a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Monday, December 2, 2019

Giving thanks and other Scotland/Wales adventures

Good morning.  The Thanksgiving weekend is officially over, and with only two leftovers to finish, thankfully, I'm settling down to the real message, in which gratitude is forthcoming.

My friend Denise and I had a grand time wandering Edinburgh, that first day opening to bright skies, a bit of brisk wind nothing that a wool scarf, gloves, and some undersilks couldn't handle, and visits to landmarks and curious places that filled our days there.  (I've given up repeating my journals verbatim...counting the 25 large  pages from beginning to end of the journey, I have guessed that all of you would be at your wits' end reading over the next month, so I'm attempting to write, instead, these backward glances.)

The second morning found me up early after a long night's sleep, and leaving Denise to her rest, I set out to the Writers Museum.  On the way up the Grassmarket, I found a small woolens shop just opening, Bill Baber, and behind a sewing/knitting machine a young woman who cheerfully left her work to show me around their handmade wares.  Out of linen, silk and cotton were colorful woven hats, scarves, capes and jackets.  As it happened, I needed a winter hat, so bought a purple/blue cloche to carry with me...it was warm and easily folded into a pocket or bag.  Seeing their wonderful sweaters reminded me of my travel intention to take a suitcase of underwear and a pair of shoes, and then buy everything I needed in whatever country and  climate I found myself.  If only I'd paid attention to myself.  But my suitcase was small and crowded with home things, so...

Happy with my hat, I set off around the corner to Victoria Street, a short winding route banked with small shops from haberdasheries to juice bars, with reservation only restaurants and...yes...a patisserie, La Barantine, right out of the Rue Cler.  Where was I, anyway?   I stopped for an Americano, sitting outside in the sun on one of two tiny tables hugging the window display of breads and pastries from some celestial oven.

 Later, Denise joined me...that's her pastry on the table and my second cup.

The way to the Writer's Museum is both simple and complicated.  The Royal Mile, which undergoes several name changes from dour Edinburgh Castle on the hill to the inspired Scottish Parliament below, is cluttered with tourist shops which can hide the small closes where interesting places are to be found. Looking for Lady Stair's Close, I at first walked too far, and, passing the Camera Obscura, found myself on a small curve of pretty white Swiss-like houses, very Edinburgh in their placement just below the castle grounds, but starkly contrasted against the dark medieval stones of the old city.

Finally, going back under the direction of a nice woman in (yet another) woolens shop, I came to the correct close, squeezed behind a mound of Walker's Shortbread boxes and plaid kitsch, and stepped inside Scotland's old literary heritage...Burns, Scott, Stevenson, and a few others I hadn't known.

It didn't take me long to go through the three stories of the old building, but the exhibits were interesting, especially the paintings which accompanied quotes from texts.

Denise chose to go to the underground street exhibit, meanwhile, and then, after some necessary phone-card exchange on Princes Street, the major shopping street, we went hunting lunch on the small alley between Princes and George.  We soon found the Rose Pub, and its welcome offerings:  pea soup with mint (vegan), home baked flat bread, wine and ale. 

 It began to rain while we ate, and the pub became a refuge until the sun returned a half hour later.  It was, as pubs can be at their best in such weather, a good place to sit and watch the few walkers tread by under hoods and umbrellas.  

When we left, we kept between Rose Alley and George Street, where the latter brought us to a chocolate shop Denise needed to explore.  

You will think that food was all we toured, but you would be only half right.  Our explorations led us over bridges, by gardens, on overlooks and in small closes where the ancient buildings hid their grim past.

Over the next days, St. Giles, the Parliament Building, the Queen's palace (Holyrood), the Botanical Center, and the Portrait House.  In between, a trip to the aforementioned old books stores, where I buy a copy of Muriel Spark's Complete Poems (who knew she wrote poems?) and find, upon opening it, this apt comment in its preface, in which she describes that though she wrote mostly in prose she had always thought of herself as a poet, with a poet's inscrutable relationship with the word:

'Edinburgh Villanelle', for instance:  what did I mean by 'Heart of Midlothian, never mine'?  There is a spot outside St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, my native city, which marks the "heart of Midlothian'I have fond memories of Edinburgh.  My pivotal book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was a novel about Edinburgh.  I have no idea what I meant by those words in the poem 'never mine'.  And yet I meant them at the time.

Perhaps Ms. Sparks had once had an afternoon like mine?  Here is my journal from a visit to St. Giles Cathedral, which, along with the Parliament building, inspired me most about the city.

I find St. Giles in the middle of the Mile.  Up a ramp and around to the entry, the dark stone nearly melting into the sidewalk surrounding St. Giles, I came through a blue glass partition and thought, ah, here is a place rooted in memorials to heroes of all sorts and to philosophical/literary thinkers.  

Plaques and reliefs on every wall, statures and inscriptions read like a history of Scotland and its honor of men and women who leave us or themselves with something to found a life on.  This is a church which is also strongly re-grounded from its initial Catholicism to the Reformation Presbyterianism, so that the very design of the inside of the building has been shifted architecturally. 

 At first, as I walked up the main aisle, I couldn't figure out why something seemed off kilter.  The main and naves had been originally built in the balanced way of Roman churches, but the Presbyterians, wanting not to frame their worship in that repudiated structure, turned their gazes 90 degrees to put a flat-table altar to face a modern organ, nave to nave.  The whole shift was like seeing the place lying sidewise.  They were, of course, beautiful organ and beautiful nave.  I went round looking at every "page" of that historical tribute.  

The treasure of St. Giles, however, lies in the small close elegantly and elaborately carved Thistle Society Chapel, where the Queen became queen and Knights have been inducted since.  

Its ceilings, even beyond the symbolic emblems, were intricately carved and the rises above the council seats amazing for work done in the 1910s.  I spent nearly an hour there and then went back with Denise after her tour to consider its fascination again.  It was on the sidewalk outside, looking down in the lowering light of mid-afternoon, that I saw the Heart of Midlothian that Spark writes of.

Edinburgh is, after all, a bookish town.  At night, looking at the offerings of the bookshelf near the fireplace in the apartment, I found Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. Tired feet made the sofa and a good book the best tour of the moment, and soon enough I came to a passage on page 9 which stood out like a beacon:

...the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial [as why and how] and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed EUDAIMONIA or human flourishing.

Human flourishing:  exactly what happens to me as these travels unfold, one by one, each leaving me opening and drawing out new nourishment (not really the word I want, but close).   Now that I know Eudaimonia, I have a word for what I am about these days, indeed for the whole traveling year and perhaps, I hope, longer.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Where I’ve been

Welcome to another travel posting, after four weeks overseas, this time to Scotland, Wales, a few days in London, then on to Spain.  It’s been an interesting time (may you, too, live in interesting times, as the fellow says), and so I thought that I would this time write you straight from my journal, which I kept nearly every day, so that you can get an on-the-spot view of things.  Be warned that I do go on and on about a day.  Pictures, of course, will accompany prose; some days, perhaps to your relief, my pages might be all photographs.  Here is the beginning: Edinburgh.

On the train, after a long sleepless night and an equally long morning sorting out train tickets, we ride out of Manchester Piccadilly on the crowded 12:35, to arrive in Edinburgh’s Victoria station by mid-afternoon.  It’s too bad, I think, that we can’t simply transport ourselves, instantly, from home across the ocean without the draining air travel…cramped, uncomfortable, dragged queue to queue along corridors that seem like science fiction props.  So different than train travel through a country, where the ride over the changing landscape becomes part of the journey.

We are going north through Preston, Oxenholm (gateway to the Lake Disrict, of Wordsworth fame), Penrith, Carlisle, Lockerbee (I remember that with a shudder, and then Bharati Mukherjee's searing story, "The Management of Grief", based on that tragedy).  Towns are interspersed by sheep pastures, different than those in France but with the same low hedgerows and wide, hilly green pastures.

We share seats with a family from Beauly, in Northern Scotland, above Inverness—they have two trains and an hour’s car ride until home, albeit through beautiful country.

We spend the trip talking travel with them across the table.  They, the Williamses (father, mother, sister and brother) are returning from a vacation in Tenerife, on a school break, but upon divulging this, Isle [e-la] shrugs and admits that next year, after having holidays for a few years there, they might look farther afield.  They have never been to the US, so we think of places (besides Disneyland, their first thought) that would be good for a couple of young adolescents and their still youngish parents.  They are clearly fond of the outdoors, good travelers and interested in where we have been, too.  We find a plethora of destinations in this country…Philadelphia, the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Northwest, and New Orleans, for example…that wouldn’t disappoint them.  As always, in the civility of trains abroad, stories come out; even the children take part in the sharing, listening to possibilities and adding to family lore.  I give Isle my card and promise to host them if they decide North Carolina…sea to mountains…becomes their goal.


The AirBnB at 12 Lady Lawson St, up the hill and down another from the castle, is a great find in a fine neighborhood for walking Edinburgh.  There are always landmarks in sight, so finding one’s direction takes only a day (or two).  The apartment, on the first floor (which means second floor in Europe) of a well-tended 100 year old building, with its light-filled lounge, two bedrooms, small but well-equipped and kindly stocked kitchen, and narrow bath will do us just fine.  It does mean climbing two flights of ancient, worn stone stairs, partly without rail, so we will have to learn to take our time on it. The heating system is a puzzle, by turns cooling and roasting us with seemingly no rhyme or reason. 


Looking around, I think to myself, why doesn’t someone actually live here?  The location swerves easily down the hill to the Grassmarket, and the small Sainsbury Local on the upper corner serves to pick up stock items for breakfast, carry out, and wine.  It isn’t the Sainsbury I first encountered in London, like France full of specialty things among the ordinary on each shelf…cheeses from the near country, smoked fishes of all sorts, dozens of each kind of vegetables and fruits…but this little one is fine for us travelers.  

Then I catch sight of not one but two used bookstores up the street.  Aha.  Danger ahead.

Anyway, unpacking and settling in brings us to dinner hour, and as we are hungry we set out to explore our options, hunting at first for a good pub where each of our separate Britain experiences has taught us has the best and less expensive food, informally served and comfortable among strangers.  But to our surprise, we find much of the Grassmarket area catering to more college-kid and sports stuff...burgers, chips, endless pizza...til, retracing our steps, we come to Petit Paris, a genuine French restaurant we like the looks and the menu of. 

At the one small table left free, we are greeted by a man clearly in charge, and one youngish waiter, appropriately French.  Maitre d’ is the owner, who tells us that he is from the 6th in Paris—St. Germain was where he grew up; this small, almost invisible place among the sports pubs, absolutely redolent of a Paris bistro from kitchen to cuisine to service, bears him out.  

There are so many choices we would like to try, but finally I choose a sea bass on vegetables in a light marinade and Denise—I envy her that, too—lamb stew.  (Sorry:  no photos, as we are too hungry to think of taking any.)

We split a salad and a crème brulee, tempted by the dessert ordered by our tableside neighbors, a young couple from Ireland who have escaped from family for a weekend on their own.  We are so full we can hardly move even if we wanted to.  Frankly, I would go back there every day, if there weren’t a whole city to explore.  

On the way back to the flat, we shop for goods for the flat, plan the next day’s walk and call Ada, in Glasgow, who has been expecting to hear from me and who gives out reams of suggestions for Edinburgh sites and restaurants.  We are sorry to hear about Clive’s extended hospital stay (worrying me about whether our stay there next week will interfere with his recovery), but Ada seems to look forward to the promised day of his return and to welcoming us.

Bed is so comfortable under the soft, warm comforter that I read only a few pages of the Welsh story I brought with me before I sleep almost instantly.

It’s morning as I finish this, looking out the bedroom window where an old brick wall, interesting more than reductive, faces me from across the lower roof of an equally old building.  A fine start to our trip.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

About time: a meditation on a day of meditation

pond, early morning 
This week fall weather has finally blown in to convince us it is really October.  Witness not only the change in temperature but the quality of air...the early morning sky closing in, hinting of November skies to come.

It came overnight last weekend when, after a long spate of hot, dry weather, a cold front found us putting on sweaters the next morning.  No one was complaining, though we are still yearning for rain.  This months-long drought has left no margin for fall color; plants droop, trees shed already crumpled, dry leavings.  I lost my best hydrangea to it at the house, I discovered yesterday, though strangely the gardenia next to the front door is almost supernaturally lush green.

On my morning walks, I think of what survives drought...of earth, of body, of mind.  Time, I have always contended, is my nemesis; that figures into these contemplations, as well.  Fall already, a year three-quarters to the finish.  As am I.

Since in a few weeks, I will be leaving for another journey, I've been reading A Walk through Wales, by Anthony Bailey, to ready myself for my first visit to that country.  As Bailey's walk north from Cardiff to Bangor is tinged by a bit of geographical as well as observational narrowness, I am keeping an open mind (though still appreciating his point about the complexity of a country within a country dealing with  political offhandedness from its overlord). 

As the chapters I read last night were beginning to close my eyes, I turned a page to a curious passage:

Do mountain climbers find summits anti-climatic?  I suspect that the ascent and descent matter most and in retrospect form an all-inclusive experience in which the period at the summit figures only as a necessary way-station:  a point you have to pass on the journey between going up and going down.

Reading that, I forgot momentarily that he was referring to his climb up Snowdon, and envisioned one's peaks in life.  When we get to a place we believe is the apex of our intentions and dreams, does it really end up mattering as much as the road we took to it or the fulfillments which follow because we have been there? Or matter as much as the anticipation or the memory?  Perhaps there is really no summit at all, except in our imaginations, which drive us to believe we have reached somewhere important. 

Although, for a few moments we stop and admire the view, breathe in the rarefied air, smile broadly at our "achievement", still, looking back to it, wasn't it simply just a point in a long story that is still not concluded?   I think, myself, that it matters more what happens since that point because we were there; just as it matters what happened or what we were that brought us to it.  And what if the summit we think we have reached isn't the summit at all?

For a dedicated achiever, it's not an easy concept to accept, I imagine.  But there are so many peaks and valleys in a day...in an hour, for that matter...perhaps there is as good a reason to celebrate the rarity of an unaccoladed one, whose magnificent view is not outward, but inward.

stones on a path

Peace to you this day.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Art forgotten

It seems that wherever I find myself, there are artists nearby whose interesting stories I relish discovering.  Below me on the first floor of this apartment building lives Barbara Rhoades, a retired art teacher whom I met out by the community gardens one day not long after I'd moved in.  I had already noticed the license plate on her car, Artcart, a first clue.  It was only after a few conversations with her, however, that she mentioned that she was arranging an exhibit of paintings by her great-aunt, Katharine Nash Rhoades,  whose work had been "lost" for a while. and now, found, was on its way to the Art West exhibit hall at Elon University for a long-overdue renaissance.

It's an interesting story, best told by simply showing you the photos I took, for Barbara had done a wonderful job of displaying not only her great-aunt's art, but her letters, journals, and some discovered history, personal and artist. [I apologize for the poor quality of these photos...lighting in the university gallery was not really professional quality, and for some reason the angle of my lens crooked itself.  But I think it is still worth showing them here, because where else would you see them now?]

There were also a significant number of photographs taken of her throughout her life, particularly in the era in which she was a correspondent and model to Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, two of the U.S.'s most influential photographers of the early twentieth century, who put her portraits on display at exhibits, art journals and books.  In fact, Barbara has related, a photo whose model was attributed to another woman by the archivists at the Yale University collection is instead one of Katharine.

Katharine, I was particularly interested to learn, was also one of Duncan Phillips' "three graces", helping him make connections to some of the best artists of those years, which became what is now the Phillips Collection,  off Dupont Circle, one of my favorite museums to visit.

There is work of Katharine's in the Phillips Collection, too, and on the wall of houses in New York, as she also worked as a muralist.

How is it, more than just I ask, that women's art doesn't make it to the historical public eye, even when they are clearly part of, supportive of (maybe that's the problem?), and working in their own right next to the men whose names and work fill the pages of art books and museums the world over?  Tonight, as if to make my point, Antiques Roadshow featured the art of a woman whose daughter brought her work to light by bringing two paintings and asking about them.  They were clearly excellent examples of two major styles of the '30's.  Any museum ought to be proud to own them, any art class intent on studying them.

Although she was part of the famed Armory Show in 1913, Katharine's work almost disappeared from not only public view, but even private, piled-in-the-closet view.  I will let Barbara's history explain here, and then let you readers weigh in on the issues which that part of the story brings up.

Meanwhile, because I was out of the country for most of the time that the exhibit ran at Art West, I managed to get to see it only in its last week, days before Barbara, who will be moving to Arizona in a few weeks, took it down to ship to herself and family members.  I wish I had had enough time to bring others with me, another way, if only small, to further her.  Fortunately, however, several museum and documenters of the work of that era came to take notes and correct errors.  Barbara's determination to fill in an important history made the difference between anonymity and recognition for Katharine Rhoades.

Here's to you, Katharine Rhoades, and to all those "lost" artists whose sensibilities we are unfortunately missing from art history.