Monday, February 19, 2018

A Room of One's Own

I get dehydrated in Penzance. Which comes as a terrific surprise. I hadn’t been thirsty. It’s winter. Sure, the sun was out. Sure, I walked about six thousand miles over two days. Sure, I didn’t drink as much water as I usually do. But, come on now, am I getting so out of practice with survival that I can’t even take basic care of myself? How did I miss the signs? Maybe it was a case of water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Recriminations aside, I spend my final day in Cornwall recovering from the most splitting headache I’ve ever had in my life and wishing for something like death (because after all, death itself seems a bit drastic). I’d hardly slept the night before, my body aching and protesting (lack of water, as I know now), and wake up for the first time in my life unable to function. If I could think, I’d be grateful that this day is not my travel day. Very, very, very grateful.
Not thinking, I stay in bed and thank my lucky stars that I had planned to use this day to catch up on writing anyway.
I’ll write in the afternoon. I’ll write after a nap. I’ll write when I’m dead.
I hope I can move enough later to pack up.

Part of my liquid depleting could be blamed on a daytrip to St. Ives during which I did not drink what I should have drunk. I’d gone specifically to see the opening of an exhibition at the Tate St. Ives titled Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired By Her Writings. My host had told me about it and I was intrigued. A little jaunt down the coast in a train to St. Ives to visit a museum on a day when it was supposed to rain in Penzance, well, it sounded just the thing. And it was. It was really wonderful. Almost worth the dehydration.

I walked away from the exhibition full of conflicted thoughts. I wandered through St. Ives, along the waterfront, and sat for a while on a bench looking out over the beach at the lighthouse which was said to have inspired Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Of course, there was the beauty of Woolf’s writing set up with the work of such artists as Winifred Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Gluck, Gwen John, Frances Hodgkins, and Vanessa Bell among others.

An interesting thing of note was that Bell was also Woolf’s older sister. They, as artist and writer, encouraged and motivated each other. One of the plaques said that Woolf once wrote to Bell, “Do you think we have the same pair of eyes, only different spectacles?” I loved that.
And of course, Virginia Woolf is the one who famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf was born in 1882. At that time, women as artists or scholars had little voice in the public arena. They didn’t have the vote in England until 1918 and that was hard fought for. Even so, that granting of rights did not give all women the vote. All women didn’t get the vote in England until 1928. As a quick side note: U.S. women didn’t get the vote until 1920 and that was after nearly a century of their own protests. Sadly, that says something about what it takes to make change. Votes, of course, are also only one sort of right to pay attention to. So, with that example in mind, Woolf’s words can be seen to hold more than a charming desire for wealth and space.
In her writing and in her life, she worked for the equalizing of values between male and female artists and intellectuals. Another museum plaque said it this way: “For the adult Woolf there were two kinds of equality: one in which women gained admission into the world of men (the vote, access to education, financial independence, etc.) which she strove to attain; and another kind, which involved remodelling [sic] the very foundations of society to allow women and men to live on their own terms. She describes this in her 1931 essay Professions for Women: ‘You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. … But this freedom is only the beginning … With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms?’” 
The exhibition showcases the equality that Woolf worked so hard to achieve for herself and others. It showcases feminism.

I wish there were a better word. I wish even more that it didn’t have to be a thing. But it does.
Here’s why. The exhibition features only female artists. And this seems, what, unusual? Feminist? A statement of some kind? An exclusion of men?
And yet, if it were an exhibition of only male artists featured against the works of say John Steinbeck, no one would blink an eye.
For me, the exhibition pulls me up short and makes me pay attention because I recognize my own reluctance to address the need for this female only exhibition. I don’t want there to be that gendered distinction. I don’t want to be reminded that I also happen to be, like Woolf, a woman writing fiction. While I would resent being known as a female writer rather than simply a writer, it’s because of Virginia Woolf and many others that I can be so finicky about a labeling. It’s because of Virginia Woolf and others that I have the creative space and freedom to live the way I live, that I can be a writer and be taken seriously in my craft. It’s because of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell and all these other women that society, in however small a way, has been remodeled so that people, men and women both, can live on their own terms.

I make my way through the art filled rooms and think that we’re not completely there for everyone in every way, but maybe we’re a little, tiny bit closer.

As I walk away from the Tate St. Ives working on a case of dehydration, what I have most is an appreciation for all those women for pushing boundaries and making waves. For speaking up and for putting their art into expression whether through writing, painting, sculpture, or film. Because of them and many others it’s possible for me to have the financial independence and the space (money and a room) to do what I love.

With those thoughts lost somewhere within my aching head, I drink the bottle of coconut water I had (serendipitously, foreshadowingly?) purchased a day or so before. It’s supposedly teeming with electrolytes which are just what I need. I drink water. I drink some tea. I drink more water. I begin to feel less agonized and actually do some writing. It’s not very good work, but it’s done. I get packed up. Eventually, I curl back up in bed at some really early hour and fall to sleep. Ah, sleep, blessed sleep.
Let’s never do this again.

The next day, with my water bottle faithfully drunk and refilled and drunk again, over the ten hours it takes me to get from Penzance to Glastonbury, I gaze numbly through the windows and watch the landscape change from coastal scape to inland countryside. I’m not back to one hundred percent, with my day of rest I’d gotten myself to maybe 62 percent. However, my recovery is not helped by the fact that I’ve also developed an annoying head cold. I know it’ll pass in a day or so, but I’m really regretting that I forgot to bring along vitamin C. I’d meant to. If hindsight was 20/20 and I added that to my recovery percentage I’d be up to 82 percent.
Anyway, all that to say (at least I’m well enough to do simple math), I’m grateful to arrive to my house in Glastonbury with it’s welcoming bed, a jug full of water, a kettle, tea, and the view of a church bell tower out the window. It’s early yet in the evening and that feels like a gift. I’ve got the freedom to rest and so I do.

In the morning, I wake to heavy rain. My list of things to do in Glastonbury is much shorter than some of my other stays. While I’m only here three nights, I’m not in a rush to get out. My weather app says the rain will clear and the afternoon will bring some sunshine. For now, I allow myself the luxury of reading in bed with a cup of coffee. In between sips and sentences, I watch the falling rain bead on the windowpanes.

In the afternoon, the rain does clear and I decide to go out. If I get down the road and don’t feel up to the walk, I can come back. There’s always tomorrow.
I take it slow, making my way toward Glastonbury Tor. For once, the signs actually get me all the way to my destination via the Public Footpath. It’s been my experience so far, that often a sign will say “Awesome Site: 1 Mile” with a vague arrow that could be pointing straight ahead or off to the right. Then I’m left on my own to wonder if I’ve already come a mile, if I missed a turn off or a sign, if I’ve managed to wander onto private property, or if I should just head back the way I came and start over. Somehow, often with some extra walking or lots of direction-asking, I make it to where I want to go. But boy, my shoes are racking up some serious mileage.

The air is chilly and the wind is brisk. The ground squishes underfoot, damp and muddy. Following old Peruvian advice to cover my throat against the cold, I have a scarf on. I also have on my coat, a hat, and gloves. I get heated walking up the hill, but I stay mostly bundled up.
There’s a steady stream of people going up to and coming down from the Tor. It’s certainly a popular site. I stand aside for those moving more quickly than I am. I’m not in a hurry. I’m in no mood to overdo things.
At my own pace, I get to the top.

As with many places I’m visiting these days, the exact reason for the Tor (which is the terraced hill itself) is unknown. Some speculate that it could have been terraced for agricultural reasons, some say that it was done for defensive reasons, and others say that it was once a part of some elaborate labyrinth.
Many come to the Tor because of its ties to Arthurian Legend. Some say that the Tor was also called Avalon by the Britons. Others believe that the Tor could have been a location for the Holy Grail. Others link the Tor and some of the surrounding places to Goddess Worship.
I’m here because Glastonbury looked good as an itinerary point on my travel map and because of the Arthurian ties. A decade or two ago, I’d gone through an Arthurian phase and read nearly all I could find on the legend including The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck (speaking of Steinbeck). And why not visit these places while I’m here?    

At the top, the wind is going billyho. I have to brace myself against it.
Having mastered the Tor and my own corporeal form, I want to feel something (besides the wind) so I stand inside St. Michael’s Tower which dates from the 14th century and is the only part of the Church of St. Michael that still stands.
I only feel cold.
For an instant though, like a tiny miracle, I have the Tor and the Tower to myself. And then a little whisper comes, it’s not an outside voice, it’s my own, and all it says is: At Glastonbury Tor the wind is god, but the walls of the tower still stand against it.
It’s not poetry, but it’s close enough. I’m satisfied.
I get my pictures, avoid getting blown away out over Somerset, and go back down.

It’s still early afternoon so I meander over to Glastonbury Abbey. The ruins here are beautiful and I’m eager to get inside the walls and walk around. Like the Tor, this site is also fairly peopled. Glastonbury Abbey is the place where in 1191 some monks dug around the graveyard to find Arthur and Guinevere’s bones. The bones were left there until 1278 when, under the direction of the then king and queen, they were moved a very short distance and placed in a black marble tomb which survived as long as the Abbey did, that is until 1539.
I have no idea where the bones are now.

There’s both a calm sort of energy (for lack of a better word) and a majesty here and after I explore for a while I find a bench and sit and stare at the ruined remains of the cathedral and the place of Arthur and Guinevere’s internment.
It’s nice to be still with the sun on my face.
Having walked several miles, I’ve reached my limit for the day and I’m glad I’m not far from where I’m staying. I’ve done much of what I came to Glastonbury to do and I’m content (if not completely well). 

I sit a little while longer, thinking and not thinking.
It seems a strange contrast to have so shortly come from Woolf’s mission of making “rooms” for herself and others, to this place – to an old world that celebrates the Knights of the Round Table and their constant rescuing of damsels (whether they needed it or not).   
I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t know that I should make anything of it at all.
What would Virginia Woolf make of it?

I sip a little bit of my water. There’s no real answer to that. Besides, it’s closing time at Glastonbury Abbey so I head for the exit and go in search of some Vitamin C and soup.
As I pay for my remedies, I’m glad that I have money for these things and that, however temporary my time in Glastonbury is, here I also have a room of my own. 

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Sunday, February 11, 2018


I wake to the sound of gulls crying.

As I lie in bed, London seems a distant dream. I’ve left the ancient stones of Avebury behind me and have gone south and west for yet another change of scenery. Here I am at the coast in Cornwall. I chose to visit Penzance because it’s where the Gilbert and Sullivan play The Pirates of Penzance was based and why not plan trips around chances to sing?
Tarantara! Tarantara! Tarantara.

The sun is out and soon enough, so am I. I’ve found an online self-walking guide that will take me by the main points of interest. I wander along the harbor, see the Lifeboat House, take pictures of the lighthouse, view the outsides of a bunch of inns, see the art deco styled Jubilee Open Air Bathing Pool. It’s closed for the season and there are men doing some repairs at the edge of the pool.

There are very few, if any, pirates that I’ve seen so far.

I head over to St. Mary’s Church. A man sits inside at a table with a computer in front of him. I ask if it’s okay to wander around.
“Go right ahead,” he says. “If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them.”
“You’ve got all the stories then?”
He’s a little hard of hearing, so I have to repeat myself. And he takes that as a request to give me a tour which is fine by me.
“It starts over here,” he says, heading over to the entrance where a series of photographs are hung on the wall. 

He tells me that the original church was probably there since the 14th century. In 1836 (or thereabouts), someone thought it’d be a great idea to tear down the old church and put up a new one. “I wish they hadn’t. It was a very interesting building.” He takes me back to his table where he has a three-ring binder with pictures showing the different buildings, the people (by name) who sat in the original boxes, and how the layout changed over time.
We go into the sanctuary and stand up on the platform just beneath the stain glass window and the altar.
“Say something,” he says.
“Hello!” I say and my voice echoes back at me.
I hate to admit that I only think of singing long after I’ve left the church, and I didn’t even think of singing a Pirates of Penzance song. Which seems a real shame, all in all.
“That accent,” he ponders a bit, “Canadian or American?” Later he tells me he throws the Canadian part in because 1 out of 100 times the person is Canadian and they’re so delighted that they say, “Let’s go have a drink, mate.”
He tells me that he lived for years and years in Victor, Colorado. Small world, I think, and we talk about how much Colorado has changed in the last fifteen or so years. He tells me about his daughters, about working for the railway, about the time he lived in D.C. and how much he hated it there, how he told his daughters the instant he got to Kansas he was going to get out of the car and kiss the ground.
“You’re a good listener, aren’t you?” As if that’s the segue, he asks me about myself. I tell him a little.
“Well, I’ll be blowed. You’re the first novelist I’ve ever met.” He ponders that for a bit, and it must be true because he doesn’t retract the statement. For a moment, there’s silence and then he’s onto another story. Eventually, he comes back around to the church and starts to tell me about the bells, “You have a little more time?”
I shrug. I do. I love bells and the chance for a bell tour would be fun.
“The tower is closed, but come on.”
Though my dreams of a bell tour are so quickly squashed, nevertheless, I follow. We go back into the foyer and he says, “We need a wine glass for this. But not to drink.”
With a second dream squashed, we head into the little kitchen and he takes a wine glass out of the cabinet and uses it to show me how the bells work. I know a little about change ringing from a book, of course, but his wine glass instructional is fascinating.
“You’ll be in the country long enough to go to a bell ringing practice,” he tells me. “But they won’t let you ring them. You have to have at least two months practice with an experienced ringer there beside you to do that.”

As I tell my new friend thanks and goodbye, I hope his proclamation will come true about me finding the time and place to see and hear the bells rung. What a fascinating day that would make. With the fresh air on my face, I wander through Morrab Gardens with its lush greenery and sub-tropical plants and all the flowers and then on down to the promenade where I watch the sunset and see the sun-glinted windows of St. Michael’s Mount off in the distance.

Tarantara. Tarantara. Tarantara. 

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