Wednesday, July 9, 2014

return journey

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“...the wind cut up the street with a soft sea-noise hanging on its arm... and around here it was that the journey had begun
of the one I was pursuing...”

~ Dylan Thomas, Return Journey.

journeys and returns

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Above: First Great Western train, from England;
Below: Arriva train in Wales.

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On a weekday, still with books and papers in my arms, I walked to the Oxford railway station to buy my ticket for North Wales. One sojourn leading to another. Not realizing an explanation was needed, I blithely requested a one-way ticket for Penmaenmawr. Then, after helping the ticket agent spell and pronounce “pen-mine-maOW-rr,” I helped him locate the town on his computer monitor. For the record, he was very nice about everything, and perhaps in an apologetic spirit he reserved “table seats” for me aboard each of the 3 trains I needed to get across the English Midlands, to northwestern Wales. Well this Oxford scholar with a New England accent, heading for the “Fortress Gwynedd,” was certainly grateful to look forward to a day’s train travel with reserved perches that included writing surfaces.

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Above: Looking to the mountains.
Below: Looking to the sea, minutes later.

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Packing to leave Oxford and the goodbyes (with plenty of see-you-laters) were offset by the anticipation of a return to Wales. No longer the first-ever visit, which I experienced in the previous year, but this time a return journey. The distinction is significant, as the mystery of travelling to a place charted solely by maternal recollections and childhood dreams is augmented by the prospect of returning to places remembered in personal experience. This time, I could visualize the destinations. Places, sounds, and countenances joined the stream of expectation. There were tastes I wanted to be sure not to miss, such as bakery-warm Welsh cakes, and S.A. Brains Ale with seafood. There were photo angles to retry on this visit, and opportunities to see more places for which there hadn’t been sufficient time on the first sojourn.

Bangor, Wales.

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returns and impressions

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All journeys are to be savoured, as no two impressions are alike. Return journeys are as unique as initial discoveries. The differences are in the imageries that inform the going forth. In all our journeys, we blend together the known and the unknowing. As well, we are uniquely able to synthesize the composite experience of multiple memories, landmarks, and projected hopes when we return to places of our choosing.

The aspect of returning to a place already visited- or in the case of my monthly travels to Boston, something almost errand-like, the visits are colored by the weather, the tasks-at-hand (if any aside from strolling), and indeed the kind of mood I’m in. But it is a return nonetheless, and one I elect to make. The great distinction is that a choice was made; this is not perfunctory. The dynamic, being one of choice, means that I am just where I want to be, notwithstanding how I feel, where I just came from, and any other baggage that may have come with me. Returning to a place, and wanting to be there, is actually in response to the place calling you to come back. Thoughts become enlivened by the prospects of the object of your wanderlust, of your longing for a very specific place with lanes, skies, handshakes, houses, and aromas.

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The train travel took an entire day, with transfers in Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Chester. The transition into something very different from urban and suburban Midlands to rural mountain country became clearly pronounced as my last train reached the sea. Shoreline was immediately at the starboard side, with the mountains of North Wales above the port side. Skies alternated between stark brightness and overcast spatter. The weather of the Welsh coast, which is so similar to that of the Maine coast, one place now reminds me of the other.

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The return to North Wales came a year after my emotional first visit, having had a year to convey stories from the month of Welsh travels to my parents at Thanksgiving, and keeping in touch with new friends, anticipating the return. The arrival this time was directly from a long sojourn at Oxford. Thus, I instantly noticed the Oxford House in the small village of Penmaenmawr- even how the storefront is painted navy blue.

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In Bangor, I could notice the progress of construction projects I had seen in the prior year, and how these things (the University arts centre, and some housing complexes) had changed. Before making the trip, during the planning, I realized there wouldn’t be enough time to visit places and friends in South Wales; I could only choose one direction, and chose north. I was gratefully able to welcome the restorer of the Dylan Thomas home, in Swansea, to The Kilns (C. S. Lewis’ home- which had been my home in Oxford), as a sweet reunion. While explaining my choice to Annie Haden, she very matter-of-factly said, “well that’s your Mam’s place,” giving me the impression that if I had chosen to go south, she would’ve said. “Why didn’t you go back to Bangor, child?” I could just picture it. Indeed, I did gratefully go back to the north, following my wishes and remembrances from the past year.

Same gates, but 54 years apart: My mother and me, in Bangor.

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the call of place

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Consider the phenomenon of a place returning to you. Not as with unpleasant histories, but the opposite, life-giving kind of haunting. These are dreams we welcome, reminders of the flowering amidst our struggling thorns, gratitude as fruit of survival. When a place calls and colors our dreams, the impression is more than the of place itself. Surely, streets and squares, with addresses, can be physically visited. When a place joins the geographic arrangement of our dreams, we are included as inhabitants of such reveries. These places include our selves as resident travellers. When I revisit Paris and New York, I am there as an infant, an adolescent, a teenager, and as I am today. All the lenses are kept polished. My images of Wales evolved from retold stories and postcards to enquiries and, finally, my own footsteps. Places we hold dear to our hearts and thoughts are in our eyes. They go with us, they return with us, and cultivate our life experiences.

Below: The Welsh house blessing from my mother's time in Bangor, which she has recently given to me. I remember this from childhood in New York.

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The places and vistas I enjoyed most in Bangor are still favorites of mine. My urban penchant for strolling and browsing draws my attention to High Street, Deiniol Road, and Holyhead Road. The latter is near Bangor University, where my mother studied. At frequent intervals, among shopwindows, are cafés and bakeries. My very favorite is the Blue Sky Café, which is in a high-raftered skylit loft at the center of Bangor.

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Bangor Pier.

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A meditative stroll along the Garth Road continues onto the Victorian scenic Bangor Pier. On one evening’s visit, the winds whipped through the Menai Strait with such force that pedestrians on the pier were holding on to the boardwalk’s railings. With this return, I was better able to appreciate Bangor Cathedral- both in its general ambience and its architectural details. One of my recent visits was on a pouring rainy day, and somehow the exterior conditions caused the interior to feel much more intimate. The return journey reminded me of the sanctuary, whose foundation dates back to the 7th century, as a place of prayer. Having developed warm friendships through- and with- the Bangor Public Library, that is undoubtedly one of my favorite places in town.

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Bangor Cathedral.

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Bangor Library.

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Indeed, I did see places I had not seen before, and made new acquaintances, but that’s to be expected. Return visits are new experiences, as today is distinct from yesterday. Now it occurs to me how often I peruse the same favorite districts in Boston, noting changes, discovering new things, and visiting old favorite points of reference. When it comes to hospitable and beloved settings, familiarity breeds endearment. As for Bangor, its environs, and Wales, I am thankful for places of grateful returns. There is no honor quite as sublime as being warmly anticipated. A living sign of mutual recognition, the gift of welcome is a gesture of both extension and inclusion. As our times appear fragile and temporal, embraces represent treasured belonging and the sense of home. Thoughts that console, soothe, and endure. Sights, voices, and days return to me with the effortless prompt of atmosphere. Wafting weather and aromatic air bring words to mind and paper, collated to the volumes of a life.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

oxford postscriptum

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“I am a wanderer:
I remember well one journey,
how I feared the track was missed,
So long the city I desired to reach lay hid;
when suddenly its spires afar
Flashed through the circling clouds;
you may conceive my transport.
Soon the vapors closed again,
But I had seen the city, and one such glance
No darkness could obscure.”

~ Robert Browning, Paracelsus Aspires, from Paracelsus.

places and artifacts

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As the mild weather returns, drawing a long winter to its conclusion, I am drawing my afterthoughts together from my time at Oxford. This is my tenth theme essay in reflection of this profound life experience. Previous essays have described portions of my adventures as a C. S. Lewis Scholar-in-Residence, living at The Kilns, studying at the University, immersing in Lewis’ archives, and absorbing the ambience of the city. My steps covered many, many miles of streets, paths, steep tower stairs, tunnels, and alleys, meeting literary footprints from across centuries. In any place with a deep and ancient past, strata that meet the light of today are merely atop countless layers of the steps of others. This impression was especially felt as I traversed stone slab steps that sag at their centers. Such pavers, stairs, and cathedral aisles seemed weighted and rounded by the passages of time. Indeed I have made contributions of my own, especially across Radcliffe Square, the Bodleian Quad, and Saint Giles Street. But now, looking back, the time since has subsumed even the most sublime episodes into memory.

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With Browning’s Paracelsus, I can say that I had seen the city, and one such glance no darkness could obscure. There is much to continue cherishing, having lived and studied in a place of such academic depth and historicity. The experience continues to live within; Oxford goes with me now. My recollections join my collected artifacts and pictures. Musing about places and material objects, as I revisit the many, many photographs I’ve made there, the locations and events become artifacts themselves. Photographs serve as a form of iconography. The libraries and museums, filled with brilliant and life-giving resources, are enshrined in my memory as composite treasures alongside the cafes, pubs, and streets.

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Places are always inclusive of their contents and activities. My previous nine essays have described The Kilns, the University and its libraries, and some related landmarks in detail. But the in-between places are the passages that provide context and roots to the landmarks. My guess is that your favorite sites are treasured in your thoughts at least partly due to where they are. Places and their physical situations are inextricable: the monastery on the mountaintop, the café along the tiny cobbled street, the reading room in the elegant library, the seashore along the craggy coast, the plant within good soil, learning in harvests of ideas.

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Above: Haydn's harpsichord.
Below: Einstein's blackboard

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Oxford’s Bate Museum presents historic collections of musical instruments. Included in their interpretive displays are short recordings of the respective instruments’ sounds. The curator proudly described how the museum pieces are actually used in concert recitals. Playing the instruments is part of how they are preserved. The displays are configured to show the evolvement of such instruments as violins, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, pianos, among many others. The museum provides context for these musical artifacts. Because of my daily experience, and the environments through which I travelled, I saw a similar collocation of humanity in the cafés, shops, and reading rooms. Context can broadly encompass populations, structures, and regions- yet indeed context may also be intimately defined. Oxford preserves Albert Einstein’s blackboard, in the University’s science museum. An artifact, from one context to another. Much, much more humbly, yet still more intimately to me, I now treasure my used call slips from the inner sancta of the Bodleian Library, and among many other ephemeral things, my well-used pencil stubs from all my note-taking.

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moments as places

Spans of time, at any length or brevity, also become treasured places. Both physical and spiritual landmarks are capable of recalling time. Therefore, moments join locations as our inner geographies deepen and increase. Of Oxford, I gratefully recall sun-filled courtyards, and the contrasts between the yellow-reddish stone and bright green lawns. A tea shop near the Bodleian quad has grape vines growing in its back garden; I enjoyed writing near these. On many early mornings, with long stretches of study ahead, I would stock up on chocolate bars, on my way to Radcliffe- either at the Covered Market or the Tuck Shop. The newsagents got used to me, with my expressions of gratitude in what must have seemed a funny overseas accent. At the Market, the man would say, “It’s a good day, and now you’re ready!”

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I was recipient of many gifts in the shapes of moments provided by wonderful people. Between many generous conversations with the warden of The Kilns, the Bodleian staff, and a variety of professors and students, I had the honor of meeting Aidan Mackey. Mr. Mackey is a retired teacher and bookseller as well as the world’s foremost authority on the life and works of G. K. Chesterton. We enjoyed two evenings together, during which we exchanged ideas and observations about literature and the works of Lewis and Chesterton. On one of these occasions, Mackey read some of his own work, as well as Chesterton’s to me, in the parlor of The Kilns. What I remember best was his recitation of Chesterton’s mystical epic The Ballad of the White Horse- entirely by heart- pronouncing the words as though the unseen book was speaking through him. An enduring moment of a gift.

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Above: Aidan Mackey reads G. K. Chesterton, in the parlor at The Kilns.


"May Their Memory be Blessed."
Placing seashells from Maine on the memorial for the expulsion of the Jewish people from England, near Magdalen College, Oxford.

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During one of many pleasant chats with the superintendent of the Special Collections reading room, I mentioned my ongoing project of studying Quaker journals and essays at the Boston Athenaeum. He encouraged me to explore Oxford’s collections on this topic, which are located in Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room. Through these additional studies, I opened a 300 year old volume with a sweet surprise staring up at me: the English Quaker Benjamin Holme’s An Epistle to Friends and Tender-minded People in America. The Quaker apostle addresses the Colonial Americans to “be encouraged, whoever you are,” and hold fast to faith that speaks of “God’s merciful Visitation, which is extended to your Souls.” And here I am, three centuries later, visiting his book with my new Oxford lapel pin, positioned next to the one I wore with me from the University of Southern Maine, marveling at how time can cross its own mysteriously meandering paths. Indeed, my mind’s “reading voice” is of this time, the same one that gleefully expressed gratitude for those Cadbury chocolate bars from across town.

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Quaker Meeting House, Saint Giles Street, Oxford.

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ideas and place

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At last, we come to the setting-forth from this place and time of learning. I certainly hope to return before too long, but that will be yet another, different adventure. Here the postscript begins with the obvious, noticeable to those who have read all ten of these essays, and that is gratitude. Now in retrospect, I see the ideas gathered during my time at Oxford as an abiding postscriptum. Surely there are the material treasures and photo images that attest to the experience, and are held close. But equally tangible, standing alongside study notes, portions of discussions, and written observations in journals, are ideas. By ideas, in this sense, I refer to ways of perceiving. Firstly, there is there is the inspiring prospect that a willing learner will never run out of sources. Heartfelt seekers will find, and I am merely one example. Vastness may be viewed as intimidating, but when it comes to oceans of knowledge and insight there is assurance in knowing the elements are deep and wide and rich. Consider the last sentence in Saint John’s gospel, as he concluded his account of his life experience with Christ. Of all things, he wrote:

    “there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they could be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” 

To which I am brought to add, not even all the Bodleian Libraries, plus everything in Boston combined! In this continuum of learning, as I begin to transcribe and index my reams of notes from these studies, I’ve also begun to notice changes in my perception. Beyond some techniques derived from the archives and conservation areas that I’ve brought to my work, there are subtleties yet to articulate. I already notice how reading and writing are accompanied by a much stronger awareness of place. The experience further encourages me to allow my thoughts and aspirations to expand. Potential is to be explored. What is possible and not possible cannot always be pre-determined. Perseverance is challenged by venturing out, while being reconciled with the unfathomable. Perseverance embraces learning in majestic surroundings and humble circumstances alike. Now I see gratitude at the foundation of perseverance and growth.

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In my earlier essay, called "Scriptura et Scriptum," I wrote about the wonderful Oxford stationer Scriptum. Recently, I sent the photo (immediately below) to them, asking about the dip-pens (at the lower right corner), and with this photo as a guide, I purchased them, with a few more custom-made journals (second photo below).

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Boarding the train at Oxford station, for the long travel to North Wales.

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