Dear Family and Friends, December 29, 2012
Only the most current Christmas ornaments went on the tree this year, so there were only about eight. It was not a decision we made, but it was what came to be. My sister made three ornaments of Nugget. She made a color copy of his head, and encircled it with a halo of silver metal pipe cleaner. Then she made the Nugget body and tail with very fluffy brown pipe cleaners. And what is an aging labrador retriever anyway, if not an angel? At Mountain Books I found a tiny wooden plaque on which was painted St. Roch, Patron Saint of Dogs. I hung that near the top. Then, a large candy cane, then, a candy cane made from colored beads by one of my students. An ornament from my stepmom, a dreamcatcher for catching good dreams and releasing the bad ones. Finally, a plaid Christmas ribbon tied in a bow around a branch. It was nice to have each ornament receive its due, framed as they were by plenty of little white lights. I feel a little wistful when I pass the box of ornaments from Christmas Past still sitting on the cold garage floor, but not enough to unpack it. What does this say about me? I’d rather not say. But it might explain the lateness of this letter, since the letter ordinarily coincides with the decorating of the tree.
I can be forgiven a few ornaments when you consider the frontiers I crossed this year… technology (iPad and iPod – my fingers are like little magic wands creating intended and unintended spells), gardening (my nonjudgmental friend Google helped me divide the irises) , traveling across the Atlantic, surgery to improve my hearing. We’ll get the obligatory medical stuff out of the way right here. I got a tiny titanium prosthesis to replace one of my inner ear bones in October. I’ll know in February or March the full extent of improvement, but as for now I’m still saying “What?” quite a bit.
But back in April, an opportunity finally presented itself: an August writing workshop in Scotland! Tonya booked us tickets. I was finally going to Europe. The days were filled with planning, and searching for 3.4 oz. bottles.
We landed in London in the midst of the Olympics. Officials waited at the airport, holding their signs for their teams from around the world. The Russians, in their red and white uniforms, rode their bicycles through the city. Tonya and I tramped through the city by day, to the Globe; to the Palace to see the Queen’s collection of original drawings by DaVinci; to the Tate Modern where we viewed Edvard Munsch , Picasso, Man Ray, Salvadore Dali, Max Ernst, and Paul Klee; to Brown’s Hotel for high tea with champagne and cucumber and water cress sandwiches; to the outdoor stalls at Covent Garden and the Borough Market, to Westminster Cathedral, to the London and Tower Bridges, to exquisite fish and chips at Geales. We boarded the London Eye and rose into the sky above the Thames, the Parliament Buildings, the Olympic beach volleyball court. At night actual Olympic footage was projected onto the Parliament Buildings – imagine a giant Olympic bicyclist traveling blocks in a second! The Olympic Rings hung over the Thames, representing the five colors found in the flags of the nations of the world. The British were practically popping their buttons as their Olympians started to bring in the gold for the heptathlon, the 10,000 meter race with Mo Farah!, and the long jump. Exhausted at the end of a day of sightseeing, Tonya and I collapsed onto our lumpy bed in our tiny hotel room to watch the Olympics on TV. But there was an electric kettle and teabags and biscuits waiting for us, and truly, tea at the end of every day made everything all right!
And don’t think we went to London without seeing a show! Two, in fact. At the Haymarket we saw One Man, Two Guvnahs in the vertigo seats of the upper circle. It was brilliantly acted in the commedia del arte style, with fine physical comedy and melodrama. Truly funny! We saw Singin’ in the Rain at the Palace Theatre, which was mostly forgettable (I’m just too spoiled by the movie), except for the magical dance number in the rain. The actor did a beautiful tap routine on the wet stage – yes! the rain really came down on the stage, and the whole intermission was spent mopping up for the second act – and unbelievably, he kicked gracefully and powerfully at the water to send a gorgeous spray of water into the first rows! Everyone shrieked and clapped, especially since London was experiencing temperatures into the 80s during the time we were there. Never once opened an umbrella in England.
Tonya and I spent most of our nights in Brighton, however — a seaside town on the English Channel with an ever present soundtrack of seagulls. Here it was slower, and sweeter. We went to Bill’s for breakfast most mornings. The typical breakfast was tea, toast the size of Texas toast, scrambled eggs and fried tomatoes served with beans or mushrooms. We walked the pier and wondered at the rounded red stones of the beach. We attended a Jamie Oliver cooking class instructed by a wonderful East Indian chef who taught us to make homemade pasta: bowties, ribbons, linguini, spaghetti, and angel hair linguini. We took a day trip to Rye, another coastal village full of charm, narrow streets, bricky buildings and churches. Rye is where we had our first cream tea – tea and scones traditionally served with clotted cream and jam, but we were served whipped cream. We were lucky to arrive on a day the local businesses were having silly raft races in the river, and I was reminded of Monty Python!
After a week, Tonya flew back home, and I went on to a Scottish island, by taxi, train, train again, ferry, bus , and a final walk up a leafy lane that opened onto the green grounds of the smallest cathedral in the British Isles. I settled into a room named Peace, with an electric teakettle and biscuits. For a week I did nothing but write and read out with a writing group every morning, every evening, and some afternoons. I wrote in my room, in the library, in the dining room, outside. I walked over the island, along the beach and over the hills and through the farms, walked past the rabbits, swans, sheep, cows, horses, sat and gazed over the ocean and out at the other islands. Here, the weather seemed more typical to me; the rain fell for an hour at a time at any time of day or night. One day the weather cooperated enough for a short boat trip to Wee Cumbrae, a tiny island with a tiny castle and a lighthouse that had to be relocated when it could not be seen by the ships. On our boat was a little terrier pup named Doogie who was excited to be visiting his brothers and father on Wee Cumbrae. When we docked, four short-legged terriers, all a cross between the cairn terrier and the Jack Russell, greeted us long and boisterously. They were so happy to be reunited with Doogie and to have visitors on their island. The oldest pup, the dad or granddad of Doogie, with grizzled grey eyebrows and mustache, came along with me and a couple of friends, up a long, gentle path into dripping ferns and to a great flowering tree which grew in the nesting grounds of the seagulls. When we stopped for lunch, he nestled into a soft purple patch of heather atop a rock. I joined him there and shared a little of my food, which he happily accepted as payment for his services as guide. A couple hours later, when we got back into our little boat to return to Great Cumbrae, the four terriers appeared dejected to see us go and to have to say goodby to Doogie. At a loss, they huddled together quietly and looked forlornly into the face of their keeper, who patted their heads and comforted them. It could be another two weeks before a boat came out again.
And because who knew when I would be returning to the British Isles, I flew home first class! I was pampered and comfortable in a cubicle in the center aisle, and spent the first few hours writing in my journal on a very spacious pull-out table, drinking champagne and nibbling on delicious things until I completely forgot I was in the air. I finally came to my plebian senses when I saw a porthole window near the kitchen. I dragged myself out of my lounge chair to peer out. I was rewarded richly by what I saw! I’m not sure if I was over Canada, Iceland or Greenland, but I was gazing down at a virtual land of lakes. As far as the eye could see, there was green tundra reflecting back the sun in a thousand lakes and twisting rivers. I marveled at it until it was time to choose between a California, French or Spanish wine. I chose Spanish, and was again richly rewarded. Delicious.
The whole thing, the whole fifteen days of England and Scotland were delicious, right down to the train window views of small, green farms with round bales of hay, and cricket games played by men in immaculate white uniforms. Even my short stopover in Glasgow was delicious with its promenades and squares, with its outdoor flea market winding down a narrow alley, turning corners, passing a pub, and ending abruptly at a wide sidewalk on a busy street. I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole!
On the home front, in our own humble Sierra Nevada foothills, Sweetie’s marvelously elastic metabolism has made her fat for the winter. She is still our grateful, affectionate friend, her early beginnings as a stray now a distant memory. Daily, Lew and Nugget and I circle the pond to check up on our neighbors, human and fowl. A lone ring neck (highly unusual for it to be sailing solo) has moved in for the winter, and yesterday we spotted the haughty lift of the grebe’s long beak as it paddled along looking for a meal. Kingfisher is here again, making its black and white swoops from tree to water, but egret, the old fisherman, has left. And under cold, gunmetal grey skies, poppy greens are pushing up thickly between the rocks of our garden, promising a massive orange display come spring! Hallelujah! The world speeds to a new year, plants sleep only to rise again. Faith, faith!