Literary Pilgrimages

Hill Top: Venturing to Beatrix Potter’s World

IMG_2072 “Once upon a time there was a little girl called Lucie, who lived at a farm called Little-town.”  So begins The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter, a well-loved part of my childhood.  As I met this young girl on an adventure to find her misplaced handkerchiefs, I was also drawn into the world created through the illustrations. These beautiful watercolors show images of a farm, a waterfall, a small ‘woman’ in a neat room behind a tiny door in a hill.  

After visiting the Lake District in England last summer, these pictures have taken on a new life.  It turns out these aren’t imagined illustrations for a children’s book, but reflections of life around the land that Potter loved.  Into this land she inserted her characters, sometimes people, but mostly animals.  A dressed up hedgehog doing laundry didn’t seem amiss.  There is a joy of seeing beyond the confines of the world in these pictures – and the stories.

Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius by Linda Lear. provides a further view into this woman.  Beatrix Potter may be primarily remembered for her child’s books, beginning with The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  However, this is only one part of her heritage.

Hers was not an easy path to publishing.  For years, starting as a child, she actively worked on her drawings and the wording of the stories.  She eventually had to privately publish Peter Rabbit in order to produce a book that met her specifications.  Once the quality, and marketability, of this book was obvious, Frederick Warne & Co. took on the task of putting together the trade publication.  It wasn’t long before Potter this one book became a series.  Through it all, she continued to have a significant voice in the content and look of her books.  Eventually, when it was suggested that book related toys and items be developed, she had final say in these products as well.

Always drawn to this land she loved, her financial success in publishing allowed her to purchase her own place – a farm in Sawrey. Though she wasn’t experienced in farming, she was not afraid to learn.  Starting with this farm, she became an integral part of the life of this community.  As she was able, she bought up other tracts of land in order to preserve traditional farming practices and keep the land from potential commercialization.  She wanted people to be able to see and enjoy this land and its ways as she did.

Enjoy it I did when I visited.  Here was more than a house preserved, but an entire landscape.  Driving the narrow roads through the small towns provided the perfect preparation to see her farm, Hill Top, and the places Potter brought to life in her drawings and stories.

Walking through the flower gardens in the rain and up to the green front door of this grey farm house, I was ushered into a living space.  The kitchen area had a large fireplace with a low, timbered ceilings.  Walking stick and hat were ready for Potter to head out on a walk.  A study lined with books had a table set for tea.  What a glorious place to rest for a bit!  A stairway headed up to the bedrooms.  Then a long hallway brought me to Potter’s workroom.  Her desk was set up with copies of her work – letters, water colors.  A room saved as she wanted it.

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I wanted to stay – and I did walking from room to room.  Her bedroom.  The study.  Back to the work room.  Then I finally left and headed back out into the gardens.  Rabbits were running through the grass and around a few trees.  Rain ran off the leaves.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t have an umbrella.  It was great to be part of this world even if for a few hours,  in the midst of that farm I first heard about so many years ago.

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Writing Desks: Inspiration for a Reluctant Writer

 Def: Desk.  A piece of furniture with a flat surface, often made of wood, at which a person can write or do other work.

Over the years of visiting literary homes, I’ve always been drawn to the rooms and desks where authors wrote. Though the kitchens provide insight into their daily lives and the doorways elicit images of people who visited, the desks and studies are the highlights of the tour.  This is where the authors penned or typed their words.  Where the impetus to create became incarnate.  Where . . .

It would be easy to go on and on about high-minded ideals of the creative work that took place at these pieces of furniture and in these rooms.  In reality, I’m drawn to them because I find it so difficult to stay at my desk.  It’s the discipline of writing that attracts me.  So in the spirit of desiring to sit at my desk in this new year, here’s a look at a few of the desks that have inspired me.

  • The latest desk I stood near was the lap desk of Jane Austen in the British Library.  From one perspective, it was just a simple box of wood with a lid.  Inside were pens, ink, and paper.  However, from another viewpoint, it was the place where Austen recorded her observations of society, shared her trenchant humor, and, unknowingly, created the sources of many well-loved films and mini-series.  All this within carefully wrought stories that continue to draw people into her world.
  •  Though I’ve seen many desks, I always return to the first desk I remember, that of Louisa May Alcott.  In her second story bedroom at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, there’s a built-in desk at the window that overlooks the Lexington Road.  Here she penned Little Women and other novels, while she saw the daily traffic walking and riding before her.  Sitting at her desk gave her one view onto the world that she eventually shared through her novels.
  • IMG006At Monks House, the final home of Virginia Woolf, there is a wonderfully cozy sitting room and library.  However, this is not where she did most of her writing.  Instead, her work desk was in a re-purposed shed in the garden.  In this small space, her desk looks out upon the gardens and the Sussex Downs.  Here she had that “room of her own” in which to leave behind the stories in her daily life and focus on her task at hand – exploring new avenues to express the consciousness of her characters.
  • In Jean Stratton-Porter’s offices at her two Indiana homes, she placed the desks in the middle of the room, interrupting traffic flow from one door to another.  But her focus was not on movement, but on vision.  She wanted to sit at her desk and see out of the house in all directions.  The environment was vital to her work and in this place she brought together narrative and nature.
  • Earlier this year, spending time at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, near Oxford, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his actual desk which is in a museum. Instead, a desk from that period was in the common room looking out the window to the rose garden.  Even though I didn’t see the actual desk, I was struck by this one of many spaces where he wrote.  This was a place of writing in the midst of life and community.

Each of these writers had different practices, different desks, different rooms.  Still each desk and room represented the place where they put the ideas in their minds into physical form.  In each of these homes I didn’t realize a mystical transfer of inspiration.  Instead, I was encouraged that these authors, too, needed to be disciplined in their writing.  Austen kept writing while people came in and out of the sitting room; Alcott worked tirelessly on her novels, writing in what she described as a vortex; and Lewis spent hours answering letters even though he did not enjoy it.  They didn’t run from the blank page but were drawn to it, or at least stayed in front of it.

As I begin a new year and a new resolution to write, these and many more desks inspire me to sit down at my desk.  Not recreating their space, but creating one of my own.

 

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“And is there honey still for tea?”

IMG_1670Green deck chairs and small tables covered the outdoor area of The Orchard tea house in Grantchester, England, just outside of Cambridge.  Small groups clustered under the shade of the many apple trees on this hot summer day.  Our group pulled together fourteen chairs and several tables in a spot of shade.  We were gathered for a mid-day break before driving back to Oxford from Cambridge.

The ground was uneven so the deck chairs wobbled.  I didn’t know if I dare sit down.  In line for cakes, scones, and tea I had the feeling of being in a cafeteria – pick up a tray, select the jams and clotted cream, reach for the scone, order the tea.  Next.  I made it back to the chairs and carefully sat down after first putting my tray on the table.  Many in this group from the United States were wondering why in the world we would have hot tea on a day like this with the temperature in the high eighties.

Yet, once we all settled, a sense of peace also settled on the group.  Aiden MacKay read Rupert Brooke’s poem, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” recalling this small town from the distance of a trip to Berlin in 1912.  Everyone listened, attuned to the connection Brooke had to this town where he lived after graduating from King’s College and before heading off to WWI.  Though the war had not yet started when he penned these lines, they seem to foretell the emptiness that many towns realized when their sons did not return home.

 Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, Rupert Brooke, 1912

IMG_1668To have tea, converse, gather with friends, maybe even change the world, the aptly named Grantchester Group gathered around Brooke and included Virginia Woolf, Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, and Bertrand Russell. The spirit of The Orchard continues as sign boards show pictures of this group and free booklets tell the story of their lives and the place. Even after Brooke’s death in WWI people continued to come to enjoy tea and be inspired. It is a place in which to rest and remember.

Even though many well-known figures have taken tea at this place, and could have been the topic of a myriad of conversations, our group was talking about a man who is not known to have stopped by – C. S. Lewis.  We had just spent the late morning and early afternoon walking around Cambridge getting a feel for this other campus at which Lewis lectured.  However, our conversation that afternoon was not about his time in Cambridge, but his interactions with people.  His decades-long gathering of writers in the Inklings is rather well known.  In a way like the Grantchester Group.  However, we were not talking about that either.

Instead, the focus that afternoon was the wide variety of people with whom Lewis interacted outside of the campus.  He received and responded to letters from children, clergy, women, family, friends, scholars and wrote more as an equal than an expert. who did not use his position of authority to assert his way.  He took in war orphans during WWII.  He anonymously gave away the majority of his royalties to those in need.   In general he did not see his position as something to use, but as a way to serve – as when he tutored a junior colleague at Cambridge.  In his sermon “The Weight of Glory” he emphasizes this attitude as he writes, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.”

As the conversation continued under the trees of the Orchard, I began to understood my time on the C. S. Lewis Summer Seminar in a new light.  It was not about following a man into magnificent places. Instead we were following C. S. Lewis into the mess of his life.  Seeing the places where controversy remains about him and his writing.  Reading his logical arguments for Christianity, yet also realizing where this logic may have broken down.  Walking into places where he gathered with friends, but also learning how these friends weren’t always a cohesive group.

IMG_1674In this place where many have stopped to rest and remember, a new group was gathered around a man, though he was not there. We were humbly realizing that this man we may see as great did not see himself as such.  He was an erring human like each of us, though he sought to see others as holy, images of God.  In this realization I found “honey for tea” at The Orchard, though maybe not as others have tasted it.

 

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What did you do on (with) your summer vacation?

IMG_1485For the past two weeks I’ve been thinking about the ubiquitous school essay question – What did you do on your summer vacation?  You see, I did something really cool on summer vacation, but I don’t know how to tell others. It would be great to return to high school and respond to this question on the first day of the fall semester.  With that question posed in a school environment there is tacit approval to talk about your vacation.  Unfortunately, that was over twenty-five years ago.  Now I’m never sure who really wants to hear.  So how do I tell people that I attended the C. S. Lewis Summer Seminar in Oxford, England for a week, then ventured out on my own for another week, and had an amazing time?

I can show all or part of the over 700 photographs and tell stories of the people, places and food.  Yet, since I’ve returned I think two people have asked see all the pictures and were engaged when I told the stories related to them. Moreover, I really don’t want just to have people go through the modern version of a vacation slide show on my iPad.   A few other friends have asked about my time and patiently listened while I described the Kilns, Lewis’s home; the meals; and the journeys. Even though I enjoy telling these stories, after awhile this type of sharing also gets old.

As I continue the process of reflecting on this time, I don’t want merely to tell people what I did.  In some of the most important ways this time can’t be shared vicariously.  It was in the experiences of the community, of entering sacred spaces, and of hearing Lewis’s words within his home that brought me to new understandings of him – and myself.  It was for me to live in that week, to breathe in and to learn from the story of C. S. Lewis, to enter other homes and churches, and to listen to new friends.

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Yet, there is still something to share.  That’s where I want to change the initial question from ‘what did you do on’ to ‘what did you do with’.  This change moves the focus from an activity in the past to how this activity changes the doer and continues into the future. I want to share the experiences of the week-long seminar in a way that brings to life what I learned, the places, and the stories.  Describing specific moments and activities could be one way to accomplish this.  But I also want to live the changes.  For instance, the small community of scholars at the Kilns practiced amazing hospitality, welcoming us into this home and even hosting several meals.  All the food was exceptional, displayed with care, and graciously served.  I can show pictures of these meals, but I can also more conscientiously practice hospitality with the meals I serve at campus ministry events.  In other words, I want to bring the lessons I learned from this time more deeply into my life.

Thinking back on the community, literature, places, and experiences of God I encountered over two weeks in England, the following themes keep cropping up:

  • following in the steps of C. S. Lewis
  • engaging in community in the spirit of C. S. Lewis
  • living in a place that invites individuals to flourish in their faith
  • seeing God’s Kingdom in the midst of meeting people, places, story, God
  • drawing together literature, places, and people
  • practicing unexpected hospitality
  • reading beyond the pages

IMG_1489There’s clearly a lot here.  It would be much easier just to show the pictures over the next few weeks and leave this vacation in a photo album, or to write that high school essay.  But something is calling me to do more.  To do something with this time. From the above list I’m not sure what I will end up doing, but through prayer, conversation, and reflection – oh, and just setting down words on a page – I know some type of sharing will occur. In all of this I want to point people away from my personal experience to the larger story of God in the life of Lewis, the community of CSLSS, and the places around England.
So watch out.  You may unknowingly be hearing or living some of my vacation stories.  At the same time, I hope to hear yours as well and together we can figure out what to do with these experiences.

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Preparing for Pilgrimage

IMG_1409Yesterday I picked up a necklace from the jewelers. I’m sure they were wondering why I wanted this worn, silver chain fixed. It’s not really worth anything. But for me it carries great meaning. Twenty years ago I purchased this silver cross after visiting Canterbury Cathedral. Today as I get ready to journey towards a story the next two weeks – to the places of C. S. Lewis and other authors – putting this simple necklace around my neck reminds me of the reasons for these months of preparations – pilgrimage.

Preparation has always been a part of pilgrimage. If you were traveling to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages there was no guarantee that you’d be returning home, so having all your financial, familial, and spiritual obligations in order was essential. In contrast, a two week trip to England via routine routes available to pilgrims today does not warrant a full scale estate plan. But still I was overwhelmed with preparations.

  • Plan the fall schedule for campus ministry
  • Print out maps and make reservations
  • Check on health insurance
  • Pay bills and call
  • Buy that one last ‘necessary’ item

But as I shopped and finalized speakers for the fall, I also realized I was missing out on some of the more significant preparations. Yes, I read many writings of C. S. Lewis, but did not always reflecting on them deeply. At times I was more excited about crossing out another title, than understanding the writing and meaning of a given book or essay. I also stopped writing to any great extent. I definitely stopped posting on this blog. It was if time was in abeyance until all these external tasks were finished.

Clearly, one of my stories over the past months has been one of getting everything right for this trip. I wanted to have no unexpected detours or moments of anxiety. I wanted to make it antiseptic and safe. I wanted to read all the books. Yet, in the midst of all of this, there remained a whispering voice me about my reason for this trip.

Underneath all these task lists, another story has been smoldering. I yearn to walk in the steps of C.S. Lewis and other authors and to re-engage with passions for literature and writing. These yearnings drove the itinerary – Oxford, Bath, Lindisfarne, Lake District – and they calmed me down. Most importantly they nudged me to remember of the callings of this journey.

  • To encounter new and loved places and stories.
  • To meet fellow pilgrims
  • To follow the story of writers and be inspired again.
  • To refocus priorities.
  • To seek a time to relish God’s story and listen to where it may be drawing me next.

Even as I sit here in my basement home office writing, a smile is moving up from my soul to my face. I’m breathing more calmly. I can’t wait to step onto the plane.

This journey will be one of transformation, though I don’t know what kind. It’s time to stop the frantic running around and rest. As the time for departure closes in, I’ve been encouraged by the well wishes from students, friends, and family. These are definitely not a formal ritual sending, but they are their own form of blessing. They represent the community in which I live and the ways in which they encourage me.

So, as I place this old silver necklace around my neck, it is with remembrance of pilgrimages taken before and expectations for the path before me.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. Psalm 84:5

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Planning a Pilgrimage this Summer

File0682Summer with the extra day-light hours and the more relaxed schedule in campus ministry provides an opportunity to break away from work and try something new.  It’s the time of year to put final touches on adventures, those weeks of magical bliss. It’s a time to create a new world, to try out some dreams, or to take the next step in a story.   It’s a time during which adventure can be a gateway to a new possibilities.

  • A time to leave everyday life.
  • A time to more deeply connect with internal spiritual nudgings.
  • A time to refresh after two semesters of work.
  • A time to journey towards a story.

After several years of ministry and family responsibilities that have kept me close to home, I’ve decided that this year is the time to head out on a more distant literary pilgrimage.  During this time, I want to integrate writing, pilgrimage, rest, community, new experiences, and life transformation.  So, I am working towards creating this perfect summer adventure – both eager and fearful at the same time.  But what does this look like?

Recently I’ve wanted my journeys to be grounded on this book on literary pilgrimage that I’ve been fooling around with forever.  Each time I venture out – whether across town to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s home in Cincinnati, Ohio, or to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home in Mansfield, Missouri – I get a new burst of energy for writing.  These journeys draw me into conversations that others are having about place, literature, story, and faith.  In turn, they pull me out of my writing rut.

Beyond research for a book, I want to explore other connections of literary pilgrimage.  Where might this interest connect with work within study centers, particularly centers associated with authors’ homes?  Where it may fit in with apologetics, in sharing the Christian message as a campus minister? Also, where might literary pilgrimage connect with the teaching of literature – both in formal and non-formal venues?

Within these reasons there is the underlying desire to design such trips for others.  I would like to learn how to develop a pilgrimage that would be welcome at a school like the University of Cincinnati – a journey for that students would be able to join for credit in literature, writing, religious studies – but also be on a personal pilgrimage that offers time to reflect on the larger questions of life and the academy.

One more thing – I look to these journeys to bring the possibility of connecting with other pilgrims. There is no doubt that a trip that includes interacting within a community moving towards a common goal is good discipline for someone who favors time alone and can get lost in being by herself.  I want to experience the wonder of being on pilgrimage, of walking in another’s steps, of meeting myself more deeply – and doing so with the challenge of being with other people – of being with a group, exploring a place, creating new stories even as we explore the richness of old ones.

What have I hit on?  I’m not to the point of getting a hotel yet, but am slowly putting together a journey that includes a week at a C.S. Lewis Seminar in Oxford, England, and some further meanderings around that great island.  Planning questions are still rumbling around my mind, but there is a beginning to this summer pilgrimage.  It won’t be perfect, but the possibilities for opening a new door in my life exist – and for that I can’t wait.

Any other pilgrimage planners out there?

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Literary Pilgrimage – A New Look

Literary pilgrimage.

  • A journey to places of story related to literature and its writing.
  • A  memoir of reading and journey.
  • A narrative of place and story, parable and poetry.

The introduction to the draft of my forever-in-progress book on literary pilgrimage, Walking the Path of Story, describes what the book is trying to do – build a connection between pilgrimage, literature, and reader.  It even lists the books and questions approached throughout the chapters. Yet, something is missing.  However, it doesn’t really get to the heart of this writing, the why it’s important, a reason to read.  So what is that reason?

This book is not full on literary criticism or religious ritual.  Nor is it a random jaunt to a tourist site.  Literary pilgrimage could be a way of simply following in the practices of earlier pilgrims, the authors and readers who have trod this path before.  But it’s not a path of imitation that underlays pilgrimage.  It’s a path of guidance.  This guidance frees the reader’s own story to come out as she lives in the places along the journey – the novels’, the authors’, the sites’, the pilgrims’.  It opens up new paths into the original story and into the pilgrim’s life.

Sitting in a grove of olive trees across from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, I could barely keep my eyes open.  Jet lag was pressing in on me even as the breeze of this land drifted across my body and I sat before ancient temples.  My first evening in Europe felt like a dream.  I didn’t know what to expect over the next twelve days on this Mediterranean tour, but I was ready to follow our guides as we heard familiar stories and were surprised by new ones. The growing connection of place and story slowly dissolved the dream and I was soon on an unexpected journey.  Each day one story led to others, drawing me on to the next place – whether the Aeropagus in Athens, the Forum in Rome, or this book on literary pilgrimage.

Many times the guidance on these journeys comes in the language of the book itself.  Readers engage with words penned in a specific time and place by a specific author.  The contemporary interaction of the reader with the authored words brings meaning to life in the practice of reading.  So, what happens when this contemporary interpretation includes places along with words?  How does the reader encounter these places?  Definitely not in the same way as the author.  This contrast is part of the richness of literary pilgrimage.  It puts one face-to-face with the uniqueness of both reader and writer and allows them to be in a multi-layered conversation.

On an overcast day in July I spent several hours on Cadbury Hill – a possible site of the fabled Camelot.  Through the trees I could see a lone piece of land rising out of the earth –  Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Avalon, home to the Lady of the Lake, the grave of King Arthur.  The grass underneath and branches above grounded me in an actual place, yet there was more.  While sitting in this place numerous stories came together as I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel, Mists of Avalon, and recalled other Arthurian legends.  Lives opened up.  Imaginations roamed.  A fullness welled up as I contemplated being in that place, at that moment.  Men and women had been walking across those fields for centuries.  Stories of kings and knights had been lived and embellished, given new life for others to retell.  In these connections I was drawn to the stories all the more.  Yet, many others had come this way before.  What difference did it make that it was new to me?

Similarly, what difference would it make for others to walk in the paths of stories that drew me on journey?  I had found connections that opened up the novels of Jane Eyre, Little Women, To the Lighthouse and The Girl of the Limberlost, but would others also find these connections inspiring?  Ultimately, these journeys shouldn’t only be about the pilgrim’s experiences.  Through the readings and the places, the writings will get into the heart of the journeys, the wanderings, the way of the initial interactions.  But, the should also provide pathways on which readers can start their own journeys.

On an overcast March day I was wandering through the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the eastern coast of England.  A storm rolling in from the sea made the place seem even more desolate.  Over the next days I also explored Bolton and Fountains Abbeys.  These immense skeletons of stone are all that remain of church buildings that were caught in the midst of a political and religious battle.  Grand architectural monuments now decayed.  Remnants of a religious legacy that people alternately romanticize and critique.  In these places men sensed the power of God; but, also abused human power in God’s name.  Now we only have the vestiges of these buildings calling us to hear their former stories and fill them with new ones.

Though the paths and stories encountered taken in this book are not through stone ruins, they do form a scaffolding that will hold a new story, a new community.  They can provide a path for others to understand these novels through new means.  This path won’t be in a stranglehold of rules and procedures for reading, but in the telling of stories.  It’s a journey into words, outside of the chains of expectations and into the grace of living a story.

What is such a book for?  To help other people engage in pilgrimage – first vicariously, and then on their own.  To relish literature, story, these types of journeys.  To show God’s story in the midst.  It’s not just about these authors, these places, one person’s journey.  It includes the readers.  It’s about their stories and our stories interwoven.  Through the chapters we walk down a pilgrimage path exploring the liminal elements of life – on a journey to stories and at home.

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News from the Writing World

Today Mo Yan, a Chinese writer, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Every year I listen for the name – and often quickly forget it.  Attaining such recognition seems so foreign to me that it barely registers in my mind.  It’s just another piece of news and affirmation that literature still matters.

But did you also know that The New The New York Public Library is recreating Charles Dickens’ library of fake books. and Patti Smith visited the Brontë parsonage and Sylvia Plath’s grave.  Now these may not be life changing events, but they do show that writers, and their related items and places, continue to engage people in tangible spaces.  There is a life of reading and writing that goes beyond the covers of a given book.

Both of these news bits came from a website I recently discovered – Writers’ Houses.  As you will see, this site contains archives descriptions of a number of writers homes along with a weekly update on upcoming events or other connections to these houses.  It’s a virtual place to gather with others who continue to find importance in visiting these homes and other literary sites.

This could be dangerous for me.  Reading the list from two weeks ago I’m ready to go to Manorbier House, a Welch haunt of Virginia Woolf’s, that is still used as a writers’ retreat or find a way to live in one of the castles in the UK used for movies and television shows.  Who knows where I will be drawn to go over the next weeks as I return to the site.  Some of the ventures will be doable, others not so much.  But merely reading about the opportunities and getting a glimpse of the actual lives lived by these authors have inspired me to sit at the keyboard once again and get to writing.

In my research on literary pilgrimages to writers houses, I have found that such journeys don’t only or even primarily draw people to follow in the steps of the authors, mimicking their styles and attempting to recreate what had been.  Such visits also encourage people to step into their own life, and possibly writing, journeys on a more engaged level. There’s something about knowing that it’s been done before in a given place, with all its attendant difficulties, that makes writing or even another activity seem possible.

Now I may or may not purchase Mo Yan’s latest writings in which he merges “folk tales, history and the contemporary” with hallucinatory realism.  But I do know that I will return to a writer’s house soon to explore the places and surroundings that inspired them.  But even before that time, I will make my own journey into the practice of literature – both reading and writing in the places that surround me today.

 

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Encountering a Childhood Story Again – Little Women

On the other side of the kitchen door a dining room table was set for supper and a piano stood in the corner ready for someone to play.  Later in the evening four sisters would wait in the parlor for people to attend their weekly open house.  If the oblong pillow on the black sofa was vertical, then the second oldest sister would be in a mood to talk.  Otherwise, it was better not to approach her.  Listening to the guide as I stood in the parlor at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, it was easy to imagine the lives of the four Alcott daughters that had inspired Louisa May Alcott to write Little Women.  I was reliving scenes I had read as an eight-year old child who desperately wanted to follow in Jo March’s footsteps – getting up plays, going to the big city, and writing.

Over thirty years ago I first read the novel, and over twenty years ago I first entered Orchard House.  Since then I’ve been exploring how stories, novels, places, and journeys come together.  It is great fun to look back at favorite stories – and to follow in their paths when possible.  Each time I’ve re-opened Little Women or re-entered Orchard House I have similar feelings of wanting to re-engage with my dreams – whether of writing, teaching, or just playing better.  I leave the house or close the book, ready to begin.

These journeys have played a role in choices related to schools, graduate study, research, and even a renewed practice of writing.  This blog can even be linked to it.  Many other women tell stories of their connection with this story.  It’s one of those books that people read expecting a merely a story about young girls.  Something you can easily return to the shelf when finished.  However, this book refuses to stay on the shelf.

Quotes like the following from Little Women keep me coming back.

“Why don’t you write?  That always used to make you happy, said her mother once, when the desponding fit overshadowed Jo.

I’ve no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things.

We do.  Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world.  Try, dear, I’m sure it would do you good, and please us very much.”

These and similar quotes provide for me a renewed imagination of what life can be.  Writing does make me happy when other things seem to be crashing in on life – but maybe for others it’s painting or building or teaching.  Whatever it is, being able to do it within a community – whether of family or a writing group – is a true gift and an opportunity for transformation.

Now I have an opportunity to share some of my ideas about the novel, the place, and pilgrimage with another audience – a small group who will hear me read a paper at a literature conference.  I wonder how this ‘little’ paper will be received in the midst of what I perceive as cutting edge literary work.  But does it even matter?  More importantly I would like my writing to be a conduit for people to find this or other stories and places that draw them to live more fully.

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Looking Out an Author’s Windows

After spending the morning at Andalusia, I headed to Savannah, Georgia.  This time no exotic name or farm house with expansive grounds drew me.  Instead I found that I was looking for a row house off  Lafayette Square just past the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.  This non-descript building of beige stone had only a small sign on the front indicating that here was the childhood home of Mary Flannery O’Connor.  

I walked up a set of stairs that were right that off the sidewalk and opened the front door.   From the back corner of the the living room, a voice greeted me. The docent welcomed me to the home and asked if I had read O’Connor’s works and whether or not I wanted a tour. Just minutes later another woman entered and we were soon surrounded by the stories of this home.

A difference from Andalusia I noticed immediately was that recent renovations had brought the home up to a state that echoed the time when Flannery lived here from 1925-1938.  Pictures of work showed how a modern apartment kitchen was returned to a turn-of-the-century version, complete with ice-box.  I felt I was in the midst of the place where she lived as a child, not a place that showed decay from the time she left.

In this setting our guide shared stories of a young, mischievous Flannery with a very keen sense of self.  She kept other children at arm’s length, reading them stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales when they came over, and attending the adult, not the children’s mass at St. John’s.  In the library area (the former dining room) he pointed out a copy of a book in which Flannery started her critical work at a young age by writing “this is not a good book” on the title page.  Upstairs we saw the twin beds in which she had slept.  Since they were on wheels she could roll them to the window in her bedroom – not something that was encouraged.

From her parent’s bedroom windows she could watch the people in the square – their comings and goings.  She also saw the cathedral – the center of the community and also her faith life.  However, she did not blindly accept the teachings of the church or the expectations of others.  She asked questions, developed her own understandings of faith, and decided who would be part of her life.  As she melded what she saw from these windows, within her protected life within the home, and during the interactions she had outside, the foundation of her worldview was forming.  Add to this the times she listened to her father’s stories as she sat by near the fireplace in the living room – and one can almost see her future as a writer solidify.

Walking through the house I sensed a place of life.  But also of quiet.  Not many visitors came to to this out of the way home today.  It provided space to reflect as I looked out the windows where as a child, Mary Flannery, stood and observed the scenes before her.  What does it mean to look out the same windows and see the same view – though with a few more trees in the square.  Does this put me in a place of copying?  Or in a place to look out my windows more clearly?  What is the writing life that this home encouraged decades ago and encourages today?

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