Of Art that Matters

In lieu of using my own words today, I’m going to point you to an amazing commencement address given to the newly graduated Juilliard class (and many thanks to my friend Caitlin Hammon, an amazing artist in her own right, for pointing me to this address). Joyce DiDonato does an amazing job expressing herself clearly and concisely concerning the role of art in today’s society, so you should all go read that here.

To summarize it, I will use a quote from one of my many guilty pleasures, One Tree Hill, and simply say: “Hey! Your art matters. It’s what got me here.”

Considering the great loss the world suffered yesterday in the death of Maya Angelou, I think we cannot be reminded of that fact enough.

“The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”

-Maya Angelou

cagedbird

Of Heroes, Travels, and Historical Dragon-Slayers

To continue recounting my sojourn abroad, I’m going to theme today’s post as notable dragon-slayers. I have written before on individual dragons themselves, but given the roads and places I trod recently, I think the dragon-slayers are entitled to their own post. Starting, of course, with one of the original and most badass of all dragon-slayers: King Arthur.

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

King Arthur by Charles Ernest Butler

Now, given that my recent trip led me all around the British Isles, you may be surprised to learn that the above picture is not actually a ghost I saw of King Arthur, just a lovely painting of him. Not to say I didn’t see his ghost, but phantoms are remarkably hard to photograph; they hardly like sitting still long enough.

I did, however, get the chance to see Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, which is a peak in the center of the city reputed to be one of the possible sites of Camelot– and that was just on my first day:

arthursseat

When I reached Wales, I journeyed to what I consider King Arthur’s shrine (I’m nothing if not devoted), and that would be the mountain of Cader Idris, which I did hike to the top of (via the steepest path, by the way). There are a number of legends surrounding this mountain; one of them states that if you spend the night on the mountain, you’ll come down either a madman or a poet. Another is that King Arthur and his knights are sleeping underneath Cader Idris, awaiting the time when Britain needs them again. Tell me you can look at these pictures and possibly think otherwise:

cader

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

the mountain and Llyn Cau at its feet

looking over the edge into the fog

looking over the edge into the fog

I know many people tell the story King Arthur’s one-day return with a wink and a nudge, but there’s a reason we’re still telling his story today. Part of it is that the story of Camelot is one of the greatest tragedies of all time; it’s got it all: action, adventure, romance, heaps of forbidden sex, betrayal, honor, heartbreak. And since those things will continue to exist as long as people do, King Arthur will also continue to endure in all the various incarnations he’s been granted by storytellers, fantasy writers, historians, and any other interested parties.

But King Arthur is also a cultural, a mythic, hero– and no eye rolls about outdated chivalry or misogynistic readings of his mythology or anything else like that, for I’m perfectly serious. A man who tried to do the right thing for his people, for his kingdom, for his marriage, and who might’ve gotten tangled up in a whole heap of stuff along the way but who persevered and did the best he could. That is heroism. Heroes don’t always win and they don’t always get the girl; sometimes they lose the girl, the fight, and the kingdom– but that hardly makes them unheroic.

looking down at the surrounding valleys

looking down at the surrounding valleys from Cader

view from the top

view from the top

Speaking of heroes who seem to lose, get ready for this shift: I’m going to move on to Oscar Wilde now, whose grave I visited in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (why yes, I did manage to sneak in two days in Paris during my 2-week whirlwind trip around the UK):

oscarwildegrave

Oscar Wilde is one of my personal heroes, and oh what an understatement that is. I remember the first time I read “The House of Judgment,” I wept as hard as I’d laughed when I first saw The Importance of Being Earnest performed. I won’t go into all the details of the way Wilde was vilified in his society, aside from just to say that it was utterly and incomprehensibly cruel and wicked and wrong, but I do want to transcribe here what is engraved on the back of his tomb in Paris:

“And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.”

Too beautiful and heartbreaking to elaborate on. So my final downtrodden hero of the day is William Wallace. I had the chance to visit Stirling to see both Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument, both of which were breathtaking. The views from the monument in particular were astounding:

view from the monument

at the top of the monument

viewfromwallace2

and again

The monument is essentially a massive tower with several different floors you reach via a tiny stone spiral staircase. Super fun when you’re going up and others are coming down. One of the floors– and my favorite, obviously– was the Hall of Heroes, which contained busts of a number of famous and influential Scotsmen, as well as (brace yourself) William Wallace’s actual sword, enshrined in a glass case of beauty.

the sword to beat all swords... except for Excalibur

the sword to beat all swords… except Excalibur

Again, Wallace seemed to have lost everything in his fight against tyranny, and in many ways, he did. In many other and equally important ways, however, he won. The Battle of Bannockburn happened only a handful of years later, which won Scotland independence, and Wallace has continued to be looked to as an inspiration by many groups throughout history seeking independence, equality, justice, etc.

So, I guess today was more about “losing” heroes than anything, but it’s good to remember that just because heroes don’t always seem to win, that doesn’t mean they don’t. That doesn’t mean the light doesn’t shine a little brighter, the darkness retreat a little more, as we continue to tell their stories– their defeats and their triumphs– for years and centuries after they’ve gone.

Of First Thoughts Home

Well, I am home. I saw so much and thought so many things in the last two weeks, that I’m struggling a bit how to organize my thoughts to tell you anything, so we’ll see how this goes. One of the reasons I love visiting old places and seeing historical sites is because I feel so profoundly connected to the past and to the men and women who for centuries (and sometimes millennia, depending on where you visit!) struggled, loved, died, ached with the same yearnings that we do today. That’s nothing profound, to be sure, but there’s something mystical about that, and I found myself struck with that feeling again and again as I wandered around for the last two weeks.

So, for a few of my favorite places, though many more will be posted later. Today’s pictures are just about feeling so deeply allied with the past, as I felt when I was in the presence of Dickens’s writing desk that I wrote about the other day (believe me, it was a presence).

First, Hatchard’s in London. It was opened in 1797, which makes it the oldest bookshop in the city, and it is a book-lover’s fantasy. I just love (among so many other things) that some of the same titles that would have been there in 1797, are still sold there today. For all my fellow book enthusiasts, let that delicious feeling just curl into your toes like hot cider at Christmas. Because that’s what it felt like to be in that shop:

the oldest bookshop in London

the oldest bookshop in London

hatchards2

look at all the stories of books (pun made accidentally but left purposefully)

Second, Blackfriars Bridge. It’s the third oldest bridge across the Thames in London, which opened in 1769, and I delighted in thinking about all the people who have passed over it over the centuries. It also happens to be a key site in two of my favorite books: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare.

Blackfriars Bridge

“Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.” -Edmund Spenser

Of this bridge, one of Eliot’s characters remarks: ”See the sky, how it is slowly fading. I have always loved this bridge: I stood on it when I was a little boy. It is a meeting-place for the spiritual messengers. It is true — what the Masters said — that each order of things has its angel: that means the full message of each from what is afar. Here I have listened to the messages of earth and sky; when I was stronger I used to stay and watch for the stars in the deep heavens. But this time just about sunset was always what I loved best. It has sunk into me and dwelt with me —  fading, slowly fading: it was my own decline: it paused — it waited, till at last it brought me my new life — my new self — who will live when this breath is all breathed out.”

Blackfriars Bridge

On Blackfriars Bridge

Third, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Yes, this is a pub, but it is far from an ordinary pub. It was frequented by Charles Dickens, and it was also visited by (brace yourself for this list) Alfred Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, Voltaire, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and Samuel Johnson (among a whole score of others). It’s also thought to be referenced in A Tale of Two Cities as one of the pubs frequented by Sydney Carton. Needless to say, I dined (and drank) with the spirit of greatness that evening.

cheese2

cheese

And finally in my last of magical places for today, if any of you happen to be in or going to visit the London area, you should most definitely go see Dickens’s house, and not just for his writing desk that I’ve previously mentioned. It’s amazing (oh what an inadequate word) to see where one of the greats lived and worked, and I thought it appropriate to end with this site, especially since I’m going to close with Dickens’s words again. I love history (as you shall see in near future posts, if you haven’t gotten that impression already). But while I think it is so vital to remember the terrible, cruel, evil things that have been done throughout history (nod to George Santayana), I think it’s just as important not to forget the good things, the beautiful things, the acts of selflessness and kindness and love, that continue to keep us going, hoping, persevering through the darkness.

“Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.”

-Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist

thinking great thoughts and contemplations during my travels

thinking great thoughts and contemplations during my travels

Of Final Traveling Thoughts

My current travels are ever so sadly drawing to a close, though that does mean more detailed posts to come regarding what I’ve seen and done, but with a few minutes to spare this morning, I thought I’d give you all a poem that has been running through my mind throughout my trip. It’s by W.B. Yeats (one of my all-time absolutely-mad-for-him-I-am poets), I apologize if the formatting is all wonky from uploading it on my phone, and it’s called “When You Are Old”:

“WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

Perhaps an interesting choice of poem for my mind to be repeating to itself as I journey, but I don’t think it’s all that strange. Traveling always makes me a little sad even in the midst of joy, and I think this poem is such a beautiful juxtaposition of grief with love, of beauty with pain, that I can hardly stand its loveliness.

That’s all I’ll leave you with for today, plus a picture out of one of my recent hotel windows that I’ll let you create your own stories and poems from:

20140516-083439.jpg

Traveling Thoughts

Charles Dickens's writing desk

Charles Dickens’s writing desk

I’m currently writing this as I run from one place to another- on vacation, not the lam, so this will be very brief. I will have many things to discuss when I get back regarding my current travels, but for now, due to a limited Internet connection before my next mad dash, I will simply say that I saw Charles Dickens’s writing desk this week, it was magical, here is a picture of it, and also I’d like to give you all a quote that has come to my mind again and again this week with everything I’ve seen and done. Details to follow upon my return, I promise. But for now, in the words of Dickens himself, in A Tale of Two Cities:

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

More to come soon!

Of Carelessness, Cruelty, and Contests

Having just finished and turned in my final paper of the semester, I want to revisit briefly my dragon of the day from two weeks ago– cruelty– because I’ve been continuing to think about it often, and it just so happens to fit beautifully with my paper topic. While the details of everything I wrote are certainly not necessary to rehash here, I’ll summarize as concisely as I can to say that my paper was about Daniel Deronda (a Victorian novel by the illustrious and scandalous George Eliot) and about the aesthetics within the novel.

All that to say, my paper considered how we determine (unconsciously or not) how we will treat someone based on his or her physical appearance. *eyes roll into the backs of everyone’s skulls*

From the 2002 BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda

From the 2002 BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda

Yes, I realize this is an obvious statement, but I want to think about it in the context of cruelty, and when it is deemed socially acceptable (even if it’s not at all) to be cruel, given someone’s physical/mental/religious/etc state. In Daniel Deronda, cruelty was always sanctioned when the upper-class British characters were dealing with Jewish characters (not for nothing is this considered to be a proto-Zionist novel, as the Jewish characters planned to form their own state where they could be free from such discrimination).

This of course comes in a long line of discrimination. Let’s not forget that it used to be acceptable– even encouraged– for the upper classes to visit the mental hospital of Bedlam and (for a small fee) look at, poke with sticks, and laugh at the baited, caged, and chained inmates. In fact, the highest numbers of visitors to Bedlam usually came around work holiday times. And later in the Victorian era, there was what’s known as slumming: well-to-do Victorians would essentially take ‘tours’ of London’s East End slums as a depraved form of tourism (sometimes dressings as members of a lower class themselves), and they would wander the streets to see and scrutinize slum inhabitants like they were a circus display.

a cartoon illustrating slumming from Punch

a cartoon illustrating slumming from Punch

I’m not convinced society has changed significantly since then. We may have changed the ways we “slum” or “poke,” but the act of cruelty I wrote about two weeks ago (which is still clearly weighing heavily on my mind) was perpetrated in part against this person because the perpetrators believed they could get away with it. When someone has a disability (physical or otherwise) or even when someone is simply non-confrontational to a fault, it’s so easy to tear them apart casually, carelessly, cruelly. When slum inhabitants don’t have a voice, when inmates of psychiatric facilities don’t have a defender, when those that people view as “less than” don’t have a way to speak up, it pushes me to the edge.

I think automatically here of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, whom Fitzgerald describes thusly: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” This description makes me shudder, and not just because of Fitzgerald’s flawless prose. Carelessness and cruelty go hand in hand, and it is far too easy to bully and trample the life, the dreams, of someone who may have a more difficult time fighting back.

GREATGATSBYPoster

It also disturbs me that with Bedlam, the donations that ‘tourists’ would give to keep the facility running were at their highest when the hospital allowed visitors to come visit it like a zoo. When they banned visits from outsiders, donations plummeted. Additionally, Victorian ‘slummers’ often did so to entertain themselves, but philanthropists and missionaries often went slumming in the guise of “helping” the poor. They determined the “undeserving” versus the “deserving” poor– who they should help, in other words, and who should be left to flounder and fall by the wayside because they were ‘less than worthy.’ Sometimes, of course, they did help improve conditions in the slums, but it’s not those people I’m thinking of today.

Do we have to see or experience someone’s suffering to know we should help them? Do we have to see the effect our own cruelty has on someone to know we should be careful? If the answer is yes to either question, we should all shudder.

The Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

The Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

Now, as a final and unrelated side note, I may not have access to the internet for the next two weeks (although hopefully I’ll find some time to log on between now and then). In case I don’t, however, I just wanted to say I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth; I’m just going to the other side of it.

So, while I’m gone, I’m going to post this for all my reader-writers. It’s a short story competition in fantasy, sponsored by Baen Books, and which I will be entering myself. While I realize it is creating more competition for myself by spreading the word about this contest, the best writer will win regardless, and it’s only winning if you’re up against the best. So, happy writing until next time, and here is the link from Baen Books (thanks to Larry Correia for posting this on his blog, as otherwise I might not have seen it!).