Over the weekend my kid decided to rent a canoe and paddle way out for a picnic on the Grantchester Meadows.
The journey took us past the old Darwin family home (now the nucleus of Darwin College) and the associated private island, past fields of drunken revelry, and to the weir.
At that point you have to disembark, haul the vessel up a steep bank, and cross a busy foot path before dropping the canoe back in the upper river – a messy wet business at best!
We spied fields of sheep, countless baby ducklings, and a whole flotilla of goslings before arriving at our destination. The whole enterprise was impossibly beautiful:
Last year the big event happened on a day I was stricken and horrified by career success (contrary, me?). The fact that I rolled up just in time to see eggs crack and babies tumble down to the river was easily the coolest event of all of 2007.
That, however, was early in May. I’ve been quite worried about why there were no cygnets hatching this year, and yesterday marched out to check on them once again. While I stood watching in amazement, guess what happened? They hatched!
On May 22, 2002 I was offered a choice: stay in Portland, in my awesome house, living in a beloved community surrounded by friends, or pursue a new and somehow old adventure.
That was to move to Seattle, the city I knew best from childhood hospitalizations and countless obscure music shows in my youth. I picked Seattle and within days had miraculously also purchased an implausibly beautiful house from a friend.
Then, two years later, another choice – stay in my fantastic home on Beacon Hill, near my biological family, in a city that represents my every youthful ambition and desire. Or leave, throw it all away, emigrate to Europe?
On May 22 2004 I was sitting on a bench outside the Fort St. George, a riverside pub in Cambridge England, bemused and horrified to encounter my newly adopted home city for the first time.
I stared at the river, wondering if I had made a huge mistake, and then noticed the narrowboats moored on the banks. This, I thought, will do.
That hunch proved accurate; the river is the best part of the city, and I am thrilled every day to hang out on my boat. May 22 has since retained a strange significance, with secrets and excursions small and large accruing to that date in the calendar.
Early in the day this year I had a misguided encounter with a baguette, piece of brie, and a butter knife, slicing three fingers open – ouch! It is quite likely I am the only person who could sustain such a serious wound with such poor equipment. So much to celebrate!
Want to know what life looks like here in jolly ye olde world?
The Botanic Gardens – older than my own homeland by a couple hundred years:
Plus, bonus feature for Mark Mitchell: the sensible shoes he mocked so thoroughly enjoying an earned rest!
The other night I was reminiscing about my misspent youth and commented about an ex-boyfriend He was so beautiful, it is just impossibly sad he went insane.
My dinner companion said Are you sad you didn’t stick around to help him with his brain problems?
I was shocked at the question, and replied Do you know what he liked to do when he was mad? He would punch whichever of my wounds he could reach. He would grab my damaged arm and smash it. He would…
But the audience, of course, was too squeamish to hear more. I’m probably too sensitive to know what happened, and I was there.
Of course I was never a passive victim – I was raised to defend myself, and I did, with vicious force. The years have been kind in dimming the memories.
When that beautiful boy appears in my dreams (and that is a rare event) his ghost is always mutilated, a ravaged burned bloody creature who poses no threat. Awake or asleep, all I feel for him is compassion mixed with regret. We were both messed up kids from chaotic families. The love we shared was not sufficient when the world fell apart.
His violence against me, and other women, and male friends, and strangers in the 7-11 parking lot, is not excusable. Though I can explain the sudden and frightening switch: head injuries often cause behavioral changes in otherwise rational people. The one I sustained in the car accident certainly did not improve my mood.
Beyond that he had no other resources growing up in a racist impoverished miserable town. His own family did not offer much in the way of support or role models; when I talk about knowing gangsters please take that to mean, literally, gang members with tears tattooed under their eyes. His cousins were not exactly keen to discuss the fears or sadness of a messed up punk kid – though they did in fact, as recently reported in the press, love the Smiths just as much as he did.
They loved me too, and I loved them all in return. During those years I needed a family, and they took me in, earning my eternal gratitude. Should I have stuck around to render aid, attempt to heal that broken boy? The answer is a simple and emphatic no – we were both far too damaged to help each other, and staying together would likely have ended in death. Breaking up was only slightly less dangerous.
For his own sake I hope he managed to find the perilous path to recovery, that he is surrounded by people who nurture and care for him. I hope he learned to seek out people who are strong without raising their voices or hands in anger.
News from home has lately been horrible, but I’m not going back to help. I moved away on purpose. My children will grow up without ever knowing their extended family, or any of the characters in my stories.
Violence is handed down across generations. I’ve seen the consequences, and I chose something else.
This afternoon I was wandering through the city centre when my mate the Wonderwall busker cycled past.
I always keep a pound or two in my pocket to hand off – buskers are my most expensive habit in this massively expensive town – but just as I was about to nod hello he was stopped by two policemen stepping out in his path.
They blocked his way and proceeded to berate him. I stood on the sidewalk watching, in an openly appalled fashion, but my presence was ignored. I am, after all, just another displaced foreigner. I know too little about the culture of this place, let alone the class war implied by the fact that this guy, with his broken teeth and dirty clothes, cover songs and caustic comments, is the only busker ever busted. For what great crime? Singing in public.
While Iain (husband of Karen, frequent guest at my holiday suppers, middle class music teacher) plays out with his band whenever he likes. Or how about the guy with the violin? Or the one with the accordion? Or how many other examples of people who are scrubbed and wholesome but like to play music on the sidewalk?
Nobody else was paying attention to the whimsically helmeted officers harassing the homeless guy, except my son, who stood next to me similarly appalled. Once I ascertained that it was simple harassment there seemed no choice but to move on, worrying by then that my mate would be embarrassed to know I witnessed the exchange.
Just another day in Cambridge, the least likely place I could have chosen to live (three years, ten months, and counting).
The other day one of the very few people I talk to in this peculiar town asked how I was. Given that we’re in the middle of a heat wave I replied I’m too hot!
He laughed and retorted We all know that!
Uh-oh. Double entendre alert! I’m really not qualified to engage in that kind of banter. But the event reminded me of something that might be a relief for those of you who do not wish to hear more harrowing death stories. In the midst of all of my worries about faraway friends and family, immigration issues, and tricky work problems, guess what happened? Something creepy and awful: a local person hit on me.
Now you might think this is a normal occurrence, but it really is not – or at least before Ana Erotica put me through flirting lessons, I never noticed, wherever I was in the world. Once I started to notice elsewhere I was still protected here because I don’t understand the British. And the few times something questionable happened everyone was drunk – it was easy enough to laugh off an awkward half-stated pickup in that context.
This time dude was sober, though he did make a valiant effort to corral me into a pub. I was really hoping that my sterling anti-social-anti-scandal shield would hold since I’ve never been available, regardless of any other factor. Partnered, single, on the make – nobody has ever had permission to hit on me.
In fact, I should have a big neon sign over my head that reads Don’t even fucking try, Buster!
Why, oh why did I have to abandon my former obtuse ways? Life was so much easier when I was profoundly stupid about mating rituals! But I digress.
While normal people might have skills for these things, I clearly do not. Unless laughing like a loon and literally running away counts. I guess that might be interpreted as “no” but suspect it might translate as an encouraging sign, depending on the degree of lecherous intent felt by the other party. Ugh!
My strategy: avoid seeing the person ever again. Complicated given the fact that I encounter every single person I know more than once in the course of a day…. this is in fact a very small town.
Making a huge swath of the city a no-go zone will complicate my bike rides in an extraordinary fashion.
There has been more impossibly sad news from home, and this morning started with email from a friend: Okay, you are like me — always able to muddle on through in a stoic manner, no matter what. Consequently, people tend not to worry much about us making it to the other side. We are seen as staunch and indestructible.
She went on to express concern about the recent losses (coming on top of the rest of the year) I have not even begun to address in this journal, and asked if there is anything she can do to help.
Over the weekend Gordon called to check on me, though I was way out on the Fens in my boat and could not return the call.
Later Jean caught me as I sat down to dinner at the Cutter Inn, trying to coax me out for the night, but I had already planned to stay in Ely and listen to the trains.
Mark Mitchell wrote to say he misses me – and oh, how I miss him – and Seattle – and wish I could be there now.
I really do not know what to do with all of this kind attention – it has only been about a year and a half since I decided to be Friendly, Charming, and Have Emotions. But I am nevertheless sincerely appreciative of those friends who have made the effort to look after me after all the sad news.
Jeffrey grew up in a similar macabre NW landscape and he just buried his own grandmother. He performed Ave Maria at the funeral and reported:
Apparently I did a good job because the audience disregarded the sanctity of the memorial and started clapping. I couldn’t help but laugh. Then some old lady who was a friend of the family asked me if I would perform at her funeral. I asked her if she had any idea when that might be so I could pencil her in.
This brings up a very important point: the musical element of major life events. For my first haphazard wedding I played Let’s Go Crazy as the processional. For the second clandestine effort annoyingly crashed by a television news crew I had a homeless Elvis impersonator (or Elvis himself, hard to say).
Mortality is the theme of the moment, and I feel obliged to state that I do not want a funeral. However, I suspect people will organize something, as the living are the ones who decide. I’m a practical sort and have thus chosen a song in advance: The Rainbow Connection.
That is the song we sang at sixth grade graduation, when I knew that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. It is also what I crooned to my babies when they were new to the world and astonished by light and sound. Yes, I do have at least a few sentimental urges. Mock if you will, I don’t care!
Just remember at the critical moment, as my immediate family members will be distraught and collectively lack planning skills.
Also, if the service is conducted in Cambridge it would be awesome if someone could organize my mate the Wonderwall busker to lead the singing. I do not know his name. Someone else will have to sort that out.
Last week I was corresponding with Amy via email about the funeral arrangements and at some point she described her surprise that another of our childhood associates also recently died of cancer.
I was sad and surprised, but not shocked. This was not someone I was at all close to, though I did harass his brother quite extensively with my ET Lives plots back in the day. How many families in my immediate circle from that rural childhood now officially have a member diagnosed with cancer – or dead from the disease – or multiple experiences of both?
It might be easier to count how many haven’t: something like zero.
Yet, please recall, the official government story is that there are no cancer clusters.
They were telling me that on the cancer ward when nobody could explain why I had a virulent form of the disease only seen in people subjected to high rates of radiation – while all the other beds were filled with refugees from Chernobyl.
You know what? I’m still a little bit suspicious.
Righteous anger is definitely easier than grief, but I’m too exhausted for rage these days.
The first time I met Nate I was thirteen and he was a very small child, the younger brother of a friend, his life revolving around action figures and jumping on the trampoline. Later he grew, as children do, stretching up to a considerable height, acquiring a precocious interest in history.
From our earliest acquaintance he was always fascinating – bright, intriguing, the kind of kid who was just as comfortable talking to adults as playing with toddlers. His entire family was without exception sweet – a big, boisterous clan who expected their kids to go to morning religious services but didn’t care all that much if they were clutching cups of coffee en route.
I was mostly friends with Amy, the oldest girl, who insisted that she get home by curfew every night. Her elder brother Eric would ride along to drop her off but always come back out again for the nocturnal and innocent adventures that defined our youth in that small town.
When I had a baby in my teens this family adopted her as their first honorary grandchild: quite a contrast with some of my biological relatives, who disowned me and never established a meaningful relationship with my children.
All the kids growing up in that house in Olalla were genius in their own special way, and supported by parents who truly believed in their potential. Private school or public, dance classes, massive parties when they turned sixteen – they were close, loving, lovable.
Nate was the most classically academic of the children, and the one I was most likely to engage in delightful intellectual debates. Shortly after he left home for university he came down with a sore throat and cough.
Clinics, nurses, doctors all said it was nothing. The symptoms did not disappear.
Eventually, someone came up with a diagnosis: <i>cancer</i>.
He left school to deal with the ensuing treatments, maintain insurance, enjoy a little bit of freedom without knowing what the future would include. Saturday Amy wrote to say I lost my brother last night.
Valiant, beautiful, strong, impossibly young – and now dead. RIP Nathan: son, brother, uncle, husband, friend.
The new mayor of Rome was greeted by adoring crowds with fascist salutes and chants of Duce! Duce! The new apparent mayor of London is best known, aside from his floppy Old Etonian hairstyle, for referring to black people as pickaninnies. I really don’t know what to say. Depression abounds.
This afternoon my eleven year old son walked home from school with his mates without any parental supervision for the first time.
I was only moderately terrified.
This does of course offer a sharp contrast with my latchkey childhood, but then again, I grew up in the woods. There were no speeding taxi cabs to worry about!
While he was off gallivanting I had to reluctantly turn down a much-needed, totally free, completely awesome trip to NYC to hang out with KTS, Ana Erotica, Ayun, Jess, and all the other fine friends who reside in that metropolis.
Because the dates conflict with the school fete. And the Year Six Leaver’s Disco. And, most critically, secondary school induction.
Parenting gets easier in some ways as children grow up but also more complicated – if slightly less messy.
For those who inquired, the Jesus Ditch is a body of water separating Jesus College (private) from Jesus Green (public – even, gasp, common). Like a moat. We’re very monastic in these parts – and that particular college has quite a murky reputation for monkish shenanigans.
The bench in the foreground is dedicated to a Reformation Martyr and is, I believe, in the approximate position where witches and similar heretics were burned.
Yes, my daily life is ridiculously idyllic. I am drenched in beauty.