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


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.



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 Heroism in a World of Grey

This weekend, I saw the new Captain America movie. While I won’t gush on about my feelings concerning the specifics of the movie– aside from simply saying that it exceeded my expectations and was so good that everyone needs to go see it immediately– it gave me a lot (and far too much to put in one post) to think about. I’m sure I’ll talk about it all eventually, but today, I just want to think about heroism– and good and evil– in 2014. (I know I said “just,” as if it’s such an easy topic that a few hundred words with some pictures interspersed can do it justice; bear with me.)

Captain America

So for this post, let me make clear that I’m talking about heroism in my own life, and in the lives of others like me. I am not touching on those who actually physically fight for my right to say whatever I want on this blog; our soldiers are unquestionably heroes who cannot be thanked or praised enough– and whose situation I think the newest Captain America film does an excellent and heart-wrenching job of portraying. What I’d like to consider is all the rest of us: those who don’t in our daily lives encounter physical monsters and dragons in need of slaying.

What do you do when there is no black and white? When monsters wear masks, when dragons move in masquerade among us, when everything seems so unbearably grey? And even when there are black and white issues, as there will always be, what do you do when, the world being what it is, you can’t fight evil physically, and even your words seem (in the words of George Eliot) “in their feebleness nothing better than despair made audible”?

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Movie Still from Sleeping Beauty

Well. I have never claimed to have all the answers (or even some of them). But what I will do, as I so often do when I am struggling to find an answer or some meaning in seeming meaninglessness, is turn to literature. One of my favorite series of books growing up was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. First of all, everyone should go read them right now. Second of all, this is just one of many quotes from the fifth (and last) novel in the series, spoken by the hero Taran:

“Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king– every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone. Once you told me that the seeking counts more than the finding. So, too, must the striving count more than the gain.”

These words ring as true today as they did when I was a child. There are so many more ways than just one to be a hero– thankfully! There are so many kinds of heroes and so many ways to be heroic, and I think they always involve some form of selflessness. It is so hard to be heroic in small ways– not to say that it’s not hard to be heroic in big ways too. They’re both difficult, just in different ways. I think what is most difficult about being heroic in “small” ways is that it involves fighting against intangible evil. And unfortunately, I am so often (and sadly so easily) discouraged by intangible evil. How do we strive against that which we cannot see? How do we know we are effecting change if we can’t even see what we are fighting?

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

The Knight at the Crossroads by Viktor Vasnetsov

I don’t have an answer. Not more of one than simply to say that I do believe that daily acts of kindness are just as important to stem the tide of darkness as are physical battles. How to remember this in the midst of getting bogged down in the living of day-to-day life, I continue (and will continue) to struggle with. So to end today, I’d like to quote again, this time from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as a reminder that maybe the striving is what counts the most– maybe the refusal to yield to darkness, to keep chasing after light and compassion and empathy and goodness, matters most:

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”