I’m back in Cambridge. The most exciting event of the day? Double points at Boots.
I’ve enjoyed living in terrible places, because they offered the quiet of the forests or the solace of the sea. I’ve tolerated horror because I could see the sun rise and set. But this town has no horizon and, since I am not affiliated with the university, life here is so… boring.
Gotta get out before I start thinking it entertaining (or acceptable) to buy clothes at Laura Ashley.
My daughter has arrived in Edinburgh to visit us, boyfriend in tow. This of course requires fun antics and celebratory meals.
Though their desires do not always synchronize with my predilections; we can agree that Wellington Coffee is the best cafe in the city, but beyond that we diverge. They wish to shop – and I wish to stomp around Greyfriars Tolbooth & Highland Kirk in the rain
I remain amazed by this person – a tiny baby entrusted to my care twenty years ago, grown and launched and utterly delightful.
Though she still won’t let me post photographs of her winsome self.
We’ve been to Edinburgh before but never ventured past the city limits.
Since I don’t drive in jolly ye olde world it had to happen sometime. Yes, the worst has come to pass…. we booked a coach tour!
Our launch was inauspicious as my son immediately succumbed to motion sickness, but our fellow passengers thankfully all pretended not to notice.
From that point on the experience was actually quite good fun. I like to be driven about, and our guide was not just an employee but an enthusiast. He knew far more than any of us wanted to hear about Scottish history – awesome!
The Firth of Forth, Kirkaldy, Dunkeld, forests of Douglas Fir (just like home). Mountains, valleys, monuments to the Battle of Culloden and the massacre at Glen Coe.
I’m not even a smidgen Scottish by blood but I was completely devastated by the landscape and history.
Those who know me in real life can attest that I am cold and heartless about all sorts of things that other people think problematic – like, oh, broken marriages, or cancer. But give me a persecuted social movement and I will pontificate endlessly. And, often, weep.
Right now the most significant choice I face is the question of whether to remain in the United Kingdom, and Scotland offers up reminders of the lessons of history. Are they pertinent to my current quandary? Probably not. But it is more interesting to think about the Highland Clearances than my superfluous problems.
My children are not especially impressed by these habits, but the boy at least occasionally agrees to accompany me on the excursions. He has wanted to see Loch Ness his whole life: mission accomplished.
It was a two day excursion and we made camp at a hotel in Fort Williams, with carpeting in the bathroom and a view of the bay.
Eating curry in a peculiar Indian restaurant while gazing at the ruins of a Redcoat fortress, I picked up my phone to check for new messages.
I wasn’t expecting anything at all …. but a seriously difficult secret plan, requiring significant material and emotional sacrifice, has resolved.
I can’t tell you what happened, and my son was not impressed. But my life, whatever is left of it, has officially been improved in an exponential manner.
That night I slept deeply for the first time in months, then woke to eat a full cooked breakfast in a provincial hotel – always hilariously disgusting, though at least in Scotland they leave off the baked beans.
We met our fellow travelers to continue the journey, including a Jacobite Steam Train speeding past Neptune’s Staircase.
I am so happy.
The heat wave persisted. This, unfortunately, meant that it was about 90F with standing room only on my five hour train ride to Edinburgh: even Betjeman would object.
But in the north everything is lovely! Scotland is seagulls, sunsets, Al Stewart on the radio, rainbows on Arthur’s Seat, a penguin parade at the zoo, and RAIN!
There is black pudding & haggis on the menu at local pizza takeaway, and horse-drawn carriages picketing a Bollywood film shoot near my place in New Town…
I’m here to escape from Cambridge and definitively decide where to live next. Why does this question persist? When will I achieve the clarity I long for? Do I belong somewhere or nowhere?
My daughter graduated! I don’t understand the system here, so no idea what the credential achieved may be – but I’m proud of her!
This is a particularly striking fact given that she has only attended school for perhaps two years, ever. Recalcitrant, brilliant, scathing and sweet: it is truly an honor to know her and celebrate this strange moment.
What a clever kitten.
I’ve been ill and the weather has turned to that once-per-summer “heat wave” (think 75F) that incapacitates the city but (as always) I persevere, forging onward in pursuit of novelty and treats.
This week that includes See Further: The Festival of Science + Arts at Southbank Centre.
Just imagine: the Royal Festival Hall, and an opera about Icarus featuring Philip Glass and the London Philharmonic. Scientists, musicians, writers. Booths, demonstrations, performances, and….flying bionic penguins!
Who could resist?
Besides, Southbank is my favorite part of the city:
My UK dentist looks about twelve years old and wears Keds, but she says my teeth are perfect.
Qualified perfection, as I live in a land renowned for poor dental hygiene, but still. I’m nearly forty, drink coffee, and gobble jellybeans, but my gums are pink and healthy. I have no cavities, no loose crowns, no problems whatsoever. Astonishing!
This state of affairs was deliberate. My baby teeth were rotten, yellow, jagged. Throughout my childhood I endured daily treatments, countless fillings and caps. I had six root canals before my seventh birthday, and all but three of my teeth were extracted under anesthetic…. and that doesn’t even take us up to the era when my jaw was found to be riddled with tumors.
Have you ever required dental surgery so sensitive you woke in the intensive care ward of a teaching hospital? I have.
How my parents paid for these procedures without adequate insurance is a profound mystery – but they did it. My new teeth were coaxed and cajoled by a team of experts spanning three counties over two long decades.
I dutifully scrubbed and brushed and flossed and dared dream big dreams – that one day, perchance, I could eat an apple!
Thank you to my parents, working endlessly long hours to pay the bills. Thank you, childhood dentist, for the advice and intervention that saved my teeth. Fervent thanks to the oral surgeon for the delicate repairs to my jaw, and the larger diagnosis of the genetic disorder.
In the United States teeth are the most obvious marker of social class. Before I was old enough to understand, my family and physicians decided I was not the girl with a dirty mouth.
Later I moved to a country where even the movie stars have crooked smiles, but learned along the way that the question is not fundamentally about aesthetics. My UK dentist is amazed by my teeth because they are strong.
It was worth the hassle (and yes I still floss).
Tourists: I don’t begrudge them the pleasure they find staring at the colleges and churches. I just wonder – do they lack streets back home? Or do they leave their common sense at the border?
Trinity Street is shorter than my grandparents rural driveway in Poulsbo WA, yet seems to host something like five or six thousand strangers all day, every day, from April to September. Summers in this town are a grind of trudging through impassable, teeming masses of people so I can complete normal errands. Like buying milk.
If I stood aside every time I encounter someone snapping photographs, I would spend my whole life immobilized on cobblestones in the city centre. I would be a statue, not a person!
The crowds won’t even budge for busses, forget cyclists. When I first moved here I didn’t understand all the aggressive bell-ringing, but now I am one of the agitated locals, one hand steering, one on the bell. Not to be mean (though I am often enraged), but to warn the clueless strangers who persist in bumbling into traffic without even turning their head.
My normal routine is to get the heck out of town, preferably out of the country, but this year I am trapped by immigration travel restrictions. Creative solutions are required!
Packing for a retreat to UK destinations more congenial I received email from Satnam requesting my presence at dinner. I was about to decline as I had a date with some robotic flying penguins, but then I thought for a second.
How many invitations have I had in this city? I’ve dined with Satnam and family twice. Don and Barbara five or so times, Sally and Steve about the same. There have been a few scattered other events with locals, and things were more lively when I hung out with students (Jean, Rachel, David & Sarah, all since departed for sunnier climes).
That is it. The sum total of my socializing over six years in this city is less than I would have done in a fortnight back home.
One of the tertiary reasons I left the states? The nonstop temptation to have fun. My Portland house functioned as a community center. My housewarming in Seattle was so crowded I couldn’t even get in the door. When I go back I have almost no time at all to myself, and regard trips to the laundromat as respite. Unless I see people I know at the laundromat as well, which is about a fifty percent chance, no matter which city I happen to alight in.
My life in the states is hectic, filled with people and events and excursions.
When my children were little and I did performances people asked how I managed to get any work done at all, and I always answered I’m an insomniac. This is true, and the first thirty-three years of my life were marked out by large work projects accomplished in the middle of the night and on the run.
The whole thing felt claustrophobic, and I longed for solitude.
Now I have all the time I could ever need. Every day is open, unstructured, without deadlines or commitments, no childcare needed or given, no friends to distract and delight.
What do people do with all of this time? Watch television? I do not understand.
I accepted the invitation and cycled up to enjoy the hospitality of Satnam and Susan, who continue to make an astonishing effort to entertain. They host these dinners all the time; I gave up on this town years ago.
We talked about Seattle, agreeing the scant year and a half or so each of us lived there wasn’t enough. One of the couples at the table offered up scathing critiques of all the things I hate about Cambridge: mostly the hordes of tourists, and the difficulty (twinned with necessity) of cycling. They have a tidy solution: they move to San Francisco at the weekend.
Other complaints include the perpetual Town v. Gown division, river drama, and of course and always, the lack of decent restaurants or grocery stores.
Satnam ranted about all the effort required to assemble the delicious dinner he had just served. I squinted and said Why do you live here again?
He answered To be near my mother.
What a corrective tonic. Would my life be better if I lived in Kitsap County, or even, if I am honest, Seattle? No.
Because all of the details that bedevil my day are superficial. I left my homeland because I want to live in a place where all citizens have access to healthcare and a basic standard of living.
Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, this is where I am staying…. for now.
Happy Independence Day.
I’ve been sorting through old files and found all manner of oddity, including but not limited to any email sent or received since 1993; full backups of every website I have ever designed or administered; and the contents of the computer stolen from my house a decade or so ago. The lost manuscript? Several other books I have elected not to publish? The controversies and hatred that destroyed the magazine? Photographs of hundreds of people in various stages of embarrassing development and fashion?
I have it all, sitting right here in front of me.
Of course I’m not going to look at any of these things. My archives serve no clear purpose, except to clutter.
Though I have been reading old journal entries to piece together an essay on topics that have faded in memory. In 2003 I was apparently obsessing about not just my wardrobe but more pertinently, the ethics of narrative nonfiction. I was worried that publishing the stories eventually collected as Lessons in Taxidermy was somehow “wrong” – though I could not quite identify the nature of the crime.
The concerns centered on the notion that I had a clear understanding of the facts (what happened) and an imperfect grasp of the importance (why it happened, or what it means).
Looking back, the real danger appears to be that I was convinced of my own indifference to how other people feel about the events described. Feelings are sticky, sloppy, annoying. Someone hit you upside the head with a plank? I only want to know how many stitches you needed, not what you think about the scar.
Well, it was a good theory.
I thought – and still believe – that telling the truth, no matter how hard or frightening, is mandatory. When I published the book I was also young (or stupid) enough to think that truth was somehow illuminating – that incurable pain could be relieved with sufficient doses of honesty.
I was wrong.
While assembling the stories I was cautious, using only the elements beyond dispute. Everything in the book (aside from names) can be proved. I have the records. It all happened, exactly as stated. If you refer to witness accounts, medical files, or any other source, you will find that I did not elaborate, embroider, create.
Instead, I edited – leaving out years, events, people, and always, feelings. The most bitter fight I had with my publisher concerned a profound lack of adjectives.
At the time I was fixated on the question of who owned the story – my story. My body. My life. This is a reasonable line to follow; the problem is that a life is not a singular experience. People are entwined with each other. I may have been lonely, but I was not alone.
Somewhere underneath the burbling about ethics I was scared that I would hurt someone by telling the truth – but I didn’t let myself examine that problem.
Hurt? Try taunt. Torment. Enrage. Words like “destroy” might be too harsh, but several important friendships ended, whether I wanted them to or not. Other relationships changed in traumatic ways. There was no reconciliation, no redemption, no reunion.
I accumulated positive reviews and lost friends. I wrote something down, guaranteeing I could never speak of it again.
Would it have been easier to keep the secrets? No. But this does not change the fact that I hurt people.
It doesn’t matter if they hurt me first.
Since 2003 my circumstances have changed dramatically. This life is factually better than that life. So why am I still thinking about these things? Why do I spend a significant amount of each day fretting about purely speculative concerns?
Because I know a couple of stories, and the urge to tell is more compelling than the fear of retribution.
When my beloved junkie auntie died my mother turned to me and said Now you can write anything you want about the family.
I didn’t believe her, but I suspect it was meant as an assignment.
My agent and my children urge me to write the stories as fiction, but I retort that I have no imagination. My job would be so much easier if I did – but for whatever reason, I seem to be stuck with facts.
Right now the question is not whether I will write the stories; it is, rather, whether I will allow them to be published.
James has been a close friend since we were sixteen or so, sharing everything imaginable as we ran away toward an obscure future. For twenty years we talked or exchanged letters every single day, and when I asked his advice in 2003 he said:
You are stuck on truth, which is real philosophy of the ethical moral variety. Fiction is something else, namely, the ontological, metaphysical sort of contemplation and assuming. Somehow I do not think you are about possibilities. Rather this other sort of wisdom: action and experience. You really care about remembering what happened; to the point of ruinous arguments over events. The problem is, though you often do not let on, you also worry, quite deeply, about what other people might think or feel about what happened. There is always doubt, and in that doubt, there are feelings – yours and theirs. And at the end of the day, regardless of what happens, you want people to feel alright. You want people to be better. That is your conflict. It is maybe also the point of your writing.
He is one of the people who stopped talking to me after the book was published. He had valid reasons (though it is unlikely he remembers the precipitating event), and his life has been improved by my absence.
Facts do not extinguish feelings. They just help us decide what to do next.