One day last week we stood in London’s Bunhill Fields burial ground before the grave of Daniel Defoe. Of course his Journal of the Plague Year was the book that came to mind. Based on eyewitness reports in his uncle’s journal, it is a fictional account of the infamous 1665 plague that decimated the population of London. Now in 2020 London news of the coronavirus plague grew grimmer by the hour.
When I was very small my Uncle Lievin saved me from a bear. I was in bed at my grandmother’s house in Belgium when he came running up the stairs chased by a bear. Don’t worry, he assured me, I’ll get it. He grabbed a rifle from behind the door and stood on guard in the doorway poking at the bear as it tried to get past him to eat me up. At last, with many dramatic grunts and shouts, he drove it down the stairs and out the door. Now you’re safe, he assured me with a hug, the bear is gone. My uncle was my protector and my hero. How brave he was!
My memory of this episode is vivid. I can still almost see my uncle and the bear in mortal combat, hear his exited voice giving a running commentary on the battle. Of course at some point I realized it couldn’t really have happened. There was no bear, the growling Continue reading “On Memory and Churchill’s Funeral”→
In December 2002 I went to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was a change from our annual tradition of going to the Folger Shakespeare Library for the Folger Consort’s Christmas concert, always wonderful Medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque music. My husband and I had been going every year since we began dating in 1982, and we have gone every year since. What was different in 2002 was that I knew I could not endure the pain of the memory of the year before, the year my son Patrick announced that he wanted to join in the family tradition.
Spring is here at last and my thoughts turn to the garden. Weeds are already beginning their annual takeover before I’ve even finished cleaning up the dead remains of summer past. A good time to reprise my garden dream first published in The Dabbler in 2013. One bit of good news – no mad robin disturbs the spring idyll this year.
As I write the demented robin who inhabits the dogwood tree in our garden is repeatedly flinging himself against the window in a kind of avian kamikaze assault. The thump, thump, thump of bird meeting glass is a strange counterpoint to the sweet tweeting and trilling of the other garden birds. I don’t know why the robin does this every day for hours, Continue reading “The Dream of an English Garden”→
The excited cries and yells of the teenagers echoed down the narrow, winding stone staircase and into our tiny hotel room where we were trying, unsuccessfully, to unpack without bumping into one another. We had just arrived at the Porta Rossa Hotel in Florence, a 13th century building that looked as though it hadn’t been renovated in all the centuries since. It was a kind of Italian Fawlty Towers, only with a real tower. We hurried up the stairs to find the source of the excitement. A rat in their room wouldn’t have been out of place in this medieval pile. Continue reading “A Room With a View”→
Last Saturday I watched the funeral service for Senator John McCain at the National Cathedral. I really tuned in because I wanted to hear President Obama’s eulogy, but I was soon drawn in by the beauty and dignity of the ceremony. The music was magnificent, particularly John Rutter’s setting of The Lord is my Shepherd and Renee Fleming’s Oh Danny Boy. Several speakers mentioned McCain’s love of literature, but I could not have been more surprised by his choice of a reading from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The chosen passage was from As Kingfishers Catch Firebeginning with the line “the just man justices.” One rarely hears mention of Hopkins in public life in America and Continue reading “My Love Affair with Gerard Manley Hopkins”→
“Now I can tell you what happened,” whispered my husband Mel when the children had finished eating and gone to play in the other room. He did have a strange expression on his face when he came back from the Fish N’ Chip shop with our dinner, a cat that ate the canary kind of smirk, but he said nothing until the children were out of earshot. It was his first visit to England and we were staying with my mother in the house where I grew up on Marks Gate Estate in Chadwell Heath. We were all tired after a long day of sight-seeing in London and nobody felt like cooking. So Mel offered to go round the corner to the Fish N’ Chip shop on Rose Lane and pick up dinner. He felt proud that he could go it alone, having spent a couple of weeks getting used to deciphering the London accent. He had also learned about ordering fish and chips, that you have to specify the kind of fish and that one of the choices is plaice, a fish unknown in America. But it turned out that the timing of his expedition would give him quite a different immersion in English culture. Continue reading “Fish N’ Chips N’ a Stripper”→
“Let me get this straight,” said my husband as he dropped me off at our local Metro station. “You’re going to New York to meet a guy you met on the internet?” We laughed. What he said was literally true, but it wasn’t quite as foolish as it sounded. I did meet Brian on the internet but it was on ancestry.com, not Tinder or some such shady meeting place. Though I suppose statistically a long lost second cousin is just as likely to be a serial killer as any random stranger. But Ancestry declared us a DNA match and we have nuns in common on our family trees. Surely a sign of divine favor. So I waved goodbye to Continue reading “The Cousins Lunch”→
The line on the job application, paper in those days, asked “What are your hobbies?” I hesitated. The one piece of advice about job hunting I remembered from library school was “Never say your favorite hobby is reading.” Curious advice to give aspiring librarians, perhaps, but the idea was to avoid the impression you thought librarianship was just sitting around reading. You must project serious professionalism, information services not novel reading, people skills not shrinking violets hiding behind the covers of a book. But reading was in fact my hobby. Pretty much my only hobby. So I had to give Continue reading “Brass Rubbing”→
For the benefit of new readers who did not follow me in my Dabbler days, this is the first in a series of favorite posts from the Dabbler Archives. This piece first appeared in The Dabbler on August 31st 2011.
I could not have chosen a more eventful time for my first visit to America than the summer of 1969. Americans were still reeling from the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the disastrous Democratic Convention the year before. Richard Nixon was President and the word “quagmire” was being used about the Vietnam War. There was an edge of danger in the air. I felt as though I had departed a world of smudgy grays and entered a vivid Technicolor movie. Los Angeles was all bright, searing light and straight lines dissolving into a yellowish smog. Everywhere enormous, garish plastic creatures loomed, the icons of consumer culture, making the city seem one vast Disneyland. Baking heat Continue reading “Church and State, Skirt and Flag”→