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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.