Sunday, March 31, 2013

In the time of buns

Easter seems to be a bigger deal in London than it is in Minneapolis.

I don't know why this should be the case...for one thing, the UK is one of the world's more secular countries. So I was rather bemused to stumble upon an elaborate re-enactment of the Passion of Christ in Trafalgar Square during the noon hour on Good Friday.

On the other hand, most of the reminders I'm seeing have more to do with celebrating a holiday than a holy day...chocolate bunnies. Chocolate eggs. Chocolate bunnies wearing chocolate suits holding chocolate eggs.* Ads for sales on Easter appliances and Easter roast lamb.

I barely notice Easter when I'm at home. First, I'm not religious, nor was my family. My parents treated Easter (and Christmas) as essentially a children's holiday, with Easter baskets and colored eggs hidden about the house.

Anyway, what the celebration of Easter is really about, to my nature-loving heart, is the coming of springtime.

Easter is about resurrection, and so is spring. This is not a coincidence—in the same way that the juxtaposition of Christmas and the winter solstice is not a coincidence. But spring, unlike Easter, is as old as the world itself; clearly the time of rebirth and renewal in the Earth's story. So the turn of the wheel itself is what makes my heart sing.

I did partake of one Easter-in-London tradition, and a very cozy one it is, too: hot cross buns. Hot cross buns are not a thing in Minnesota; though I've read about them, and saw them being made on a cooking show last week, I'd never eaten one. So I went on a quest for the city's best hot cross bun, with the assistance of Sir Google. 

Quirky beliefs surround the humble hot cross bun. "Sharing a hot cross bun with another is supposed to ensure friendship throughout the coming year, particularly if 'Half for you and half for me, Between us two shall goodwill be" is said at the time....If taken on a sea voyage, hot cross buns are said to protect against shipwreck. If hung in the kitchen, they are said to protect against fires and ensure that all breads turn out perfectly." (courtesy Wikipedia)

I guess my kitchen will have to remain bun-less and take its chances for another year, since I gobbled down every last crumb of mine.

*You can buy a 3-foot tall chocolate egg encircled by chirpy looking bunnies at Harrods. In large, piped-on letters, it says, "Happy Easter Harrods" on it. Yours for £750 ($1,139).

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A blessing of sun

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.
—Algernon Charles Swinburne

Friday, March 29, 2013

Spring teachings

Earth teach me to forget myself as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me resignation as the leaves which die in the fall. Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands all alone. Earth teach me regeneration as the seed which rises in the spring.
--William Alexander

Thursday, March 28, 2013

In the churchyard

The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter—often an unconscious, but still a truthful interpreter—in the eye.                                                                                 —Charlotte Bronte

I opened my eyes to blue skies. The first sun in ten days! What a relief.

On my way to the park for a run, I happened upon a small enclave out of the 19th century—St. John's Wood Church and churchyard.

It put me in mind of all those 19th century English novels I read and loved as a young woman...grey stone parsonages, grim vicars, lych gates and mossy gravestones where memories of the dead are slowly being erased by time. (Of course, I'm in contemporary London, not in Haworth, but imagination easily fills in any romantic gaps.)

Here is what my camera saw.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Where it began

"The bird put his tiny head on one side and looked up at him with his soft bright eye, which was like a black dewdrop. He seemed quite familiar and not the least afraid. He hopped about and pecked the earth briskly, looking for seeds and insects. It actually gave Mary a queer feeling in her heart, because he was so pretty and cheerful and seemed so like a person. He had a tiny plump body and a delicate beak, and slender delicate legs."

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The temple of beauty

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours gazing at beautiful paintings. Landscapes and still lifes of flowers most draw me. (Portraits are usually a distant second.)

(Corot, Sisley, Claude, Pissarro...)

As I strolled through gallery after gallery, I entered that peaceful state of "museum mind," an absorbed, heightened and receptive state that feels related to "drawing mind."  

I let the colors, compositions and rhythms wash over me, feeding that place inside ever hungry for beauty. (I wonder why we don't have a name for that place? Is it our eyes that hunger for beauty, or our spirits? Wherever it comes from, it is a genuine need.)

As I was reading a placard, I heard a man ask one of the docents which was the most expensive painting in the museum. A question that seemed rather to miss the point, I thought. How does monetary value factor in to your enjoyment, I wonder? And what says more about Van Gogh's Sunflowers—that someone paid X million pounds to purchase it...or that it made you feel glad to be alive when you looked at it?

(Not that those things are mutually exclusive. Just an example of the weird dichotomy between monetary value and intrinsic value, and our culture's attempts to put a price on something that can't be quantified, that is more than simply a thing—like a landscape or an ocean or a fox.)

Sometimes you come upon a painting, and it feels like a surprise encounter, even if you already knew it was part of the collection. Even if you on purpose went to the museum to see that painting. Almost as if you're stalking through the woods, gazing all around and waiting for magic to happen, and then, there it is! Waiting for you—a wild, shy creature, pulsing with beauty and power. And you feel instant love fill you up, as if you're encountering your beloved after a long separation. 

Have you ever felt that?

This was that painting for me. 

Oh, how powerful it is. And poignant. Tenderness pours off it in waves, in the ecstatic, glowing colors, the abandoned humble objects, in what is being said. Maybe: I am gone, but I will come back. Or maybe: I won't be coming back, but this is what I left for you to remember me by. 

Van Gogh is the most personal of artists...his paint may as well be blood. I admit that my compassion for his hardships colors how I respond to the work itself...but why should anyone want to be objective about art? I don't know that I even believe it's possible, since the point of art is to evoke a response.

Philosophical musings aside, I felt cracked open by beauty, once again. If only one could embrace a painting in thanks...I sent love back to it, the sentient, living being that it is. 

P.S.: I loved the most expensive painting in the museum, too.

Monday, March 25, 2013


Every evening at dusk, I hear a bird singing.

There is a small huddle of garden and trees the next building down. In their midst sings the bird that I cannot see.

This is my favorite moment of each day. I open my window to the night and listen.

Can you hear him?

I can't tell you why a bird singing at dusk brings tears to my eyes. Something about joy, something about sorrow, something about the world and how beautiful it exquisitely, heart-piercingly beautiful. 

All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world, said E.B. White.

The bright living of birds is one of so many, many reasons to love the world. 

The songbird lightly carries the weight of so many of our hopes and dreams on its small wings, thrumming with life and the promise of spring, even in this untimely cold. Ever and always, spring after spring, since the dawn of the world. 

How do we spend so much of our time each day ignoring how incredible this is? This repeating cycle of joy and hope reaching back for millennia? The entwined and interdependent lives of winged ones and crawling ones and swimming ones, two-footers and four-footers? It is a bird singing in that tree, and it is I singing.

Inside myself I say, thank you for letting me hear this and say this and feel this, World. Let your singing be always in my heart.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Map quest

The young weatherman on IV4 who looks a bit like a cheerful frog, or perhaps Alfred E. Neuman, says that it is the coldest March in the UK in decades. All I know is that today it was colder here than it is in Minnesota—and it was (shudders) snowing. How wrong I was in thinking I'd seen the last of snow for the year. Today I saw plenty of it, even though it melted on hitting the pavement.

But crowds still were out and about on the high streets. Shopping, waiting in line at theaters to see the House of Mormon, going on dates, taking photos of Piccadilly Circus, chatting on their cell phones, or wandering about looking befuddled. (That was me.)

I was befuddled because I was looking for a few particular places, which is much more difficult for me than just strolling about with no particular destination in mind. Why? If you were being tactful you might say that my verbal aptitude is much greater than my spatial skills are. If you were being blunt, you'd call my sense of direction so contrary that it's more a sense of anti-direction. I almost unerringly choose left when I need to go right and vice versa. In short, if I were a mouse in a maze, I might have more luck giving up on the cheese and scrambling over the wall instead.

I'm pretty philosophical about it. I've always been this way. I'm good at a lot of other things. I can accept my directional shortcomings.

As long as I have a map in my hand, I'll keep trying until I get there. (Not true; I admit defeat on rare occasions.) Thus, today there was a lot of map-unfolding, brow furrowing, purposeful striding, stopping, more map consultations, and even some iPad Googling before I found my destinations. I also stopped into a fruit stand for directions and later had a kind gentleman pause to offer assistance after I'd been standing in one spot a particularly long time, trying to puzzle out which way was Pall Mall from St. James's Square.


What were these hard-won destinations?

First off, this coffee shop, where I had quite a good latte and a raspberry f-something (friand? a French term for a kind of cake). It was tiny, crowded and so steamy I had to take off one or two layers of clothes (don't worry, I had on at least three and in some cases, four).

A man had left his little spaniel outside and she was making sad little whimpers. I tried offering some comforting words but she mostly ignored me—a one-person dog.

My next quest was Daunt Books in Marylebone. 

This one was easier to find, and while there I pounced on a map called "Untamed London: Where Nature Still Runs Wild." When the weather gets back to normal (which the cheerful weatherman suggests may be in April), I plan to visit at least four or five of these 82 urban landscapes, where deer, owls and chaffinches dwell, remnants of ancient forests linger, and echoes of the wild past reverberate. 

It's a given that I'll get lost a few times along the way. But on this adventure, the only wrong way to go is to not go at all. 

Flags flying

Today's British moment...

Friday, March 22, 2013

In pursuit of singing birds

Yesterday in Regent's Park, I walked up to a British man who was sitting on a bench. We exchanged hellos, then I asked if he knew the name of the elusive bird that I could hear but not see, despite much lurking about the neatly shaped shrubbery. (Regent's Park, I found, is more classical when it comes to garden design and layout than is Hyde Park.) 

He smiled with a wry expression. "I think—not sure about it at all, so don't take my word for it, but I think it's a chaffinch." 

I thanked him and then sat down on my own bench to Google chaffinch songs. The nice man (I want to call him a chap and impress you with my Britishisms, ha) got up from his bench to leave the park, and as he walked past me he chuckled at the bird sounds emanating from my iPad. 

He paused a moment. "I think I also hear a blackbird," he added.

"Yes! I thought one sounded like a blackbird, too."

We smiled, and he walked on, and I tried to determine if the bird I heard singing in real life matched the songs of the blackbird and chaffinch I was hearing on YouTube. The results were inconclusive. But the brief cultural exchange between park admirers was welcome.

Below, many photos of trees, which you'll have to put up with throughout the course of this trip because I am a dryad at heart. Many of them undulate they're dancing. Even more than trees usually do. And also, this is the first time I've ever seen a pigeon hanging out in a tree. They must do it all the time, but I've just never seen it before and it made me giggle.

P.S. I picked up that bottle and threw it in the trash—now a truly international litter vigilante!

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