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Friday, August 21, 2015

We are the Weavers; We are the Web

Coincidence, fate or Italy?  One of my favorite scenes from the movie of E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View" is between Simon Callow and Julian Sands—not the skinny dipping scene which does rock but the one that leads into it when the Reverend Mr. Beebe and young George Emerson are discussing their contrary views on how people connect and cross through their lives.  This is the film dialogue followed by a link to the author's actual words.

The Reverend Mr. Beebe:  Coincidence is much rarer than we suppose. For example, it's not coincidental that you're here now, when one comes to reflect on it.

George Emerson: I have reflected. It's fate. Everything is fate.

The Reverend Mr. Beebe: You have not reflected at all! Let me cross examine you. Where did you meet Mr. Vyse, who will marry Miss Honeychurch?

George Emerson: The National Gallery.

The Reverend Mr. Beebe: Looking at Italian art! You see, and you talk of coincidence and fate! You're naturally drawn to things Italian, as are we and all our friends, aren't we, Freddie? That narrows the field immeasurably!

George Emerson: It is fate, but call it Italy if it pleases you, Vicar.


Purists Click Here
"Though, as a matter of fact, coincidences are much rarer than we suppose. For example, it isn't purely coincidentally that you are here now, when one comes to reflect."


47-year-old Exeter memorabilia
Honestly, coincidence is everywhere you look for it if you are the kind of person who looks for it.  I even think Mr. Beebe is unwittingly describing coincidence rendered more likely by a circumstantial narrowing of the field.  Fate is more a belief or a blind faith that things are preordained and we can just sail along on our river and what was meant to be will be.  But I digress.  This post is about a coincidence rendered more likely by Anglophilia and the well-established formula of foreign exchange students. 

In 1968, I was two years old living in Spring Valley, New York.  Polly Leavengood was a 17 year-old high school graduate—maybe even finishing her first year of college.  It had already been a turbulent year in the United States.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April and Senator Robert Kennedy in June.  Yet, these fresh-faced young American students were off on an exciting trip abroad to England.  Polly and her fellow students would be studying at the University of Exeter for a few weeks from late July to early August.
Don't be an "Ugly American," now go have fun!

To sort of semi quote another line from a great movie, "Of all the universities in all the world Polly had to visit Exeter."  What are the chances? Probably better than one would think but I'm not into the mathematical probability, just the fact that it is a funny coincidence that 47 years later I'm walking the same ground Polly did.  If it were London that would be one thing but it's not.  It is the capital city of Devon where no one would likely go on their first trip to England.

Polly never mentioned Exeter to me nor having spent any time in England.  Even my sister didn't know and Diana was Polly's sister-in-law.  Diana only knows Polly was here because Polly saved everything and Diana recently found the itineraries from that summer in a box of Polly's papers.  The fact that Diana found them just a few weeks into my stay here in Exeter is very odd.  How do these things sift up through the sand in our lives and reveal themselves in timely ways?

Diana put everything in the mail to me right away.  I have to say, I got a kick out of them—especially the directions on how the students were to behave.  I so wish Polly was still alive so that I could talk to her about her experience here because I KNOW the rules were broken and not just with the wearing of bermudas in the dining room.

Rise and shine

Some of my absolute favorite rules:

"Horse play" will not be tolerated at any time.

Money: This can be a real problem if you do not budget.

Smoking is permitted in all campus areas except the dining room and in class.

All bars and pubs in Exeter are out of bounds to AIFS students.  

Beds: Students must make their beds.

Class: Attendance at class is compulsory.  If one is too sick to go to class he should be in the infirmary.

The summer schedule is demanding, and a sleepy student in class is wasting his and the teacher's time.

Visiting: Gentlemen are not allowed to enter ladies' dormitories and vice versa.  There are plenty of lounges for social activities.

Slacks, bermudas, and jeans are not regarded as proper class or dining room dress for young ladies, nor are shorts, sweat shirts or T-shirts for gentlemen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Religious Tourist

After a very deliberate circumnavigation of the quire and high altar of Exeter Cathedral, I decided it was safe to declare to the welcoming gentleman "I'm here for Evensong." I said this with a nearly imperceptible raise in pitch on my final syllable.  If noticed, the questioning tone would protect my ignorance and give me an out should I be completely wrong in my reconnoiter. I was right and so I entered.

First I sat in the front row, but I had no idea where the show was going to be.  I saw a woman enter on the aisle across from me and go way up to the top row.  Hell yeah.  I turned to survey my side of the quire and saw a beckoning vacant row and made a move.  I sat by myself, top row, in a high-backed, built-in chair.  My left-hand armrest was the carved head of an archaic, religious gentleman with a hooded head that I never touched.  However, my right-hand armrest was a gorgeous little dragon and I did not hesitate to give a loving stroke to his head.

A group of Italian visitors sat the row in front of me until they were gently removed by a native who let them know that is where they choir sits.  Shit.

"Excuse me, am I okay up here?"  I asked worriedly.

"Of course, you are the last row."  The native comforted but to no true sense of consolation.

So for a few neurotic minutes I was concerned that I would be behind the stage, looking at the performers' backs for the entire show.

The entire show.  I used that word again.

That's right, I was looking at this religious ceremony as a show.  And that is when it hit me.  I am a religious tourist.  I take the highlights from everyone's religion and cherry pick to my heart's content.  I love Evensong because who can make out the words? I can enjoy the music and the voices in the beauty of an ancient structure because the words and their intended message and indoctrination is obscured.


Nearly 20 years ago, living in New York City, every Friday a group of goy girls would go to temple in a church with a Jewish friend for Shabbat.  The temple did not have its own space and, being reformed, used the church's space on Fridays and Saturdays.  Naturally, Sunday belonged to the Christians.  Shabbat was the most beautiful and peaceful way to transition from the work week to the weekend. There we'd sing in phonetic Hebrew having no idea what our words meant and not worrying either.  Even before that time,  I fixed a mezuzah to my apartment door and touched it with kissed fingers for a while coming and going.  My friend said it was to protect you on your journeys.  Eventually, I realized the mezuzah and Shabbat didn't really belong to me.

I was not faithful to any religion I dabbled in.  Just before my Judaism sampler, I was introduced to Wicca out in California. It came at the right time for me.  My mother had just died and I realized once and for all I was not a Christian.  That is not to say I threw myself unreservedly onto the coven because I really didn't want to go to this event that I perceived to be a freak show.  But it was through attending a Samhain festival that I realized that I lacked rituals and meaningful words to be spoken, traditions to be kept.  I got to honor my mother's life there with many others celebrating the lives of their newly lost, too.  We got to share our pain and turn it into celebration.  We helped the wheel of the year crick forward and it felt joyful.  I was given a "handbook" or two on paganism and styled myself a Wittan--an Irish witch and that lasted for a few years.

I see no reason to change the habit of a lifetime.  I will always be a religious tourist picking and choosing my itinerary and the proper accommodations for my traditions.  I guess I just never had a term for it before now.  As long as I'm not an Ugly American, I figure all is fair.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Coming Home to the Queen

Exeter Cathedral
It has been 12 years since I last lived in England and I liken our return to riding a bicycle if the bike was a Penny Farthing.   What I mean is we've needed assistance to get set in motion but once pedaling it is a familiar ride. Would we ever live here again full-time?  Right now I just feel really privileged that England is such an intricate part of my life. 

We haven't been to London so far and oddly, aside from not seeing our friends yet, I haven't really minded.  Exeter suits me well as does Devon.  Even when the council didn't give me my first choice for E's school, I found the second choice is probably even better for her.  Don't get me wrong, England still confounds me on how long it took to get Internet and our cellphones up and working (a week and three connection boxes later and a purchased and returned phone) but R's replacement passport came via courier 4 working days after the application was mailed.  MAILED!  What works works...including the food.  This archaic idea the English food is bad must date back to the War when there were rations because some of the best food I've ever eaten was here.  And, I'm a seriously picky vegetarian. 

You can never be sure about the weather but as long as you know to layer, you're fine. We went to four different beaches this week and, at the first, I was amused at how the natives dressed like they were on a South Florida beach while I had long pants and sleeves on.  Ha, they call this summer?  But I was the fool.  Because it was actually extremely comfortable, I never felt too hot so I never thought to use sun block.  All good though.

 Sidmouth was our first ocean view and a lovely town.  We walked up the coast path only this far where a local couple told us for a real Jurassic Coast experience go to Charmouth.

Charmouth with first Will-o-Wisp boy
 We hopped right to it and were directed up the crumbling slope by two boys who wanted to show E where to find the best fossils.  This stone was called wet stone and it pulled away very easily.  Too easily.  I felt criminal though this beach is open to fossil hunting but also I felt like I was playing a really dumb and dangerous Jenga game.  So did beach patrol who showed us where to safely look.  The boys who brought us there in the first place had vanished before we were scolded hence we called them will-o-wisps.

Some of what we found--turns out is won't last due to the nature of the stone.  When it dries it will crumble but we sure were excited in the moment.

 E and a second Will-o-Wisp boy showing her the fossils he found in the huge rocks.
Charmouth Beach--Jurassic Coast
On the sea wall in Lyme Regis where Jane Austen set a scene from "Persuasion"

Mothecombe Beach--privately owned opened 3 days a week to the public

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Connecting the Dots

We all have a little part of us that wants to shake the family tree and have a royal fall out.  Just for laughs of course since it’s clear we’re not in a line of succession much less heir to a crumbling estate.  We’d know by now thus making any royal of ours either low in the birth order, or not power-hungry enough to have made a grab for the throne. 

Therefore, it is a dubious boast if you really think about it and when you’re talking about 10 or more generations back, are those laurels one should be resting on today?  Such a boast is really only of personal value since most people’s eyes glaze over when we start spouting our genealogical discoveries anyway.  Mostly our audience hears our enthusiasm and appreciates that rather than our words.  I’ve done it and so have you.

The first time I went to Westminster Abbey, in the North Transept I found a monument to William Cavendish, 1 st Duke of Newcastle and his wife Margaret the daughter of Sir Thomas Lucas of Colchester.  Obviously, the name Lucas jumped out at me.  I took a note as this was long before iPhones and kept the scrap of paper for years.  The likelihood that Margaret and I were related was remote.  I first read some of Margaret’s writing in college in a class on Women in Literature and wanted a connection all the more. 

However, as these things often do, it took until last week—so many years after my first thought of it—to see if indeed there was a link. As one can, I piggy-backed on others’ research making an unsourced but clear line of descent between me and Margaret’s eldest brother making her grandfather Sir Thomas Lucas, the High Sheriff of Essex, my 10th g-grandfather and Margaret my 8 great-grand aunt. See, no crumbling estate for me to inherit but a fun connection. 

Out of interest, today I decided to continue going as far back as people had collected information and found the name Blanche Plantagenet!  Oh holy Toledo, this is it, I thought.  For a dizzying moment or two I had myself connected to John of Gaunt through his illegitimate daughter Blanche born when he was just 19 and not yet married.  Blanche Plantagenet married Thomas Morieux and had a daughter Elizabeth Morieux who it appeared married a Lucas.  OMG I’m related to my crush The Black Prince.  Hell, I’m related to the Beauforts ergo the Windsors! This is so cool, this is amazing, this is… a lie.

Piggy backing is a lovely way to get somewhere fast but make damn sure the back you're on is strong enough to take the weight of scrutiny.  So many Lucas trees joyfully connect our family to John of Gaunt through Blanche however, sometimes it’s his daughter, sometimes it’s through his wife Blanche of Lancaster, and sometimes it’s through Blanche Plantagenet of unknown origins.  I couldn’t sort it no matter how I came at it but I finally had to conclude that my Elizabeth Morieux could not be Blanche’s because my Elizabeth Morieux would have to have been born before her mother.  People wanted the bragging to rights to John of Gaunt so badly that they claimed him again and again without actually seeing math and logic prevented it from being so.  Why do we want such connections anyway? I clearly wanted it when I thought I had it but I never liked John of Gaunt from what I’ve read so I don’t get it.  Good miss, if you ask me.

The upshot is I’m as far back as I’m going for now becasuse I won’t claim that which is not mine.  It’s lying to yourself. Even if the knighthoods stopped rolling in and our innate commonness eventually swamped the titled connections and sons and daughters emigrated to change their fortunes, I’m still standing on the shoulders of giants.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Now You're Just Making Stuff Up

Hello 2015! 

This is the year I begin to divest myself from the role of family treasures curator and share the wealth.  Well, not completely and I don't know how wealthy any of this stuff would make anyone.  But, saying that, I am frequently found on e-bay nowadays as we get our house ready for sabbatical and whomever will be watching our kittehs.  Nothing of sentimental value is going but EVERYTHING can't be important and most things CAN BE SOLD or BETTER YET, GIVEN AWAY

Which brings me to my point.  My grandmother had such a lovely china cabinet I wrote the poem about it that I'm sure I published here at some point.  I was 14 when I wrote it and she has just been diagnosed with cancer.  She lived another 4 years cancer free.  But at the time we learned she was ill I became so sentimental and nostalgic for all things I loved about her and the home she made I was compelled to take pen to paper.   Flash forward almost 20 years and nearly everything in that cabinet came into my possession.  Of course, Diana has a bit too but I have the bulk of it right down the Checkered Chicken (nee The Lucas Chicken).  I have paid to have it all cross the ocean two ways and move across states North to South, South to North and East to West but now I'm finally addressing and assessing it. 

In amongst these glazed treasures are two tea cups that go with nothing else, not a saucer, not a plate, not even each other.  They are just two random tea cups that have traveled the Atlantic Ocean and never been used while in my possession.  As being on e-bay makes you do, partially out of fear of undervaluing your crap,  I began to investigate their humble beginnings.  The white one obviously hails from my neck of the woods--Shelledge by Syracuse China.  The second one is also domestic--Walker China from Bedford, Ohio.  So why do we have them when there is no set?  They are both mid-last century from what I can tell.

What to think, what to think?  The puzzle solver within awakens, what do I know?  I know both of these companies made restaurant china, so of course that information instantly transforms my orphan teacups into bottomless diner coffee cups, albeit the Shelledge looks like it might not have had as greasy a spoon in it as the other solid Fiesta-ware-esque Walker cup.  But that is clearly what they are--restaurant or catering china.   Why would Grandma Lucas have these?  She worked in Howard Johnson's one summer after Dad drank away his academic scholarship.  But HoJo's little silhouette was on every piece of china so that's not it.

Of course, my mind jumps to the only person in that house who would have stolen a cup from a diner--Dad.  It's not like Dad was a thief, but he did drink too much in his youth and middle years and what does a drunk like?  Coffee!  It begins to make sense.  I picture my young, erstwhile father making off with a Cornell catering cup of piping hot coffee in an attempt to undo a weekend's worth of damage.  In fact, both my scenerios involve my father stumbling off with the china unknowingly in his hand.  I knew him to drink I never knew him to steal. 

Mom and Dad front and center <3
And that is my myth of origin for these two delightful cups that are worth no more than a few bucks each and have no emotional value to me though I foolishly sponsored their UK-US tour without taking the time to get to know them. 

However, if you have a diner cup collection and would like them let me know immediately otherwise I'm releasing them into the wilds of the thrift store and my load will be that teensy bit lighter.