Saturday, May 31, 2008


These moorchicks were the smallest ones I've seen yet. We watched the whole family slipping over the water toward our restaurant's terrace; we watched the mother urge all four babies under her body. For the rest of the time we sat there in the evening cool, eating our pizzas, she shifted only as much as one would shift were one warming four tiny and possibly squirmy bodies under one's own.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Things I saw in London.

When my Chicagoan friend left Cambridge, on his way to Heathrow where he would catch a plane home, I went with him as far as London, where I spent the afternoon doing some research work for a conference talk I'm due to deliver in about three weeks. That part of the day was just as engrossing and interesting as it usually is for me, even though I was only reading or rereading other people's criticism.

As the afternoon wore down, I started deciding just to come back to Cambridge after the library closed at 5. But then I remembered: my ticket was only for off-peak times, which meant that I couldn't leave London between 4:15 and 7:15 p.m. I remembered this at 3:58 p.m. I decided not to hurry to catch the 4:15, since I wasn't done in the library yet. And so at 5 I found myself at a small table in a little café in the newly gorgeous St. Pancras Station, enjoying a cheese board and watching people stream past with rolling bags, backpacks, hand luggage, brief cases, high fashion shoulder bags, unenviably high heels, tiny dogs in tow. It was only one particular cross-section of the world, obviously, but what an entertainment to see so many travellers passing.

Full of cheese, I headed southward to Charing Cross Road. This kind of day, I'll miss: work in the library all day, prowl around in bookstores in the evening, head home by train and get home before dark (even if you don't unlock your front door until 10:40 p.m.).

At Henry Pordes Books, when I put my Hilary Mantel novels on the little desk, the man standing beside it asked me something about whether we were all students. A huge group of audibly American students (with their teacher, who was giving them silly advice about "rare" books) had been standing in the front of the store for at least ten minutes. "Oh," I said, trying not to be so loud as to hurt the feelings of anyone in the group, "I'm not with them." "You get a 10% discount because you're not with them," he said. And I did. It was the first non-student discount I've ever gotten.

At Foyle's, the ground floor children's section has some old-school ceiling-level backlit signs telling you what's what: CHILDREN'S BOOKS, it says on one wall. Then, across the way, CHILDREN'S PIRANHA. The two words are on two walls that form a corner. They're possibly not necessarily meant to go together. But my guess is that someone thought that it would be awesome to have the piranha tank be labeled CHILDREN'S PIRANHA. I stood and watched the gold-scaled piranha moving slowly in their wall tank, with their Brando underbites and their huge rolling orange eyes.

After the blue-eyed cashier at the Foyle's jazz café gave me my change, I sat at the long bar overlooking Charing Cross Road. A young Asian man molded a small clay head at a corner table. A boy leaned out the window, holding his mobile phone. A girl walked in in a many-gored mauve silk skirt; she wore mid-calf lace-up boots in a matching shade of purple.

A girl pedaled furiously up Charing Cross.

I realized that I was about to miss the last express train to Cambridge, and in fact I did--by 30 seconds--even though I left for the train station as soon as I realized. It was no big deal.

I think that this weekend is going to be a couple of days' worth of resetting.

If you look very closely at today's picture, you'll see the windmill off in the distance. Windmills dot the Fens.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

And then there was this one day...

During a semi-routine check of my bank account's online statement this morning, I noticed two strange charges: $149 and change, each, at some place in California whose name I didn't recognize.

I take it as some kind of sign that my first thought was, "What did I buy for £75? Twice?"

The answer, of course, was nothing: for the second time in my life (and the first time in nearly a decade), I would seem to be victim of credit card fraud. Everything is in process to get things fixed, and I'm less fretful now than I was for the four hours I spent waiting for the bank to open so that I could talk to their fraud specialist (who unfortunately has gotten a bit of a workout this year).

I take it as some kind of sign that the particular locale of my stolen card number's use has been a gas station, and so I offer you today an image of the petrol pump at which we refilled the rental car before returning it. We drove 148 miles yesterday. The fuel cost £18, or around $36. We figure this at about 25¢ per mile driven. By my calculations, this means that any vehicle being driven in the US getting less than 16 mpg is costing its owner about what a tiny Fiat (which got approximately 36 mpg yesterday) would cost in this country.

Apparently, I'm temporarily obsessed with cranking these numbers.

We paid about £4.50 per gallon of petrol this afternoon--or rather, I should say that my soon-to-be-departing friend paid about £4.50 per gallon this afternoon, since my checking account was about to become inaccessible to me, as soon as the bank opened at home and I could get them to stop the card. In other words, gas here is like so many other things here: it costs roughly the same number as at home, and the currency is different and the exchange rate means the price is roughly double. I know that the numbers are roughly the same because I'm keeping track of what's going on with gas prices at home; I only have two months before I rejoin the world of driving. I also know this because the gas station where my card was used fraudulently was (Google revealed) charging $4.20 per gallon yesterday.

No moral to this story. Just a lot of figures. "It's a sign of how bad the economy's gotten," said the friend who went to the bank to pick up the affadavit that needed to be faxed to me so that I could continue the process of getting things sorted. "People are getting desperate."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Driving in the Fens.

Sitting in a car all day--even if you are the navigator--doesn't seem as though it should be able to be exhausting. And yet I'm too tired to tell stories about windmills, spectacular views from the Octagon at Ely Cathedral, the Wash, the peacocks crossing the road, the cows walking along the dyke, the deserted labyrinthine streets of King's Lynn, the pecularities of British radio. We were away for twelve hours. I will say more tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Afternoon breathing.

In the cool afternoon, I left my writing behind and walked to town. My visiting friend was at the library, seeing Prince Charles during his visit to the university and then doing some research, and I had already produced enough words to call it a day if I so desired. And so I laced my shoes and set out to stretch my legs and catch some deep breaths.

Clare College's old court was so silent and still that I thought about staying there. Instead I strode on through the gates and nearly missed the lavender that has begun to bloom along the outermost walk. But the lavender caught me just in time.

I went lightly through the marketplace, pausing over the bookseller's stalls and the jeweler's strings of beads and stones. I slipped into the chemist's for a better decongestant than the one I've been using to try and clear out my mucky head. I dawdled around the shelves in the big bookshop closest to home.

Going up the Avenue at Trinity, having checked on the growing goslings and about to be on the lookout for the moorchicks in the sluice, I saw for the first time how the backs of the daisies make their own fat flows of circles, row after row of fringey spots on stems. There were no signs of the moorchicks: no ripples, no feathery swim, no soft cry the sound of a tired wheel's turning.

Monday, May 26, 2008

How to brighten a rainy day.

Rely on pictures of non-rainy days.

Read the kind of novel that got you into this business (or at least your historical speciality within it) in the first place. Actual quote from George Sand's Indiana (1832) (trans. Sylvia Raphael):

(you need to know that Indiana is the name of the novel's heroine)
Resist me now, gentle, trusting Indiana, for you don't know to what a vile brute you are willing to surrender the treasures of your innocence. Reject me, trample me underfoot! I have not respected the abode of your sacred modesty, I got drunk on your wines like a lackey, cheek by jowl with your maid, I sullied your gown with my accursed breath and your modest dress with my infamous kisses on another's breast. I did not fear to poison the rest of your solitary nights and to spill the effusions of seduction and adultery right onto this bed which even your husband rejected. What safety will you find henceforth behind these curtains whose mystery I did not fear to profane? What impure dreams, what bitter, consuming thoughts will seep into your mind and harden your heart? What phantoms or vice and shamelessness will creep between the virginal sheets of your resting place?
Dude. It only gets better. "Have I not opened the door of your alcove to the devil of lust?" this speaker (who, as you might imagine, isn't making such a great showing for himself so far) goes on to ask. There's a restaurant called The Alcove in the next town over from my home village; I may not be able to think of it in the same way after finishing this novel. No, no, fair Alcove! I may think. Open not your door to the devil of lust! Or, on second thought, maybe I should frequent that place more often...

And give yourself a wry smile at the sheer sad weirdness of your neighbor's having e-mailed to say that his very young niece has just announced, via that magic medium Skype, that she is coming to England to see the two of you, and that the two of you are invited to come to visit her at her house, too. (She is not really coming, nor do you imagine you'll ever be going.)

Rely some more on pictures of non-rainy days--this time, of baby coots waiting for their mother to come back up from under water, bearing food.

Finally, go to bed and hope that tomorrow it won't be raining again.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Unexpectedly, today turned out to be a stop-and-drop day: what I have thought to be allergies seems instead to be a sinus cold, and when trying to clear my nose left me light-headed and stupid this morning, I decided to spend the day in bed. And so I have, something that was possible because my visitor took himself off to London for the night.

Now, about this sign: Usually, here, when a sign strikes my eye, it's because it's stating something familiar to me but doing it in a particularly British way. But this one, from some road construction down beyond the rail station, threw me off enough last night that I took its picture a couple of times--not least so that I wouldn't forget to look up its meaning later. Turns out "adverse camber" means "the road will be raised on the left during a curve to the left, so be careful." It's like "uneven pavement," but more specific, which seems desirable in the case of what they're doing to this particular bridge.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The big house.

Today my visiting friend learned that I had not been joking when I said that it would take three times as long to walk to the Cambridge rail station as it would take to travel by train to Audley End, the station nearest to the seventeenth-century Audley End House, this weekend the site of a Victorian Fayre. By the end of the day, we'd walked through city streets, up pavements in the country, through manicured grounds, and eventually even through a fen. And we'd even managed to squeeze in a trio of bowling games before getting our Indian food.

Baby birds abounded everywhere we went.

A true Victorian Fayre would have been impossible without Her Majesty's presence.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Down the river, up the meadow.

Today, I continued to show my visiting friend what this part of the United Kingdom looks like. It was the Alternate Transport portion of the trip: an afternoon on a punt, an evening walk through Grantchester Meadows. Everyone in the punt poled successfully for some goodly stretch; my visiting friend even managed, on his debut, to steer us deftly back into the punt rental company's dock.

This goose's missing beak testifies to the excitement I was expressing about seeing its baby swimming so energetically and efficiently for one so small. (I'm bummed about this one; a reshoot would be pretty much impossible, alas.) These non-Canada geese seem to have dropped in on Cambridge all of a sudden this week; there are four of them (plus the baby) hanging about in the paddocks at Trinity.

Later, these grasses made me miss my prairie, and made me know how much I'll miss these meadows when I'm gone.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Nowhere better than this place.

After my last Thursday evening concert, after the men with fast fingers took our breath and left us gasping with applause, I walked home alone in the deep blue, the dusk at 10 p.m. now brighter than the nightfall was at 7:30 the first Thursday I walked to Kettle's Yard all those months ago. During the interval, I found a massive stack of A1 paper, each sheet reading simply, "Nowhere better than this place." A stack resting opposite it read, "Somewhere better than this place." "Please help yourself," said a sign on the wall. Yes, I will, thanks. I thought this to myself. Both are so true, such hopes and such knowledge.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


My dear Chicagoan friend arrived yesterday afternoon, and so these days are about walking, eating well, searching out the baby moorhens with their preternaturally large feet, prowling around the colleges' gardens and shooting flowers. And gabbing incessantly. And calling people names. There's a lot of name-calling. So far, we're not aiming the names at each other.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wrought wonders.

In Bath, Walcot Street is a vein of counterculture running down one side of town. Apparently, one year Walcot Street was left off of a map and responded by declaring its independence. Now, every year the Walcot Nation Day celebrates the hip weirdness of Walcot-Upon-Avon.

I walked up and down Walcot Street several times during my stay in Bath. I visited the glassblowers' shop; I window-gazed at vintage clothing; I bought fine cheese; I groaned at this shop's name:

And on my last trip up the street, on Friday evening, this place caught my eye:

Abbey Gardens, a shop full of garden accessories. I knew that I was drawing stares from passersby as I took pictures. But really, the colors were too much--and then the birdcages? Yes, please. I only wish the light had been better.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The good news, and the other news.

Tonight, a message popped into my emailbox, bearing the news that the journal to which I submitted my experimental article last month has decided that I should revise and resubmit. Revise and resubmit is not bad news, not at all; I knew, even as I sent it off, that the article had many unresolved tensions and ideas and that it still had only a shadow of the argument I wanted it to have, the idea I'm now trying to write a book to articulate.

And yet.

And yet my heart still leapt when I saw who'd sent the article. And yet I still thought to myself, "Did they like it? Did they?" And yet I still saw the criticism, as if it had been written in big ugly red letters, before I saw that it was constructive. And yet it still made me cry--

though I do think that the crying is about something else, something like the imminent end of a very long time "off" and the growing, snarling worry that I haven't gotten enough done. And something like the fact that I'm now torn between not wanting to leave this place and not wanting to be away from home anymore. This much time here has reinforced what I think I already knew, which is that this country is not my country, even if this place's literary history is one of my specializations and even if my own country's dominant culture has been pretty profoundly embarrassing to me for quite some time now. I'm an outsider here and don't particularly want to become an insider. But I still love my perch right here in this particular place-within-a-place. I need to see my home people, but I don't want to stop seeing the sights that my eye has started calling home.

I do not even slightly relish the idea of going back to having to drive everywhere again.

So: many things have been combining and conspiring to put me on edge, then even more on edge, and now even more way on edge, which means that it's time to upload some basic truths and then go to sleep on them, to wake restored.

Both the projects on which I'm working are fundamentally worthwhile and will benefit the two main scholarly communities which I identify as my subdisciplinary homes (i.e., Victorian studies and autobiography / life-writing studies).

This spring's experiment in writing has shown me a number of things; tonight, I add "need to work on taking criticism gracefully and not self-abasingly" to that number.

Going home means going back to the classroom, which will enliven and regulate me even as it also leaves me exhausted and feeling slightly crazed.

I have achieved worthwhile things for myself, and by extension for my students and my friends and loved ones, while I have been out of the classroom and out of the country.

I will not waste the months I have left here with worrying. I simply will not.

[twenty minutes pass]

As if sensing the right moment to place a call, my excellent friend has just rung up for a good long cheery chat. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


I went to Bath for the same reason that even the Romans went to Bath: to bathe in the hot springs, in water that fell as rain thousands of years ago and now comes up out of the ground at 45º C. For the last quarter of the twentieth century, Bath had no hot baths open for business--for the first time in more than a thousand years. Then, someone built the Thermae Spa, incorporating parts of the eighteenth-century hot bath buildings.

My excellent friend--the person who introduced me to Bath in the first place, back when she taught me the bawdy wonders of eighteenth-century literature--has generously gifted me a fantastic spa package that I will be using in July (because the place is hard to book!). But last week I went down to check it all out.

One of the spa's great attractions is a rooftop pool. See the aqua glass wall at the top of the glass-and-stone building to the right of this picture? That's the wall that keeps people from walking off the pooldeck into the Bath air. By the time I changed into my suit and climbed the three flights of stairs to the roof on Thursday afternoon, the air temperature had hunkered down in the high 50s (F). The water in the spa's baths is a steady 35.6º (C), though, so I chucked my robe and towel into a little glass pigeonhole on the deck and got right into the water. It was about 4:45 p.m., and because the spa's "twilight package" had started at 4:30, the nearly empty pool slowly but surely started filling with other bathers. From the rooftop pool, one can see such things as Bath Abbey (here pictured--from down on the ground, obviously, and with a sky that conveys the greyness of those few days--with the corner of the building that houses the Roman Bath)

On the side of the rooftop pool nearest to the Abbey, those wiley spa designers installed a set of seats with air jets in them; somehow, it never failed to be amusing to watch newcomers (particularly women) discovering the jets and giggling like eleven-year-olds who've just learned about where babies come from.

All of the spa's baths are 1.35 meters deep, which was the perfect height to make it easy to submerge myself up to my chin. It was while so submerged that I had a lovely conversation, my only one of the three-hour evening, with a pair of sisters from Canterbury who had been vacationing in Bath. When they found out that I was traveling alone, one of them said, "You're so brave, you young people." Turned out she's a widow--three times over. "They call me the black widow," she said, laughing a little wryly. The latest husband died in November, after a ten-year struggle with Parkinson's. A girlfriend of hers was supposed to have been vacationing with her, but her sister filled in after the friend had to drop out. We talked about the benefits and drawbacks of our respective experiences with marriage and being single, and everything was just about right: close to the moment when I might have started feeling like being quiet again, they headed off to try some of the spa's other amenities. About twenty minutes later, I too headed off--

--to the Minerva Bath at the very base of the whole spa complex, a massive pool that reminded me of Lex Luthor's subterranean pool in the first Superman film (remember? I can't find you a picture, so you'll have to take my word for it). The brilliant thing about this pool is its currents: because of the various jets scattered around the pool walls and floor, it's possible to drift around the entire pool with no effort at all.

I kept waiting--as I drifted and drifted--for a moment when I would feel utterly loosened and relaxed. I wasn't tense about not relaxing properly or anything that self-conscious and frustrating; I was just trying to figure out the best disposition of my limbs, and the best way to drift without running into other bathers, and I was particularly hoping that I'd be able to shed the strain I carry between my shoulder blades. At some point, I drifted out of the pool and into my robe and up the elevator to the café for dinner. A post-dinner trip to the steam room was extremely short: steam rooms and glasses don't mix, but neither, really, do steam rooms (or ambulation, for that matter) and myopia. I drifted back into my robe and back downstairs to the Minerva Bath, where I spent my last 45 minutes simply puttering about in the water.

By the time I left, I realized that there had been no perfect moment of relaxation. Instead, the water had worked steadily on me the whole time I was in it. When I sat down to read myself to sleep, the space between my shoulders was supple and still.

(Those fish at the top of this writing? They're actually from the Pump Room in Bath; they're crusted in mineral deposits left by the springs' water, which people used to come all the way to Bath to drink for its medicinal benefits. It's still possible to buy a glass of the hot water for 50p. I'll admit to having passed this time, having tried it thirteen years ago.)

And one of the trip's big payoffs? Today: 1216 words. I think that having written those words early in the day is part of what's made me so leaden in tonight's post. Balances seem to be shifting, somehow, and I'm not quite sure where the Cabinet is going to be when the shifting subsides. So, for now, I'm going to keep on keeping on. For the next little while, you may get lots more pictures than words, though.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A return, a promise.

So: when I blew town early Thursday morning, I had my laptop and my camera on my back, and I fully intended to find a way to put up a post at least saying that I was going to be away for a couple of days. But then my hotel didn't have internet, and I got caught up in spa-going (seriously) and in incessant walking and in several hard-core, intense bouts of work (though still not writing--still the assembling and brewing phase, frustrating though that phase's prolongation always is to me). And I didn't pay my £1 for 20 minutes of internet time at an internet cafe, and so you didn't know where I was or how long I'd be away. I hope that I'm just flattering myself by hoping that no one was worrying; I realize that this was one of the first times I've gone away without telling you more explicitly that I'd be gone.

Anyhow: my journey to the spa town of Bath was every bit the restorative trip that I'd hoped it would be, and tonight, following a stop-off for an astounding
theatre event, and some time on a double-full train (after our non-stop train was stopped at a local station and passengers from a broken-down train poured into our cars), I have returned home.

The promise is that you'll get a better dispatch about my exploits from me tomorrow.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Second day of my latest absence.

Up one street, down another: I walked and walked and walked. Bath is a city that challenges one's sense of direction. And after months of flat living in Cambridge, I'm stunned over and over again by how strange (and welcome) hilly landscapes and streetscapes seem to me.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

First day of my latest absence.

Possibly my favorite tourist information sign ever.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tricks and treats.

It's crucial, when getting dressed for one's umpteenth black-tie event of the year, to remember that the overall experience of said event is not likely to be very much different from the overall experience of a regular dinner. The food will be better--though it's possible that one's entrée will go missing for awhile--and the wine will be better. But the posturing and the sideways smirks and the bad puns that could only come from the mouths of half-drunk academics will all be pretty much what they always are. And if you're ready for that, then everything will be fine.

And all of this, you will realize, is as it should be, since one of this year's goals was to try and figure out whether there's another life out there that you'd rather be living. And now you know at least one life that, at least as you've experienced it, is certainly no better than your own--and possibly not that much different than your own, just in fancier clothing, with more cleavage showing.

What I wanted for my evening dress: a silken shawl and a crown of flowers. It's possible that I need more shawls and flower-crowns in my daily life.

Tomorrow, I take a bigger step than usual to try and get my head free from the crap that's clogging it. I know better than to think that a change of venue is enough to effect such an unclogging--and yet I'm already signed on for said change of venue and thus will be giving it a try.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My patient teacher.

As a child pianist, I was possessed of a fairly childish lack of interest in practicing consistently between lessons. This year, I find myself possessed instead of a fairly adult lack of time to accomplish all the things I want to accomplish--including practicing consistently (and sufficiently) between lessons. When my teacher sent me a text message this morning to find out whether I was still planning to come to my 3 p.m. lesson, I confess that I half-hoped that my "if that's still okay" reply would elicit a counter-suggestion that we should postpone; there wasn't much time to practice while I was off scampering over hill and dale in the manner of the Welsh lambs all around.

But she wrote back and said she'd see me at 3, and so at 2:15 I trotted off to her house. I felt a bit ashamed even to think about, much less to demonstrate, how little work I'd managed to do this week. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still expect my teacher to reprimand me when I haven't done enough. Instead, after I told her roughly where I was and what I thought I needed from her, she intuited what I actually needed from her: forty minutes of guided work on the pieces I'll play in next month's recital: the first of Schumann's Kinderszenen and the last of Bach's Three-Part Inventions. The Schumann is particularly difficult for me right now because it seems so simple but involves so very many details and dynamics that must be kept in balance at any given moment: thumbs that must be light, chords whose bottom notes must be intense, a melody that must sing above everything, ritardandos that must come on and then wear off again, phrases that must breathe. Without once losing her patience with me, my lovely teacher helped me work through each step of improving the piece, as I played its parts over and over again, adjusting pressure and sound quality and tempo here and there.
By the time I reached the Bach, I was well warmed up and far more confident, confident enough to perform the piece rather than to play it as an importuning for help. When I'd finished, she found ways both to praise the piece's development and also to help me refine it even further.

I think once again to the wonder I felt after my first mini-lesson with this teacher in October, wonder at the gorgeousness of having someone focus all her pedagogical talent and energy on what I can and should do with my two hands, her marvelous old piano, and the notes before me. Today, far more than on that first October day, I needed the kind of quiet care that anchors that kind of pedagogy. It didn't repair all the awryness of this week's opening; I still spent much of the evening feeling a bit too much like a tiny plane with its tail sheared partly off. But it was a renewal, a recharge and reassurance of the sort that I needed right at that moment; her calm critiques and praise smoothed at least some of what's been ruffled.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Off my game.

It's not that anything went particularly wrong today; it's just that the day went, plain and simple, and now is gone. Time grows shorter and shorter, and my head would seem to be anywhere but here where I need it.

Surprisingly, the walk down the mountain was harder than the climb up: we were tired; there was no peak before us, encouraging us to keep going; the farther we descended into the valley, the warmer it got. On the way up, I had no conception of how hungry or thirsty I might be. Coming back down, it started to dawn on me.

Stone ruins--sheepfolds, houses, abbeys--dot the north Welsh landscape. We didn't visit the dramatic ones, but the small survivals were all around us.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Back down from the mountain.

When we arrived in the vicinity of the mountain, we were still planning to take a train to its top. It's not that we had actively decided we didn't want to climb it; it's that we didn't even consider climbing all the way to its top. I, for one, would have thought that scaling the whole thing would be a near-impossibility for me, given my desperate fear of falling. But then we ate a big breakfast on our first morning in Wales, and I said, perhaps we should do our walking first and our mountain train trip second, since we have all this food in us now. And then we saw the mountain and decided we'd see what we could do. There's a low road, called the Miner's Track, and a high road, called the PYG Track, and an even higher road, called the Snowdon Horseshoe. "Every summer," a guidebook told me, "countless people find themselves atop Crib Goch, on the horseshoe, scrambling over rocks with nothing on either side of them, and wish that they weren't there." When the moment came, we chose not to ascend to Crib Goch.

Sometime in the second hour of our climb, I began to realize what it was that I was doing, and then things got very exciting indeed. It's not that we ever needed to rock climb; Snowdon's paths are well delineated and maintained. But we did ascend something like 300 meters in the space of 30 minutes, near the very end--a feat for which my calves are still paying a bit of a price--and then we ascended some more, and then we were at the highest point in England and Wales, up in the high winds, above ridges and lakes and stark blown grass. And almost above fear.

If I weren't so tired, I'd give you more details this evening. As it is, they'll have to come tomorrow--but here's a sheep to keep you company.

The sheep also joins me in saying Happy Mothers' Day to all of you mothers out there. In my world, every day is mother's day: my mother is that completely awesome.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Third day of my absence.

By the time you see these doors, if all has gone well with me, I will have seen and climbed at least one mountain, filling memory cards with glimpses of Wales.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Second day of my absence.

These trees, everywhere next to the University Library. So gorgeous you can't even believe.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

First day of my absence.

Yes, how is understanding possible, especially with sentences this tangled?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The next few days.

In just over an hour, I depart for Places Elsewhere. This time around, to tide you over until I return, I'm leaving you little surprises.

First, the week's best little surprise: the waterfowl have had babies! Here's Trinity's gosling. Trinity also has baby moorhens. King's, on the other hand, has all those ducklings, and they know how to cross bridges.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


There's perhaps no flower so enthralling to as many of my senses as wisteria.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Under the bridge.

From the poling position on a punt down the Cam, one can see things not otherwise visible. "Hey," I said to my Ohioan friend as I dropped the pole into the water and pushed us along some more, "would you take a picture of that alien DJ for me?" She obliged.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

An eely day.

Yesterday, before my Ohioan friend arrived in the middle of the night, before my beloved Lexingtonian caught up with me in age yet again, I traveled through this county's fields of gold to the cathedral city of Ely for its annual eel festival. I kid you not. And it was astounding, as will be suggested by this image of the giant eel featured in the parade through town.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Awake and aware.

At first I'm not sure why I'm awake, and it's annoying: I've come to on my stomach, and it's 3:37 a.m., and nothing disrupts my sleep, and I'm going to ignore it. But, after what can only be called fitful dozing, by 4:30 I'm ready to give up the game and at least indulge in some reading.

It's not until I'm making my toast that I wonder whether I've awakened because something has gone wrong somewhere.
And so I'm back to thinking about what I almost posted yesterday: some days, when the baby gets herself really worked up and unconsolable in the car, her mother will call me on her mobile, put me on speakerphone, and let me talk until the baby goes wide-eyed and quiet. "Listen," she'll say to the little one squawling, "it's Auntie S!" I coo out the baby's name in my very best soporific sing-song, the kind of voice I'd use if I were talking a person next to me into sleep. And, while my beloved and intrepid friend stays quiet, piloting her car through the streets and highways of the town that will be her home for only a matter of weeks now, hoping that her daughter will forget everything but the quiet onrush of words coming from across an ocean, I tell her stories about what I've seen, and I let the stories carry me on to whatever comes next in my associative mind.

"Do you know what I saw today?" I said to her on Wednesday. "Today I saw ducklings, three little spotted ducklings, walking with their mother on the lawn at King's College, and they were little baby puffballs, even smaller than you, small girl, and they were tumbling over each other and falling down, and their father was walking away from the whole group as though he was thinking that he'd had no idea what he was getting himself into, having a family like that. And then I went to evensong, and the readings were psalms that were beautiful, and then after evensong, the sun was out but it was also raining! And that meant that there was a rainbow in the sky. Someday you'll learn all about why there are rainbows when it's sunny and rainy at the same time, but basically it's because water refracts light into its constituent colors, and someday you'll learn the mnemonic for the colors, the only mnemonic I can ever remember, which is ROYGBIV, and ROYGBIV stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue...[indigo, her mother says quietly, and as the voice-operated part of her mobile's speakerphone kicks in, I can hear that the baby has gone quiet], and violet. I have a little prism that my father gave me when I was not much bigger than you are, and with that prism, you can refract the light whenever you want to, and if I can find it again in my boxes of treasures that are all still stashed away in my old closet in my parents' house, I'll dig it out and show it to you when you're a little bigger, and you can learn about the spectrum of visible light that way."

When it feels safe, my strong, strong friend will give me a progress report. "She's listening to you," she'll say. "She's looking toward where your voice is coming from, and she's listening." I'll talk some more, about the Trinity goslings about which I've heard but haven't yet seen, about the different trees that are flinging out green fire, about swimming in the college pool. Sometimes I talk about things that are just for her mother's benefit, but I keep my voice low and as melodious as I can make it, and I know I'm crooning my low song of comfort to the woman who placed the call as much as to the child strapped in behind her, and all the while we are realizing together though we never say it out loud that we never grow up, never ever grow all the way up, and oh what will it be like to start losing the people who strapped us in and drove us around, and oh what stories could possibly help us stop squawling inside, where we are very young and small indeed at the same time that we are fierce and proud and more capable than we might ever have expected we could be.

And the sky pinks around the west, the way I'm facing, and it is 5:17, and halfway around the world a baby should be going to sleep right about now.

Falling sky.

Nearly every day this week, our sunny skies have clouded over and opened and dropped at least one hailstorm on us, only to go sunny again within minutes. Powerful systems are passing through these parts.

* * *

On a rare day when we had no hail (and only a smattery spitting of rain in the late afternoon), a friend and I wandered out across Grantchester Meadows, taking advantage of the 8:30 sundown to have dinner in a sunlit garden. Returning, we saw the world turned upside down, a different sort of skyfall, just right for the conversation she and I had had all evening.