Monday, February 17, 2014

Turning the Quarter




I’ll admit, I didn’t start this last year off in the best of spirits. Sure, I was enjoying my job, my schooling, having my own apartment, attending a poetry work shop, and so on, but I was a bit disappointed in myself. My biggest goal for my life thus far was to complete my Master’s degree by the time I turned twenty-five. I had a plan all through college, even before I had decided, for certain, to earn a Master’s, that I would have that degree before I turned twenty-five. So there I was on my twenty-fifth birthday glad that I had followed through with part of the goal yet feeling like my whole life was behind schedule. It had ruined everything. Everything. Not that I really had many other plans. I wanted to publish a novel, to publish a poetry collection, to get a job at the local college, and accomplish a few other things, none of which had time constraints, but that was the main thing.

So when I walked across the stage of Pacific University’s auditorium and received my degree certificate, a Master of Fine Arts, a “certified poet” as a friend has since referred to me, I received it with much excitement, pleasure, and just a hint of sadness. “What is the big deal?” you may be asking. “You got your degree. You’re only twenty-five!” And you’re right. I think that somewhere deep down, that goal was so important to me because of the quarter-century birthday regrets I had heard so often in the years leading up to mine. “I’m already twenty-five!” my friends and relatives said to me. “I haven’t accomplished anything. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with my life!” But me, I’d known since before I was six, carting a five-subject notebook everywhere and answering the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” with “a children’s author!” without even missing a beat.

That particular dream got derailed shortly before I entered college by a rather disappointing correspondence writing course that did nothing for my storytelling and left me feeling like a writing fraud. But I bought a few new notebooks, trooped off to FVCC, and immersed myself in poetry. It did wonders for me, and it brought back most of my writing ambition. That ambition developed into a love for poetry and a re-routing of my ultimate goals. But the date for that Master’s degree never changed. I envisioned receiving it the summer of my twenty-fourth year and hanging it up at some enormous twenty-fifth birthday gathering. (I don’t know why. I’m not a big crowd person...)

The birthday party didn’t even really happen. Normally, my family comes together for a fairly large party at my grandmother’s house. Four of us have birthdays in March, and we celebrate all of them together (this allows for a variety of desserts). Last year, everyone got sick, and we all had to celebrate on our own. I stayed home panicking about my thesis and chastising myself for the year and a half I took off from school after graduating UM that landed me in my house studying instead of at the movies or somewhere fun.
But I finished the thesis with a few wonderful writing epiphanies. I walked across the stage and received my degree. My mentor contacted me during that residency to tell me he had set up a reading that he and I would give together at the local college. I came home fairly elated and was swept away from writing altogether from July until mid-September by a challenging, stressful, frustrating job. Every evening when I came home from work, I turned on the TV and stared at it mindlessly until bed time or called my dad to vent about some awful thing or another that had happened at work that day that left us even more short staffed or made me seem like a worse supervisor than I already thought I was. 

Toward the beginning of September, I took a ten minute break. Most of the time, my opportunity for a lunch break got eaten by some emergency or another, or I covered for my girls’ lunch breaks so they could get out and have a break. I was being driven by nothing more than stress and adrenaline, but I had wanted a supervisory position, darn it, and I was going to do the job to the best of my ability. But that afternoon, my vault teller and amazing friend, Maria, told me to get off the line for fifteen minutes, and she wouldn’t let me back into the building until that time was up. So, I took my phone and wandered around the parking lot. I had a voice message from a good friend who worked at the local college as a tutorial specialist in the Writing Lab on campus. She couldn’t continue with the job that semester, she explained, and she had already recommended me to her colleague as a replacement. Would I like her to send him my contact information? I told her yes, yes I certainly would. Then I called my mentor and friend at the college and asked him if he would put in a recommendation for me. He did. 

The next day I took a break to check a voice mail. It was from my friend’s colleague, asking me to come for an interview. Maria made sure I got out in time to go, and the interview was fairly short. He didn’t look at my résumé or CV until much later. Instead, he set them aside and asked me a few questions. Then he told me, quite frankly, that it sounded like I’d been trying for this opportunity for a long time, and he thought it should be rewarded. He would check with his boss to see if he needed to interview anyone else and, if not, the job would be mine. He called me a couple of days later with a start date, and I put in my two weeks’ notice.
My mentor and I gave our reading two months after I joined the college, and it was well attended by colleagues, friends, family, and community members. (Well attended in terms of Kalispell, which means we had about 50 people—quite a few more than we expected.) I received a lot of wonderful, encouraging feedback on my poetry, which was the inspiration I needed to get back into my notebooks and create some more. Since my new position was not full time, I certainly had some time left over in the day to write.
At a suggestion from one of my advisors at Pacific, I submitted one of my thesis poems to a journal called Minerva Rising. They not only accepted my submission, they sent me a check for $35 upon publication. My first post-Pacific publication made me a “paid writer”.

Working less during the day gave me the opportunity to apply for an online tutoring position which had been recommended to me by a fellow Pacific Alum. I was hired on to the online tutoring program, which is a nice way to spend a few extra hours during the week. I also had the opportunity to house sit more often. During one of my house sitting stays, my uncle gave me a call to talk about some writing I had sent him. The conversation turned to his guitars, and he told me about a new guitar his friend John Doan had recently purchased. He liked it so much, he had decided to get one for himself. He was planning to take my aunt and fly to England to pick it up. I told him I was jealous; I’d always wanted to go to England, and he’d better send me a lot of pictures!

He did me one better, and sent me. January 9th, he and I met up in Atlanta and boarded a plane headed for London Heathrow, and from there we traveled to Hough-on-the-Hill to stay with a Luthier who was also a Falconer, a carpenter, and a dog lover. I, who had always imagined that England was a bucket-list or imaginary sort of adventure, wandered the fenlands of Lincolnshire, stood awed in a breathtaking cathedral, stood in an 18th century (at least) cottage with a Saker falcon on my hand, and walked across the countryside watching the two Lurchers chase hares across the fields. 

Upon my return, when I stopped by my mentor’s office to tell him a bit about the trip, our conversation turned to a few of the upcoming events on campus. “Did you see we’re teaching a class together?” he asked me. “Noooo,” I said. “Oh. Well, I’ll show you. Hope it’s okay; I probably should have asked you first.” Trust me, no permission was required. He showed me the schedule for the Senior Institute classes beginning February 21st. He and I were listed as the leaders of a poetry workshop. I don’t know that I have felt that particular type of elation before in my life.

Later, talking to one of the professors about a Writing textbook we’re developing, another colleague saw me and said she wanted to ask me something. They needed an instructor for a poetry class in June. Since my mentor doesn’t teach in the summer, and I am the only other “certified poet”, would I like the class? My outer demeanor was quite calm as I told her “Yes”. I turned to the other professor as she left and said “If you weren’t watching me right now, I’d be doing a happy dance.” He gave me a high five and told me to go ahead.

What does all this have to do with my initial disappointment about not meeting my goals? This: I believe in perfect timing. That application to FVCC was my fifth. I had tried and tried to work in the mail room, the financial aid office, customer service, and so on. I was inches away from walking into the president’s office and asking her to put me to work anywhere there. But those other times weren’t time yet. The year and a half I took off school made it so I found a fantastic job that took great care of me, even though it eventually drove me crazy. It gave me the opportunity to be in a leadership position that I needed, so that I would feel comfortable training employees, and, therefore, teaching them one-on-one. That has translated to tutoring, and taught me valuable lessons about when to help, and when to let the student figure things out for him or herself. That job also made me lead meetings, which meant that I had to get up in front of between twelve and twenty-five people to talk or explain something. I am terrified of getting in front of people. But when it came time to give my graduate presentation and read my poetry for a half hour to strangers, I could do it. I never wanted to be a teacher. Ever. That wasn’t my dream, and it is not my highest ambition. But I wouldn’t mind teaching poetry, especially if there is an opportunity to point out good contemporary poetry that is accessible and interesting. I want students to know that there is poetry that can be understood and enjoyed in this day and age. And, now, I can do that. 

 Another major blessing that has come out of this is my colleagues. I left my other job feeling, quite frankly, useless. I was told that I did a good job, that I handled the difficulties well, and that I was irreplaceable. At least, to my face. I found out later that my main supervisor was saying awful things about my performance behind my back to my immediate supervisor. 

Upon my entering the college, my mentor threw an afternoon barbecue at his house, and invited the English department, most of whom I knew, and they remembered me. I’ve never felt so welcome at any job I’ve ever had. Even though I’m still not technically “faculty”, they make it a point to invite me to department meetings, ask for my ideas and my input, and ask for my help with projects and improvements. When I told some of them that I had been offered a class, they instantly stacked my arms with resources and offered their help. They treat me like an equal. I no longer walk into work wondering if someone is going to fire me for making a little mistake or wondering what kind of rumors are going to be spread about me and the work I do. 

So the “delay” I imagined in getting my degree? I understand that now, and I’m glad that those lessons I’ve learned, this job I have now—no matter how long it lasts—have come along when I’m so young. I don’t have time limits on my other goals, but I do have a few resources opening up that might allow me to achieve them sooner than I think. But as long as I work steady, they’ll come along when they need to. And, by the grace of God, I’ll enjoy every blessing and difficulty as they come along.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Our Grand English Adventure! Part 2



The House
The house, we found out later, was once owned by the Lord of the Manor, and the particular one Gary lived in was owned by the hedge keeper for the estate. It was built of brick, and the house I saw when we pulled up was actually at least four houses separated into cottages. We got out of the van and went through the fence into the garden where the falcon, Darling (named after a military officer on Black Adder. If you haven’t seen it, you should), lived in her little home. It was a cage, but a big cage built of wood and wire with a rather spacious, covered shelter. The garden was grassy and surrounded by a fence and some shrubbery. It was simple and very green, which surprised me considering the time of year. 

Gary had warned us that, when we arrived, the dogs would be overjoyed that we were there. He opened the door, and out came three beautiful, exuberant dogs. I pegged the first one, Luna, for a whippet. Gary told me that she was, in fact, a lurcher. The second dog, Lionel, looked rather like a terrier, but he was also a lurcher and was, in fact, Luna’s puppy. The third dog, Cherry, was a three-legged, purebred greyhound. She was a racing greyhound that Gary had rescued a few years ago, and the oldest of the three. 

When Gary was talking about the rescued birds, I hadn’t quite realized that they were being kept in an actual bird sanctuary. So I was a bit surprised when we walked into the house and found that the only animals that actually lived there were the three dogs, who were incredibly well behaved, the Saker falcon in its apartment outside, and the kestrel that was in a crate the size of a dog kennel and hardly made a sound the entire time we were there. 

The house itself was lovely. The flooring was wood, the windows were not boring and uniform like most windows we see here, and a few of the rooms were painted different, bright colors. The art in the house was mostly done by Gary’s friends, and all the pieces complemented each other nicely. The setup of the house was spare, and wonderfully efficient. I was especially struck by how the kitchen was set up, and how everything he did when he was cooking was sort of back to basics. For example, he made coffee in little, independent pots, he poached eggs without the little metal dishes my grandmother used to use, and he fried bacon in a pan in the oven (which I have seen done here, and yes, it works much better). He also makes his own bread (which made me miss making bread) and jam (which I do not miss making).
There was a small yard off the back of the house, and a few steps up to a sort of detached porch which was actually joined to another small building which is his workshop. The back yard was lined with, I believe, a hedge, and I think there was a field on the other side of the hedge, but I’m not quite certain. At any rate, it was pleasant, open, and let the light in nicely.
Our Host
I had seen a couple of pictures of Gary on the various websites Unkyl sent to me, and it was a pleasure to meet him. He is one of the sweetest, most genuine people I have ever met in my life. He was very gracious and generous, and when he greeted us in the morning or throughout the day with “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling”, it sounded as if he really, truly, honestly wanted to know. I don’t believe I have ever heard those questions asked in quite that manner before. He has a wide range of woodworking talent – he showed us a few of the instruments he has made, a longbow he crafted, and talked to us about learning to make pipes. He also has quite a way with animals, and his dogs were well-trained and utterly happy. We spent many hours chatting about animals, hunting, nature, exploring, different cultures, travel, and countless other subjects. 

He had spent some time planning activities for us and noting some things we might like to see, but he was also open to changing our plans, which we did a few times. I think we wound up seeing rather less than any of us had anticipated, but we still made the most of our time.

Day One: Jet Lag!

We set our luggage down and introduced ourselves properly. Gary offered to give Unkyl his guitar right away, but we decided to chat for a bit first. Gary made some coffee for all of us and we had a seat at the table to talk for a bit. The kestrel was in its crate behind me and just sort of sat watching us. The dogs were still overjoyed that we were there, and Luna made her rounds between all three of us. As soon as someone stopped petting her, she’d go put her head on someone else’s leg.
Lionel wanted in on all the love, but he gave up rather faster than his mum did, and joined Cherry in the living room on the dog beds.
The conversation revolved mostly around bog oak. I’m afraid I came off as a little bit rude initially because Gary was saying such wonderful things about the wood and I was taking notes about it on my iPhone since I hadn’t brought an extra notebook. (I had two – one for poems and one for my novel, but I’m funny about notebooks, and nothing is supposed to go in them except the subjects I’ve reserved them for. I know…I have issues). As that was the topic of conversation, allow me a little segue to mention a few of the unique characteristics the wood possesses.
Bog oak is a very hard wood, and the fact that the trees have been submerged for so long adds to that. The wood that is pulled from the farmers’ fields has actually begun to fossilize, and it is more mineral than fiber. Gary used the term ‘de-naturized’ to describe it. Although it’s not quite wood, it’s not quite fossil. It’s in a unique in-between state. The longer the wood is underground/underwater, its color darkens significantly. Some of the trees are nearly black all the way through, while others are only blackened a few inches into the wood. Unkyl’s guitar is made of a board that was nearly completely blackened, which makes for an incredibly beautiful color tone in the wood. The board for the first guitar Gary made, for John Doan, was a bit less dark, and the trees appear to be umber at the heart. 

The most interesting characteristic of this wood, to me anyway, was what he said about its flexibility: “The wood is actually so hard that, when it is cut, it blunts the blade. But it bends. Actually, it bends more easily than rosewood or sycamore. It has a certain softness to it. It’s hard, but giving.” I’m still chewing on that…(And I may have got the woods that don’t bend as well wrong, but that’s how I remember it. Remember, you’re talking to a poet here).
Gary also told us about the process of drying the wood to a workable state. One of his friends who is especially dedicated to the finding, preservation, and use of this wood has built a kiln in which to dry the trees they find. Drying the trees is an incredibly touchy and sometimes difficult process because if it isn’t done just right—and sometimes even if it is—the wood will crack or split, and it won’t be usable for making instruments. He told us that his friend had taken one of the trees and figured out the perfect way to dry it. The boards that came out of it were fantastic! So, he applied the exact same process to another log. He put it in the kiln and left it for a bit. When he opened the door to go have a look and make sure it was coming along well, the log had dried in a ‘U’ shape and torn the kiln apart. When the trees are dried and all the water has come out of them, the logs are about a third of their original size.
These logs aren’t the only things that have been found in the fens. There are also old bridges or platforms that have been discovered. It’s only a theory, but Gary said it’s possible that they were built there where the land and water met because those were sacred places. They may have been places people went to make sacrifices or to hunt.
We finished our coffee, and Gary said he needed to take the dogs for a walk. He said we could have a nap if we liked, or we could tag along. We decided to tag along. I, of course, wore my usual Skechers, though Gary offered me a pair of Wellington boots because the path would be rather muddy. Unkyl had some kind of special waterproof hiking shoes and said he was all set. Gary had a fleece coat for Cherry, and as soon as he clipped it on, Lionel and Luna went nuts because they knew a walk was coming. He let the dogs into the garden and put their leashes on before we all filed out the gate.
Hough-on-the-hill (pronounced locally as Huff or Who on the hill) really is located on one of the few hills we saw in Lincolnshire. It is a rather small village of about two hundred or so. Walking down from Gary’s house, we didn’t really see many other houses. There was a sidewalk still encroached upon by the fall leaves, and the ground to the left was at a decided slope. I remember this vividly because, in an effort to make room on the sidewalk for everyone, I started out walking on the slope, slipped, stumbled into the middle of the path, caught myself, and everyone was instantly asking if I was all right. Which I was, except for feeling exceptionally silly. So much for my mountain goat impressions…
To our left, there was a low wall made of stone or brick, and beyond was a wide, grassy field with a line of trees along it. I think the field belonged to the manor, which was farther down the road. Before we reached it, off on our right, was the local pub – the Brownlow Arms – and we could see the spire of the church over the treetops. The pub was being renovated and decorated so we didn’t have a chance to go in, but we did meet the landlord briefly, and he seemed like a very nice fellow. 


Beyond the pub, we turned left along another wall lined with ivy and holly. Some of the holly still had berries, and I was ridiculously excited about that. The manor house was named “Hough Manor”. Gary noted that the family, Lord and Lady Brownlow, still keep an apartment in the manor, but it’s also available to walk through. We didn’t have time, but it sounded like an interesting thing to see. 
Beyond the manor, there was a grassy slope to the right, and we headed down that way. In England, there are public footpaths all over the place, and the farmers give some right-of-way to pedestrians. Although they’re allowed to cultivate their land to the very edge, many of them will leave swaths of earth unplanted and maintain it a little bit for people to walk there.
As soon as we started down the hill, Gary let Lionel and Luna off the leash to run. There are a fair amount of hares in the farmers’ fields, and the dogs like to chase them. They’re rarely ever successful in actually catching one—most times they won’t even make the attempt—but they do love the chase. Apparently, the hares are about as big as Luna, so it was entertaining to think about the dogs trying to take one down. Cherry is a little slower than the lurchers, and as she is at a bit of a disadvantage, Gary keeps her close on the lead. Sometimes he let her off so she could explore a bit, but she stayed with us. There was a fence at the bottom of the hill, and a sign pointing out the public footpath. Gary lifted Cherry over the fence, and off we went.
One of the things that struck me about the countryside was how green everything still was in January. They rarely have snow, and it usually stays that green throughout the year. The trees were leafless, but there were still a fair amount of junipers, tall grasses, and shrubs to make it look very much alive.
The path we walked on was fairly muddy to start, but it flattened out and dried a bit. The lurchers disappeared after a bit, but Cherry walked close to me as I looked around the fields and Unkyl and Gary talked of this and that ahead of me. It was strikingly flat where we were, despite the hill upon which the village was built. The fields, as I said, were very green and lined with hedges. I came across quite a few rose and blackberry brambles, and I’m not quite certain of what the hedges were made. At one point, I stepped over to look at a red, oblong berry still clinging to the hedge, and Gary said it was a rose hip. It was unlike the rose hips I have seen before, and I wondered if the hedge was made of roses, or if it was just a volunteer plant.
A long way off, we could see the highway (I don’t remember if it was the E3 or the E4…whoops!) but we couldn’t hear the cars, which was refreshing. Mostly all I could hear were birds, Cherry’s feet in the grass, and the two of them talking. The air was damp and it smelled of soil, young plants, and a bit of leaf mold. It was a pleasant change from Montana’s January ice-brisk air and the smell of snow. I do enjoy those, but it was delightful to have a bit of a change. There were doves in the trees, gulls in the fields, and the occasional kestrel in the air. 

The dogs were a little long coming back, so Gary whistled for them. “If they’ve found something to chase, they’ll be positively foaming at the mouth.” Sure enough, when Lionel caught us up a bit later, he was positively foaming at the mouth. He was also sopping wet and muddy. He showed up from completely the opposite direction the two dogs had disappeared in, and he looked absolutely thrilled. A few minutes later, Luna appeared looking every bit as graceful and delicate as she always did. We had a bit of a laugh at Lionel’s expense, poor guy, and headed back up the hill.
On our way back to the house, we passed another field in which a giant ash tree had been snapped in half, and the top tangled into another tree. They had been having some high winds during December, and the tree had broken then. The trees were leafless and grey with a fringe of light green moss growing along the trunks, completely undisturbed by the windfall. I saw quite a bit of that moss around, and it reminded me of all the Agatha Christie books where the characters came down with Consumption and had to move to drier climates. It’s a rather grim reference, but the moss was lovely.

Back at the house, Gary presented Unkyl with his guitar. I had learned on the plane, much to my chagrin, that it was a classical guitar, not an acoustic guitar. (Meaning nylon strings instead of steel.) As delightful as Spanish music may be, I have never been much of a fan of classical guitars. The tone, to me, sounds dull and hollow, and I much prefer the brighter, louder sound of steel strings. Imagine my surprise, then, when Unkyl started picking out a tune on the guitar, and I actually had to go over and check it to see if he’d lied to me about the nylon strings. He didn’t. The guitar sounds like a softer, slightly deeper acoustic. Most of that beautiful sound can be attributed to the tone of the wood. The back, sides, and headstock are bog oak, the neck is made of a nicely ringed, golden sycamore, and the top is made of German spruce. The tuners are handmade, and the overall design of the guitar is Gary’s own, called the ‘A-series’.
As a luthier, Gary has gone back and looked at many original designs for classical guitars, and he has noticed several features that sort of fell out of use over the years. He added them back to his A-series guitars. As a result, this bog oak guitar has some features I had not seen before such as an arm rest and an adjustable neck. The adjustable neck was especially interesting to me. If the action (the distance between the strings and the fingerboard) is too low or high for the person playing the instrument, there is a key that is inserted in the neck which moves the neck closer or farther away from the strings without affecting the tuning. I have never seen anything like that before! Gary said it used to be included on certain guitars, and he saw no reason why it shouldn’t be included on his. 

The binding on the guitar is unique as well. A green veneer is placed around the edges of the instrument, and then covered with animal horn. The shape and clarity of the horn bring out the green and give it a beautiful, soft green color that isn’t precisely even, and makes it look as if it is antique.
The guitar is an absolute work of art. We talked for a bit about what was most interesting to each of us about it, and I was listening closely to the words Gary was using to describe the materials and his thoughts regarding the construction of these guitars. The trees themselves are incredibly old, and he uses the boards to construct these guitars which, while being in his own unique—therefore newer—style, reach back to older conventions and designs for classical guitars. Part of his reasoning for selecting the materials he does is for the effect, but part of it is also for that history. The horn, he said, seems historical, antique, and visceral. It seemed to be a good pairing to wood that was taken from the borderlands of earth and water which may or may not have been a sacred place. Inlaid in various places in the rosette and the bridge are ‘cup and ring’ symbols, which are commonly found in various sacred places throughout Europe and add to the mystery of the instrument. All this, coupled with the features he brought back to his design, culminate in a feeling of timelessness. Although he never said that word specifically, all the words he used and the concepts he described surrounding the guitar came together to say just that: These guitars are a physical representation of timelessness. They take the past and the present together and give them voice.  
Unkyl played with his guitar for a bit and we adjourned to the kitchen for something to eat. Gary set out some bread (homemade), cheeses (brie and locally made stilton, which were amazing!), a pork pie (a local dish which was interesting to try), some meat (ham and salami), and butter (which was a bit more yellow than our butter, and had a bit of a heavier flavor while having a little less taste, which I liked). I went for some tea that time around, which was very tasty. It was Yorkshire tea, and I’m thinking I’ll need to scan some tea shops for it. It was a very simple black tea, but it had excellent flavor! Unkyl and Gary had some wine.
It was getting on three thirty at that point, and Unkyl and I both sort of gave up on staying awake much longer. We trooped upstairs and had a nap while Gary went to feed the birds. We planned to take a two hour nap and then decide if we wanted to go to a pub for dinner, or if we wanted to just stay in and have a quiet evening by the fire. I was afraid I would oversleep, and I woke up after an hour and just laid upstairs wondering if I should get up, or try to fall back to sleep and wake up to my alarm. Instead, I laid there until the alarm went off and headed downstairs.
Gary was back, and I sat at the table with him while we talked about Montana, the Sioux, native American pursuits, camping, horses, hunting, shooting, animals in general, and dogs specifically. I think we’d asked him about fourteen times by that point what kind of dogs Lionel and Luna were, because we kept forgetting. I asked him again, and he told me that, once upon a time, greyhounds were a bit more all-around hunting dogs. They were fast enough and strong enough to take down a deer. But, only the master was allowed to have greyhounds. So, the serfs would occasionally “borrow” the master’s dog when he wasn’t looking, and breed it to their own dog (usually terriers or collies). As the pups that resulted were not purebred greyhounds, the serfs were allowed to keep the dogs, and their dog would have some of the speed, strength, and hunting prowess of the master’s dog. That breed is called a lurcher. Luna has more of the greyhound body and hair, while Lionel has his mum’s color, but he takes after a terrier a little more in terms of looks.
Unkyl came down and started playing his guitar, and Gary and I figured it’d probably be best to stay in for the evening. He started making dinner and I asked if I could help, so I peeled and cut up three enormous potatoes while he put together a Lincolnshire stew—Lincolnshire sausages (locally grown pork and herbs), mushrooms, and vegetables in a wine sauce. (I think it was wine…I saw the bottle but I didn’t look at the label. Whatever it was, it was really good!) He cooked the potatoes and mashed them, and we had stew and mashed potatoes for dinner, which was absolutely excellent. All of us elected to have beer with dinner, so he and I split Brakspear Bitter, and Unkyl had EPA.

Over dinner, we chatted about art, culture, history, archery, poetry, words, and landscape. Afterward, we adjourned to the living room and sat in front of the fire with the dogs to talk about the next day’s plan. Gary had worked out that we would go to the fenlands and walk around a bit to see where the trees were dug up, and then we would go to a town called Stamford while we still had the light and drop in to a pub for dinner. Unkyl said that we’d also like to stop in Pinchbeck if we could, since that was where the rumors said our ancestors had come from. Gary got out a map and we spent some time planning a route which would ensure we could go everywhere we hoped to. Then we settled in to talk about art some more, family, work, and lutherie. Around eleven, we adjourned to our rooms and headed for bed.

Our Grand English Adventure! Part I



The Beginning
Four a.m. Thursday morning I was awake and peering out the blinds over the kitchen sink. One would imagine there wouldn’t be too much traffic at that hour of the morning, but surprise surprise, Montana never disappoints with traffic at all hours. Usually people headed to work at Plum Creek, or coming home from closing up the bars. I was looking for my cousin’s Sportage. She had already called to let me know she was on the way, and my two bags were packed and waiting by the door. Four a.m. is not my usual get-up-and-go time, but I was wide awake and triple-checking for my passport. It wasn’t just any day, it was the day.
I stepped out of my room after retrieving a necklace I had forgotten to pack, and Shaunna’s headlights were illuminating my ceiling. It was time! I grabbed my bags and pulled the door open. She took one as I locked the door and handed her my hank of keys. “You’re the only person I know who would only pack two bags for a weekend in England,” she said. “Yep!” I said. “And one of them is just a laptop and books.”
Maybe most people would figure that just spending a weekend in England wasn’t really worth the twenty-five hour (with layovers) journey and the jet lag, but I am not most people. Neither is my well-travelled uncle, who was my traveling companion and the patron of the trip.
Most people might also wonder how on earth a weekend trip to England possibly comes about. For me, it happened something like this: Besides being an avid fan of British Literature, comedies, movies, poetry, accents, geography, and whatever else comes to mind, I’ve simply always wanted to go to England. That desire came up frequently over the last few months when I was chatting with my uncle (often and henceforward referred to as Unkyl, for reasons which shall not be described here). Unkyl called me back in November to talk about some pieces of writing I sent him, as well as a new guitar he was going to get. “It’s made of bog oak,” he told me. “There are trees in the fenlands in England that have been submerged for at least five thousand years. The wood is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and there’s a luthier who is using it to make guitars. Your aunt and I are going over at the end of January, and we’re going to spend three weeks around the fenlands seeing where the wood came from, sightseeing in the countryside, and we’re also going to visit the town that your [insert required number of ‘great’s] grandfather lived in back in the 1500s.” I, of course, caught up in the thrill of this wonderful instrument, responded with “I wanna go to England,” in a long, drawn-out whine. We made plans to go together someday when I’m a rich and famous novelist.
A few weeks later, I wrote a post on my blog regarding the influence ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame had over my writing. In it, I noted that one reason I loved the book was because it is, of course, British. These are not the first remarks I have made regarding my love for England, but they seemed to come rather fast and furious.
The Friday before Christmas, I was doing some tutoring on my computer and I received a call from Unkyl. He was telling me that his trip details had changed; he was still headed to pick up the guitar, but he would have to swing over to England, pick it up, and head for Orlando to work. He had rescheduled his trip with my aunt to later in the year when the weather would be more pleasant. We talked for a while about various details regarding the guitar, and he said how he would be staying at the luthier’s house while he was there. Would I like to go with him?
Yes, I thought he was joking, and said as much.
“I wouldn’t call you up, ask you to go to England, and then say ‘oh, April Fools!’”
Yes, he was serious. And that was the moment I remembered that I don’t have a passport. The next several days were a mad rush of gathering documentation, running from government office to government office, to my parents filing cabinet, to my filing cabinet, to my computer, back to the government office, to the UPS store, etc. But it worked! The passport arrived on New Year’s Day. Unkyl contacted the luthier to check if I would be able to stay with him as well, and he said I was more than welcome. We were set to go!

The Journey
It’s funny…you can live in the same town all your life, fly to Portland and Seattle, pick up family member or friends time after time at your local airport, and still never know that there are actually three gates and a coffee shop at said airport, rather than just one gate and absolutely nothing. Huh.
Security took about ten minutes in Kalispell, a benefit to living in a teeny town which generally makes people scratch their heads as to how or why we have an international airport, and I struck up a conversation with the lady sitting across from me while we waited to board for Salt Lake. After discussing family, Shih Tzus, and California, she nearly fell off her chair when she realized that her husband and my grandpappy had both worked together at Lockheed in the Skunkworks division several years ago. She also realized she had met me once before when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and she still remembered meeting me and my brother at my grandparent’s house. (Cue “It’s a Small World After All.”)
We separated when we boarded the plane, and we were off to Salt Lake. The airport there was basically sinfully boring, and I spent two of my three hour layover on my computer in a queue for work, but nothing ever came through. I played Candy Crush on my phone for the rest of it. It was also in Salt Lake City airport that I found this little gem:

I had been warned about Atlanta’s airport. I’d never been there, but I did a little research to find out about the plane train. (Again, redneck, Podunk town kid here.) I had one hour to get from my arrival gate to the departure gate, and no idea where I was going. Unkyl was flying separately from Portland, and I actually saw his plane touch down at the same moment mine did. He sent me a message and informed me that the information I had found told me the wrong gate (good thing he told me…I would have gone two gates in the opposite direction). We wound up in separate terminals, and we had to meet up at the departure gate. We met just in time to board, and we were off!
We spent the first four hours of the flight discussing bits of writing and work, and I enjoyed several stories of his travels before we both decided we should try to get some sleep before we landed. Midnight for me would be 7 a.m. in London.
We landed earlier than planned at Heathrow (Heathrow!) and made our way through the terminal to “International Arrivals.” I didn’t expect quite so many people to have arrived that early in the morning, but we made it to the queue before most of the others did, and we also sort of accidentally cut in line…whoops. So we made quite good time getting through immigration. Armed with a brand new stamp in my brand new passport, I followed Unkyl to the Underground.
At this point, we were up against a problem: neither of our phones would connect to the Wi-Fi. Later we also learned that they charged for nearly all the public access Wi-Fi. We boarded the Underground, headed for King’s Cross, while Unkyl tried to get some form of signal on his phone. Mine would hardly even recognize the fact that there were signals available. It would have been less of a problem, save for the fact that we were supposed to call the luthier when we arrived, and the only means we had of doing that would be to use Skype on Unkyl’s phone since neither of us had international service.
Upon arrival at King’s Cross, we purchased tickets for a train to Grantham station, and stood outside every little café and shop we were close to, but we still couldn’t manage a successful internet connection. Unkyl went to find an ATM (called a Cash Point), but he couldn’t find that either. I must admit that I was rather worried, standing there in the middle of a giant railway station with no money and no means of contact, but as Unkyl travels frequently in places like Nigeria and always seems to come out all right, I figured we’d come up with something.
I had been told that the trains in England were built better, sat on the rails better, and were all-around more enjoyable than the trains in America. Well, it’s all true. The train was fantastic, but the view less so. I was enormously disappointed riding the train out of King’s Cross. All I could think as I looked at the dilapidated fences, crumbling buildings covered in graffiti, and old, run-down cars was “if I really wanted to see this, I could have just driven to Havre.” Outside of London it was marginally better, but the clusters of houses I could see looked a bit the worse for wear. The fields, however, were lovely and green, some of the trees were unique, and church spires signaled little villages all over and mostly out of sight. That began to raise my spirits a bit. Although the land was flat – which usually bothers me – the trees and small hills broke it up just enough to be interesting, even inviting. I started to see sheep in some of the fields, and we passed a few small ponds with swans circling in the quiet water. It was beginning to be the England I had read about and imagined.
Throughout that train ride, there were four young men playing blackjack at a table across the aisle and up a few seats. I spent the ride listening to their accents and rolling my eyes because the girl two seats ahead of us—who was very blatantly American—was comparing Yorkshire and the West End to Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. She was also telling the guys every tiny detail about her life, how much better things were in America or how silly they were in America, handing them her ID to tell them how often she got carded at home, picking on American diction, picking on English diction, and talking about how odd little things in English culture were. “I mean, when you guys have a bunch of biscuits on a plate, nobody ever takes the last biscuit! I mean, nobody ever takes the last of anything. Come on! Has the concept of splitting it never occurred to you?!” (To which one of the lads replied “No, I wouldn’t take the last of something. Why would I?”) and on and on it went. It was, at least, free entertainment.
Rail customers were granted fifteen free minutes of Wi-Fi, and Unkyl managed to connect long enough to make the call when we got on the train. An hour later, we arrived at the station in Grantham. It was an uncharacteristically pleasant morning. The sun was out and the sky was mostly clear. The luthier, Gary, had not arrived yet, so we spent a few minutes looking around the platform and getting some cash. Neither of us knew what sort of car Gary was driving, so I looked at all the cars going by. I’ve always found it interesting how different the cars are in England. Here in Montana we see a great many trucks and SUVs. Besides the occasional lorry, all I saw in England were mostly Ford Fiestas, Peugeots, VW cars, BMWs, and the occasional Toyota or Nissan. So, I was rather surprised when Gary arrived and led us to an older VW van (which he referred to as a bus). It was larger than any of the other vehicles at the station, painted with orange stripes and black dots on a light background. A green sticker in the window read “Dogs are for life, not just for Christmas.” Inside, patches depicting the VW logo, peace signs, happy faces, and a yin-yang were clustered on the ceiling, and (much to my delight) there were Wallace and Gromit floor mats under our feet.
When he opened the back of the van to put our luggage in, we were greeted by a giant, inflatable penguin that was pushed aside to make room. When it was safely stowed, Unkyl and I automatically headed for the right side of the vehicle to climb in. “You’re this side,” Gary said, leading us to the left side passenger door. I had thought I’d be sitting in the back, so I didn’t figure it mattered which side I headed for. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We started out from Grantham, and Gary told us there was one thing he’d forgotten to mention. “I live with a lot of animals,” he said. “I’ve got three dogs that live in the house with me. I’m also a falconer, so the falcon lives in a cage in the garden.” He paused for a moment to point out a kestrel hunting along a hedge. “I’ve a friend who has sort of a sanctuary for wounded and rescued birds, and I’m looking after them while she’s away. One of the kestrels was being bullied by the others, and it got all wet, so it’s in the kitchen at the moment so I can look after it and it can get some rest. If any of that doesn’t sound all right, the local pub also has lodgings, and you can stay with me or you can stay there if you’d prefer.”
I must admit, at this point, I had him pegged as a Missoula-esque fellow with a house overrun with wild pets, and my heart was sinking faster by the second. I'm afraid I was having visions of a rather unkempt menagerie with full run of the house. Unkyl said that we would absolutely love to stay with him if it was still all right, and in a few minutes more, the van turned rather suddenly into a driveway I hadn’t even seen, and there we were.