This year I had the lovely opportunity to attend the Oxonmoot, the annual conference presented by the Tolkien Society. The event is held in Oxford, England, where Tolkien was a professor for most of his academic career. The event is held near Bilbo and Frodo's birthday, September 22nd. This year it was conveniently held at St. Anthony's College.
It was a wonderful experience. For the first time I had a chance to hang out with lots of other Tolkienites. When I showed them a picture of the mural that proudly hangs in my living room, the one I've owned since high school, the one my parents drove out to Tucson for me, my new friends knew immediately: Oh, yes, that artwork comes from the Barbara Remington covers from the 1960s. Remington hadn't read the texts because Houghton Mifflin was in such a hurry for the covers, but I've always liked them anyway. They're happy and optimistic--which is how I've always seen The Hobbit as well as The Lord of the Rings.
For the next several days I enjoyed the myriad of activities: the pub quiz (those people REALLY know stuff!), the entertainments, the talks by Tolkien artists and scholars. I even got to speak about Bilbo's motivations. Obviously, he didn't really want to go off on a long adventure--or did he?
Over the weekend I had delightful conversations with Tolkien lovers from 17 other countries. (After the UK, the biggest number of attendees came from the US and the Netherlands; they also came from India, Canada, and other European countries.) We went to the Bird and Baby and the White Horse, pubs that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis frequented. We talked about passages of Tolkien's texts that we especially loved. With Joel's help, I performed an imagined dialogue between Bilbo and his creator. Since the author was procrastinating, Bilbo had to demand to be written!
Finally, on Sunday, we visited the cemetery where J.R.R.T and his wife are buried. The leader read from Chapter 1 of The Hobbit. One member wore his elven cloak; another sang in elvish. It was a beautiful pilgrimage.
It was also a beautiful weekend. I can't wait for the next Oxonmoot! And many thanks to the Tolkien Society members for all their hard work to put on the conference and all the friendly and sincere participants. If only the weather had been warmer, we might have been in Rivendell! Now the question remains, if I were to set one of my murder mysteries in Oxford.....
In July I had the chance to go to Kato Verbena with some friends. The small Greek town is a half hour south of Naufplio on the Peloponnese. My friends have a house there, and they had an extra bedroom. When they invited me to join them, I didn't hesitate. Unfortunately, they had a lot of housework to do. One day they waited three hours for the electrician to show up, and then he didn't have the right equipment! It was almost funny. But lucky me, while they were working on the house, I was spending my time down at the beach..... Or maybe playing with some of the cats.
I'm so pleased to be back for a teaching stint in Orvieto, Italy. The town is about an hour northeast of Rome. I'm teaching two classes for the Arizona in Italy Summer Study Abroad Program. I teach a course in creative non-fiction that invites students to unpack their experiences. We just finished reading Phil Doran's delightful The Reluctant Tuscan. I also teach a film and lit course with the same goal--to help students get a better sense of their surroundings and themselves. We just finished reading E.M. Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread; today's movie selection is A Room with a View, the Merchant and Ivory film based very closely on the eponymous novel, again by E.F. Forster.
This weekend I traveled cinematographically all the way to the town of Paterson, NJ. In Jim Jarmusch’s new film, bus driver Paterson (Adam Rider) takes us on his daily tour of the city while he picks up passengers and delivers them to their destinations. But to us he delivers something much different—a quiet celebration of life. Paterson spends his time enjoying simple pleasures: a job well done, a glass of beer with friends, an evening with his wife (Golshifteh Farahani). But he is no ordinary bus driver. He is also a poet, and every day he records his thoughts in ways that reflect wonder. He may see the same waterfall every day, but inside it he finds the beauty of the universe.
Halfway through the movie, my friend asked if anything were going to happen. It was a valid question. In Paterson nothing happens—and everything happens. Bus driver Paterson shows us a whole world by taking us inside his. He muses on William Carlos Williams, the influential doctor-poet who was from the area. He walks an unfriendly dog. He indulges his idea-rich wife. Throughout, Paterson retains quiet dignity. While his supervisor has new complaints every day, Paterson accepts his life and embraces it. He recognizes that every single moment is worthy of observation.
Paterson is a writer’s movie. It celebrates those of us who are never far from a notebook, who consider pen and paper to be primordial daily gear. We might not be able to explain why we must stop everything and record our thoughts. We might never even want to share them. But somehow, no matter where we are, we live through our words. They come to us unbidden yet vibrant. They tap us on the shoulder demanding to be captured, demanding to be recognized.
Like Paterson, we obey.
What are your own Paterson moments? What makes you get out your notebook and start to write?
I had a chance to travel over Christmas--all the way to Springfield, IL! We went to my nieces' Christmas program as it started to rain. By the time we left, the streets were ice! For two days my mother refused to leave the house. My dad and I managed to slide down the sidewalk--very graceful! Finally it warmed up enough for a walk in Washington Park. Winter has its own beauty, of course, but I have to admit that I prefer 40 and gloomy to 20 and icy!
Right now it seems hot all over the place—in Springfield, Illinois, where I’m hanging out at the moment, back in Tucson, Arizona, where my friends claim it’s REALLY hot, and even in Switzerland.
So, what to do near Zürich on a perfectly hot summer’s day? A good option is always to jump in the lake or float down the river behind the Bahnhof. But the best option of all might be to head to the mountains.
When I visited with Maricela, my friend Belja said it was going to be toooooo hot and that we needed to get out of town. Away we went! First Belja took us to the tiny village of St. Martin, which is up in the mountains. Just looking at the mountain streams brought the temperature down! St. Martin is a perfect hideaway if you want to get way, way out of town and enjoy a few days in the cool mountain air. I don’t think I’d like to visit in the winter! After a relaxing lunch of fresh fish, we sat on the rocks by the stream and enjoyed the cold water.
On our way back downhill, we stopped at Bad Ragaz. The charming town has streams running through it and a beautiful park. The flowers were in full bloom. Luckily, the ice cream parlors were all open and waiting for us! We might have sampled several, but no, further pleasures awaited us.
Before we hit Zürich again, we stopped at Wahlensee for a swim. Against a beautiful mountain backdrop, we were serenaded by a band playing. We did lazy laps in the refreshing water, enjoying a perfectly lovely, lazy summer day.
On the Arizona in Italy Summer Study Abroad Program, we take a lot of field trips. My favorite is always to Tivoli. We spend the morning at Hadrian’s Villa, which is a sumptuous second-century residence. Then we spend the afternoon at the Villa d’Este, which is a tribute to decadence. No wonder people love it!
Built by a cardinal (what else was he going to do with all that money?), the villa has beautifully painted rooms…. But the real draw are the lovely, luscious gardens.
There are waterfalls, water pools, lions sprouting water, rocks sprouting water, a horse statue with water, an eagle statue with water, and a stairway with water. As you walk along trying to take everything in, you forget about any problems and just concentrate on the sheer beauty.
The vegetation includes grass, huge trees, and flowers. While those might seem mundane to anyone living in Italy, they represent special beauty to anyone who lives in the desert!
Every time I go to the gardens, I discover a new statue or a quiet corner I’d overlooked before. On a hot day, the gardens are a triumph of the serenity achieved through the simple sounds of gushing water. For the true romantics, a piece of Only You (Robert Downey Jr. and Marissa Tomei) was shot by the corridor of fountains.
The whole sight is a tribute to imagination and luxury. I’ve got the imagination all right… but I’m not sure I can afford the luxury!
What are your own favorite gardens, decadent or otherwise?
Lucky me—I made it back to Orvieto this summer to do some summer teaching and get some Italian practice. Today in class we talked about E.M. Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” and also Phil Doran’s “The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian.” Both are fun texts. Then in the meantime I’ve been taking walks around town (no handy swimming pool—it’s the one drawback). The walls around the edge of the city make for scenic views! And since I’ve been spending time in Arizona, it’s actually just really cool to see big trees.
Orvieto might be a quiet place, but there’s a lot going on under the surface. In fact, last night I was sitting at my desk and I thought, am I crazy? My whole kitchen shook for several seconds. I thought: either an earthquake or my upstairs neighbors are elephants who are playing games by moving around the couches. No, it was a small earthquake near here, about 4.2. I felt another one this evening, but it wasn’t as strong. However, the teachers are thrilled—to be on the safe side, many of the elementary schools closed early today and will be closed tomorrow—and Thursday is a national holiday! (No, in Orvieto they never have snow days…..)
Now that it’s almost time for summer vacation, it’s time to think about travel. Surely this year’s delights will include a trip to Rome, and almost any trip to Rome calls for a trip to the Vatican. Good timing is crucial, however. Last summer my visit coincided with national scout weekend. The square was so crowded that I had to wait over an hour to get into the Basilica!
For the first time, however, I stayed at a hotel nearby. Even though I’d seen the Vatican several times during the day, I’d never seen it at night. The impression was striking. The square was dotted with devout tourists who were excited to see the iconic structure. Others were taking pictures of the spraying fountains, the lit Basilica, and the rows of perfectly aligned columns.
The second night of my stay, I went to the Vatican around six p.m., while it was still light, and simply waited for the sky to change from blue to deep blue to marine blue to black. Several photographers had brought tripods to get the desired effect—whoops! Now I know what I need to bring with me the next time around!
Travel is my biggest inspiration. In fact, my motto is that when it comes to travel, no excuse is too small. But now that I'm writing more fiction, I have a special need for the perfect setting....