Bath

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“She [Miss Hamilton] had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot baths, living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.” –Jane Austen   Persuasion

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne does not like Bath because her mother died there, but she is resigned to live there due to the unfortunate financial decisions of her father. She goes to see a friend, who is poor in status and in health, and with whom she seems to have more in common with than her family. It is at this place in the story where Anne begins to form new impressions of Bath, through commaraderie with her “lower class” friend.

This was my second time seeing the baths at Bath. My experience was different this time because the first time I had not read Persuasion, had not thought of the place being a confluence of classes, or pondered the waters used for healing of anyone, high or low, with a need. This Roman idea of social classes mixing at the baths seemed to be a kind of metaphor, showing Anne’s inclination to see people over class, and a type of healing for the disparity between the classes.

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Green Under Grey

“And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,/ Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,/ Until the centuries blend and blur/ In Granchester, in Grantchester . . .”

There are eight “Royal” parks in London, with many additional garden-like green squares, softening its extensive stone and cobble surfaces. In the poem “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester,” Rupert Brooke recalls England, while away in Germany. Quite naturally, of all the things he remembers with fondness, the island’s natural elements appear throughout the poem, plants in particular. England is known for its exquisite flowers; even as a city, London is no exception. Perhaps another reason—in addition to the contrast between stone and plant—greenery and flowers stand out in London is because of the “unregulated sun” (grey skies), which bends lightwaves as they pass through the misty air, making everything seem more . . . vivid. Think rainbows.

The British Library

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The British Library does not allow photos to be taken of their treasures.  I imagine this is a pretty strict rule, too. Otherwise, I might have been able to find a photo online of a book there that caught my eye. The above photo is similar, but lacks the color of the one in the library. The book is the diamond and heart sutras, from 18th century China. The text is scribed in sapphire blue. Opposite the text page, depictions of bodhisattvas (enlightened ones, who decline nirvana to stay and help others) are painted on fig leaves. In Buddhism, the ficus tree is thought to be sacred because it is said that it was under a fig tree that the Buddha became enlightened.  When closed, the book is folded into an intricately designed box. The time devoted to the detail and construction of this book must have been significant. It makes me wonder who this book was made for. Priests? Teachers?

A Role of One’s Own

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Katy Owen as Puck

“A thousand stars were flashing across the blue wastes of the sky. One seemed alone with an inscrutable society.” — Virgina Woolf

It might seem strange to find a connection between Virginia Woolf’s idea that women should have 500 a year and a room of their own to London’s Globe Theatre. But in the last hundred years or so, society has demanded changes to irrational traditions, and the result has indeed made it possible for women to take charge of their own lives, as Woolf suggests. In so doing, it has saved art that might have been lost. You see, the original theatre could only offer all male performances—zero opportunities for women. The current globe, however, has tossed previous notions of gender aside, performing some plays as if the roles were thrown into a hat, and each thesbian took their turn selecting a part to play, no matter what gender Shakespeare originally assigned. As I watched a woman play Puck and a man play Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the newest version of The Globe, I was reminded that this iconic landmark, that now hugs the shoreline of the ancient Thames, has moved, quite literally, from its former position to a much better place. The Globe Theatre has survived for more than 400 years because Shakespeare is brilliant. But I believe it survived the profound changes of the last 100 years because it opened the stage to women.

Commencement

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Stonehenge September 27, 2007

The 2016 Study Abroad trip is about to commence. I feel ready, even though I’m not yet prepared to depart. I look around my little cottage and notice all the unfinished things I had planned on getting done. With only eight days left, it is now clear they’ll just have to wait. I guess my priorities have changed since the above photo was taken, which makes sense because I’m not the same person I was then. Life and school have reshaped me in wonderful ways. I imagine this “away mission” affecting my much-more-pliable perception with a certain freshness, broadening out the places in my understanding where it’s narrow. More learning, please.

Four Seasons of Light

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The Pantheon

It’s hard to miss Anthony Doerr’s exploration of Rome’s light in his book Four Seasons in Rome. Many times he juxtaposes light and shadow. The opposites highlight one another, seemingly making the light more brilliant and the shadows a softer shade of grey: “If you pause in the street, you can feel the sunlight pounding your shoulders . . . Wall lizards creep across the terrace, with neon backs and delicate toes and long tails like slips of shadow” (165). “Winter in Rome is a breath of daylight, then limestone and shadow: light glowing behind closed shutters as though stacks of gold are hoarded inside” (87). But the passage that most closely resembles my idea of the tone of Rome, the energy it must produce, is his description of a church he and his wife found “around dusk.” After noticing the emphasis on white he says, “It seems less a church than a tabernacle, less a temple to God than a temple to light” (66). The light he conveys on the city gives me the feeling that those in Rome walk under hallowed skies and temple roofs, and I imagine Rome wearing a halo, not to be outdone by her saints.

Four Seasons of Water

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Fountain at Garden of Palazzo Colonna in Rome–Watercolor on paper by

Abraham Louis Rodolphe Ducros

A city famous for fountains and ancient public bathhouses naturally conjures up images of water. But when I read Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, the association between Rome and water popped off the page at regular intervals. Sometimes the reference to water is direct, in places one would expect it to be, such as the “drinking fountains that appear to be permanently turned on.” But more often, Doerr attaches water-like characteristics to the everyday: “rivers of cars,” “snowstorms of birds, swirling over the rooftops . . . like reef fish,” the “umbrella pines” and “reflections of streetlights in puddles,” where “motorini squirt past.” Even the soft color of “whitewash” suggests l’acqua. By using water metaphors, Doerr creates a sense of constant movement, drawing attention to the fluidity of a civilization that has survived, in part, due to its willingness to change and adapt. Like water, Rome is a place caught up in an endless cycle of falling and rising, a place where fountains “trickle” and “splash.”

Julian the Apostate

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Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

When I read about Flavius Claudius Julianus in Hughes’ Rome, I immediately identified with him. We have the same label. Like Julian, I’m intimately familiar with the word “apostate” and the sanctions it incurs when a church hangs the label around your neck, like some version of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Julian and I have also lost members of our family due to “Christianity.” Although, I suppose it could be argued that Julian’s family was murdered for political reasons and not because Constantius was a Christian. But then again, in the 1st century the difference between religion and politics was a small distinction. So what was the deal with Julian? He was supposed to embrace Christianity. He “had even taken lower orders as a lector in the church.” Hughes seems to think it’s “a classic example of what can go wrong when beliefs are shoved down the throat of an intelligent, sensitive youth temperamentally unfit to receive or practice them” (157). Indeed. Although, I suspect that Julian would have renounced Christianity no matter how it was served up.

Beauty and the Beastly

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When I think about going to Rome, I try to imagine how I’ll feel standing within the structure of the Colosseum. Likely, I’ll experience conflicting emotions, knowing the horrific acts which took place there, and yet be amazed at the beauty and impressive engineering of its structure. Time has past, but I wonder if I’ll feel the residue that violence creates. I’d like to believe that centuries of winds from the sea have shifted its heavy weight, blowing its ghosts to a place of rest, leaving Rome and the Colosseum at peace, with only its beauty as a memorial to the lives that ended there. But I know it doesn’t work that way. Some say you can’t have the good without the bad. While I try to avoid useless concepts such as “good” and “bad,” I think there is some truth to the saying.

It might be easy to think that Rome’s beauty and violence are separated by time. Just as Rome still dons beautiful art, architecture, and fountains, its less savory history remains; it cannot be psychically cut away. Rome’s beastly past of insatiable violence is an intrinsic part of its beauty. The Colosseum was built for blood. Its entire purpose was to facilitate killing, and it was in its full glory, at the height of its beauty, when “spectacles and gladiatorial contests in which thousands of men and beasts struggled and died for the entertainment of a mass audience” (119). Hughes says, “During the opening slaughters of the Colosseum, in 80 C. E., at the behest of the Emperor Titus, some five thousand beasts were killed in a single day, either by human butchers or by other animals” (123).

The elaborate palace in which Emperor Titus lived contrasts the beastliness of these events. True, most Romans had less than beautiful homes to live in, but when it comes to blood sport it doesn’t seem to matter where you live. Both patricians and plebeians took credit for Rome’s beauty, just as many patricians and plebeians enjoyed the savagery of the arena. The capability to produce astonishing beauty, and at the same time to  participate, directly or indirectly, in the most brutal violence imaginable appears to flourish side by side. This would support the idea that humans are not entirely “dark” or “light,” but each of us has the capacity for creating beauty as well as great injury. None of this can be taken away by the purity of a sea breeze or centuries of time because beauty and violence are in us all. A quick review of some current movie trailers will reaffirm that we’ve not changed much in the years since the days of the gladiators. With this in mind, I hope I’ll be able to look at the Colosseum without judgment, and accept that its beauty and its beastliness will always occupy the same space.

Ode to the Georgos

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Roseto Comunale di Roma

O happy beyond measure the tillers of the soil. . . . Even if no high mansion with proud portals pours forth from every room a mighty wave of men coming to pay their respects in the morning; even if men do not gape at pillars inlaid with lovely tortoise-shell . . . or at Corinthian brones;   even if the pure olive oil they use in not spoiled with perfume, yet they enjoy sleep without worry, and a life that cannot bring disillusionment . . .—Virgil

What a blessed relief it must be to lay down one’s hammer and pick up a garden trowel, to live of your own accord and not by the whims of someone who believes they are superior. Rome has beautiful buildings to be sure, but they would look stark and harsh without the vibrant color of flowers and the varied tones of green to soften them, which makes the “georgos” an important part of Rome’s architecture. And even more important, according to Virgil, the life of “one who works the soil” has the freedom to be the architect of his own life. They say Virgil died rich, but he must have either experienced the life of an earth keeper, or observed their peace, because his words, at least to this introverted, self-sufficient gardener, ring true.