
Another Cool Thing spotted just after sunset. Anticrepuscular rays in the sky are caused by the vanished sun shining through clouds on the western horizon.

Lately I’ve been counting rabbits on my walks outside. The city always has an explosion of its rabbit population at this time of year, and for the past two years I’ve counted all the rabbits I’ve passed during my daily perambulations. I take care to follow a circular route so I don’t count any rabbits twice by accident. Last year’s one-day record was 19 rabbits, but yesterday I saw 20! Bad news for gardeners, but fun for me. And it’s not even really about the rabbits themselves. Instead, the act of looking for rabbits enables me to see things that I normally might overlook, like landscaping in a side yard, trees in flower, flagstone hardscaping, deer flitting across lawns, birdfeeders, etc. And by looking at these things I often spot The Most Beautiful Thing Of The Day, or The Coolest Thing. And doing this has helped enhance my life enormously.

We can’t SEE if we aren’t looking. And we can’t FEEL if we don’t open ourselves up to experiences.

As Elmer Fudd famously said, “Shhhh! I’m hunting wabbits.”

elmer fudd

Lovely peonies!

peonyNo flower better personifies high spring and the approach of summer than the peony. Long-lived and highly fragrant, it’s my favorite late-spring blossom. A single peony flower, cut and placed in a vase in a still room, will perfume the air within ten feet around it.

IMG_5150When thinking of peonies, most people immediately envision the big doubles, or the “bombs,” which are not at all my favorites. These large and heavy flowers invariably collect rainwater in the convolutions of their petals until they bend double, touch the ground and begin to rot. But there are many other configurations to choose from, including single, semi-double, anenome and Japanese.

This one might be "Sarah Bernhardt," a double variety from the early years of the last century.
This one might be “Sarah Bernhardt,” a double variety from the early years of the last century.

I prefer the single and anenome forms because they clearly display the shape of the basic flower with its central rosette of stamens. The gold of the centers contrasts nicely with the crimson, white or pink  of the surrounding petals. Singles also have the tidy habit of folding up at nightfall and opening again the next morning.

IMG_5166Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the largest public planting of peonies is the magnificent display near the entrance to Rose Hill Cemetery, which is always at its peak for a week or two around Memorial Day. Hundreds of peonies are growing there, which according to local lore were supposedly divided from early specimens planted decades ago. (A healthy peony will last a century or more and can probably be divided countless times.)

IMG_5145The north-south lane leading from the main gate to Kirkwood is currently an impressive mass of flowering peony bushes. Most headstones in this part of the cemetery have one or even two peony bushes planted beside them. Because peonies are scarce in the remainder of the cemetery, with almost none in the oldest part of the grounds, I suspect that the bushes in that particular “peony zone” date back only to the age of the headstones there, which range from the 1960s to the ’80s. But even if they’re not as old as many believe, the plants they came from are still anywhere from 30 to 50 years old, not bad at all for a perennial flower.

IMG_5141I’ve previously published the photo that follows, but it’s my favorite all-time peony photo from my garden.

peony-2Because peonies live so long, many varieties are heirlooms. A good website offering a large variety of varieties is Hollingsworth Peonies.  Another useful site is The American Peony Society. Enjoy!

Mount Carmel cemetery


Located in northwestern Monroe County, Mount Carmel cemetery is well worth a visit. It contains several outstanding carved limestone monuments, including one shaped like a locomotive engine, complete with engine number. The cemetery also contains the largest native cedar trees I have ever seen in Indiana, one of them easily a yard in diameter at the base.

Surrounded by woodland, the cemetery is shaded and peaceful.
Surrounded by woodland, the cemetery is shaded and peaceful.

The locomotive gravestone was erected to the memory of young Emory Titzel, a Monon Railroad worker who died aged 22 in 1902 due to a rail accident. “His Last Trip” is engraved on the base of the monument.


The gravestone is also notable because there is a glass walled compartment beneath the locomotive. The sun shines blearily through the heavily streaked plate-glass windows. The viewer assumes that this compartment originally held a bouquet or everlasting wreath, but over the last century whatever was originally contained inside has crumbled away to a handful or two of black compost.



There is also an outstanding “tree stone” monument shaped like a craggy tree with ivy climbing up it. On one branch is carved a stonecarver’s maul, as if it had been placed there casually while the worker rested for lunch, and on another branch rests a hammer head (the handle presumably having broken off over the years). Information gathered by the Monroe County History Center states that the stone honors William Willard, a Welsh-born stonecutter.


The huge cedar trees are outstanding. I hazard the guess that they were planted when the headstones at their bases were set in place, because over the past century-plus they have become so massive that their trunks are now pushing the headstones over. The stones cannot be easily read but are simple rectangles, which leads me to guess that they date to the 1870s or ’80s. If this is true, the trees are 130 or 140 years old.

IMG_5103The cemetery is arranged on all sides of what appears to be a deep sinkhole, and the ground is sloping and uneven. The thing that is most memorable (and dare I say it, creepy) about Mount Carmel is that many of the graves have fallen in as their contents have rotted away. Several graves are so hollow that last fall’s brown leaves are pooled at the bottoms. A whole series of graves that were originally surrounded by limestone sills have fallen in so significantly that the sills have sprawled out of line and are now broken.


One monument (a child’s, perhaps?) resembles a sinking ship. Even the locomotive monument is falling forward into the grave beneath. Sighting along a line of monuments shows just how far these heavy stones have settled out of the perpendicular. Half the stones at Mount Carmel remind the viewer of the leaning tower of Pisa.


And yet, despite the sunken graves and the tilting gravestones, Mount Carmel is intimate, beautiful, and surprising. It’s one of the historic gems of Monroe County and will afford you a pleasant drive in the country while getting there. From Highway 46, take Stinesville Road north. When the road begins to descend the long hill towards the little town, turn left at the quarry, which will be Mount Carmel Road. Stay to the left at the Y. The cemetery is not far, past two right-angle corners in the road, on the right. There’s a gravel pull-off long enough for one or two cars.

The stone urn at the top of the monument is covered by a stone shroud.
The stone urn at the top of the monument is covered by a stone shroud.
The lichen on the stone resembles gray mosaic.
The lichen on the stone resembles gray mosaic.

Half-full or half-empty?


Living with cancer, I can’t deny that my glass is definitely half empty, probably more than half empty. Some people in my position would fret over the fact that there’s so little left to enjoy. But I look at the water that remains at the bottom and tell myself “Hey, there are still several good sips remaining. I’ll enjoy each one of them as much as I can.” It’s simply a matter of perspective.

Another way of looking at it is to think of a coin which represents cancer. One side is pain, suffering, and death. The other side is the life that still remains to be lived, the good times with friends and family, the things that are still capable of being accomplished and enjoyed. Everyone with a serious disease—or a serious problem in life—can learn to flip that coin over and access the good side, the same way they can learn to enjoy the last sips of water left at the bottom of the glass.

This isn’t necessarily easy. I have to work on my own attitude every day, and I’ve had plenty of darkness to ponder over the course of the past thirteen or fourteen months. But over time it grows easier. The daily mental exercise of altering one’s perspective is a discipline akin to practicing scales, or meditation, or exercising.

I have an incurable rare cancer that will take my life, and I can’t help but think of that every day. But I also ask myself “What can I do to fully enjoy this unique spring day?” Right now I am doing all the things that I really want to do. I’m working on creative projects; gardening; playing guitar and singing; spending time with my family and dearest friends; and taking long walks. This is how I enjoy those sips at the bottom of the glass.

Also, I recently threw myself a party called Carrol’s Last Chance To Dance, inviting guests who for the most part represented my youth in Bloomington in the early 1980s when I worked at the original Uptown Cafe.

Photos are silent, but music was playing and people were in the groove.
Photos are silent, but wonderful music was playing and people were in the groove.

I wanted to recreate a time and place when I was young and optimistic and healthy. Old friends came from all over the nation to help me do this, traveling back to Bloomington from Las Cruces, New York City, Chapel Hill, and rural Wisconsin. One dear friend even flew from Zurich, Switzerland. People went to great effort and much expense to come to this event despite having very little advance notice.

It was indescribably wonderful to be surrounded by such love and support. There was more hugging than I’ve seen in ages, as old friends, colleagues, and ex-lovers all met again in one place, united by a single cause: to dance and have fun with me. I danced for three hours running, just as if I were young again. Indeed, with the sense of vitality and happiness that filled me, it felt as though I could live (and dance) forever. Not bad for a 56-year-old woman with a fatal disease; although some people undoubtedly wondered how I could party like this, knowing what lies in store. But that’s exactly why I did it! I want to make the most of my time on earth, to flip that dark coin over to its reverse, to sip from that sweet drink at the bottom of the glass.

My glass is half-full, not half-empty, and the top of my coin is bright and shining. Cancer has taught me that we all need to create and share as much joy and laughter as we possibly can. So if my health holds, perhaps I’ll throw another dance party.


Hope: that feathery thing

Three weeks ago my oncologist basically told me, “you can repeat the carboplatin chemo that you had last year; you can search for a clinical trial for your rare cancer; you can try several other drugs” (which he seemed dubious about); “or you can do nothing.” I blogged about how I was resigned to my fate and would accept whatever happened. But then I got a second opinion.

The second doctor is a colleague of the first. The two doctors’ expertise overlaps slightly, like a Venn diagram, but their opinions  could not have been more different. Dr. #1 is The Great Surgeon while Dr. #2 is The Great Clinical Researcher. Although Dr. #2 did not tell me that my cancer can be cured, she did tell me that a different chemo has shown promise in either slowing, halting, or slightly shrinking cancers like mine. Although I had already resolved to die with as much grace as I could summon, I gladly accepted her suggestion that I try this new chemo once a month for three months, for it supposedly has far fewer nasty side-effects than last year’s treatment. At the end of three months (assuming I’m still alive) we’ll conduct another CT scan to see if the new drug is doing anything.

This experience with the two doctors giving different advice is a huge lesson to me. Patients need to be proactive and not just passively receive the wisdom from our physicians. We consult Consumer Reports before we invest in new cars or washer-dryers. Likewise, we also need to do our homework while navigating difficult medical challenges. I only wish I’d asked for a second opinion after speaking with Dr. #1 three weeks ago, because time is of the essence with fast-growing cancers like mine. But it never occurred to me that his advice would differ so significantly from that of Dr. #2.

In the meantime, I continue to feel good, apart from a heaviness low down inside my abdomen. In fact, although I suffered for a decade from an obscure autoimmune condition that blighted my health, last year’s chemo treatment seems to have totally wiped out the autoimmune problem. This means that I feel vibrant and healthy for the first time in ten years. In fact, other than feeling the cancer inside me, and knowing that it has also spread to my liver, I feel completely strong and capable, and last weekend I danced for three hours straight at a party. (More on that, perhaps, in a future blog.) People keep asking me, looking perplexed, “Are you sure you have cancer?” — “I do,” I tell them. “I have seen it repeatedly on the scans and have read the CT reports, and it feels like a heavy lump inside me.” But that said, I have no complaints and consider myself a very lucky person to be alive today.

I understand that the new drug might not do anything at all, but it makes sense to me to try. Tomorrow I start the new treatment….wish me luck!

Aug.09 021

The undiscovered country

ergoI regret to share the fact that my cancer has returned. In actuality it never really went away. Because I’m in such good health overall, my oncologist offered me another round of chemo, which I will probably refuse (I’m about 95% certain, but some doubt remains). I figure that if the chemo didn’t work before, it will work no better this time around, and would at best afford me another month or two of life in return for making me far weaker and more miserable when my end comes. I feel fairly certain that the proper course of action is simply to let go.

I’m not depressed or morose or fearful. As I was last year during my initial treatment for cancer, I’m quite calm and collected. I ACCEPT what is going to happen to me. My oncologist congratulated me for skipping the first four of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of dealing with grief (anger, denial, bargaining, depression) and going straight to the finish line of “acceptance.” “I don’t get a lot of patients like you,” he told me. Apparently I am an enlightened being, which pleases me to some small degree. 😉

If the cancer progresses with the same speed it did last year, I reckon I have four to ten weeks left. And I’m good with that. All things considered, I think of myself as an incredibly fortunate human being. I’m glad that I lived to see another beautiful spring. I’m glad to be loved by my parents and brother.  I’m grateful that I had Frank and Miles in my life. I’m glad that I lived long enough to finish writing my time-travel teen romance novel. I’m glad I managed in the course of my lifetime to evolve from an insecure and unhappy person into a confident and happy one. I am very thankful for my many dear friends, who know who they are. Most of all, I’m simply glad that I lived at all.

My grandmother told me once that although she belonged to no formal religious group, she believed very strongly that in order to have a good life, you must leave the world in better condition than you found it. I have tried to do this very thing by means of my newspaper column, which often educated readers about energy efficiency, green construction, solar retrofits, self-sufficiency, vegetable and fruit gardening, and sustainability. I have devoted significant time to volunteering in my community and I have always practiced kindness to others. If my grandmother were still alive, I hope that she would be proud of what I have accomplished.

If I had any advice for others, it would be this: Seize the day. Breathe deeply and pay close attention to all the countless beauties of the world around you. Take good care of your friendships, and thank people whenever possible. Practice warmth and courtesy. Protect the earth, which is under assault from all directions.  Most of all, enjoy yourself, because although it might seem endless right now, life is indeed very finite.

I’ve enjoyed my own trip through life vastly. Have you? If not, it’s never too late to begin.

With love,


A mix of quirky topics that at times might seem oddly strange, or strangely odd.