When I am stressed, I clean. This morning, when I should be packing and showering, I have already removed everything from one of our banks of shelves, have washed them down, reorganized, thrown things away. I have done two loads of laundry and have washed the dishes. I emptied the vase on the mantel and refilled it with clean water, cutting back the dead stems. My house smells like reconstituted lemons.
Somewhere in my head, an observant little voice is reminding me that this is therapy. That the fact that I’m having trouble unplugging from work is because that’s where I feel competent and in control. I’m conjuring emergency scenarios in my head about work that won’t happen until October just because planning to prevent emergencies means I can prevent them. When facing an emergency that I was utterly unable to prevent, it’s what I need to get by, I think.
This has been the longest week. Last night I told my mother Andrew had been gone for more than a week and I didn’t realize my mistake until AJ looked at me like I was crazy. Since Monday feels like a week. I’ve completely lost track of what day it is. Alarms and reminders are getting me through the day. Alarms and reminders will make sure AJ and I are on our plane tonight. I’m counting on being swept into the family orbit when we arrive. There is safety in numbers.
It’s over and it’s just beginning. Some families fly apart when crisis strikes. Ours winds tighter than a top. It’s feeling very strange to be on the East Coast with AJ while everyone else is back in Chicago.
Plans are mostly made, tickets bought. Tomorrow we sort out the things we need to wear. I left the office midday today to come work at home, but I was too scattered to get much done, instead pacing around the apartment, not sure what to do with my hands.
Mostly it’s about lists, but occasionally the sadness hits, when trying to figure out how to end a phone call, while walking up tenth street with the Weepies’ “Can’t Go Back Now” shuffling onto my headphones.
This song was sent to me by a friend who died a few years back much too young. Violet would occasionally suggest songs to me that she thought I would like and ask if I might learn to play them. The first Weepies song she sent me was “The World Spins Madly On,” which she gave me, I think, for safekeeping. It had been one of her favorites but now it reminded her of someone she was trying to forget. And I learned it and play it, but, at her request, not for her, although she sometimes asked to hear things. “Can’t Go Back Now” was the second, and I never took to it as much as the first. But I kept it on my iPod because she gave it to me a couple of weeks before she died and it makes me think of her when I hear it. Hearing the song this afternoon felt like a haunting, like a message I needed to hear. When I started crying in the middle of Fifth Avenue, I wasn’t entirely sure why — it seemed like a purely physical response, turned on by a musical switch. But I think it was for both of them. And I was grateful for my sunglasses.
There are so many lists. Things to bring. Things to do. People to call. Meetings to cancel. Our whole lives are revolving around this now, so it’s odd to be out in the streets where people are oblivious to the center of our universe. It’s why Auden’s “Funeral Blues” always hits home. When somebody you love dies, you want to everyone to notice that the world is now a different place.
For those closest to her, though, the worst is, I think, over, and they are coming out on the other side, now concentrating on plans and arrangements and learning to readjust their rhythms. We are grateful for rules and the people who follow them. We seize the templates that we’ve heard all our lives as if they are liferafts — I’m sorry for your loss, She was a lovely woman, It’s so lucky her children were with her at the end — and learn that while they’ve always felt like empty words when we’ve said them, they are anything but. They are a lifeline, a comfort, a pattern that holds us up as we nod and say “thank you” and mean it with our whole hearts.
Mr. Spy’s mother is dying.
It helps to say it, that thing we all know to be true.
Really, we are all dying. She’s just closer to the jumping off point. She’s the one who reminds us how it is.
I am watching from afar as Mr. Spy goes back and forth to hold her hand, each time wondering if it will be the last. Probably thinking about how many times she was the one who grabbed for his hand.
Dying is a messy business, made only more so by our inclination to prop it up in an out of the way corner with a screen about it to tidy it up. We are afraid to look at it, afraid of what might be looking back at us. And yet, as with many things, it’s less terrifying to stare than to hide your eyes.
It could be days, it could be weeks. No one knows for sure. It’s not really any different for the rest of us, which is what makes it so unsettling. We like to pretend that we’re safe, that it is different, that we are different. We don’t want to know how it’s going to be.
We are oddly comforted by the plans we make. We order plane tickets and rental cars. We research hotel rooms and bereavement fares. We review our wardrobes to make sure we have something to wear in case of a funeral. It should seem morbid, but it doesn’t. Instead, it brings dying into our home in a way we can process. It’s a practical thing, a real thing. It’s something to do.
Mr. Spy’s mother is dying from a million small things and nothing at all. Her dying is utterly ordinary except to those who stand around her, not knowing quite what to do and to those who stand around them, not knowing how to comfort them. The doctors have taken over doing what they do, which is to try to make the dying stop. But is that the best thing? No one wants to be the one to say no. And who can blame them?
The doctors are discussing things. The doctors are saying there’s nothing they can do. We should be sad, but it is more of a relief. We are released, absolved, almost. But there is still the waiting and the holding of her papery-thin hand with its transparent skin.
The England trip was lovely I worked a lot but I walked everywhere and saw a lot of things. I fell in love with Oxford, which I don’t think I’d ever been to before, at least not so far as I can remember. London’s lost a little of the magic for me — more on that in a minute — but it’s still a beautiful place.
My hotel in Oxford was a bit of a walk from town, but was lovely. I was on the ground floor with a door off a little courtyard, so I could hear a fountain running at night.
I walked and walked. I wore out my feet. On Monday, I went to the Toy Factory’s Mother House in a building that was built in the early 18th century — “The new building” someone told me later in my visit, as he pointed to the old building, designed by the same architect who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. And then I met one of my favorite toymakers in his “rooms” — a combination between a faculty office, a small apartment and a castle. It had a stone fireplace that I could have stood up in, no problem. But we had stuff to do, o I didn’t get to try. But I got the tour of Hogwarts, where he teaches — no really, some of Harry Potter was filmed there — and to see where Alice Liddell used to play from Lewis Carroll’s former office, an 18th century library, a portrait of the founder, King Henry VIII. After my meetings, I took a walk down to the Thames and watched some boats go by, then walked along a wooded path that followed a tributary full of students punting drunkenly (it was the day after exams ended) and running into each other occasionally, past children playing cricket, past a botanic garden, through some medieval streets, and back to my hotel, collecting some groceries along the way.
On Tuesday, I went to visit an editor in his home full of musical instruments of all kinds (see previous entry). He also gave me a tour of his own side of the university and took me into the Bodlean Library, past where the tourists get to go. And I had a Pimms Cup by the Thames with a grad school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years or so, followed by dinner.
On Wednesday, I spent most of the day at the Mother House, which involved a lot of running around up and down stairs through offices and odd little corridors, and once, when the fire alarm went off, out into the cobblestoned street, where I stood next to the tallest employee, a man who had to be nearly seven feet tall in heels, makeup, and an beautiful flowered dress. After the meetings, I headed to the train station where I stood in line behind a tall, thin man in a three-piece dark grey pin-striped suit, his bowler hat tucked into the crook of his umbrella. After I stood in the wrong place, entirely forgetting that there were classes and had to sprint for the car I’d paid for. After an hour of riding past sheep and suburbs, the grimy city buildings grew up and suddenly, there I was in Paddington Station. After doing a lap or two, I finally landed on the correct tube line to my hotel in a part of the city known as Pimlico, near Westminster Abbey and Parliament. My train was late and my detour around the station meant I was too, so I felt lucky when, after dropping my bags in my room overlooking a quiet square, I found a taxi waiting in front of the hotel. The ride to dinner, with another old friend, took me past the front gates of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, and other familiar sights. Dinner was delicious and the company was even better. Finally back at my hotel, I slept like the proverbial log.
Thursday morning, I walked a couple of miles along the Thames to King’s College where I met with several people and got a good deal of work done. This was the main reason for my trip. Once the meetings ended, instead of heading back again, I went in search of the apartment I’d live in as a child, strolling through Regent’s Park, which I’d once known so well. It was a beautiful day and many people were out in the park. Several groups were playing what looked like the cricket equivalent of whiffle ball. I saw another group farther along doing what I thought was the same thing, but when I got closer, I saw that they’d laid out a make-shift baseball field with bags and sweaters marking the corners. But they were swinging the bat down low like a cricket bat. And when one woman paused at third, the rest of her team started yelling at her, “Run to fourth base! Run to fourth base!”
There’s something simultaneously reassuring and unsettling about going back to a place you once knew very well. It’s a very different kind of experience than seeing something for the first time. Thus was London a very different experience from Oxford. I was constantly on the lookout for things to compare to the London in my head. My apartment building was the weirdest of all, because I knew the smallest details and noted the changes — how the garden is locked. How there’s a door where there didn’t used to be one. And I remembered things I hadn’t thought of in years. How the neighbors’ dachsunds used to hurl themselves at the window when we came home from school. How the balcony down the row had a chow that had no visible eyes but which would turn its head slowly and watch as you walked past. How once, when my brother and I were in the garden, someone was painting.
Instead of going back through the scenic park, I cut through mews behind the building and out onto the high street, which was much less glamorous looking. The greengrocers is gone. So is the grocers where the elderly shopkeepers used to grab boxes from the high shelves with a giant claw and give us extra pieces of candy for our pennies. It’s now a souless minimart with a glass front. Near the tube station, I stumbled into a courtyard between several office buildings that didn’t use to be there. It was full of rows of colorful lawnchairs filled with people watching the World Cup on a giant inflatable television. I sat and watched for a while. Sometimes, when you’re traveling by yourself, it’s nice to be somewhere where there are a lot of people having fun. And then I took my tired feet back to the hotel where I collapsed, headed out for groceries for dinner, and collapsed again.
I spent Friday at a conference King’s discussing philosophy with some people I knew, some people I’d never met, and others that I’d emailed but never met in person. The day went fast. And then I was packing.
It was a good trip all around. I saw some good movies on the plane (American Hustle, Her, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and an old favorite, All the President’s Men) and some entertaining British television (a show called William and Mary about two single parents, one an undertaker, the other a midwife, who fall in love; and a positively hilarious German overdubbing of the original Star Trek). I had a full week of a room of my own, which, I must say, I kind of squandered. I left the country for the first time since my honeymoon. It was full of win.
And now that I’m back, I’ve got some new perspectives on things. It has helped to have a change of scene. And now I’m plotting a vacation for August, as yet unbooked, but we’re having fun looking at cottages by lakes and oceans. Sometimes the planning is the best part.
I have many meetings today and am heading to London tonight, so I’ll have to catch up later. But, for the moment, this:
Scene: The home of a retired Oxford don who is showing me his impressive collection of musical instruments, accumulated from a lifetime of international research. We have just looked at dozens of wooden flutes and horns made of actual horns and a couple of trumpets made from human femurs and a conch shell trumpet that is nearly 2000 years old. We are now looking at a shelf of small curiosities, proceeding from right to left.
Don: You probably know what this is [he picks up a small bird whistle and demonstrates it]
Harriet: I do — I may even have one of those at home.
Don: And these are ocarinas [there are ocarinas shaped like frogs and horses and people]
Harriet: Ocarinas seem to inspire a great deal of creativity. [We both pause as we come to the next instrument, an anatomically correct and slightly larger-than-life sized reproduction of a portion of the male anatomy]
Don: Hmm. Well, then there’s this rather rude little instrument.
Harriet: It is rather.
Don: I didn’t buy that one. It was bought for me by a friend as a joke. [Pause] But it is rather funny isn’t it?
Harriet: It certainly is.
Don: I’m not sure I should tell you how you play it.
[Post title from an obscure Irving Berlin tune, "Ocarina"]
I’ve been in England for less than 24 hours but already it feels like it’s been quite a trip. There are certain activities where you feel like your brain is mapping and remapping itself to accommodate the situation. One of those activities is visiting places you’ve never been before. Another is visiting places you’ve been to as a child and are returning to as an adult. I am experiencing both of these at once, which is mean that I’ve fallen fully engaged into the place I’ve landed, trying to understand both my past and future.
On the one hand, I am comparing everything to my experience. My first views of Heathrow and the customs line remind me of the very first time I arrived in this country, just after my ninth birthday, not knowing when I’d return to the country of my birth. I remember at the time comparing the world I saw outside the window with the one I’d left behind. Trees, grass, the same. License plates, different. Voices, different. Pebbles, surprisingly different. And now I am comparing my current experience with that one. I hadn’t thought about the license plates until I landed and then, looking out the window of my Oxford-bound bus, there they were, and there I was, age 9, staring out my hotel room window, noticing exactly the same thing.
On the other hand, I’m learning a city entirely familiar to me from books and the stories of friends and yet, as far as I can recall, I have never been here before. I say as far as I can recall, because I noticed in town a sign for Blenheim Palace, which I remember quite vividly visiting as a child. When wandering an unknown place, I feel like I can feel my synapses firing, building internal maps so I can find my way back. I’m sure the kind of hyper-alertness required for this task is a skill evolved through years of prehistoric hunting and gathering. Right now my maps are still sketchy, filled with enormous holes. Later, I will try to fill some of them in.
When I arrived, my room was not yet ready, so I left my suitcase at the desk and took a walk, not towards town, which had been teeming with tourists when the bus from the airport drove through, but the other way. I wandered along a winding street past a sign that read “Dragon School” (who wouldn’t want to go to Dragon School?) and noticed, just past the soccer fields, a number of people turning into a tiny walled lane. I followed it and found this:
A tiny bar and teahouse, wooden steps down to a river and rows of wooden punts, some empty, others being packed with picnic lunches, some filled with people poling them off down the river. I stood and watched for a bit, then headed back to my hotel, where I had a lunch of lemon sole and salad in a sunny window with the company of a good book and the backdrop of happy conversations at other tables. By the time I got the check, though, I was literally falling asleep over my book. Happily, I was able to get into my room and rest. And although I desperately tried to keep myself awake (if you’ve ever been to Europe, you know that it is perilous to sleep too soon), I did doze of for about an hour, which gave me the energy to do some exploring.
I walked down toward Christ Church Cathedral, stopping to take pictures along the way. The students are on their way out — the term ended on Friday. But some remain and the streets are packed with tourists. I heard so many American accents as I walked that I began to feel I hadn’t really left. Once I caught sight of St. Michael’s church, though, I remembered. You don’t see too many 1000-year-old buildings in New York. By those standards, Christ Church, built in the early 16th century, is a positive youngster.
Still, there’s nothing like an Evensong service to remind you that you’re in England. I got a seat in the choir, just next to the boys, some of whom looked like they couldn’t have been much more than 7. Their voices were beautiful and a little sad, or maybe that was just because I was missing AJ. AJ could not, in any case, sing along anymore. He’d be relegated to the back row with the older boys whose voices have passed the breaking point.
They don’t allow photography inside the cathedral, which is a shame, because it is beautiful. I spotted the graves of John Locke and of John and Charles Wesley. And the place is like a museum of stained glass, some dating back to Medieval times. There are a couple of particularly beautiful Pre-Raphaelite windows, one by Edwin Burne-Jones dedicated to a saint I’d never heard of and can’t recall, the other to St. Cecilia.
On the way out of the cathedral, I heard footsteps behind me and stood aside as the choirboys, now in black robes and black velvet caps, walked in a tidy line around the fountain, down the path and out into the street back towards the cathedral school.
On the way home, I wandered in and out of intriguing sidestreets, of which there are many, rather than take the straight path, and stopped in at the Oxford University Parks and walked across a very green lawn to smell some flowers I couldn’t identify. It smells incredible everywhere here. Roses, mostly. But other things too, things for which I don’t know the name. And it sounds beautiful — church bells and choir boys and buskers singing Hallelujah in the street (not the cathedral version but the Leonard Cohen one). And everywhere the feel of old stones — the warm glowing ones in the walls of Christ Church, the cobblestones worn smooth and bent of position like crooked teeth.