Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Medieval Pilgrim: Seafood Version

Scallop shells on the medieval hôtel de Cluny, Paris. They look innocent enough.

          One cold February morning when we were living in France, in a town that coincidentally is on one of the major pilgrimage routes of Europe, I was on my way to buy bread when I saw an honest-to-god pilgrim of the old line* striding down the sidewalk. How did I know he was a pilgrim? The staff was a bit of a hint. As was the pack. He wasn't wearing a cloak, but the brown habit with (I am not making this up) a knotted rope belt, as any student of pilgrimage knows, is an acceptable stand-in for the cloak. The sandals (no socks on that freezing morning) were another hint. But the dead giveaway was the fact that he was wearing a scallop shell on a string around his neck.

          The scallop shell is the emblem of Saint James, whose shrine at Santiago de Compostela is a major pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims on the Way of Saint James have been wearing the scallop shell as a badge of their status since the ninth century, and using it at stops along the way as a food bowl or water cup, as the circumstances called for. So, the emblem of the saint and the pilgrim is both stylish and useful. But why is the scallop shell associated with the saint?

          Apparently his love for the denizens of the ocean was so great that after he died, he miraculously became chum to feed the scallops off the Iberian peninsula.

          This is, I admit, one of the more obscure saintly miracles, but there you go. Here is the full story, as I understand it: James was in Judea when he died, and his body was loaded onto a ship and sent to Santiago to be buried. Off the coast, a big storm blew up and somehow Saint James's body was lost over the side.

          When the hapless sailors arrived in port sans a saint, you can imagine the aftermath—men who were simply trying to keep their ship rightside-up in heavy weather and who were therefore not paying very much attention to the cargo at that juncture were hauled before stern grumpy Religiously Important Persons and yelled at. I imagine the stern grumpy RIPs shouting, "How could you lose a saint, you imbecile!" while the poor sailor in question was thinking "Wait a minute, he hasn't even been beatified yet. And besides, if he was really a saint, he could have ginned up a small miracle and stuck to the ship."

          Anyway, after all the yelling and recriminations had finally subsided, Saint James's body washed up on the shore, covered in scallops. I am going to skirt nervously the image of cannibal scallops snacking on the softer bits of the dead saint because it is averred that his body, scallop-encrusted though it was, was still whole when the sea gave it back. I will simply note that in my more vivid nightmares, the scallops behave very much like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

          This is frankly what keeps me from donning my pack and taking up my staff and seeking adventure and enlightenment along the Way of Saint James. The thought of having one of those scallop shells—possibly a direct descendant of one that snacked on Saint James—as my closest travel companion gives me the collywobbles.

*And by "old line" I mean "medieval."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Modern Pilgrim: Kiss Me Version

The tomb of Oscar Wilde
          To make up for the fact that I had to visit the tomb of a rock star I don't like and stare at a really disgusting tree while my sister the folklorist did her field-collection thing, I made her walk almost all the way across Père Lachaise* so we could pilgrimate at Oscar Wilde's  tomb.

          It is to be expected that Oscar Wilde's tomb has all the drama and in-your-face fabulousity that Jim Morrison's grave lacks. And that it doesn't have all the disgustingness that distinguishes Morrison's. Wilde, a successful writer and socialite whose bons mots were legendary, always paid attention to the details. He was not going to lie under some rinky-dink headstone with a cheesy Greek inscription on it when he could rest beneath an enormous monument bearing a gorgeous young boy with wings.

          He knew how to leave an impression.

          It's clear that when you up the ante, tomb-wise, you also get a different class of pilgrim. People who visit Wilde's grave leave flowers and lipstick kisses on the tomb. No chewing-gum tree for him.

          The kisses, poignant and lovely as they are**, unfortunately have been an ongoing problem for his heirs, who must pay the upkeep on his monument (lipstick damages the stone, as does cleaning the lipstick off, and the stone has to be restored from time to time—not an inexpensive undertaking.) When my sister and I made our pilgrimage, they had finally realized that begging pilgrims not to leave their kisses on the stone was just a losing battle. No person of feeling can visit this beautiful monument covered with kisses and not leave one of their own behind. The monument is now sensibly circled with clear panels that don't mind being kissed.

Love and kisses for Oscar.

          "Not to be morbid or anything—" I said to my sister as I was putting my lipstick away.

          "Look around you, Nancy," she said. "We're in a cemetery. Live large—be as morbid as you want."

          I gestured to Wilde's tomb. "When I die, that's what I want."

          "A neo-Egyptian angel-boy? It seems a little…extreme for you. I see you more in a nice Deco-style monolith. Sleek and non-representational."

          "No, not the angel-boy," I said. "I want my tombstone to be covered with lipstick kisses. I don't care if it rots the rock."

          "That's going to be a weird interment," she observed.

          "Don't care."

          "Memorable, though. No one's going to forget the headstone-kissing funeral." She swung her imaginary pilgrim's pack on her back and picked up her invisible pilgrim's staff. "There are going to be germ issues for some people."

          "We'll get the antimicrobial headstone," I say, shouldering my own imaginary pack.

*A long walk indeed. It almost seemed like a real pilgrimage.

**In 1895, Wilde was convicted of being gay (the charge was "Sodomy") and sentenced to two years' hard labor—essentially difficult physical labor (the treadmill, the crank, the shot drill, picking oakum) that had no end purpose except to break prisoners' spirits. Wilde's pilgrims come to commune and commiserate with the man who suffered so because of who he loved.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Modern Pilgrim, Chewing-Gum Version

The grave of Jim Morrison. I made a pilgrimage here, under protest.

          I used to read about people making pilgrimages to various shrines and sacred sites and think that the modern world where I lived was, alas, sadly lacking in that type of journey and in the stories it engendered.

          Pilgrimages were the original road trip. You know: band of adventurous misfits sets out on a journey, meets strange cloaked figures, sees bizarre and wonderful sights, makes friends—and enemies, arrives at their goal to find that it was not what they expected, then returns home wiser, possibly sadder, and with tons of frequent-flyer miles.

          "But wait," you say. "You just equated a pilgrimage with a road trip. Surely you've taken to the open road, felt the wind in your hair, met strange cloaked figures, seen bizarre and wonderful sights, shuddered at the state of gas-station restrooms, yadda yadda yadda. What are you griping about?"

          Well, yes. But I always thought it wasn't a real pilgrimage if I didn't have a pack and staff. Also a hooded cloak.*

          My sister the folklorist convinced me otherwise by the simple expedient of demanding that we make a pilgrimage to see Jim Morrison's grave.

          Here is my response: No way I am putting on a cloak and finding a pack and staff in order to go look at a dead rock star's grave when he only ever sang one song that I like, and that only because it was written by Kurt Weill** and not Jim Morrison. 

          My sister: Have I ever steered you wrong?

          Me: You once forced me to wear the Hair Band of Fashion Death to keep my hair from falling into my face.

          My sister: Yes, and after I did, you quit banging into walls because you couldn't see through the hair falling into your face. Also, you were already wearing the Shirt of Fashion Death. The hair band was small potatoes compared to that shirt.

          Me: Fine. We'll go see Jim Morrison's grave. But I won't like it.

          So we go, and J photographs all the gifts and notes people leave at Morrison's grave because that is what folklorists do, and I stand around wishing that there was at least some decent funerary sculpture on it because it is the World's Most Boring Grave.

          And then, nearby, I notice this tree. I think I can say with complete assurance that it is the World's Most Disgusting Tree, and a singularly fitting monument to Jim Morrison.

This is the Jim Morrison Memorial Tree. Can you guess what those blotches that cover it are?

          For it is covered in wads of chewing gum.  A kind of "I came; I saw; I chewed some gum and stuck it to a tree in honor of Jim Morrison" monument.

Someone loves "Light My Fire" enough to scribe it into a wad of used gum.
I feel that this is pretty much the perfect rock & roll metaphor.

          After J finishes documenting the grave and the chewing-gum tree, she says, "I told you it would be a real pilgrimage." She mimes taking out a notepad and pencil. "It has all the elements: adventurous misfits—" she looks around at our fellow pilgrims, one or two of whom are rocking very LOTR-style cloaks, and pretends to make a checkmark next to an invisible item on her imaginary list. "—check. Bizarre and wonderful sights—" I point to the "Light My Fire" wad o' gum. "—check. "Goal not what pilgrims expected—" we both stare at the chewing-gum tree, and J then observes that Morrison's actual grave looks more like the grave of an accountant than a wild, transgressive rock star who may or may not have OD'd under suspicious circumstances. "—check," I say.

          She puts her imaginary notepad and pencil away. "You know what I've always wanted to see?" I ask her.

          She shakes her head. "Fairy wells," I say.

          We stroll down the row of tombs, away from Jim Morrison. She cuts me a sidelong glance. "Road trip," she says. "Go get your cloak."

*Yes, J.R.R Tolkein and Chaucer are principally where I got my ideas about pilgrimage. Also some third-hand stories from medieval lives of the saints. And fairy tales. Where everyone wore cloaks. I thought it was required.

**"Alabama Song."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love v. Romance

          I read a lovely essay today, which, if I could find the damn thing again, I would post a link to. But it seems to have disappeared from the interwebs, leading me to wonder if I invented the whole thing inside my brain and it actually never appeared anywhere; I just mentally wrote it and then thought I read it. This leads me, inevitably, to wonder why, if I mentally wrote it and then imagined reading it, I can reproduce no more of it here than a stream-of-consciousness babble of conjecture about what I may or may not have read or imagined, or the aliens that are possibly hijacking my brain.

          Anyway, it was a lovely essay even if it was written by brain-hijacking aliens, the gist of it being that the writer felt that Valentine's Day was a holiday of love, not romance, and so she always did something special for her family rather than something specifically romantic with her husband—waffles and strawberries for everyone for breakfast, a flower for each of her daughters, things like that.

          In high school I used to wonder why all the girls made such a big fuss about not feeling loved if they didn't have a boyfriend on Valentine's Day, or if he didn't cough up the requisite rose/teddy bear/Whitman's Sampler. "Boyfriend, schmoyfriend," I would think, "don't they know their moms will have candy conversation hearts waiting for them when they get home? How can you feel unloved if your mom gives you candy conversation hearts?"

          It took me a number of years to realize that not everyone's mom was handing out those tasty gems to her family in the name of love. While my family thought Valentine's Day was about silly little sugary gestures of love to our fellow family members, half of the rest of the world expected swoon-worthy, cinematic gestures of High Romance from the generally-confused-by-all-this-romance-stuff other half. Also sparkly and/or chocolate-dipped loot.

          I admit I like sparkly things very much myself, and I am not above swooning at the truly romantical, but I really think High Romance is best left to those experts in Hollywood who can light it beautifully, give it the best lines their expert screenwriters have to offer, and build it a gorgeous sunset to ride off into. For real, day to day love, on the other hand—the kind that is sometimes unflatteringly lit, that often mumbles and is anyway generally less than eloquent—the kind of love we depend upon as surely as we depend upon drawing breath—well, nothing says that kind of love to me quite like candy conversation hearts.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Pure Design

©Nancy E. Banks

          I know I'm not the only one who has a thing for looking up (or down) stairwells. They have the same appeal as the wraps of the nautilus shell. Three things I like about this stairwell, photographed at Hampton Court, in England, are the blue wrought iron, the quick disorientation (am I looking up? or down?), and the disturbing way the staircase is just stuck to the wall, with no visible support.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Green Man

This Green Man fountainhead lives in the courtyard of the Theosophical Society in Paris, next door
to the famous Art Nouveau building designed by Jules Lavirotte at 29 avenue Rapp.
          While we're on the subject of longing for spring, I dredged up this photo of a Green Man fountainhead from a Paris courtyard. It's rare to see Green Men in the city; they're woodland deities, associated with spring and, at least according to one source, rain. Hence his use as a fountainhead.

          This is the only Green Man I've ever seen in the wild, as it were. I'm very pleased to have made his acquaintance.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Away With You, January!

©Nancy E. Banks
          As usual, January has outstayed its welcome by a month and a half. I'm looking forward to better things soon-ish.