Taming the Beast



Saturday, February 21,2009 




“. . . it is plain, that they shall conjecture best, that have most experience: because they have most signs to conjecture by; which is the reason that old men are more prudent, (emphasis added for the benefit of my 6 children and 13 grandchildren) that is, conjecture better, than young.  For, being older, they remember more; and experience is but remembrance.” 

                                                                                       – Thomas Hobbes, Human Nature, Chapter IV.  

In the ancient cemetery of The Church of Mary the Virgin, in Chipping Norton, on a day in the deep of winter there are Snowdrops (Galanthus).  Where death is ubiquitous; lives planted and marked and forgotten across a millennium, arise flowers in February.  Low but brilliant sunlight warms an ancient heart, and insolates a dimming memory.  She loved such flowers.  Her voice – so often strained and serious – would trill upon discovery of a snowdrop in our winter lawn in Denver or a bluebell high in the mountain reaches on a summer hike in the Rockies.  Alone in this church yard I can hear her soft, explosive, “Oh, oh . . . look!”  I can recall the pleasure of being included in the radiance of her wonder.  

Got up and said hello to this Saturday of “unseasonable,” the weatherman’s word, sun and warmth, by grabbing my jacket, my cell phone and my bike helmet and heading north on Thames Street.  Up Walton Street through Jericho and out to Woodstock Road heading north again.  I had been dying to bike deep into the hills beyond Oxford to “the gem of the Cotswolds,” Chipping Norton.  I had read the damn tourist guide so often sitting in my study window watching the freezing rain and snow of a miserable British January, I knew it almost from memory.  Finally, I could get out on the road. And un-me like I had a plan!  I would go to Woodstock on what I knew to be a great bikeway then ask about the road north from there the 15 or 16 miles to CN.  I would arrive in time for lunch, look around the town then put my bike on a bus and leisurely return. 

I got to Woodstock so quickly that I skipped the part of my plan about asking for road conditions, and just headed down the way to Chipping Norton.  So did everybody else in the Queendom.   Lories, sports cars, caravans, garbage trucks, tour busses filled with the ancients, regularly scheduled busses filled with everybody else zoomed or chugged along the road to Chipping Norton.  It was the first truly nice weekend of 2009 and nobody was going to miss it.  When the bike path ran out – which it did a mile out of Woodstock — I wondered if nobody would miss me.  Damn that’s a narrow road!  And only this week I had been brushed by a delivery van that turned into the bike lane at Broad and Banbury in downtown Oxford sending me careening onto the sidewalk, shaken and stirred, but unhurt.  For the final hour of my trip I repeaded a revised version of the 23rd Psalm, “Though I cycle through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil for lo Thou art with me, Thy rod and Thy staff they comforteth me . . .” 

OK, I’m writing this, so you already know I made it.  The wind was in my face; the hills of the Cotswolds, while lovely, are really steep, and three times I had to steer out into the soggy grass road shoulder to avoid oncoming Armageddon (I was going to relate a stupid pun here, i.e. “arm a gettin’ out of the way” but I decided not to.)  And there was road kill: a beautiful red fox; a ring necked pheasant, and two hedge hogs.  I considered the meaning of the poker term straight flush, but prayed I would not be a part of that hand. 

And finally there it was, ancient Norton.  Chipping means “market place” and by god everyone had chipped in and there were markets everywhere: the Saturday Farmers’ Market; a Tool Fair in the old town hall; a charity quilting and woolens bazaar, and peddlers of every description around the town center.  It had taken three grueling, death defying hours, but I was here!  And there across the square was The Fox Inn and Tavern.  “And thou preparest a table before me . . .” 

Here’s how hungry I was.  I like almost everything there is to eat with only two exceptions, liver and green peas.  Justin, the inn keep, showed me to a nice table and asked what I wanted.  I said I’d have a pint of his Blonde Summer Ale and a Guinness, mushroom and steak pie with veggies.  In no time at all Justin returned with the ale and right on his heels a lovely young girl with a plate of meat and veggies.  I dug in.  It was wonderful.  Only problem, both Justin and young lovely returned immediately to tell me, I’d gotten the wrong lunch.  I had the “Liver, Bacon, Onions and Peas Lunch” ordered by the lady at the table next to mine. It was her favorite, and the Chef had specially cooked it for her.  She had been waiting on it for twenty minutes or so.  Her companion asked me what I had ordered.  He was a sorta big guy.  I said, “Uh . . . Guinness, mushroom and steak pie.” Fortunately his only overt act was to roll his eyes.  I kept my head down, but cleaned my plate.  Yummmm. 

So then I headed out to find the bus stop.  Justin told me there was a bus every hour to Oxford “on the hour.”  It was exactly 1400.  Great Plan.  Unfortunately, the bus driver informed me that they didn’t allow bikes on the bus.  “But they do in Denver,” I said lamely. 

 “Don’t here,” was all he said to me.  And then he turned as he was closing the door and said something to the fellow in the first seat back.  I only caught the word “Yanks” and he was shaking his head.  I could have told him they did allow bikes on busses in London where I’d been just yesterday, but thought better of it. 

And that is how I got to really enjoy a truly beautiful town.  Justin showed me to a really nice room in The Fox.  It was classically modern: blonde woods, chrome and exposed 350 year old beams of the original inn.  There was even an “en suite” shower, under which I stood for something like twenty minutes.  I had no tooth brush, no clean clothes, no earphones for my iPhone’s tunes.  But I had a soft bed and a whole afternoon and evening I’d never counted on. 

And so it was that I came to the snowdrops in the cemetery of the old church.  Memories buried for ever, returned.  Warm feelings about how lucky a person I’ve been in this life.  My children and my grandchildren, wiser by far than I, and in such appropriate and joyful ways now are taking on the business of living in this tortured time. Each my snowdrop in the declining years of life.  Each the hope this soul can feel long before the end of winter. 

 My old friend Kenneth Bolding once told me that the whole glory of life in our later years was learning the joy of “declining gracefully.”  Going home from Chipping Norton and the Cotswolds it was graciously down hill, and the wind was behind me all the way.