When I walk down the street at home or in any familiar place, my body goes on a sort of autopilot – the legs move on their own so the the mind can begin to wander. Not so over the last few days. My mind and body are strictly tuned to my immediate surroundings and on fulfilling my most immediate needs. When I walk, I walk with very specific things in mind.
I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, and so on.
I’m still in between, even though the traveling from one place to the next is technically over. These things are much easier with internet access and smartphones, of course, but I have no cell service and limited internet access. This makes things a bit of a challenge, but I don’t mind. Before I go out, I look at the map and try to memorize essential bits – a few road names, place names, landmarks. I look at the bus route to find the names of the stops I’m most likely to use. But once I leave the house, I’m on my own until I get to the bus (which has free internet!) Having very little money also changes the way I interact with a place. For the better, I think. It forces me to really think about what is essential and make thoughtful decisions.
I almost didn’t eat lunch on Friday. I was at the Chester Beatty Library (CBL), and I was so hungry, but I thought it might be possible to wait a couple hours until I got back to the bed and breakfast. The CBL has a great café, famous around town in fact. People go there just to eat at the Silk Road Café, never mind the exhibitions. Anyway, I eventually did eat, because I noticed that you could get tarragon chicken plus two veggie sides (pretty generous helpings, too) for 10 Euro. I decided that it was a worthy nutritional value for that price.
Now, I hemmed and hawed over whether or not to eat on Friday, but on Saturday, I bought a book for 14 Euro. Didn’t even think twice. I actually went out looking for this book with the intention of buying it no questions asked. The book is called “The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth. You may have heard about it, as I did, on NPR recently.
I’ve been curious about this book, because
- it is written in a made-up language. (It’s really like Old English, but written in a way that is halfway understandable to contemporary English speakers.)
- It is about the Norman invasion of England in 1066 from the point of view of a free ‘English’ farmer. (I emphasize ‘English’ to remind you that he is descended from ‘Angles’ who came to the British Isles from what is now Denmark. British, Welsh, English…is anyone truly ‘native?’)
- Part of my interest in the 1066 Norman Invasion has to do with my current obsession with the Bayeux Tapestry, a 90 ft. long hand-embroidered fabric scroll that tells the story of the Norman invasion, mostly from the Norman point of view.)
- Note: The Bayeux Tapestry is located in Bayeux (duh)
- which is in Normandy
- which is the site of the Allied Invasion of France from England 900 years after the Norman invasion of England.
- A sinister circling of events.
I’ve been struggling the past few days to remember the goals of my Fulbright Project and to figure out how to focus on them now that I’m here. My proposal, Pilgrims Travel Differently, is (supposed to be) about:
- Line – oh so many variations, which is partly why I chose it.
- Specifically in the forms of:
- Spiritual Pilgrimage and Celtic Insular Art (commonly found in illuminated medieval manuscripts)
- Specifically in the forms of:
But everything I’ve been thinking about lately is pointed toward other aspects of the past, specifically towards
- questions of identity (is anyone really ‘English’ or ‘Irish’ in the concrete ways we tend to categorize people? Genetically, we’re all so mixed up, and we share a lot of DNA even though we look different. Is it Place then? Or Culture? Or is it really just a slippery Idea of who you think you are or who other people think you are?)
- and also the strange symmetry of past and present events (like the 1066 – 1945 connection. Or the current refugee crisis and other great migrations of people. It seems that the whole of human history is a series of migrations.)
I don’t think I will necessarily find any answers, but I don’t think answers and understanding are the same thing. I think understanding, or at least a mature understanding, is a real appreciation of the gravity of events. An ability to make connections and see the fluid, fragile, and entangled nature of the world.
And really, setting out with that in mind is a sort of pilgrimage. (A feeble effort to come back to my proposal, ha!) If I learned anything in grad school, it’s that answers are best sought indirectly. So while I feel pressure to hit the nonfiction section of the library to read books about the history of monasteries and medieval manuscripts, I also trust my inclination toward Patti Smith’s “Woolgathers,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Book of Hours,” and Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Wake.” Because it’s not just about an academic survey of monasticism and manuscripts. It’s about finding ways to illuminate* the present, by exploring the past.
*pardon the medieval manuscript pun…