Boring Travelogue #1

In which Sara injures several ribs and milks the injury for all it’s worth, Mark is valiant, we walk 38 miles, drink a lot of tea, and discover over and over again that English cuisine is much better than it used to be.

IMG_1690On Thursday, June 27, we took a train from London to St. Bee’s, the start of our 191-mile walk from coast to coast, that is, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. My first mistake, perhaps, was to allow myself a bit of smugness when I saw a couple on the train embarking on the same walk with medium-sized daypacks and gigantic suitcases, clearly having engaged one of the many baggage services that Mark and I have all along eschewed, opting instead for larger packs stuffed full with everything we need.

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Here we are with our packs at the very start of the journey.

However—however—I should have learned long ago not to be smug about anything. Our first night in St. Bee’s, after dropping off our packs at our B&B, putting on a layer of rain gear and tromping back into town for a delicious dinner, we walked up to St. Bee’s church, a wonderful historic place dating back to the tenth century, and in continuous use as a house of worship from then until now.

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We explored the church yard behind the church, where several headstones were decorated with the same distinctive, ancient cross I saw in a niche against the church building. In the back of the church year was a wall about chest high, over which my dear husband suggested we climb to get to the public footpath back to our B&B. There was a little ledge about the size of a banana half-way up the wall; he put one foot on the ledge, swung himself over and landed, gracefully as always, onto the other side. I followed, but my foot slipped off the mini-ledge. Had I been in better shape, I might have used that opportunity to do a handstand on the top of the stone wall. As it was, I came crashing down on it, landing squarely on the left side of my ribcage. (Ouch.) No more “hotel workouts” to supplement the walking, no more smugness about not paying someone to carry my bag, no more coughing or blowing my nose without a constant reminder of my own frailty.

Luckily, I wasn’t seriously hurt, and while sleeping has been a pain (literally), I am happiest when I’m hiking, and the hiking has been glorious, especially after the second day when I engaged the baggage service.

The first day we walked north along the coast about four miles, then inland toward Cleator, our first overnight on the walk. Along the way we stopped in a pub for tea and met a delightful father and daughter making the walk, and walked with them the next few miles.  After the dramatic climb up the coast from the beach at St. Bee’s, this first day was mostly flat, walking through fields and woods along stone fences and creeks, passing the occasional farmhouse. I don’t have a lot of photos from this day because, well, it was pouring rain.

Day Two was the shortest day of the whole 18-day walk; about five miles, including a dramatic up-and-down hill. We arrived in the village of Ennerdale Bridge in time to enjoy a late lunch at one local pub and then, a few hours later, an amazing dinner at another. (This is when we began to realize that English food is not what it used to be. In London, we ate mostly Indian, Caribbean, or Thai food, but here in the country, it’s all local, and good. Not a mushy pea in sight.)

IMG_1718By the time we get to Day Three, we’re coming to know the written voice of the author of our ever-handy Coast-to-Coast guidebook, whose maps strike fear and trembling in the heart of most walkers. The Zen koan for this day’s map: “The steep path is the right path.” We walked fourteen miles from Ennerdale Bridge into the heart of the Lake District, including an amazing climb up a “Beck,” or creek, onto a high windy (like 55 mph) ridge. During the climb I was grateful for every single lunge and every minute of cardio over the past few years!

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Day Four: Sunshine! And scenery that defies description, three-hundred and sixty degrees of it.  The word for the day is “crag.” As in “we just go over one more of these and then we descend down into the town.” There were a whole lot of these crags, but each one rewarded us with fabulous views and ever-increasing anticipation of the descent into Grasmere, the epicenter of the Lake District and the town of Wordsworth.

To be continued….

It’s not that I’m a poet, mind you

I recently joined Facebook’s “Networked Blogs.” It was one of those things that happened; I clicked someone else’s “follow this blog” button, and the next thing I knew, I was being prompted for three keywords to describe my blog. Uh-oh. I have resisted even a tag-line, for fear of being categorized, limited, button-holed, pigeon-holed, whatever. But I do want you, dear reader, to find me. So I plugged in practically the first three words that came to mind. Coffee. Poetry. God. (God? Really?? Stay tuned….)

It’s not that I actually write poetry, mind you. Well, except for long ago. And once in a rare while. And it’s not that I read tons of poetry or have that enviable gift of memorization, such that lines of verse roll off my tongue at the drop of a witty association.

It’s because twenty years ago when I thought I was a poet, I went to a writer’s conference in the midst of a bleak depression (is there any other kind) and Ed Hirsch took me out for breakfast on my birthday and made sure I had a copy of Wild Gratitude. Because in poetry making sense means something different. Because someone came up with wacky forms like villanelles and sestinas and I’m someone who thinks form is freeing. It’s because when I graduated from high school my aunt typed out Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow” on special paper and I carried it in my wallet for years. Decades. It’s because Philip Levine wrote “Snow.” It’s because I know amazing people who write poetry and are willing to read it in public, print it, let it make my heart sing.

What’s poetry to you?


The Shorter Norton

I recently rediscovered an old love. I’ve been doing some reminiscing and writing about my first few years of college, imagining I’ll publish a zine called “Memoirs from a Sodden Adolescence.” (Would anyone read it? Who knows!) The old love I rediscovered was my textbook from “Major British Writers, Part II,” which I took at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1978. (Yawn. Was anyone else in college that long ago??)

What your favorite college textbook? Your favorite poetry anthology?

Mine was, is, and ever more shall be the shorter, revised edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which academic types called simply “the shorter Norton,” a single volume only an inch thick, as opposed to the heftier two-volume Norton Anthology other introductory English classes required. We read mostly poetry, from Samuel Johnson to T.S. Eliot. I carried my book with me everywhere, scribbling wherever I was: in class, in the library, in coffee shops. It became dog-eared and soft around the edges. The cover art was a painting by J.M.W. Turner, “Rain, Steam and Speed.” I’d never heard of Turner but fell madly in love based on that one painting.

During the heat of summer, while working on a piece about the professor of that course, I frantically culled through the boxes in my attic looking for the book itself, and, after some moments of horror that I’d misguidedly sold it to Powell’s, found it. Powell’s would never have taken it, of course, full of my notes, doodles, and turned-down pages.

The book’s flyleaf holds scrawled assignments and quotes from my professor:

“Neo-classical, pre-Romantic, Romantic…better to be able to shift—a category is just one person’s device, not truth.”

“When doing comparisons, do not fall back on verse form; like grammar, it’s useless.”

“Write one page on the differences between Keats’ poems” or “Look at ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ as the poet attempting to deal with change”

“One page on God as nature in Tintern Abbey.”

I was just grateful to be able to distinguish between Keats and Yeats.

After unearthing the book from the attic, I started carrying it around with me, the way some people carry a bible. I’ve gotten into the habit of reading it for a few minutes on my way to doing whatever work is set before me that day. Part of my daily devotion. All of that poetry was so long ago, and I’ve never been gifted with the ability to memorize, that I am able to read many of the well-marked works as if for the first time. But even more exciting in an old love is discovering works that we never got to in that class I took a hundred years ago, and spending as much time as I want with a poem before moving on. Reading the same poem over mid-morning coffee for ten days in a row, a daily routine like putting on lotion. I don’t think much about who made the lotion or what makes it smell so good or what makes it do whatever it’s doing for my skin. I just like the way it smells and feels. Same thing with poetry, these days.

My friend Melissa has a wonderful post about “Getting Poetry.” You should read it. She asks great questions about our poetry habits; mine are as varied as my knitting habits. Some weeks I tear through knitting projects like they’re going out of style and I’ve got nothing but time. Other weeks add up to months and sometimes even years when I don’t touch needles or yarn. Sometimes I’ll stumble on a poet and take everything she’s written out of the library (most recently, Mary Karr, after reading Lit). A few years ago, on another foray into my attic, I found a box of poetry collections, mostly individual poets, that I’d stored away when I decided I really wasn’t ever going to be a poet myself. I rearranged all of my bookshelves to make room for the contents of that box, not because I’d changed my mind about becoming a poet, but because I just wanted the books around. Some of those poets were a lot younger then, and a lot less famous than they are now. It’s fun to see how they’ve grown up.