Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it:
Last summer, when the inimitable Brenda Sparks Prescott invited me to participate in her self-designed writing retreat in the Green Mountains of Vermont, I was so wound up on the morning I was to leave–car troubles, mostly–that I backed out of my garage and ran over my own suitcase.
I suppose it could have a been a lot worse. I do have pets and children, all of whom know enough to stay out of my way–and all of whom are still alive, you’ll be glad to know.
I was unable to say the same for my little blue suitcase. Thus, as I am jetting off to the UK once again in a few days, I was forced to purchase yet another little blue suitcase. One that was not crushed at one end, nor had the cloth torn away from the corners. But it’s still small; I prefer to travel with as little as possible, since I get on buses and trains and the Underground, and the thought of dragging a full-sized suitcase around behind me is not attractive at all.
So I pack light. Lots of underwear (“she said underwear!”) and a change or two of clothing. I’m an expert in finding washing machines, or washing my clothes in sinks. I think carefully about the clothes I’ll wear on the plane, so I don’t have to put those in the suitcase. I think versatile. What pieces can I wear more than once, in a variety of different
combinations? Is everything I do going to be casual, or will I need something a bit more dressy? I think small. I think about wearing a jacket instead of packing sweaters; I think to wear the shoes on the plane and pack the sandals.
This time around, I have to think smaller. Mostly because, with the publication (Hallelujah! At last!) of The Book of the Mandolin Player, I have to bring copies of my book with me to my British friends. And with books in my bag, there is less room for clothes. Am I complaining? No, I’m not. Because I’ve been looking forward to the day–for more than 25 years now–when I can bring my own novel to my friends, especially the novelist Stephen Benatar, who has given me copies of everything he’s ever published. Now I can return the favor, for the first time. Hopefully not the last time.
The plane leaves day after tomorrow. I’m making my last trip to the store for provisions this afternoon–batteries and the like. I’m washing all my clothes tonight so I can lay them out and look at them in order to decide. And then it’s time to get packing.
Postscript: I’m picking up some concert stuff while I’m about–Merry Hell and Bellowhead shirts, for example. But by then, the books will be gone, anyway.
I’ve been waiting, as have all the Ramblers, for this CD–and for a long part of the wait, since news of John Jones’ illness and surgery broke, with more of a sense of urgency than the usual pre-release expectation.
Never Stop Moving does not disappoint.
Perhaps my view is colored. Most of the songs are familiar to me because of my adventures with the Reluctant Ramblers: having heard them in live versions–at the Nettlebed Folk Club, at the Wickham Music Festival, at a rehearsal in the private lounge of the Lysses Hotel in Fareham–listening to them on the CD was like coming home. Like being in the arms of friends. There is a certain joy in closing my eyes and envisioning John Jones on stage–or in an ornately upholstered wing chair–singing these lyrics while holding out his hands to us; or in picking out Rowan Godel’s harmonies while remembering how she lifts her head and closes her eyes, holding the microphone in both hands; or how Lindsey Oliver plays bass barefoot (and has tattoos on her insteps); or any other performance moments with Tim Cotterell, Dil Davies, Benji Kirkpatrick, Al Scott, or Boff Whalley. Knowing the songs is all the richer for knowing the players.
By far my favorite has always been “Black and White Bird.” John Jones tells the story frequently behind this break-up song, with the horse, the stable, and the bird in a burlap sack. What he makes of these elements is a brilliant mixture of the eeriness of the setting and the sad reality of the end of a relationship: it’s art at its most haunting.
To the girl on the chestnut horse
Please tell her I’ll be gone tomorrow
I leave to her this black and white bird
Two for joy, one for sorrow
Al Scott’s obsessive guitar, and Tim Cotterell’s melancholy fiddle overlay, punctuate, decorate, emphasize:
On this flip side of this story is “Ferryman,” which might be overtaking “Black and White Bird” as my favorite song on this CD. While still haunting and melancholy, there’s something hopeful in this song, something which reaches out of John’s and Rowan’s harmonies on the refrain to grab me by the heart:
If you should need a guiding hand
when the sea of trouble is wide
If you should need a rock to cling to
when you’re struggling against the tide
I’ll be your ferryman and I’ll never ask you why
I’ll be your ferryman and I’ll carry you over,
over to the other side
This is the song that I long to have someone sing to me.
The entire CD is an immense treasure trove. As with any artist with a foot in the English folk tradition, John Jones includes a turn on the murder ballad: in “Pierrepoint’s Farewell,” an abused wife knifes her husband and is in turn executed by the hangman. In “Down by the Lake,” the death is accidental when a boy with a gun takes “one stupid shot” and kills a girl (a kind of updated version of “Blackwaterside,” if one wants to think of it that way). The social conscience, too, that Jones has given voice to all these years as the front man of Oysterband, appears here in “Ghosts of the Village,” angrily mourning a life that has been subverted by money:
A man from the city has bought these hills
Where we played as kids and wander still
And locked in time his rural dream
Locked out life and the chance to breathe
When John Jones chose the title for his second solo CD, from the song of the same name, he knew it was a wise selection. In these songs, he moves backwards and forwards, across the landscape, across the sea, across time, across a wealth of human emotions. Just as he takes people (including me, sometimes) on his regular perambulations across the footpaths of England, he takes his listeners (including me, all the time) with him in the music.
My copy of the CD made its way to me from the pre-release at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, courtesy of one of my Rambler friends, Lesley Collett. Because of the nature of that Rambler friendship, she not only had John Jones sign the cover, but inside, on the front of the booklet, she had the rest of the band sign: Al, Tim, Dil, Rowan, Lindsey (missing were Benji, who was with Bellowhead, his other band, at Towersey; and Boff, who, Lesley said, had disappeared). To top it off, on the back of the booklet, she had members of the Rambler family sign: Anne and Paul, Lauren, Val and John, Hep, Fran, Rose, Bev, Steve, Kay, Judith, and many many others, including Lesley herself. Am I the luckiest person in the world, or what?
I’ve been feeling a general malaise this week (sometimes bordering on existential dread), and that has translated into slow rides on the bike–not a really good thing, with the MS ride coming up this Saturday, but better than not riding at all.
This morning, the clouds sat thick on the side of the mountain, one of those times the real weather mirrored the psychological weather: how metaphorical! I dragged myself out anyway, and the song I forced into my head was “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. Because anarchy!
Sadly, today in the humidity, it didn’t work. I didn’t speed up. I slowed down and found, instead, the song in my head was “A River Runs” by Oysterband. Not a bad choice for my mental soundtrack, of course. It’s a lovely song, and it’s by Oysterband. So–I went with it. Because if you’re not feeling anarchical, you might as well be kind to yourself.
Onward and upward!
P. S. Ironically, last summer, because of the way the universe unwinds, I ended up riding around in the back of a car, in Hampshire, in the south of England, with John Jones, the lead singer for Oysterband, and Boff Whalley, the lead guitarist for Chumbawamba. Wait, what? Yeah, that happened. And I was okay with it.
Another hot one on the Tour de Dixmont this morning, with little to no shade. The hills were killers–but I’ve never been a strong uphill rider anyway, though I can get some speed going down. Nevertheless, as I was slogging up the first mile to the cemetery, I realized that the song in my head today was “Rosemary Lane” by Bellowhead–another driving tune from the remarkable 11-piece band from the UK.
I don’t know whether it’s the driving nature of their music, or the fact that they’ve announced they’re quitting after next April, but Bellowhead plays in my head quite a bit. Ride to this one, kids!
Sometimes we go old school.
This morning, the Tour de Dixmont was quite hot; I was quite sore, having been installing metal roofing all week (just don’t ask, okay?). But the song in my head was an oldy-but-goody: “Fire on High” from ELO’s Face the Music. What a driving song. A person cannot ride slowly to this one. Not even up the mighty hills of Dixmont.
Play it, to quote the musician Jonathan Byrd, loud.
I get angry on hills, and I get slow.
So the playlist in my head obviously follows suit. I found this one on replay as I was slogging it up a particular cranky-making hill near the end of this morning’s Tour de Dixmont: “Pendle Hill” by Merry Hell, from Blink…and You Miss It.
I hope I was never as cruel as the schoolteacher of this song.
Happy National Poetry Month!
It’s also the first full month of spring, but it hasn’t really felt like it: April snow, April frost, April freeze. It’s been cold and miserable, for the most part. T. S. Eliot knew what he was talking about when he said it was the cruellest month.
April 1, Wednesday: “Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
April 2, Thursday: “April Weather” by Edith Wyatt
April 3, Friday: “Full Moon” by Lisel Mueller (because there is one this weekend)
April 6, Monday:”Love Song in April” by Edith Klem
April 7, Tuesday: “A Shropshire Lad 2: Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” by A. E. Houseman
April 8, Wednesday: “April” by Alicia Ostriker
April 9, Thursday: “Strewn” by Barbara Crooker
April 10, Friday: “April Snow” by Pearl Anderson
April 13, Monday: “To Daffodils” by Robert Herrick
April 14, Tuesday: “Little Exercise” by Elizabeth Bishop
April 15, Wednesday: sonnet # 44 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
April 16, Thursday: “Home Thoughts from Abroad” by Robert Browning (because this is the one I always read before April vacation. I think I’ve forgotten the reason why by now, but a tradition is a tradition.
April 17-26: April vacation–no school.
April 27, Monday: “April Prayer” by Stuart Kestenbaum
April 28, Tuesday: “Spring Evening on Blind Mountain” by Louise Erdrich
April 29, Wednesday: “The Burning Kite” by Ouyang Jianghe
April 30, Thursday: “Willow” by Anna Akhmatova
I ended the month–and National Poetry Month–with a couple of poems in translation, just to throw something new and surprising into the mix. The Chinese poem, by Ouyang Jianghe, was really difficult for most of the students–but it was about time to make them think hard, and to think differently. Baby steps, as it were: at the beginning of the year, all the pieces were difficult. So now we raise the bar. And that’s a good thing.
This is the month which, proverbially, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. We’re waiting for that lamb. Snow, snow and more snow, and on days when there isn’t any snow falling, the temperatures are frigid. However, the first day of spring comes in March, and somehow that always makes people hope for the best. It can’t always be winter, can it? Though after this one, I don’t feel quite so certain.
March 2, Monday: “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti (because I always read this one on my son’s birthday)
March 3, Tuesday: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (372) by Emily Dickinson
March 4, Wednesday: “Snowfall” by Ravi Shankar (because it’s still snowing!)
March 5, Thursday: “How it Happens” by W. S. Merwin
March 6, Friday Teacher workshop–no class
March 9, Monday: Teacher workshop–no class
March 10, Tuesday: [The snow is melting] by Issa (because it is! Finally!)
March 11, Wednesday: “Late Winter” by Yvor Winters
March 12, Thursday: “A Daughter of Eve” by Christina Rossetti
March 13, Friday: “Happiness” by Jane Kenyon
March 16, Monday: “After the Winter” by Claude McKay (because spring will begin on Friday, and after this past snowy month, we need all the encouragement we can get)
March 17, Tuesday: “When You are Old” by William Butler Yeats (a lovely poem, by an Irishman for St. Patrick’s Day, chosen under advisement from Patricia H. Owens)
March 18, Wednesday: “The Lost Land” by Eavan Boland (another fantastic Irish poet)
March 19, Thursday: “Spring Follows Winter Once More” by Tom Hennen
March 20, Friday: “The Spring” by Thomas Carew (because, at least in terms of calendar, spring begins today)
March 23, Monday: “The Marriage in the Trees” by Stanley Plumley
March 24, Tuesday: “Splitting Wood in Winter” by Douglas Woodsum (because I just learned I will be reading with Doug at the Maine Poetry Express reading in Waterville on April 2)
March 25, Wednesday: “Vespers” by Theodore Enslin
March 26, Thursday: “In Early Spring” by Wellborn Hope
March 27, Friday: “March” by Richard Kenney
March 30, Monday: “Today” by Billy Collins
March 31, Tuesday: “Young Pine” by Carl Little
What a winter! It’s holding on desperately, despite the calendar, but in the way of all things, I think we’ve finally got it beaten. It will be a relief to get to April–and to National Poetry Month! Though here in our classroom, it’s always National Poetry Month, isn’t it?
It’s cold! There will be six more weeks of winter! And of course, ironically, Groundhog Day is marked by a snow day, because there’s a blizzard. Hardly any snow in January, and then things go absolutely crazy, weather-wise. Still, there are poems. And we read them!
February 2, Monday: snow day–no school
February 3, Tuesday: “February” by Margaret Atwood
February 4, Wednesday: “The Coyote” by Alan Feldman
February 5, Thursday: “February” by Jack Collom
February 6, Friday: “February” by Bill Christopherson
February 9, Monday: “Recitative” by A. E. Stallings (because this week I’m reading Valentine’s poems–why not?)
February 10, Tuesday: “Song” by D. H. Lawrence
February 11, Wednesday: “Tutto è Sciolto” by James Joyce
February 12, Thursday: “The Root” by Helen Hoyt
February 13, Friday: “Night of Love” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
February 16-20: February vacation–no school
February 23, Monday:”Late February” by Ted Kooser
February 24, Tuesday: “Ice Men” by James Longenbach
February 25, Wednesday: “Bleak Weather” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
February 26, Thursday: “Dreaming in Swedish” by Philip Levine (because his death, last week, made me very sad)
February 27, Friday: “She Walks in Beauty” by George Gordon, Lord Byron
So that’s February done. This year, despite its being the shortest month and having winter break in it to boot, February felt like the longest, because of the snow and bitter cold. Even today it’s not letting go without a snarl, treating us to sub-zero temperatures. Perhaps that’s why there are so many good poems about February: so we’ll have the words to keep us warm on the dark days. Still, March is coming, and with it, spring. There is hope.
That made me think of another window in particular: the big window of the bedroom I stayed in a couple of years ago, at the B & B on Grange Close in Goring-on-Thames. The view through that window stayed with me, because when I looked out on an incredibly rainy morning, there were three kids walking in the street below. Two girls and a boy, they were wearing school uniforms, laughing as they took turns leaning into a match in cupped hands, lighting their illicit smokes and blowing clouds into the miserable air. The sound of their laughter, overlaid on the hush of the steady rain, was what hung with me, long after they’d rounded the corner and were gone from sight.
I am an easily-frightened person. That morning, I had planned to do something really frightening: I was going into Goring proper, over the railway bridge and to a cafe on the banks of the river, to meet a group of seasoned walkers for a trek to Nettlebed. I knew none of them. I had seen their leader, John Jones, onstage with Oysterband, but that was as close as I had come. They had all walked with him before. I was a stranger in a strange town–hell, in a strange country–planning to go wandering across Oxfordshire with people I didn’t know. In the rain. Standing there in the B & B window, clutching the draperies in my sweaty palms, I was terrified.
I gave myself the coward’s way out. You don’t have to do this. After all, no one knew me, no one knew I was coming…so if I just didn’t, no one would be the wiser. Right? Right? So I stood there, listening to the pouring rain, watching the water run along the road where only the phantoms of the laughing kids remained. Because I didn’t dare. Because I was easily frightened.
Then I thought through all the plans I’d made for this particular England adventure. I’d been in London with friends. I’d been in Bromyard with friends. Then I’d made two nights’ reservation here in Goring, so I could do one day of this week-long walk with the Reluctant Ramblers before flying home. I could have backed out easily at this point, but how stupid would that have been?
So I left the window, and sat on the bed to tie up my walking shoes–new that summer, broken in for just this adventure. I threw on my rain jacket–my hat was missing–grabbed up my pack, and went out into the rain. Still frightened, but still going.
I was already soaked by the time I got to the meet-up point. So was everyone else, from their walk from the train station. They were cheery and especially welcoming: Steve and Lesley, Anne and Paul, the other Lesley, Tom, Colin, Lauren, Tim, Al, Stephen and Trish, Else, Kay, Jane, Helen, John–the lot of them. We turned left and headed up toward the Thames Path, and I had succeeded before the first muddy mile had been walked. I was there, and I was going. And it was good.
I’ve since walked with them again, last summer. I will join the Ramblers at every available opportunity from now on, because my heart follows them.
Even getting lost with these people was fun. At one point, we came out on a road, and the map indicated that the path ran through a briar patch. Anyone bring a machete? Paul asked. I told him the TSA wouldn’t allow me to bring mine on the plane. Then we thrashed straight through.