31 July 2008

A walk in the garden

Three major activities yesterday – to the University of Kent in the morning for some time at the VTS booth, the afternoon in and about the cathedral and back to the university in the evening for the VTS dinner -- were more than enough. This morning we were up at the usual time and enjoyed, once again, a marvelous breakfast. On returning to the room, however, Tal stretched back out on the bed, under the covers -- and there he stayed until lunch, sleeping deeply, snoring softly. Spent. Exhausted.

This afternoon we took a slow walk looking for three things in particular, but only if we found them where we thought they would be AND on the first try. No back-tracking; no holding the map upside-down. Not a job; not work. Those three things? The River Stour, which we saw as we entered Canterbury on Monday; the canal; and the Westgate Gardens, where there is a notable plane tree.

Our slow walk ended up being two+ hours of discovery during which we found the three things we were seeking in the order I listed them – and more. By walking in the Westgate Gardens after we’d found the plane tree, simply seeing where the path lead, we ended up, effortlessly it seemed, within sight of the Castle Hotel, having bypassed the narrow streets, hordes of people, small, quick cars all of which make walking almost a contact sport.

That garden in which we walked was charmed, it would seem. And, today's three activities more nurturing than yesterday's.

This is the Chapter House of the Greyfriars which spans the River Stour and, dating from the 13th century, is the oldest Franciscan building in Britain.

A city landmark, this plane tree (which to my eye resembles a sycamore; see the additional photograph directly below) is said to be over 200 years old. I have spotted two more this week: one on the grounds of the cathedral and one threatening to wrap itself around an iron fence at the ruins of Canterbury Castle across the street from our hotel. Unless it gets cut down, I predict it will prevail over the fence.

30 July 2008

Go figure

Fast, quiet, frequent, on-time trains.

Clean, frequent, easy-to-board buses -- going places people want to go.

Train ticket agents and bus drivers who make eye-contact and make sure the customer understands the drill.

Small, good-looking, efficient (35-to-50 MPG) automobiles, including Ford models I've never SEEN before.

How hard can it be?


No, in the title for this post I am not describing the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Communion. Our time near the conference’s activity is very limited, limited in fact to visiting booth-to-booth in the Marketplace and spending time with the VTS contingent there. In conversation with those who are, indeed, deeply involved in the deliberations of the gathered leadership of the Anglican Communion I have learned that moments of grace interject themselves into the expected contentious debate. So, fracture would be unfair at this point, despite there being those present who want nothing less than total fracture and are working pretty hard to achieve it.

Rather, I am describing myself as somewhat fractured. Aside from the booth and participating in the VTS dinner this evening, our primary activity today involved time at Canterbury Cathedral. I tend to make every activity into work, ever justifying what I am doing by making it hard or tedious or making myself feel somehow productive and thereby useful. Sigh.

Knowing that about myself, first of all, and having heard that the guided tour of the cathedral goes on for two hours or so and being aware of Tal’s fatigue threshold, we opted not to be optimal tourists today. Letting the building be and letting ourselves be in the building was a conscious choice and a different experience. I discovered in myself some real discomfort in that unaccustomed role – being as opposed to knowing, interacting with the space rather than busying myself knowing about the space.

That unsettled state was intensified by the teeming, not-quiet crowd in the cathedral, this being the height of the English tourist season. It took deliberate effort simply to observe my mounting irritation, being witness to it rather than being irritated. Twice we stepped outside for a breath of air, to clear our heads, to gaze at the flamboyant order of the gardens. There’s a line from a collect in The Book of Common Prayer that, blessedly, kept murmuring calm to me – “that in returning and rest we shall be saved.” In returning … in returning … in returning.

So, here I am post-cathedral, left with no overarching or particular knowledge of Canterbury Cathedral -- of the various architectural styles present, of the dates of the major construction periods and the like. But, I have come away with flashes, impressions, sensations – the angry, red, scralled letters carved in the stone floor where Thomas a Becket was martyred, the quality of light filtering into the choir from the central tower, the moist cool of the air in the crypt, the mason’s marks left in a section of stone along a side aisle, the modern furniture at the altar on the floor of the nave.

So, fracture is the word of the day. But, perhaps it’s not automatically a negative description. To change, to grow, to become involves letting go the comfortable, the usual, the easy. Fracture may be too strong a word; unsettled might be more accurate a description. But, since fracture was what came to me first, I’ll own it for now.

29 July 2008

The city wall

After Monday afternoon and this morning walking on narrow sidewalks through town we discovered the city wall. It’s wide with a paved walkway along the top. So, we’ve graduated – at least between here and the bus terminal – to strolling the wall.

An alluring feature of “our” section of wall is the park just to the wall's inside, the Dane John. I understand that it once was a dank place where prisoners were kept and where sewage was stored until it could be transported away from town. Now it is a gathering place for young people, families and the elderly, complete with a war memorial commemorating a date in the very late 19th century, fountains, ample seating, a tea room (which is what I could call a concession stand), a wondrous wooden maze which the children seem to adore. In fact, today was a Family Fun Day in the park and it was filled with people, activities, food.

This afternoon, after visiting the exhibition hall at the university during the morning, Tal stayed in our room for a rest and I went out to the Dane John and to the ruins of Canterbury Castle across the street from the hotel for an hour and a half with the camera. Later, as we set out for dinner with friends, we walked the wall all the way to the back of the grounds surrounding the cathedral and enjoyed some quiet in the voluptuous summertime gardens.

Pictured here is a view of the back of our hotel from the castle (our windows are the three on the upper right) and a view of the castle (through the hotel's gate) from one of our windows.

Which bus?

One of the things we did manage to determine yesterday, through our sleep-deprived stupor, was the location of the University of Kent (where the Lambeth Conference is being held), the best way to get ourselves there (bus) and the location of Canterbury’s main bus terminal (a short walk from our hotel). After a full English breakfast this morning (which consists of an egg, bacon, sausage, broiled half tomato, baked beans, toast, orange juice and coffee or tea) we set out for the bus terminal. There we were faced with a long bay of at least 25 rumbling buses and a single, important question. Which bus?

Just as I turned to ask a total stranger which bus went to the University of Kent, the most unexpected thing happened. We came face to face with Pam Webb and Susan Shillinglaw, members of the VTS staff and two people we count as friends! With them not only did we board the correct bus (it’s the big yellow one) and buy round trip tickets from the driver, but they introduced us to the short cut between the bus stop on campus and the exhibition hall as well.

This is the view one has of Canterbury from the bus stop at the University.

28 July 2008

Night flight

There is truth in popular admonitions. Admonitions like the Boy Scout motto, which is a primary life-rule of all the Tarboxes I know -- be prepared. Being prepared is one of the best ways I know to keep the ever-rising panic I live with day-in and day-out at bay. There are times though, when despite a person’s best efforts, being prepared isn’t a possibility; there are times when no amount of preparation does the job.

Tal and I were simply not prepared for yesterday and today. The hot water heater is off at the breaker box and there is no water going to the washing machine at all. The mail and the newspaper are on temporary stop. Whitby and Belle are being well cared for and, more importantly, loved in our absence. We packed light and efficiently. We left home with both the passports and the living will in our possession. We'd even watched the video about parking on the Charlotte-Douglas Airport web site!

But, we were not prepared … for the three hour drive to Charlotte plus the three hour wait in the airport plus the eight hour flight plus the two hour train trip to Canterbury. All without sleep.

Ideally, the sleep part shouldn’t have been an issue. It was a night flight, departing Charlotte at 7:55 – right on time. And, that flawless departure was followed by a flawless flight. Avoiding storms on the east coast at Philadelphia and New York we stayed to the west, heading east only after we’d passed Albany. Dinner (such as it was, but we count ourselves lucky that the effort was even made) was served and cleared before 9:00. After deciphering the mysteries of the monitor in the back of the seat in front of me I watched – fascinated, horrified, inspired – The Kite Runnerbefore settling in for the night.

But, sleep would not come. The film didn’t help. Neither did into-the-future thoughts about getting our luggage, finding the train, winding our way through Canterbury dragging all our stuff behind us, suitcases, camera bag and computer. There was not one thing I could do about any of those worries at that moment and in that place – I was in an Airbus A333 at 37,000 feet, for Pete’s sake! So, taking to heart one of my favorite lines from the evening office in The Book of Common Prayer – asleep we may rest in peace and awake we may watch with Christ, I watched. Fact was the night didn’t last very long; there was orange on the distant horizon for hours. I watched both the slow coming of the dawn, as the stars faded and the light rose, and the sudden burst of the sunrise.

The wait for our luggage was considerable. Getting the train involved a spirited conversation with an agent, not only about the train system but the US economy and presidential election, as well. The train itself was on time and clean and the English countryside seductively charming. The route for the walk from the train station was clear and the hotel was precisely where it was supposed to be.

But, we were not prepared for exhaustion to overtake us. Determined to stay up through the day so as to reset our internal clocks, we unpacked, put our feet up (Tal with a beer and me with orange juice, compliments of the B&B) for an hour, and went out. The tourist information office changed currency for us (now, that was a shock) and gave us instruction on getting to the University of Kent (the location of the Lambeth Conference). That done, however, we could no longer cope. The thought of getting ourselves to the bus station for the 2.5 mile trip was too much, not to mention, once there, determining which bus to board. The thought of talking to people was too much. The prospect of taking on the interested tourist role was too much. So, we settled for two chairs and a table outside a bar on High Street where we watched the throngs of people moving past and ate supper, realizing we’d not eaten since the meal on the plane by then some 18+ hours earlier.

It is not yet 8:00. We are ready for bed, being lulled into relaxing by soft rain, the gusty breeze from the open window and the distant sonorous sounds of an approaching thunderstorm.

I’ll start over being prepared tomorrow.

02 July 2008

Going to the rides

It’s summer again and a distinct childhood memory has surfaced: our family’s annual summertime foray to Myrtle Beach and “the rides.” Now, this was in the early-to-mid 1960s, so what is in Myrtle Beach today in terms of amusement parks (among other things!) bears no resemblance to the site, probably no more than a city block in size, then so worthy of our youthful collective countdown. Could it happen this week? we wondered. Which day do you think it will be?, we’d query (translate that: badger) our mother. Any state fair in the country – and likely even most county versions – now boast bigger and better rides, but in my memory that oceanfront, brightly lit space was something to behold, magical and thrilling.

The Ferris wheel faced the ocean and was my favorite ride. I felt as though I could see forever in at least three directions when the rocking little car reached to top. On more than one occasion, to my delight, the operator stopped the ride to attend to some mechanical something or to let passengers on or off, extending that most wonderful time of looking out and beyond the everyday. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for rain to move ashore while we all sat there either. Damp and even chilling at the time; a rite of passage memory now. And, there was that moment just past the top of the arc and that distinct feeling (much like the little dip as an airplane leaves the runway) of weightlessness as the car began its descent. How I did love the Ferris wheel.

Somewhere along the way I stopped liking the rides. The real attraction, I suspect, had to do with youth, for one thing, and the fact that it was my family spending an evening together away from home, for another. But, over the past 40+ or so years the rides have become more sophisticated -- bigger, faster, higher. They jar the system. On purpose. And, my system … well, jarring is not in its best interest. At this moment I’m sitting in a room with 10-foot ceilings and, as I look up and consider how high 10 feet is, I realize that my first roller coaster ride might not have taken me too much higher than that before the long turn to the right and the initial stomach-turning drop. There’s no doubt I could not handle a state of the art roller coaster. No doubt.

Why the memories? As I said, it’s summer again. But, the real reason, I know, is the death at Six Flags over the weekend, a young man from the midlands of South Carolina decapitated by a rollercoaster. His tragic death has been declared an accident. As that particular ride was reopened this morning, Six Flags was advised by Georgia Department of Labor officials “to post more fences, signs and security to prevent another accident” (on-line AP report).

I looked up the word “accident” and this is a portion of what Webster has to say: 1 An unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance; 2 An unfortunate event resulting esp from carelessness or ignorance.

Unforeseen? Yes. Unplanned? Yes. Unfortunate? In spades. Resulting from carelessness? Yes, in terms of not being careful and being thoughtless and spontaneous. Resulting from ignorance? That one is more of a stretch, unless one takes into account youthful invincibility. He was a 17-year-old high school student; he could read. And, if asked, he doubtless would have acknowledged that fences exist to keep people out and that gates are generally provided for routine entry.

Scaling two six-foot fences and not heeding the posted signs warning of danger and denying entry can hardly be understood as an accident. One doesn’t fall over or even,as early reports stated, hop over such a barrier. That act took not only a decision but considerable effort.

The question of a law suit was asked of the young man’s father even before the charter bus carrying the diminished group left the parking lot for the return trip to South Carolina. If the family sues anyone perhaps it should be the callous person who sood there and asked the question.

I’m writing all this for a reason. I’m writing because I need to do something. A young man died who didn’t need to die and his particular gifts are now lost to the world. Who knows what he might have accomplished, what problems he might have solved, how his zest for life might have translated into a sense of purpose.

And, I’m writing because I hope some things. Like? I hope Asia LeeShawn Ferguson’s family doesn’t sue. I hope they can find it in themselves to refrain from blame. I hope the people who loved that young man decide not to take on themselves the role of victim. I hope in this instance our agonized, finger-pointing world will hear a grieving family say one simple sentence: Our child made a terrible mistake and we are so sad.