Banana Pancakes & the Olympic Torch

Sun is streaming through my window, I’ve changed back into my pajamas and have a hot cup of tea and orange slices beside me (the pancakes are already in my tummy). No complaints on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a beautiful morning–one too good to sleep away even after only getting a few hours sleep. Earlier this morning I met Caro and Jennifer in Clifton Village to watch the Olympic torch pass over the Suspension Bridge and it was just–fun. Groups of school children were there waving their ‘Union Jacks’ while BBC Bristol filmed the excitement of this ‘historic’ moment. With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee less than two weeks away, the Village shops had changed their window displays to picnic baskets complete with tea things, streams of more British flags hung in the doorways, and pictures of the Queen (on plates, books, postcards, shirts) were readily available.  As Caro would say, “I quite like British culture.”

The Olympic torch crosses the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Yesterday was the ‘dissertation symposium’ where I, along with the other English MAs, presented my dissertation proposal to several of my professors to get an idea of the validity and strength of my topic (the consensus: I have a ‘rich’ topic, but no argument (yet)). And with that, the academic year was officially over. My routine of reading and ‘learning’ won’t really change all that much as this dissertation needs to get done somehow, but it was odd to finally arrive at the last official date on my calendar. The year is winding to a close and though I’m here for another month, I keep wondering how it suddenly passed so quickly. Some months didn’t pass by quickly at all. Strings of days were punctuated only with trips to the library and cups of coffee, but time is sneaky. I’m convinced that the more I’m enjoying myself, that faster it goes.  I visited Cambridge last Saturday (gorgeous city–photos to follow), and among the ancient, particularly by American standards, colleges and chapels the new clock Corpus Christi Clock seemed evocatively out of place. On our tour we learned the clock was installed in 2008 with the purpose of emphasizing the relativity of time. And I’m beginning to see the point. How can the same measurement of hours and minutes pass with aching slowness in the grey walls of my former cubicle, and here, melt away without even eyeing the clock? The universal question.

I, for one, need to use the hours of this next week to read four unfamiliar Hardy novels and develop my dissertation topic into an argument. But please, reader, don’t hold your breath in edge-of-your-seat suspense (as I know you all are). It will get done.

E.

 

Exploring Gloucester

Three days ago, on a rainy Monday morning, I left Bristol by train to explore the south-west city of Gloucester. Stepping off the platform, I was greeted by my cousin and dear friend, Leah, and her darling goddaughter, Lily. Leah graduated from Redcliffe College in Gloucester four years ago, and inevitably, this city holds a special place in her heart and, fortunately for me, it meant being shown around  by someone who knew the city inside and out.

After a solid twelve-days of nonstop essay-writing, getting out of Bristol and my flat for a full day of wandering seemed just the thing, and the city exceeded my expectations. Gloucester was charming–picturesque and very English. Bristol isn’t really a big city (at least by American standards), but escaping to smaller, slower-paced cities is always a treat.

The Beatrix Potter Shop

We began the day exploring the small and pretty campus of Redcliffe College, and after hearing so much about this place so pivotal in Leah’s life,  I could understand firsthand why she loves it dearly. We then wandered to the little Beatrix Potter shop–made famous as being the setting and inspiration for the Beatrix Potter story “The Tailor of Gloucester”–which, I learned, was Potter’s favorite of her stories. It’s always a delicious feeling to literally stand in the footsteps of writers I’ve so long admired.

Just beyond the shop was the stunning Gloucester Cathedral dating back to 681!  I’ve been blessed to see many awe-inspiring cathedrals, but I’d never seen cloisters and corridors as stunning as these (no wonder three of the Harry Potter movies were filmed here). Growing up in Minnesota culture where what is ‘basic and functional’ rules over extravagance and detail, the beauty of the Cathedral was overwhelming.  For the first time, I could understand the motivation behind these painstakingly-ornate Cathedrals as surrounded by inspiring-beauty, God felt closer.

The cloisters

The history and age of England still hasn’t lost its allure for me, and I’m realizing yet again that even nearly a year here is not enough time to take in all the wonder–the castles, the cathedrals, the tea shoppes, the cliffs of Cornwall, the green hills of Devon, the beauty of the Lake District, the charm of the Cotswolds–and I still haven’t been up North!

Today was my last day of class and to celebrate, our professor, Ralph, brought white wine and cloudy lemonade to class, and we leisurely discussed British poetry for an hour. My final essays were turned in six days ago and now, all that stands between getting my degree, is a little dissertation. Time has moved fast and slow here, but lately, it’s swept by much too quickly…the thought of leaving is a bittersweet one, but lo! no need to think of that yet.

It’s so much easier to put Mary Oliver’s words into practice, for some reason, away from home:

“I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

Cheers,

Em

The Engagement

I have truly terrible about updates this past month, but for have good reason! First of all, my final MA essays were due  this past Friday, and miraculously, I got them done: all 12,000 words of ’em. Needless to say, I never want to read anything to do with Ann Radcliffe again. Thomas Hardy, however, is quite another story, and from studying Hardy and Impressionism, I believe I’ve found my dissertation topic. O, the relief!

But for my favorite news of all: there is a yellow-gold solitaire on my ring finger and on October 27th of this year, I will be marrying my best friend. In between the rush of essay-writing and lectures, Brady flew into London and after meeting him at Heathrow, we took the train back into Bristol. That night after a relaxed dinner at The Lido, Brady took my hand and we began strolling through Clifton Village. After sheets of rain all day, the sky had suddenly stopped crying  and the moon had just come up and in the dusky twilight, we reached the Clifton Suspension Bridge. There wasn’t a place in the world I’d rather have been at that moment, and when Brady got down on one knee and said, “Will you marry me?” I could only nod and say, “Yeah.”

A couple days later, Brady was on a plane back to Minnesota and I was left with two essays to finish,  but it’s hard to complain about essay-writing when it gave me an excuse to admire the ring as my fingers tapped the keyboard.

Brady et moi

This being engaged feels wonderfully surreal, but now back to dissertation research: more soon.

Em

The Orchard on Fire

Just finished Shena Mackay’s “The Orchard on Fire,” a bittersweet and beautifully-writ account of two little girls growing up in 1950s England. Had I not been living in England myself, I wouldn’t have understood half of the English references, but I did, and it’s somehow a funny sensation. Almost as though I know too much now, and there’s no going back. After finishing my MA, I’ll return to the States and Minnesota culture and will no longer be surrounded by West Country accents, Georgian architecture, tea shoppes and pubs. Thankfully, I’ll have pictures and memories and maybe a couple future visits to look forward to, but this experience will have largely stopped. For all my trying I can’t recreate it and that will be that. Hmmm…Mackay has me feeling all melancholy! I guess the only remedy is to make the most of the remaining months. Press it all into memory like a bouquet of pressed flowers.

Yesterday I attended the day-long “Penguin Poetry & The 1960s” conference at the stunning Wills Memorial. Can’t say I knew much of modern poetry before going, or that I suddenly understand poetry after shaking the hand of A. Alvarez (such a lovely man!), but it has me interested and honestly excited to try and “get it.” Listening to Alvarez, a poetry giant for those of you unfamiliar, talk of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath by their first names and relating stories of his friendship with the couple was, for lack of a better word, surreal.  Even someone who has never read a poem by Plath knows who she is. Plath has become a part of our cultural psyche, and it’s easy to forget she was a breathing, living person.

Alvarez said the difference between prose and poetry is that “a poem has to be perfect.” If it’s not, you know it. You can’t stop rearranging, crossing out and crumbling words till it’s right. Whole. Exact. And I think he is absolutely right. Finding the exact words in a world of speed and convenience and finite time takes a discipline most of us don’t have. Or don’t try to have.  Hmmm…just something I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve also been feeling a bit guilty about leaving Bristol for three weeks on Thursday for a bit of traveling (Paris-Nice-Monaco-Venice-Florence-Pisa-Goteborg). Surely this should be someone else’s life! I don’t know why God has been so good to me.

Alright! Back to studying up on T. Hardy.

E.

 

Springtime in Bristol

The grass is somehow greener, the cherry blossoms are out, and the days are becoming deliciously longer; an English spring has arrived and I couldn’t be more ready. As you might tell from my lapse of posts, this term has been a manic one, but the end is in sight.  ‘Spring break’ begins in less than two weeks, and with it, two weeks of travel (Paris-Nice-Monaco-Venice-Florence-Goteborg-Finland(?)). Though 12,000 words are due at the end of the break, surely two weeks of new sights, tastes and sounds will invigorate my lately tired mind.  At least I’m hoping!

I sometimes wonder where all my time goes here in Bristol, and then look up at my bookshelf and quickly remember. The past month has slipped away reading: Mansfield Park, The Woodlanders, Rural Rides, Frankenstein, The Confessions, The Italian, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Silas Marner, Cousin Phillis, Wuthering Heights, Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life (written by none other than my professor Ralph Pite!), and a smattering of Coleridge, Byron, Wordsworth, Dickens, Eliot, and James. I still derive some small sense of accomplishment from reading that blessed last page, but somehow, that feeling diminishes when I think of how many first pages I’ve still yet to open…

The idyllic cottage of Anne Hathaway

And really, that has been my life these last few weeks–save a day trip to Stratford-on-Avon which promptly caused me to fall in love with England all over again. That places like Anne Hathaway’s cottage really exist is enough to keep going I suppose. And fortunately, several of the above mentioned books I’ve read before. And it’s been funny to realize that as much as my tastes have changed in other areas, my taste in books has remained about the same. Rediscovering my love of Hardy has been the biggest treat, and when I’m not reading for class, I’ve started researching Impressionism for an upcoming essay…

I have much to be grateful for indeed.

Cheers, Em

 

Espresso and Dickens

I was woken up early this morning to the sound of drilling mixed with mumbled British accents outside my window and have just said goodnight to a pair of British maintenance men who came to repair my broken fire alarm. I can’t decide if this counts as an unusual or a very typical day.

Unable to read amidst the cacophony of drills, harsh mutters and a beeping fire alarm, I threw on clothes and crossed the street to Rosemarino’s, a little Italian café I’ve been wanting to try since moving next door.  A good looking British-Italian boy took my order for an espresso and eggs royale, and it proved more than worth leaving my cozy bed for. Sometimes I feel my days revolve largely around finding new study corners.

The problem becomes footing my coffee bill. Starbucks is only a fifteen minute walk from mine and for £1.50 I can have actual filter coffee in a grande (if I bring in my own tumbler). I if I choose a café in Clifton Village, they’re almost always quieter, but the coffee is more expensive and usually comes only in pretty, but tiny cups (why I do need so much coffee to get through the day?). So, lots of time I make my own French press and head to the graduate school to study, but it’s cold there and people are always shushing you. But then, if I opt to stay in my room I inevitably get distracted and the books stay on the shelf. This marks the current struggle of my life. As difficult as it is, I somehow cope.

Today it was a rota of Rosemarino’s, the Manor Hall library and my flat. Tomorrow I have class all day and Friday’s study locations are yet unknown. Thus follows the excitement of completing my MA.

No more traveling for me for quite some time now as I finish my last two months of classes, and with them, final essays and my dissertation. I’m so thankful to have met such amazing women in my program. It hit me this week especially that I could not do this alone. When the reading lists are literally endless and the course so unstructured, it makes all the difference crying and laughing over it all with kindred spirits.

And now to finish Wilkie Collin’s ‘John Jago’s Ghost,’

Em

 

Stonehenge and Christmas Onesies

 Currently sipping black coffee, plopping pomegranate seeds in my mouth, and wondering how this term has passed so quickly. Too quickly for my liking. A week from tomorrow I’ll be headed home to Minnesota for Christmas, but the thought of leaving Bristol for nearly a month makes me feel ‘homesick.’ Before stepping off the plane in England I actively tried to keep my expectations in check, telling myself I might honestly not make any friends; spend most of my time lost, or just miss home too much. It’s been a sweet surprise to have life in Bristol exceed even my greatest expectations. I’ll soon be approaching three months here, yet the beauty of the city still feels so new to me. Running over the Royal Crescent and past the Bridge still throws me. Sometimes getting myself to the library seems such a task simply because I want to wander round this city till I can walk around with my eyes closed. But it’s probably the variety and novelty that makes me love it so.

This past week has brought many firsts. I tried my first mince pie (yummy, though I’m still partial to apple pie. See, Brady, I do love a couple things about America!), had a glass or two of mulled wine (this recipe I will be bringing home), and had the opportunity to visit Stonehenge and the surrounding town of Salisbury. Almost three years ago now during my first trip to England I had the chance to visit Stonehenge, but alas!, couldn’t afford transportation. This time round, it didn’t cost a penny. Ashley’s husband, Brian, is studying his masters in archaeology here and drove us all in the department’s land rover! There is something about driving in a car here that makes England really feel like home. And the drive was beautiful. We stumbled into a tiny Cotswolds village with thatched roofs and bright little gardens, and of course, I needed to pinch myself.

Stonehenge was brilliant. And a bit frustrating. The mystery of its original purpose has never been discovered and literally thousands of theories exist regarding its purpose.  It’s certainly interesting to think of how the stones were somehow transported (they’re said to come from an area 40 km away) and resurrected in prehistoric times. At any rate, it was a thrill to cross Stonehenge from my bucket list, or as my sister Maria would call it, the ‘Living Deliberately” list.

We made it!

Last night was the “Ugly ‘Jumper’ Christmas Party,” and unable to locate a truly hideous sweater, Madeline, Gen, Ashely and I decided to wear onesies (footie pajamas). It was without a doubt the best ten pounds I’ve ever spent.While the fifteen minute walk from Sinclair to Dean’s Court  was filled with stares and even a few chuckles as I premiered my onesie, it was well worth it. It’s impossible to be cold in a onesie. It’s impossible to entertain a bad mood while dressed in a onesie. And onesies happen to be quite forgiving; I could eat an entire turkey and no one would ever know. I could hide another person in my onesie and no one would guess. In short, I felt like I was five again save for missing a pair of stick-on earrings in the shape of half-moons.

And now to take out my caffeine and pomegranate jitters on Posthumous Keats.

Cheers,

Em

Collecting Flowers

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” — Mary Oliver”

Yesterday in lecture we discussed the creation of anthologies, and how terribly subjective their creation often is. Our tutor, a young man going prematurely grey, was a nervous genius. As he stuttered out his words and thoughts, their meaning struck me as relevant not just to literature, but life, unpredictable and sticky.

The Greek origin of the word “anthology” is anthologein, which means ‘to collect flowers.’ Anthologies of English poetry, for instance, are a collection of works individually distinct, but sometimes made more beautiful by their variety in comparison to other poems. Roses are lovely by themselves, but what about hydrangeas, lilies, asters, and honey-suckle? To me, the idea of creating anthology of life experience is more natural than the idea of writing a single life story.  I want to collect beauty wherever I go and create an arrangement of experience marked by color and depth. Under the metaphor of writing your own story, Bristol was the start of a new chapter, and for many reasons, it is. The idea of a book, though, suggests a central theme, but often, unity is fleeting and confusing.  My five weeks in Africa loving Ugandan babies feels as far removed from the clean lines and order of England as could be. My undergraduate years at Concordia, tucked comfortably in my hometown stands in vivid contrast to my first time abroad in the tiny ski-town of Lillehammer, Norway.  The common thread of new experience runs through them, but there is a stronger disconnect.

A purple hydrangea in November

But when flowers are cut, they wither and lose their beauty. The beauty of the most striking bouquet is temporary and fleeting. Maybe then, if we want tulips, we must go to Holland. If we admire east African lilies, why not go to Uganda? Maybe, like verses of an anthology, we must take ourselves of context to create meaning from chaos and beauty from ashes. Removed from our ordinary context, we use muscles not stretched since building tree forts and creating sand castles. With an anthology, life can take abrupt turns without ruining the plot. Characters can come and go without the story leaving with them. Mistakes are more easily forgiven. When I’m ninety-two and living with flowers and Scottish terriers, I’d rather read a collection of vibrant, divergent short stories than a novel weighed down by agreement.

-E.

Burning the Turkey

It’s a bright Sunday afternoon in Bristol, and after a stretch of grey weather days, the sunshine makes such a wonderful difference in my mood. My essay due Friday feels less daunting, the opening night of ‘And Then There Were None’ this Thursday is more exciting, and Bristol simply becomes more beautiful.

This Thanksgiving, unusual though it was, struck me anew how richly I’ve been blessed. Part of this is God broadening my often narrow view to the thousands of blessings around me I never noticed or really took in before. It’s an ongoing endeavor of mine to keep record of these blessings and though I forget to mention half of them, a few are mentioned here. I’m so grateful for women like Ann Voskamp who have shown me even the bitter moments of life are gifts. Some days in Bristol are far from perfect.  Sometimes I feel completely inept in lecture discussions; I miss Brady to the point of contemplating a one-way ticket home, or slip on the wet pavement and skin both my knees and stain my jeans (an occurrence which has happened three times now, but why count?). God gives us one more day–He’s given me twenty-three years of days and  never once did the sun not rise. This attitude is a work in progress (like most aspects of life) and I fail and fail, but sometimes I remember and my day is turned around.

Thanksgiving is not recognized at all in England, and I suppose it’d be counter-intuitive for Brits to recognize it. After all, the pilgrims were celebrating their freedom from this country I love so well. Fortunately, I’m not the only American studying in Bris and so a couple American girls in my program hosted a “A Very British Thanksgiving Brunch” complete with cream tea, scones, omelettes, and mimosas. It was such a treat to share my corner of England with Leah and introduce her to my friends. Leah and I were both thrilled to be celebrating Thanksgiving with family and had planned out our whole day accordingly. Our hopes were quickly dashed, however, when I realized I had lecture all afternoon! Our Thursday lectures have always been only every other week, but of course, the schedule changed just in time for Thanksgiving. Sitting in lecture room one  discussing material I hadn’t read instead of moseying around Clifton Village with Leah felt a bit like burning the turkey. For a couple hours, the homesickness sunk in deep and being in England felt silly and difficult. Could I feel ungrateful on this day of all days? God knew I needed Leah near, though, and after a lovely Thanksgiving dinner of chicken (I did feel rebellious) and tiramisu, I loved Bristol again.

I gotta return to the books, but this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Em

The Holiday or Laughing Over the History of Courting

I do love Bristol, but an invitation to spend a long weekend in the Cotswolds with my cousin and dear friend, Leah, was enough to make me pack my bags. And a change of scenery works wonders when it comes to conquering my endless reading list.

Following my last lecture of the week, I jumped on Bus Nine to Temple Meads and after a brief train ride found myself anxiously waiting in Cheltenham Station for Leah. It didn’t take long to spot her yellow jacket so similar to mine, and before long we’d hugged, hello’ed and we’re en route to Winchombe, a cosy village in the western Cotswolds.

The wonder of England surprised me over and over as I experienced this rare part of the world deemed an “Area of Outstanding Beauty.” Considered by many to make up the heart of England, the Cotswolds are a range of sleepy villages just above Bristol known for their charm and simplicity. I pinched myself more than once as I strolled around the quiet streets and soft green hillsides of Winchcombe.

Lily and I en route to Sudley Castle

What really made the weekend golden, though, was meeting Leah’s lovely English friends, Lizzie and Neil, and ‘minding’ their darling two-year old daughter, Lily, so they could have a weekend away (and so might we!). Staying in Lizzie and Neil’s historic and cosy home located right next to St. Peter’s Parish (built in the 15th century!) was a welcome change from my tiny room in Sinclair House. I could get used to ‘playing house’ in the Cotswolds.

Lily soon captured my heart with her tiny “Hellos” and recitation of the colours: “Red, Orange, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet!” Definitely a British child. Being constantly around  young people  has really felt abnormal, and spending time with Lily was refreshing.

Lily and the Pony

On Saturday, Leah and I (with Lily in tow) hopped on a bus headed to another Cotswold village–Broadway. One of the Cotswold’s most famous villages, I felt like I’d stepped into a Charles Dickens novel. Honey-colored shops with thatched roofs lined the streets, and the trees were even lit with fairy lights. We spent most of the afternoon in a park tucked between Broadway’s hills. On our way out of the park we were met by a friendly stranger trying to steal Lily’s cracker.

I think the best part of cousins is suddenly feeling fourteen again. I don’t know if it was all the sugar or clotted cream or possibly a tad too much Rose, but Leah and I did laugh. When Lizzie and Neil returned from their getaway, the hysterics continued as Leah opened a book published in 1954 entitled “A History of Courting.” Our favorite quotes from ‘Courting’ so far include:

“In my opinion, nothing is more imprudent, nothing more offensive, than for lovers to appear lovers in company; it is both disagreeable and disgusting to society.”

“Ah, I never knew a woman come to good who was fond of reading!” (As qtd. from the 1763 play “Love in a Village by Isaac Bickerstaff)

“On the continent the reputation of Englishman as lovers was far from high!”

“The popularity of this seductive item of furniture (the sofa) was soon to distress the moralists. The sofa gave woman an admirable opportunity to look their best while languishing, and to show feet and ankles in the process.”

“They are numerous cases on record of men being fined for unauthorized wooing.”

“Many and various have been the thoughts inspired in men by the unexpected sight of a pretty ankle.”

“As for kissing and fondling, such practices stir the blood and invite the wrath of God!”

“Possibly the telephone, the motor-car, and the cinema have made love-making a shade too easy.”

And now, for the crème de la crème:

“Farmers fume at the damage to crops and haystacks caused by courting couples.”

So many giggles. And now to bed because it is late and tomorrow we go to the little village of Bradford-on-Avon.

Cheers,

Em

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