When we embarked on this adventure, we declared the motto Pay attention! Thus we set out to “re-discover discovery,” to be once again like wide-eyed kids, unabashed about being amazed, and so we have plunged into new experiences, some challenging, some reassuring, some thrilling, some subtle. We have mixed with the people in raucous street fairs and in small town Saturday markets days. We have strolled through bucolic villages which could be the set for Miss Marple, and we have jostled our way through London listening to first one and then another unidentifiable language being spoken around us. We have looked at all the buildings, great and small, simple churches, great cathedrals, row houses, barns, and palaces. We have pondered art at the Tate and the National Gallery and the Ashmolean and watched it being made at the John Henry Newman Primary School. We have mixed with horde of fellow tourists in front of Buckingham Palace, and we have ventured far from the madding crowd on the Thames paths. And we have enjoyed sharing some of our impressions along the way.
The last few days we have been talking all that we have seen. We decided to make some lists of experiences we’d categorize together (buildings we liked, for example, or art which caught our attention or performances). Then we made a list of the moments when we felt the slightest twinge of an “Aha!” and the moments we felt something strong (a sense of excitement or assurance or clarity, for example).
The following pieces share some of those moments.
Stairway To Hell
I wander through elegant rooms in Burghley House aimlessly gazing at typical murals of Roman gods and goddesses in boisterous orgies on Mount Olympus. Nothing unexpected catches my eye, as the same themes of artwork seem to recur in each room. But entering the final stairwell, glad this is the end of my tour, I look up at the ceiling and see a forbidding mural of hell. A smoke cloud resembling a demon opens its mouth full of flaming sharp teeth attempting to swallow its next victim. Unfortunate souls wail as they burn in the flames inside of the ghoulish beast. Smoke flows from the face gradually engulfing the scene and its inhabitants. My feeling of hope disappears as I become mesmerized by the inferno that comes to life before my eyes. People flee from death in total chaos, yet there is no escape. Others sit along the smoke and calmly accept their demise. Wearing a black hooded robe, the Grim Reaper drags a squirming victim as a serpent slithers down the prisoner’s arm. The reaper grips a sickle and holds a human mask used to deceive his prey. Human-like demons with long tails and sleek wings poke at hell’s new residents. Bright flames keep the uncommon scene from being overcome by darkness. A kingly man in a chariot is being pulled by brown stallions while holding a woman in his clutches. Does he plan to take her as his queen? Angels smother the demon mouth with blankets, but it’s too late, the gates of hell are open. The painting is unlike anything I have ever seen. The devilish theme seems unnatural in such an admired house. Why is this mural placed among these other peaceful works? When visitors walk into the house and see a grim mural illustrating hell, they are shocked and frightened by the devilish figures. Then once they step into the next room, which portrays heaven, a blissful relief overcomes them.
View from Castle Mound
Car horns blare and brakes squeal as a baby-blue BMW with tinted windows and black rims darts around a bus and through an intersection before disappearing around the next turn. My head jolts to the right as a blue train comes to a screeching halt in front of the station, and on the other side of the tracks another train shoots away. A constant stream of hurry- and-go travelers flood the doors of the grey building. A yellow barge with a black roof floats down the slow green waters of the Thames in the distance, home to some nomadic river dweller. Beyond the bustle of the city and the laze of the river, cracked asphalt creates a maze through the suburbs. Rows of houses line this labyrinth, their blues, reds, greens and yellows beginning to chip. Men and women, tired from the days work, amble down the sidewalks toward their homes. Away from the hopping tourist town of Oxford and the worn-out streets of the suburbs lies an expanse of green-and-tan fields. They are too far off for me to recognize the crops, separated only by skinny dirt trails that go as far as I can see.
I close my eyes. The strain of squinting to see out beyond my perch on the Mound has left my eyes aching. When I open them again, I look out at all the rivers and buildings and fields of Oxfordshire. Heaviness floods my chest and my mind fills with the desire to witness and explore all the great unknowns beyond me: to drive out of Oxford in the blue Beamer and north toward Scotland on the winding country roads; to float down the Thames in that yellow house barge, south into the Atlantic; to wander the communities of little blue, red, green and yellow houses all over the world, discovering new people and new ideas that grow from so many walks of life; to lace up my shoes and roam the unmarked trails that border the swaying fields of green and tan, taking in the beauty that can only come from the dirt below our feet. I want to experience all of these things and so many more before I return to my roost on the mound.
I pumped the pedals to bring the cheap city bike to a thrilling speed on the last leg of our ride back to Oxford. I was exhilarated, reminding me of how I felt when riding a bike as a child. The wind on my face recalled standing atop White Horse Hill, which has an enormous chalk stallion carved into it and which offers a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside. That day I ran most of the way up the sheep-covered hillside and back down, crossing back and forth over the thick white scars that made up the monument. The stout breeze blew against me just as it did when I rode against it on the bike ride. On top of the hill, I could see the rolling English landscape extend out, with only a few barns and farmhouses dotting the wood-ringed fields. The legendary Dragon Hill, where St. George allegedly slew his dragon, stood under the Neolithic steed in the face of the wind.
Both the bike ride and the hillside excited me as they contradicted my expectations. Each time I was thought that the trips would be tiresome, but I found them to be stimulating and entertaining.
A similar contradiction came in the National Gallery in London, when I was viewing a famous work of Monet’s and felt the same emotions. The painting captured the image of regal figures standing on a garden porch, looking towards the sea. I was delighted to finally see a piece from an artist that I’ve heard of but never seen. I thought it odd how viewing a painting delivered the same rush as a speeding bike or running down a steep hillside. Those strange moments made life interesting and made my trip enjoyable.
I’ve seen my fair share of churches since my arrival in Oxford. I’ve seen Westminster Abbey, New College Chapel, and the St. Mary’s in Iffley. I’ve stared at, admired, and written about too many stained glass windows. While I sat in the Whispering Gallery in St. Paul’s listening to the choir and looking at the mural in the huge dome, I began to wonder why people built these beautiful cathedrals. I assume that God doesn’t care whether you’re worshiping him in tiny St. Margaret’s, a revival tent, or the enormous St. Paul’s Cathedral. I realized we build these massive churches for ourselves because they make us feel like better Christians because we’ve built all of this in the name of the Lord. We think we’re better Christians because we are kneeling down to pray on the incredible mosaic at Keeble College instead of the dusty stone floor at St. Margaret’s. For the real connection with God, we have to get away from the crowds and go out to the simple St. Margaret’s. Once we are there, all alone and away from the distractions, we can truly connect.
My two favorite places we visited are St. Margaret’s Church and the Great Coxwell Tithe Barn. Both sit far outside the craziness of cities. I don’t care about lavish decorations and intricate architecture; I prefer simple structures. When we visited Westminster, I rushed through the building instead of sitting down and looking at every detail as I did at St. Margaret’s and Great Coxwell.
St. Margaret’s has a beautiful graveyard with some graves that are so old I can’t even read them. Moss covers the graves and climbs to the top of the triangular roof. The church is 20 feet tall with three windows facing the graveyard that barely admit light. The flagstone has been darkened by weather. Dust and bird droppings pollute the inside. Thousands of people have sat in the wooden pews rubbing them thin. Two miniature statues stand guard next to the altar; one is Mary holding a baby Jesus whose head is broken off, and the other is of Jesus holding a staff in one hand and a lamb in the other. At St. Margaret’s there aren’t thousands of tourists shuffling around like the ones at Westminster holding their audio guides to their ears. The only sounds are birds chirping and the ruffling of the leaves on the nearby trees.
The Great Coxwell Barn sits in similar solitude on two acres of grass. Moss attacks the 700-year-old shingles on the equilateral roof, which has darkened from centuries of weather. The fifteen-foot doorway dominates anyone who walks through it. The front of the building has two huge columns and two small ones. The stone is covered with square holes about six by six inches that used to house wooden shelf beams that have been removed. Light beamed through the holes. Looking up at the ceiling I saw wooden arches by the dozens supporting the roof. The dirt floor is littered with leaves, sticks, and a few beer bottles. I hear the wind yank a gate open and slam it shut. Birds are singing and the trees around the barn are dancing. I knew I didn’t need anything else to fulfill my sight- seeing desires.
For all the gold and ornamented flair of arches and stained glass, I enjoyed these modest buildings more. I discovered that I would rather get out of the city and escape to a rural attraction as opposed to one in the city. I am not saying that I didn’t enjoy our trips to St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, but going out and finding these undisturbed places, making them ours, and not having to share them with the mindless hordes, made them much more special.
I stared at this thing. I honestly didn’t know what to call it. Five minutes ago I was dreading anything but going back to school. My arms and legs were spent. I was done looking at old buildings. Yet I got out of the van with the rest of the group and walked towards a barn.
The structure soared fifteen feet straight up, constructed with uncut stones. On the side entrances the stone continued another twenty-five feet up, making the top part of an A-frame. The moss-covered slate had protected the interior of the building for over seven-hundred years. The barn’s dual entrances had massive wooden doors constructed with blackened nails and hinges.
Then I realized how great this barn was. This place was simple and quiet, and that’s what interested me. A steady breeze passed through one entrance to the other, giving me goose bumps. The holes in the wall allowed fresh air to flow in an otherwise dark and musty space, while sunbeams passed through to light up the grimy dirt floor.
Once I was alone in the barn, I sat down on a cold stone slab spared from the splatter of white bird droppings. The air was scented by the smell of rapeseed and sweet grass. Wind passed through the holes of the barn causing this steady sound of a broken whistle. Was that what this barn has become? A building that has seen its better days?
Yet I felt energized in that moment. I wasn’t looking at stained glass and golden crosses anymore. I’d seen far too many churches and ostentatious buildings by now for that to spark my sincere interest. This was different than a church or a palace. No rich decorations, no singing, no commotion. Just a sense of tranquility.
Lessons on How to Live
What so thou hast of nature, of arts,
Youth, beauty, strength, or what excellent parts
Of mind and body, letters, arms, and worth,
His eighteen years, beyond his years brought forth
Then stand and read thyself within this glass
How soon these perish and thy self may pass.
Everyone likes to believe that his actions amount to something meaningful. Throughout the dull day-to-day of our modern, privileged existences, whether working a nine-to-five or pursuing idle studies, we reassure ourselves that we are living life to the fullest, when really we ride along in the rut, eyes closed, knowing that the drop will come, but pedaling all the same without looking.
Of course I wasn’t thinking these dismal thoughts when I ducked into an un-crowded cove in Westminster Abbey to escape the steady stream of tourists passing through. With a moment to breathe, I paused in front of a young face. The boy’s blank eyes were lifted steadfastly, just above the horizon, as if gazing upon some grand mysterious mountain or the first green glimmering bud of land emerging from the deep blue. He could be Apollo. The centurion’s helmet didn’t seem a burden atop the thick mat of curly locks, but rather a natural appendage, just as the light Roman armor seemed a second skin, with short, tasseled sleeves and skirted bottom. He was poised to leap from the stone where he sat, right hand gripping his short sword, eyes fixed.
This, I realized, was the point where we see the vitality of youth, of great action, but acknowledge the irony that it is captured in cold stone. We also understand the fatality of the motion; the move that presages the boy’s “glorious” end that simultaneously extinguished his life’s flame and landed him here. This statue recalls another monument I have seen, only a few blocks away in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Both effigies exhibit the anonymous expression of departed youth. The same face, same form, lies limp in the paternal arms of Poseidon. The sea god’s hand rests on the hero’s bare chest, over his heart. This fallen individual, a sea captain, reminds us visitors that it is activity, not passivity that makes the man.
A few seconds more broke my trance. The visual echo, loud and defined just a moment before, faded into the din of scuffling feet and murmuring sightseers. I moved on, met the rest of my group, and exited the Abbey.
I forgot about the dead for a while and went about my own activities. Yet it took only an hour before sharp, sudden pangs of recognition shot through my body. From across one of the rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, I saw the now familiar face smiling quietly at me from a canvas. Only this time it had a name, and one I knew: George Mallory, teacher, warrior, friend of the Bloomsbury group, and most famously the first man to attempt Everest. He sits on the ground, elbows resting on raised knees, as if he just finished a run. His shirtless torso slouches forward. But it is his face, unblemished, serene, and confident, with fierce blue eyes that gaze with an intensity capable of piercing 1,000 miles of haze and snowy cloud to fixate on Everest, the antagonist that would claim his life just twelve years later. This man, renowned by his friends for his energy, high spirit, and unremitting passion for life, brought back the memory of all the nameless visages I’d noticed before. He knew how to live. Only then did I realize it was the lives, not deaths, of these men of action that are memorialized to remind us of how best to live; not with eyes down or closed, preoccupied with petty things and weak pursuits, but actively, and aware. So as we grasp the significance of these active lives lost, we do well to make our time count, not focusing on the screens and innumerable digital distractions, but on the substantial things: our communities, relationships, art, nature, health, and higher pursuits. It’s time, I decided, to get busy living for the memorable things and to remember the last lines etched onto that obscure boy’s shrine:
Man’s life is measured by the work, not days,
No aged sloth, but active youth have praise.
Keepers of the Fabric
When I sat down to make my own list of epiphanies, I began thinking, instead, of all the times when I have felt ignorant or sort of stupid in the last three weeks--anti-epiphanies, you might say. And once I opened that tap, the moments came foaming out like ale into a pint glass. Was Henry II was an Angevin or a Plantagenet? And why do they make that distinction between cousins in the first place? What exactly is the difference between an arcade and an ambulatory? Is reredos plural or singular? Why have I been so sure (for thirty years) that Christopher Wren designed St. Martin in the Fields (when he most certainly did not)? When does the Baroque become Rococo? And speaking of Baroque, could I really tell the difference between a Baroque concerto and a Classical one if I weren’t told what I was listening to? (The answer is, I assume, plain enough.)
Sometimes such a moment is a fun invitation to find out something, but the experience isn’t very pleasant when it’s something you ought to know already—and worse by far when it’s something you once knew and forgot or confused. This is always humbling, and that’s a good thing, like it or not. Sometimes you can have a good laugh.
We were graciously hosted at Westminster Abbey by Ptolemy Dean, the architect who holds the title of Queen’s Keeper of the Fabric, the guy whose job it is in this generation to take care of the great church (a post held once by Wren himself and later by George Gilbert Scott). When I first heard the title, I wondered why an architect would be in charge of fabrics and what that post had to do with the Abbey. Vestments and altar cloths, I guessed, maybe tapestries. Or likely it was some antiquated British title like Knight of the Garter.
Of course it is the fabric of the Abbey itself of which he is the keeper, and it’s a very real, very intense task involving elaborate blue prints, engineers, and construction crews. The only fabrics are the plastic ones keeping stone dust off the monuments. Had I ever taken time to look up the word fabric, I’d have known that its very first definition is edifice or building (and that the OED doesn’t even mention cloth until the fourth definition). Not only is Mr. Dean’s title not ceremonial. It isn’t even figurative.
But after I got over my amusement, I began thinking about this familiar word, which was suddenly so fresh and new. And I got to thinking about the fabric of this trip, which has in every way been a structure built of dissimilar parts--a building of experiences. And I hope it’s one which will last a long time, like the walls of Brasenose College, simple, sturdy, beautiful, and, most of all, useful, a memory edifice we can visit and sit in and be reminded anew to cultivate curiosity and seek adventure and never stop learning.
But good edifices are not all smooth timbers and well-cut stone. Climbing the narrow, spiral staircases in the walls of Westminster Abbey, we saw the pipe and wire and mortar you don’t see when you are walking among the polished tombs. We stood on the rough, dusty stone behind the most delicate, ornate ceiling in all of England above the Henry VII Chapel. Likewise, a memory edifice which holds up over time can’t be constructed all of thrills and discoveries and delights. There must also be those not-very-fun moments (like the ones I mentioned) which knock you off balance and wake you up and make you scramble, the ones which humble you and make you know yourself better.
You draw the middle of a bench seat on a long van ride; you are made to look at something which bores you to annoyance; you are stuck in close-quarters with a group when you are tired and irritable; you are served something you don’t want to eat; you feel that petty anger that comes when you realize you are just one more gawking tourist in a huge mob of gawking tourists.
The exciting moments connect you to the wide world, to art and history and beauty, but the annoying, uncomfortable moments connect you to the self you can rarely glimpse in at home in your own comfortable, predictable world. And if you are paying attention when this happens, you can truly begin to join humanity.
You can begin--then and there--to become the Keeper of the Fabric of your own life. It matters not whether that fabric is as ornate as the Abbey or as simple St. Mary's, Iffley. It matters only that it is beautiful and useful and sturdy and well kept.
This has been a week of subtle (and not-so-subtle) surprises. On Saturday we held our breath driving into Stratford (having been shut out last week by the heavy traffic) but we parked with ease, and when we went to Holy Trinity Church to Shakespeare’s tomb, we had the place delightfully to ourselves. We shoved on to Coventry to see the re-built Cathedral expecting only “modern” and “different,” but we discovered a starkly moving building and a church whose world-wide ministry is peace and forgiveness, something beautiful and benevolent from the ashes of war. (And we certainly didn't expect the statue of Lady Godiva!) At Burghley House we were not as amazed by the expected grandeur of the great house as we were by the dramatic murals of hell which startled us in the final staircase. Back in Oxford that evening, we went to a Baroque concert in the Sheldonian Theater, where we watched the setting sun illuminate that stunning space as if it were floating on the notes of the concertos. And on Sunday our bike ride along the Thames to Iffley became a cross-country trek past a wetland bird sanctuary to Radley and Abingdon.
And our trip to London yesterday was more of the same. We had been graciously invited for a tour of Westminster Abby by Ptolemy Dean, Queen’s Keeper of the Fabric (meaning the fabric of Westminster Abbey) and friend of the Holding family. We thought we’d be learning something about the history of the structure, but we did not expect to find ourselves climbing the dusty spiral staircases to peer through a hole in the ceiling of the Henry VII chapel or to clamber onto the roof to see 18th Century graffiti scratched into the back of the stained glass. We visited the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, where some saw famous works which left them cold, while others were thrilled by works they’d never heard of. And that evening we expected a good performance of A Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime, but we could never have guessed what the director managed to do with the story using computer technology.
Each of these pieces gets at such a moment of surprise.
The rooftop of Westminster Abbey offers some of the best views in London. We see Parliament and Big Ben and the London Eye, and we see that the exterior is as elaborate as the inside. The gargoyles, which can’t be seen from below, hang with their eyes swelling and mouths screaming in horror. We see the dogs climbing up the spine of the buttresses and the flower-like decorations on the roof edge. But the most interesting thing, I realize, is the people below. With headphones on and cellphones in hand, these people are oblivious to the beauty and history of the buildings around them. Whether they are rushing to work or just trying to get to a friend’s house, they never look up to appreciate these centuries-old structures around them. I’ve never realized how most of us move through life in such a trance. Sometimes we might as well be blind, because we don’t see a thing.
The Devil Went Down to the Sheldonian
As I sat in Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre, listening to violins, cellos, and basses I wished I understood Baroque music better. I knew I was observing magnificent artistry, but classical music does not flutter pleasantly through my ears. Attempting to enjoy the music more, I leaned up against the railing and listened as the lead violinist went off on a solo that bounced off my untrained ears. I watched the elegant strokes of her arm, as she ran her bow across the violin with her right hand and moved her left up and down the neck of the instrument, pressing the strings. The sight of this amazingly skilled woman, surrounded by men in white dinner jackets playing their instruments took my mind to a strange place.
I imagined this gorgeous Russian musician wearing her sparkling silver evening gown in a fiddle battle with the Devil and a Georgia boy named Johnny. Fighting off the cheesy country song, I strained some more to hear the complicated symphony. My thoughts became muddied with a mix of The Charlie Daniels fiddle riffs and this classical violin music. Again, I pushed Charlie out of my head and peered up at the ceiling painting of pale cherubim fighting off muscular red demons. Then the catchy country took over again. I began to mouth the ballad of Johnny and the devil while nodding my head to their speedy fiddles, Charlie’s music consuming my mind, as I watched the elegant musicians push and pull their bows. The music stopped, both in my head and in the theatre. I scolded myself for ignoring the amazing experience I was being given, and when the violinist took up her bow once again, I tried to listen. I fought off the devil, Johnny, and their fiddles as the angels fought off the demons on the ceiling above me. I listened to the Bach or Vivaldi or whoever it was. And, for a brief moment I was at peace, enjoying and taking in both the music and art. But it lasted only till the devil slithered his way back into my mind and started sawing on his fiddle.
A Very Interesting Chair
Entering a room at the National Gallery, I noticed people packed together looking at a painting on a wall. Not knowing what the excitement was about, I slowly slid between them to take a look. This wasn’t a fancy portrait of Queen Victoria or the Mona Lisa; it was a painting of a wooden chair. I didn’t understand why people were crowding around a picture of a piece of furniture, but getting closer I recognized the piece by Vincent Van Gogh from an art history book. Orange, brown and red tiles were scattered along the floor, while blue lines outlined the chair from the turquoise wall behind it. A corncob pipe and a bag of tobacco sit on the dark yellow seat. The chair was painted at an angle that confuses the viewer’s perception. The front left leg looks much larger than the others, giving it an unbalanced appearance. The leg braces are at forty-five degree angles and created a V-shape. I stepped back to look at the chair, and it adjusted itself. The leg braces straightened and the front leg seemed to become balanced with the chair. No longer could I discern the V shapes used to paint the chair. This discovery fascinated and intimidated me as I recognized Van Gogh’s ability to manipulate lines and color to confuse our eyes. All at once, I saw what all the excitement was about.
On my way to Café Neró on High Street in Oxford, I stepped out of the way of a homeless man in a seated walker. The short man’s feet barely touched the sidewalk. His brown, scuffed jacket matched his sun-leathered skin, and a dirty white undershirt crept out above ripped, wrinkled jeans. His baggy, tired eyes and thinning white hair revealed his age. The man was about six feet in front of me when two businesswomen emerged from a parked car, cutting me off. Oblivious to me, they continued their conversation and walked down the street in pressed tops, jackets, long skirts, and high heels. I stopped and waited impatiently for the pair to hurry on to their office. Instead of rushing past the man, one woman stopped and handed him a large cup of coffee. Surprised by her kindness, the homeless man, who seconds ago was keeping to himself and inching towards his destination, was caught speechless. After a moment, he squeezed out a weak thank you. “Really, its no big deal. Enjoy it!” she responded. The man’s mouth grew wide as he gave her a nice reward: a genuine smile.
The Joke’s on Us
From the roof at Westminster Abbey, Sam jokingly exclaimed, “Connell’s mom hooked us up fatty!” and we all laughed. We all looked over at Ptolemy Dean, the head architect at the Abbey, and the benefactor of our VIP visit on this warm summer afternoon. We were a group of eight Americans getting a tour that money can’t buy.
We had even appreciated all the dusty nooks and crannies, but when I found myself eye level with the London Eye, Parliament’s spires, and Big Ben’s gilded clock, I gripped the yellow stone to make sure this was all real. I couldn’t believe it. Each step I took on the weathered lead roof allowed me to see another skyscraper across the Thames. We snapped group pictures to post on Instigram. Then I kept looking down and glimpsed police officers in bright yellow vests holding firearms. I saw a fancy Mercedes parked in a gated lot. I saw people moving in every direction on the street or taking pictures. Then someone said, “Look at all those plebes.” Again, the group laughed.
Yet we had no right to laugh, I realized. It wasn’t funny. It also wasn’t true. We too were tourists: we asked dumb questions and took Facebook pictures. The only thing that separated the tourists snapping pictures on the street and us on the roof was sheer luck and fifty feet.
My attention was instantly drawn to a painting surrounded by a large number of people. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I figured it must be famous for so many people to stand around admiring it and taking pictures. I bumped and nudged my way through the crowd until I had a decent view of Monet’s famous painting “Water-Lilies after 1916”. The woman next to me kept saying “Wow! Monet was such a master of depicting light,: so I stepped closer to see what he was doing with light. All I saw was a blue background that could maybe pass as water, green smudges that looked like someone had wiped hishand across the painting while it was wet, white spots that looked like golf balls, and red spots that resembled balled-up bandannas. Only after I had read the title of the painting did I notice that the smudges were actually water lilies. Thank god for the title.
If there is an irony to the last few days, it might be that we have been looking into the ancient past and the living present at the same time.
We spent most of Wednesday driving through the Cotswolds, where we saw many a quaint stone village and several bustling market towns, including Cirencester, which has one of the grandest churches in the entire country, but we were most surprised and moved by the Roman ruins and artifacts. It’s easy to forget that England was part of Rome for four-hundred mostly peaceful years and that the Romans laid out many of the roads were driving and founded the some of towns we were strolling around. We all agreed that we could have been quite comfortable in a posh Roman villa in 300 AD, but what we will most remember, I think, are the haunting faces peering out of the elaborate mosaics. We will also not forget the kind people who were taking care of these cultural treasures: the docent at Chedworth Villa who made sure we tasted the water from the Roman spring, the lady who didn’t want us to leave Cirencester without seeing the Boleyn Cup, the old man who offered to take us into the church tower.
And yesterday we boarded the #16 Bus and for Littleton, one of Oxford’s most depressed suburbs. We watched the daily commuters board and speak to each other as we left the dreaming spires behind and drove through what I could only call “the real world” of tired row houses, dingy shops, and run-down schools. We spent the morning at John Henry Newman Academy, an elementary school sponsored by the Church of England for at-risk kids. We helped the students make art, played with them at recess, listened to them read, but the most important and moving thing we did all day was have conversations with individual students who told us about their lives and asked us about ours: My gran has a Rolls Royce with a big red race stripe down the side….Is Los Angeles a real place?...I can do a cartwheel...What's a quarter?
The following pieces are portraits of people we met this week.
Maybe you’ve met someone like the painter called in to teach for a day at John Henry Newman Academy. The easygoing type. A spray paint artist, this man with his full beard, long hair, and large, square glasses that added a touch of goofiness to his look gave the initial impression of an artsy snob. But it took only a few minutes of watching him interact with the year six (twelve-year-old) children to figure out that Easy (as he named himself) was hardly the pretentious character his appearance suggested. He encouraged the kids by telling them to provide silly ideas and accepted all of them, even the idea that a fart cloud belonged on their class poster board.
Easy’s clothes matched his personality: loose, with a strange, colorful pattern on his shorts and all but one button fastened on his dashiki-style shirt that reflected his un-containable spirit. He also wore old, orange Sperry’s, which showed me that he didn’t need high-end material items to be happy. His free-flowing nature was like that of an amateur surfer, who loves to ride waves to unwind. Easy had a warm aura about him, which was complimented by his outgoing and upbeat attitude. He was excited to give the children lessons on art, which reminded me of a teacher I had in the third grade, a person who did everything for her students and made things simple for us. Easy implemented similar techniques with the sixth graders. While none of the children seemed too difficult to handle, he presented an inherent understanding of how children functioned. His speech seemed so wordy I didn’t think that a single child would comprehend his lecture, but I was surprised to see that everyone got his message of how each of their pieces was great. Easy had a way of brightening up everyone. there.
A Comfortable Woman
We were on the morning bus traveling to John Henry Newman Academy to do community service. The heavyset driver pulled up to the stop, shut off the engine, opened the door, and got out of his seat to put down the ramp. I peered out the window to find a middle-aged woman in a wheel chair holding out her ticket. As he waved her on, she smiled, squared up to the entrance and with all of her strength, wheeled onto the bus.
She had a turquoise tank top, which revealed her sculpted arms, and purple Beats headphones around her neck. Her black wheel chair was a sporty design, allowing her to move fast with its slanted wheels. Her skill maneuvering the chair showed that she had been in it a while. She rolled to the handicapped spot and locked her wheels into place, apologizing to the women around her for slowing down the bus and explained to them that she usually gets on at a more accessible stop.
Her bright eyes and sweet smile never left her face. The women talked and laughed for five minutes and it looked as if they were regulars on this bus. We arrived at the elderly ladies’ stop, and they smiled at her and said goodbye. She smiled back, put on her headphones, and gazed out of the window with the smile still on her face. When the bus stopped, she asked the driver how far away a stop was and he told her we had passed it. “Oh I had no idea,” the lady said in a kind voice. She asked the driver for directions while he was pulling the ramp out for her. When he told her he was sorry, she just smiled and thanked him. She put her headphones back on and began to wheel her way back up the street the way he came.
While riding a bus to an underprivileged school in Oxford Thursday morning, I started to imagine what it was going to be like. I imagined an old, worn-down building covered with graffiti. I pictured the kids as devious rascals who were falling behind in school. Yet when we got to the school I was pleasantly surprised.
After I’d spent twenty minutes in a classroom of seven-year-olds, a little girl came up and asked if she could read with me. Her name was Katelyn. She had big brown eyes that matched her soft voice, and she wore neon-laced trainers that were as bright as her mind. I obviously said yes.
Katelyn quickly picked a book from the large box and made her way to the reading chairs. Instinctively she sat down in the kid’s chair, but I insisted on her sitting in the big one. She opened up a short book and began reading each word precisely. She only mispronounced words that didn’t sound like they were spelt. By page two, I was impressed. She was looking at the words, sounding them out, and saying them carefully.
But soon, the whole situation started to feel weird. A girl a decade younger than I was reading to me. I sat in a children’s plastic chair, and she sat in the big one. Katelyn was tilting the book at just the right angle so I could see all the illustrations. For a few minutes, I was the child and she was the adult.
I don’t know his name because we never introduced ourselves. He looked more like a punk rocker than a teacher in his black Nike skater shoes, bleached Capri jeans, and an unbuttoned black polo. Beneath the deep V of his shirt I could make out only the corner of an elaborate spider web tattoo that I envisioned covering his whole chest. Along with the web he had the letters “CYZA” inked in elegant calligraphy on his right forearm. His brown hair was slicked back tight to his head, and his brown eyes stared forward with intensity that matched his clenched jaw. While the kids worked on their graffiti canvases, he focused intensely on his own piece, which was an impressive replica of his arm tat. I began to wonder, what CYZA could stand for. Maybe this guy really was a rocker and it was the name of his band. Or maybe it meant nothing at all, and he just liked the way it looked. When a student admired his work and asked, “Have you done this before?” Without looking up he answered with a cold, “Perhaps.” He spent a majority of his time with the solitary kids on the outskirts of the main group, the kids who seemed out of place or didn’t fit in with their classmates. Sitting and watching them silently, he offered the occasional compliment or suggestion. Later in the day he approached me, and without formal introduction he started, “I think its great you guys took time out of your vacation to come help here today, the kids are really enjoying it.” Taken aback by the surprise admiration all I could respond with was, “Yea, of course.”
Not So Normal after All
I knew I was going to like this kid from the moment I met him. He was the only kid from south Asia in his class, but he wore Levis and Nikes just like his English classmates. He was a seven-year-old just like everyone else in the class, and just like every other seven-year-old, he loved TV and cartoons. He wore a red Ben 10 shirt, which is his (and millions of other kids’) favorite TV show. But unlike the rest of the class, he volunteered to read to me first. He picked out a thick children’s book, which I noticed was way tougher than what I was reading as a first grader. He was pronouncing three and four syllable words such as “wilderness” with ease. When he finished reading and went back to drawing, his teacher said, “You know, he only moved to England this year, and he didn’t know a word of English when he came.” I was stunned.
By Parker Jones
The classroom at John Henry Newman Academy seemed like total chaos. The students were screaming and laughing. A whiteboard crashed onto the ground. The young teacher, Mr. Cox, stood up and walked over. He said hello and then called over all, who answered with a very faint, “Yes Mr. Cox?” She had a small half smile below a set of big, blue eyes under her long brown hair. Mr. Cox told the girl to pick a reading book from the class bookshelf. As he handed her his lanyard, she snatched it from him and put it on her neck. Then the shy six-year- old turned around and with a confident posture walked quickly to the door. The red lanyard swung on her neck as she maneuvered around tables and chairs. Once at the door, she grabbed the black key and placed it on the magnetic lock. As it clicked, she burst through the door without looking back. She had done this before. Bending down to the lower shelf she grabbed a book without hesitation and raced back to the classroom. When I caught up to her, she was already in her chair with the book out. As soon as I sat down, she began to read. The words rolled out of her mouth with great precision. She clearly pronounced every vowel in every word, and she paused at every end mark. When she finished I told her she was a great reader. The she closed the book and took off the lanyard and transformed back into the shy and quiet girl I had met earlier as she looked to the floor and muttered, “Thank you.”
This trip always reminds me how so much activity can stretch time at the seams. On Saturday we traveled to Avebury where we walked among the Neolithic stones and lunched atop one of the great long-barrow tombs; then we moved on to Uffington, where we walked the rim of an ancient ring fort and stood atop the mysterious giant horse carved into the chalk hillside (only fully visible from the sky or from the distance); and we finished the day gazing at the Great Coxwell Barn, a stunning 700-year-old structure which was in full farm use through the 1950s (and which William Morris is said to have declared the most beautiful building in England). On Sunday we attended a beautiful Eucharist at St. Mary’s, and in the afternoon we hiked along the Thames to the village of Binsey, where we sat with our journals in the moss-covered churchyard which inspired part of Alice in Wonderland. Yesterday we stormed London, where we visited the Imperial War Museum, climbed to the top of St. Paul’s, contemplated art in the Tate Modern, and did a great deal of urban hiking and people watching.
A favorite hour, however, was spent right next door at The University Church of St. Mary, where we had a private tour from a poet on staff, who did an engaging writing exercise with us. The guys liked it, and they used the technique to generate the following pieces.
Musings on University Church
The fading grey stones and worn pews smell musty,
The evidence of its age and decay.
Bullet holes from the civil war mar the statues.
All of which make it memorable to me.
Muscular columns support a high, arching ceiling,
Which makes me feel small,
Yet part of something bigger.
Song of the Street
Boys boast about their luck last night.
Birds chop air with their wings awhile
Women chatter about men and work.
A bike’s wheels hum on the pavement.
High heels clap like a horse hooves.
Hip-hop thumps and passes in a speeding car.
A suitcase bounces up a cobblestone road.
Car breaks screech and grind.
A girl loudly praises her bacon wrap.
Asian voices babble up the sidewalk
French girls speak like an American whisper.
British men brag about who’s more drunk.
The rumble of a truck drowns the voices.
Looking Inside St. Mary’s Church
Mary holds baby Jesus behind the organ.
Carved briers decorate the ornate pulpit.
Memorials hang on the stone walls.
Stained glass windows stretch upward,
And the sacred people posing within them
Look down upon the congregation.
Above the altar, the ceiling shows the night sky.
Veiny columns rise from the floor filled with pews.
Plant roots twist along the walls and mesmerize
Those whose wondering eyes rise to them.
You are immersed in the past in this church.
I can’t help but feel connected to this antique place.
Pointed arches frame all areas of the building.
And define the structure of the holy space.
Latin mass was hidden from sight
During the time of medieval knights.
And in each era men have added their own designs,
Enriching this church’s history.
The dead sleep peacefully beneath the lawn.
Branches from an evergreen droop over the mossy stones.
This tree shelters the departed with its heavy limbs.
Clover and grass blanket the graves.
Which are undisturbed by the rumbling buses in the distance.
Font of Saint Margaret
Dim light through dirty windows reveals the baptismal font.
A circular base sits on an uneven stone floor.
Piped supports hold up a rough rock bowl.
Its humble elegance reflects the beauty of the church.
A wooden top covered in dust and bird droppings caps the dry basin.
Atop it all sits a lonely Bible.
How many years since a baby cried from a splash of water here?
Light of Happiness
The sun hid behind the mass of clouds,
Dimming the light.
We heard no sound,
As we welcomed the night.
The graves are becoming quite old,
And their names are starting to fade.
But I have not been quite sold,
That they’re not happy where they’ve been laid.
Fathers, mothers, brothers, forever gone,
Never to be looked at again.
But they lie under a welcoming lawn,
Now joined by their finally dead kin.
Wouldn’t it make these families cheerful,
To see this bright green tree?
It seems to glow so they will no longer be fearful.
Looks like a good place to me.
This resting spot isn’t so bad,
It is one that most wish they had.
This is a different kind of WFS trip blog than you may be expecting. In fact, this isn’t really a "travel blog" at all. The primary purpose of this one is for the students to share their experiences through their writing, so it’s really more of a web magazine. But we also hope that this approach will enable you to feel a more immediate and personal connection to the writers and their adventures.
We have been seeking out a variety of experiences, always with pens and journals in hand, and after four days we finally have enough material to begin sharing some bits.
Here’s what we have been doing this week:
After a “full English breakfast” in the Brasenose Hall, we have gathered in our classroom with the newspapers. We’ve been paying special attention to pieces which reveal a uniquely British perspective: the tongue-in-cheek style of the British editorial, the intense worry about the Greek debt crisis, the moving remembrances on the anniversary of the London train bombings, the exciting accounts of club cricket matches, and curious pieces about what’s going on back in South Carolina. And we have looked especially for pieces of good prose to discuss and model.
We have also been out and about, walking up and down and everywhere. We meandered through a crowded and rowdy street fair listening to Reggae bands, tasting spicy kebabs, and contemplating crazy body art. We spent a long time at New College, where we strolled around the original city wall, sat writing in the old cloister (which the boys recognized from the scene in Harry Potter), and studied the stunning chapel, which has some of the most precious medieval stained glass in England. Indeed we have been looking a lot at stained glass this week, as we have been thinking about churches as giant, complex works of art, and yesterday we spent the afternoon at Blenheim Palace, where thought of a great house and it’s gardens in the same way.
We have been concentrating on opening our eyes wide to what is before us (whatever it is) and then catching what we see in words, as you will see in these pieces. Enjoy.
Ambushed by Art
The first view out the window of my room at the top of Staircase 11 was disappointing to say the least. All I could see was the backside of a medieval wall. Then I looked a little closer and a comical cat snagged my eye. Someone had managed to pick the lock on the window and sketch him on the wall. Why would someone draw a picture of a funky kitty on the backside of a five-hundred-year-old-wall, four stories high? The black-and-white striped cat has six long whiskers, a wavy tail, and a balloon-like nose that mesmerize its prey. His furrowed eyebrows and steady eyes locked mine. I didn’t realize that he had been prowling the roof waiting to pounce on the next person to look out the window and make them acknowledge that he too is a piece of creativity. It doesn’t have to be a Gothic arch or an intricate stained glass window in order to be considered a work of art. A sketch on a roof is creative just like the great Lazarus sculpture at New College. It just takes the right prey to appreciate it.
The Burden of the Son
As I was walking around the cloister at New College a statue caught my eye. This one felt different from the rest. She was the only one holding a baby. All the others were of bishops performing blessings or kings. Her long and wavy hair covered a tired and tough face. She was dressed in a heavy robe that dragged on the ground. The plaque confirmed that this was a statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. But I wanted to know why her eyes were barely open, why her skin was sagging, and why she looked so tired. I wanted to know if it came from wearing that crown on her head all day or if it was from taking care of the baby. Maybe she was tired from the pressures and responsibilities of being the Queen of Heaven, or she could be tired just from carrying the baby around everywhere she goes. I then realized that in life there are two types of weight. here: the physical weight of the baby and the psychological burden of raising God’s son.
At Home among the Spires
Massive Gothic spires rule the sky in this ancient center of learning. I stare in awe at the pale elegant exterior of Christ Church. For a teenage boy from a small town in rural Virginia it seems futile to try and comprehend the knowledge and sophistication hidden behind the pointed-arch windows, and I find myself longing for something familiar. Below the massive halls and towers a beautiful meadow expands over a square acre. This overgrown field is known as Christ Church Meadow, but for me this field is my return home.
I sit in the dirt under a large willow tree on the edge of the field. Brown uncut grass and green prickle bushes bend and return with each gentle breeze. The sweet smell of grass reminds me of home. Under a neighboring willow tan and white cows, not unlike those grazing here in 1318, meander lazily on a beaten section of earth, searching for a dandelion that has missed the others’ ever-hungry gaze. Under the willow the cows take shelter from the July sun, as their tails swing back and forth for protection from flies I become mesmerized and fall deeper into serenity.
Wandering through the cloister at New College in Oxford, none of the ancient art caught my eye like St. Hugh did. When I saw his statue hiding in the shadows, I knew there was something different about him, I could relate to him. Maybe it was his curly hair or his short stature like my own. But he was dressed in vestments, which draped from his bony arms to his feet. In his right hand he held a wooden crozier with a simple but eloquent swirl. I studied the man some more. From twenty yards away, I couldn’t make out the oddly shaped item in the his left hand. It was a shaft with a poofy bottom that reminded me of a household broom, but as I got closer the figure became more distinguishable. I began to see the feathers. I realized it was a big bird. I later discovered that Saint Hugh’s pet swan was notorious for attacking anyone who came near him. Luckily I didn’t get too close..
Beams of Hope
The morning sun hits the stained glass with beams of hope that illuminates the once dim chapel. Sunlight outlines the crucifixion scene within the shining glass. Gleaming rays highlight the vibrant red trickling down Jesus’ side. The blood drips onto the people reminding them that he is dying for their sins. The scene comes more to life with each beam, which seeps through the red and blue glass. Other biblical scenes are built around the Son of God with each character positioned in the direction of the cross. The fluorescent window portrays the life-like characters and fills my mind with magic. Bright, white light uplifts the images in my imagination. Christ’s head sags to the side, as the Virgin Mary’s watches her son’s moment into death.
A Burst of Awe
Vibrant colors dominate the moment as we analyze beautiful images in the stained glass window. Its upper section unleashed an explosion of colors that dazed us. Crimson surged throughout the circular epicenter, surrounding three glowing, golden letters, I-H-S (the holy name of Jesus). Oceanic blue flowed out from the red, circled it, and pulled me out towards the rest of the images, like a strong current. My attention shifted to the crucifixion scene below where Jesus reigns at the center of the entire window. Four people stand by his side: the two Marys, who are each flanked by a founder of the school. Below, five indistinct disciples act as His support. Just as this organization explicitly shows Jesus at the heart of the scene, the burst of colors above accentuates the same fact, only more subtly. As the light floods the painting, I, too, am flooded with awe.
Yet no sooner had I made this connection, the influence of the colors drew back in. Green olive branches intertwined as eight flower-like panels sprung from the red and blue circle. From the floral explosion, came glittering, diamond-shaped windows, harboring little angels that resembled winged infants. The angels were positioned at the right and left side of the golden letters as if ready to assist and carry out the work for Jesus in heaven. Next to these windows, a flower rested on top of a blue circle, acting as the center, once again, for a smaller creation. Two teardrop windows seemed to spill from the small flower design. Each drop contained a different image. In one teardrop grew a small, yet very real olive branch and the other held a yellow, cartoon-like fence. These figures and colors came together and impressed upon me the masterpiece that is the Brasenose Chapel Window.