Keep Calm and Stay Left

As an old woman, Georgia O’Keeffe once claimed that she had been terrified every moment of her life, and it had never kept her from doing a single thing. O’Keeffe had a habit of living her life on the edge, disregarding boundaries and borders, whether they had been self-imposed or imposed from without. 

I have always admired O’Keeffe, but I have come to admit that my admiration is more theoretical than motivational. One of my shortcomings is that I almost never seek out experiences that scare me. Until now. 

Having a saint ride shotgun is a good idea.
Last weekend I rented a car and drove all around Northumberland and the Border Lands of England and Scotland. Driving on the left side of the road is a spiritual experience, in the sense that a brush with death brings you closer to God.

Driving in England was a disorienting combination of knowing what to do and having no idea at all. I mean: I know how to drive. But I was worried about my instincts: I am careful checking for oncoming traffic, but it wigged me out that the traffic would be coming from the wrong direction. It was the quick, instinctual decisions that terrified me in advance. 

It had not occurred to me to brush up on UK road signs, of course. Also–and this turns out to be important–measuring speed in miles per hour and kilometers per hour is not the same thing. I figured that out after throwing gravel while squealing around a couple of turns. Oh, and another thing: rural roads in England are not wide enough for two cars. So that’s fun. There was a bustle in my hedgerow a couple of times there. I was alarmed.

God being my helper and St. Polycarp be praised, there were no serious mishaps. I handled the roundabouts just fine. I only got honked at once, and only twice started to get in the wrong car door. I did skim the left curb about 1000 times and grip the wheel like my life depended on it. Which I guess it did. 

The wonder of the experience was that after a while, I got my bearings and worry gave way to joy. After traveling several plane and train segments, it was so wonderful to be free to pick my own strange roads, and arrange my comfort stops as I pleased. When I got lost, I problem-solved with the help of a stained and dog-eared atlas, in combination with the little blue GPS dot on my phone. 

Seeing variations of my family name never got old. I saw this sign while I was lost.
I saw things I would never have seen from the train, and when something caught my eye, I turned around and went back. 
I kept thinking that what made it possible for Moses to hear the voice of God was the fact that he noticed something–a bush, burning!–and turned off his path to see. This was one of the greatest mid-course corrections in history and a model for us all. God grant us to seek new roads, even in fear. May we always turn aside to look when something wondrous catches the eye.

What’s in a name?

I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground. (Mary Chapin Carpenter)

The Northumberland flag
The original staircase spirals clock-wise, favoring the sword of the defender, coming down.
Medieval toilets.
After two nights in a semi-sketchy hostel in Edinburgh (a basementy wonder with an alley-floor view complete with pigeons, a tiny, grimy window and weird lighting,) my accommodations have gotten steadily nicer. (I hasten to say, however, that the hostel was a Great Sub-Cultural Experience and I got to stay there with my daughter. So, no complaints here. But yeah: the room had room for improvement.) At the other end of the spectrum, I arrived yesterday at Langley Castle.

Built in 1350 on land held by the barony of Langley, the castle overlooks the River Tyne valley in the Northumberland region of northeast England, just west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Most personal to me: my family surname, Tyndall, comes from this place.

It is well documented that our name–my sisters’, my father and his brother’s, and their father’s, and his father’s… all the way back–has its etymology in the dale of the Tyne. I take it for granted, really. But traveling there, being there in person, has caused this intellectual interest to settle down into my gut.

Langley Castle is a schmancy hotel now, after having been things like a girls’ school, a private residence and a 400-year ruin. Many features of the 14th-century fortification remain: teensy spiral staircases, low doors, and giant fireplaces. There are deep window wells in the seven-feet-thick walls, some are for sitting and gazing, and some for defending the castle.  The view from the very top turret shows the entire estate of several hundred acres, which ends at Hadrian’s Wall.

I was ensconced in the Tindale Room, named for Adam de Tindale, first baron of the estate. I had hoped to be visited by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor, but alas. Instead, I just went very slowly, and walked around touching everything. I took a bath, because there were bath salts. I wore the robe and the slippers. I had a lovely dinner and breakfast in the restaurant. My clean laundry appeared magically on my bed. Except for a little walk around outside for a selfie, I stayed inside the castle for my entire 24 hours there. I paid for all of the services, of course, since I was a guest and not the lady of the estate. I received a deep gift in my blood, the heavy weight of my history. I am grateful.

I let time go by so slow, and I made every moment last. And I thought about years: how they take so long, and they go so fast. 

In which our heroine is charmed by an abbess and a vampire

After two nights in Whitby, I am leaving with a brand-new love for a place I had barely heard of. My calendar shows a saint’s commemoration for “Hilda of Whitby,” but the person and the geography were just words to me before yesterday.

Doing travel research and laying out an itinerary is a lot like collecting shells on the beach. Every single option looks more lovely than the previous one, and before you know it, your pockets can’t possibly hold all the pieces you’ve picked up. So you sort and throw out, either randomly or with reasons that make sense only to you.

The plans for my journey around the UK got quickly and completely out of control and had to be wrangled into submission. I have a nostalgic/Anglophilic weakness for ruined abbeys, and that helped me with the sorting. Looking for a destination about a four-hour train ride from Edinburgh, I dropped a pin at Whitby. It has an abbey. And it’s on the coast. That would be cool. 

I ended up in this seaside town without knowing anything about it. As it turns out, it’s an enormously popular destination, and the spring bank holiday ensured a crowd. Super-historic and adorable with narrow streets, shops, and cobblestones, Whitby also has its share of crap-shops, temporary tattoo booths and “attractions” like every other tourist town. 

But by far the most wonderful thing about Whitby is the ruined abbey atop the cliff, 99 steps above the street and overlooking the North Sea. The present ruins are from Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries around 1540, but they rest on more ancient monastic ruins dating to the 600s. Adding to the moody atmosphere on the clofftop is the fact that the graveyard of the nearby Church of St. Mary the Virgin is where Dracula met his first victim upon his arrival in England. 

St. Hilda (614?-680) was the founder and abbess of a co-ed monastic community. Hilda was so respected by the Anglo-Saxon kings and religious leaders that her monastery was the site of a key council of the church in 664. For reasons more political than religious, the Synod of Whitby decided that the still-new Christian religion in the north od England would follow the practices and the calendar of Rome, rather than the Irish and Scottish (Celtic) ways. (More’s the pity, I say.)

The abbey is an English Heritage site, of course, and as such is a prime location for costumed interpreters. During my long afternoon there, “Benedictine monks” were introducing visitors to the temporary labyrinth mown into the lawn below the abbey. Even more than abbey ruins, I am a sucker for a labyrinth, so it was a wonderful surprise to find one there for the walking. It was mostly tourist attraction: racing kids and laughing friends made it an interesting semi-devotional, communal experience.

I said someting to one of the monks about “that damned Henry VIII” and he, in a perfect (and unintentional) impression of Hugh Grant said: “Yes, well. HE’LL have some things to answer for, won’t he?”

Have fun storming the castle!

I have been away from home for a week today, and am just starting to settle into myself, starting to notice the luxury of time. 

My journey began in Ireland (Ireland, IRL!) in the companionship of my daughter Clare, son Marc and his friend Chelsea. Ireland is magic, green, extroverted, ancient, and four days in Galway was just right. Clare and I have come now to Edinburgh for two nights, and “vacation” is slipping away along with my companions. Pilgrimage is starting.

I have been in Edinburgh just once before. My frustration with that trip was that I bungled a trip to Edinburgh Castle, missing out on the Honours, or Crown Jewels of Scotland. This was a mistake I did not intend to make this time. 

The heavy-walled castle is entered slowly, up a hill, through gates and a portcullis. It sits on the top of a rock which, on a non-foggy day, allows a 360-degree view for miles around. It was the home of Mary, Queen of Scots and birthplace of her sweet baby James, (King James of the eponymous Bible.) It is also the site of the oldest building in Edinburgh, the exceedingly sweet Queen Margaret’s Chapel.

Having bought my ticket ahead of time, I got to the gate as it opened (along with several hundred others. The weather, which can’t be described without profanity, does not deter over 7000 visitors per day.) I walked with purpose up the hill and around the corner and away from the crowd, and bee-lined it for the Honours exhibit.

Oh, my friends. There’s such a strange and poignant juju to Scottish royal history. It’s the stuff of tears and whiskey, legend and song. (Seriously, now. Those damned British!) The exhibit I had come to see was your typical winding rabbit warren with painted walls and costumed statues telling the story of the Honours (which you can look up for yourself.) It was cool, of course, but the most amazing thing was that I was completely alone. Alone in Edinburgh Castle.


My walk through the hallways was quiet and reverent, and by the time I got to the chamber at the end where the treasures themselves were, I didn’t even care about taking pictures. (Plus which: there were docents watching.) The lore of the pieces is a wonderful story: the making, surrendering, burying, the rediscovering. 

But one more thing: even more evocative  than the jewels and gold was a rock: The Stone of Destiny. You can look that up, too. I wish I could have taken a picture of this one.

Though I have more Irish in me than Scots, I’m feeling all nostalgic right now. I am remembering Connie Dover’s wonderful song On Castle Rock

Also: here is my (nearly solitary) view as I arrived at the exhibit. That’s the Scottish National War Memorial first, then St. Margaret’s Chapel.

Y’all. The Cliffs of Insanity have wifi. 

One of my favorite things about travel is seeing film locations. Not just any location: only the ones for films I love.  It’s a little embarrasing to care so much about this. 

A couple of years ago on the same trip to Scotland I was thrilled to see both the viaduct over which the Hogwarts Express passes, and the beachside church from Local Hero. I have the exact reaction as I do when I see a famous person. “Oh my God! There it is! It looks just like it does in the pictures!” Loving a film predestines me to love the place it was shot.

Today I visited the Cliffs of Insanity, site of the famous line (one of the many) from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

The Cliffs of Moher rise insanely high above the Atlantic coast, on the far west side of County Clare in Ireland. I have seen a few natural wonders in my day, but this site truly is a jaw-dropper. We were so lucky to have a perfect day: bright sun and deep blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. Across the top of the cliffs lay the iconic emerald sod. Wifi access allows the visitor to listen to interesting information, as at a museum. 

Bonetti’s Defense seemed fitting, considering the rocky terrain.

God talks to us through our senses, in our bodies. How else? The sharpness of the colors, the feel of the wind, the sound of the Irish accordion…all of these swirled in a knot together with the affection I have for that film. What a treat. What a blessing. 

I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity

As a church-loving Gaelophile, I got all tingly at the chance to worship on Trinity Sunday yesterday in Dublin. It was the patronal festival of “The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, commonly called Christ Church,” and it was pure joy. The church was founded an astonishing thousand years ago, but the Anglican bits date “only” to the 1660s. 

At the same time, as a church professional, I admit it took me a while to settle down from professional interest into worship. For one thing, the Trinity is the doctrine most likely to make a thinking Christian tear out his or her hair. Helpfully, the preacher, the Dean of Cork, suggested that the Trinity is not actually a doctrine, but a person: a person in whom we live, move, and have our being. That’s nice. 

The processional hymn was, of course, my beloved St. Patrick’s Breastplate, which is always fresh and new to me, despite its familiarity.

The cathedral choir, undergirded by the ancient acoustics, and it is impossible to say this without using a cliché, sounded like angels. One of the loveliest moments occurred when the choir, having removed itself to a side chapel, sang a communion anthem that seemed to emanate from the old stones themselves.

The Archbishop of Dublin dismissed us: “God the holy Trinity make you strong in faith and love, defend you on every side, and guide you in truth and peace.” There is nothing like a Trinitarian blessing in an Irish voice.

I think you aren’t supposed to “understand” the Trinity. I think you just let it flow over you.

See a portion of choir rehearsal here:

Fish and chips and rain

She who binds herself to a joy does the wingéd life destroy / but she who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise. (William Blake)

In other words, don’t get your knickers in a wad when things go wrong. (Paraphrased.)

Having been told that the Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College Dublin was a Must See, I bought a ticket several weeks ago. 

The bad news was that my flight from Gatwick to Dublin today was delayed for 90 minutes and I missed my window. The good news was that my seat on the plane, which quickly turned into a big can of hot air, was right by the open cabin door. 
You know: the idea that we can control things is just codswallop. (Now that I am in the UK I am going to start talking like that.) You make your plans and do your best. Or, to quote Crash Davis, you play it one game at a time and, good Lord willing, things will work out. 

It’s raining in Dublin, I just ate fish and chips at historic Beshoff Brothers (thanks for the wifi, BB) and I have scoped out a pub for traditional music. 

I am kissing the joy as it flies. 

The approach to Dublin from Ryanair flight 122