Thursday, December 29, 2016

Plastic Lilacs



Plastic Lilacs

It rained the night before my mother’s funeral. I had both seen and met Lindsey Stirling for the second time that night. That’s another story—one that included a mention of my mother by Sister Stirling, while in concert. She dedicated the song Take Flight to her memory that night, for which I’m greatly touched. I recalled that it rained the previous time I saw Lindsey. But this time I was escorted by the first of many viceroy butterflies. They would follow me for the rest of the summer—whether in America, or across the pond. They seemed to guide and comfort me. I’ve written about them before, yet they continue to mystify me.
        
    Melanie, a friend from university, came to pick me up that morning. She had one of her children with her—the youngest boy, about a year old. He looked at me, as we sat in the funeral home parking lot. I had been all nerves on the way over, and now young Segin was only person who could calm me down. He didn’t say much. Instead, he just smiled at me as I stroked his hair and his cheeks.
       
     “They say that it’s good to bring a baby to a funeral.” Melanie 
said. “It helps you to know life continues.”
     
       “I wrote about that in the eulogy.” I said.

        I took a few deep breathes. Melanie held my wrist for a 
second, and then asked if I was okay.

           “I think I’m going to throw up.” I said.

            “No, don’t throw up. Just take a minute.”

            I felt a cold shiver inside of me. I spread from my chest, and into my arms and legs. It had been with me that morning, and wouldn’t go away. Even though the weather was mild that morning, it was to heat up by the afternoon. Still, I couldn’t shake that cold shudder.

            I thought to myself, “My mother hated hot weather, though she died in summer.”

            When I was ready, I stepped out of the car.

            I walked slowly, and felt like I had no strength in my legs. Yet there was something that propelled me forward. I knew that I had to see my mother one last time. I had my conversation with her in the hospital after she’d died. But I had to see her one last time, before my sisters reduced her to a pile of cinders.

            It wasn’t what Mom had wanted, but I didn’t hold it against my sisters. They assembled the cheapest funeral they could get. I felt a bit sick about it, until I thought, “David Bowie, Prince, John Lennon, Douglas Adams, and the ancient Celts were all laid to rest in a similar manner. So was Darth Vader and Qui Gon Jin.” I took some comfort in that. Perhaps she was being given the funeral of a warrior, or a bard? This is one of the sillier things I’ve thought to comfort myself in a painful time. It helped a little, but it wasn’t until weeks later that I’d be at peace with it. That was when I had the dream about the yew tree.

            My aunt Glenda, my mother’s last surviving sister greeted me. Her sons, my cousins were there, as were my half-sisters. Some of Mom’s work friends were there as well—people she’d known from her time at the security desk at the mall.

            One of them, Carol, said to me, “I was the lucky one. Your mother was my friend.”

            I said to her, “I wish Mom had gotten out more. I wanted her to, but she just wasn’t as active anymore.”

            We stood in front of these poster boards that Nicolle (one of my sisters) had made. It featured family photos, most which I’d not seen in decades.

            Melanie asked, “Which one is little you?”
  
          I pointed out a photo of me as a teenager, one in which I had long hair and glasses. I looked like reject in a John Lennon look-a-like contest, which was the look I went for in my teens. I could never sing like him, or play guitar as well. It didn’t stop me from trying. 

         I noticed that few the photos featured me with my mother, which didn’t surprise me. I’m not very close with my blood-relations. We’ve seldom seen each other since I returned from California.

            When my sisters and cousins saw me with Melanie, they assumed we were a couple. To which I replied, “No, Melanie is married, but not to me.”

            “Segin isn’t Riley’s kid.” Melanie added, with a laugh. 

            That was a huge relief, too. I don't do dirty nappy duty. Unless I have a kid, the rule stays in place.  

            As soon as she was out of earshot, Danielle made some remark to Nicolle about Melanie nursing Segin. It was the usual judgement Danielle would dish out. Melanie was discreet about it. She’s a mom, and we were honoring my mother that day. What else would be more appropriate?

            Finally, I approached the casket.

            Mom was laid out in the dress she wore to my half-brother’s wedding. It was this vanilla-colored dress with flowers on it. She looked like a president’s wife in that dress. It still fit her. Her hair and makeup were done as she’d always done them—tweezed eyebrows, bright red lipstick, rouge, and teased hair.

She always did her makeup like a woman from the 1940’s, because that’s who she was. When we’d watch Agent Carter together, half of her comments were about how women dressed during that era, and the make-up they wore. The world had changed so much since then. She was a baby boomer—a generation that is now aging out, and growing old. Odd to still call them baby boomers. I sometimes wonder what’ll happen when Generation X becomes elderly, and alternative rock becomes oldies music. God help us.

The one thing I didn’t like was the frown on Mom’s face. She never frowned. My paternal grandfather had this goofy smile on his face when he was laid out. Still, my mother’s face looked joyless. The muscles had lost their tension, and so her high cheeks had begun to sag.

In her hands were plastic lilacs. They were her favorite flower, but since they were out of season, we had to use fake ones. On her lapel was a pin shaped like a tea kettle, for obvious reasons. Mom loved tea, and passed that thankful addiction onto me.

“Can those go with her?” The Funeral Director asked.

“Yes,” my sisters said.

They stepped away, and went to the chapel, where the minister was about to speak. I stood there, with mom, after everyone else had left.

On the final viewing, I said, “Mom.”

I began to cry.

I was the last person to see her before the lid was closed.

A few moments later, I joined everyone in the chapel. I sat up front, next to my Aunt Glenda, and the Minister’s podium. The casket was wheeled in soon after, with the lid closed. It was a reusable one, which had a paint smudge on one of the handles. That was appropriate, since Mom had ceramic studio when I was a kid. It was in the basement of our house. My mother taught painting classes, and my father would pour the molds, and fire the kiln. She was always covered in paint.

The Minister began his service, of which I only remember fragments. He talked a little bit about my mother, though he didn’t know her. All the info he spoke was secondhand, given to him by my half-sisters. I recall that there’s some Jewish tradition that if the rabbi doesn’t know the deceased, they will call on mourners to talk about them. We aren’t Jewish, so that tradition didn’t play into this. Mom was Irish, and yet we didn’t even have a proper wake. I have yet to do the, “Before the Devil knows you’re dead,” toast. No one lifted a glass to her memory. I was the only one to give her a eulogy.

I’m not bashing the Minister’s performance that day. He did fine. It’s just that it felt odd that a stranger should talk about my mother. The part about her gag gifts was true, as was her habit of feeding any stray animal. Still, it wasn’t enough.

I gave my eulogy, and found that I did something I could never do before—I made my relatives laugh. I also made them think. I was surprised at how well did. I’m good at public speaking, but had to learn it from school, as an adult. I couldn’t have done this as a teen or a twenty something. Mom used to say that as we get older, we get chutzpah. May she was Jewish, and just forgot to tell us? It would explain her penchant for latkes. She was right, we do gain courage as we get grow. I had bigger cajones now than I did as a child. Well, obviously. I mean, I’d hope so.

You can read the contents of the eulogy in a previous blog entry, which I’ll link here.
http://rileyjoyce.blogspot.com/2016/07/eulogy-for-lonnie.html

I returned to my seat after the eulogy. My Aunt Glenda thanked me for it, as did other relatives. As I was leaving the chapel, I saw Megan and Thomas at the back. She gave me a massive bear hug, and then both followed us out.

Melanie had asked if we were going to the cemetery. To which I replied, “No. we’re not.”

My family had already left by this point, as they headed to lunch. It was just me, Melanie, Segin, Thomas, and Megan. We talked about my search for an apartment. We talked about my upcoming trip to England. I told them that I was meeting Eleanor and Justine in person for the first time. I mentioned The Eagle and Child—Tolkien and C.S. Lewis old pub, and how I wanted to visit it.

The conversation drifted to other things, and we were approached by the Funeral Director.

“You don’t have to leave, but we have a tight schedule.” He said.

I saw them bring in the marquee with my mother’s name on it. I figured we’d better leave, or I may see them wheeling out the casket. The Funeral Director said we could talk in the front parlor, but I decided to go. I walked by myself to the large wooden doors of the funeral home, and then opened then with one hand. I felt a sense like I was marching off to something, or confronting something. I still can’t explain it.

Melanie, Segin, Ashley, and Rigel (her three youngest children) headed to lunch after that. I don’t think I could have sat with my blood-relatives, and had lunch with them. I just needed to get away. I felt it was best to sit with a friend and her family. We talked about random things, none of which was related to death. However, one thing did come up on the way to pick up her youngest son and daughter.

“My sisters aren’t burying Mom. It upsets me a little. It’s like every trace of her is being removed.”

“You’ll just have the ashes?” Melanie asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You can think of them as her remains.”

Nearly a month later, I had a strange dream about that. I dreamed that I had taken a boat to Ireland, to plant my mother’s ashes in the ground. I did so, and a large yew tree sprang up where I’d interred them. A golden arc of sunlight surrounded the tree, just as the sun was setting. I woke soon after.

Though I’ve written about this dream before, it still feels important to me. I’ve interpreted it many ways—one of which may yet come to pass. My sisters and I are in a disagreement on what to do with the ashes. I know the ashes aren’t my mother, just what was left of her body. Still, I had an idea of what I’d like to do. Still, my sisters are divided on whether to bury them, or place them in a columbarium. I want to scatter them, but Danielle isn’t keen on the idea. So, as of writing, they sit in her house in a box.

My half-brother did not attend the funeral. He’d moved to Florida a month before, and didn’t tell my mother. Though he didn’t say much when called about my mother’s death, we assume he didn’t feel much either. I don’t want to speak for him, but T.J. was never the sentimental type. He’s a direct contrast to me. I doubt I’ll see him again.

That night, I strung up Christmas lights, so that the apartment wouldn’t be so gloomy. I sang She Moved Through the Fair, a song that both my mother and I loved. So much so, she had lyrics to it printed out and framed.

While the Christmas lights were on, I lit a candle—a lilac scented one. I then had one more conversation with Mom. I won’t repeat what I said here, because it’s between Mom and myself.  I told her everything that had been on my mind, both loving and painful. I said things to her that I’d not said during her life, but wished I had. Time seemed to stop in that moment. Even the sunset seemed frozen. Eventually, I stopped talking, and then sat down to write. The blood stains were still in the carpet, and though covered with a sheet, that only made them more visible. Still, I wrote, and felt as if her presence was there.

In time, I would learn to forgive my mother for all the times she wasn’t there for me. I forgave her for arguments, insults, misunderstandings, and times when she could be calloused. But I also remembered times when she was funny, loving, and supportive. I’ve come to realize that no mother is perfect. Every mother I know, young and old, have made mistakes. Some parents in general are better than others. Some instill values, and other instill nothing. Regardless, we’re all sort of in the dark on how to be parents, and just making it up as we go along. All parents hope they don’t raise the next Hitler (though some come close) and that their kid grows up to be a decent human being. I may never know that first hand, but you never know.

Two weeks after the funeral, I was let go from the job I had at the time. It was through no fault of my own. I was angry, but at the same time, as Eleanor pointed out, “It’s probably best you’re not working in that toxic environment.” She was right, though at the time I needed the money. I wasn’t sure where I’d live, or what I’d do. All I knew then was that I was going to England for a week, and nothing would stop me.

That’s another tale, for another time. Some of those stories have already appeared here. There are many other stories to tell about England, and the U.K. in its entirety. There will be many more in the future.

My life since my mother’s death has been an unsettled one. I didn’t realize that my mother was the center of my world, until that center had been removed. Though my relationship with her was complicated, I never gave up on her. In the subsequent months, I came to realize that perhaps my mother had given up—not on me, but on life. I think she refused an ambulance the first time because she wanted to go. The second time she was in hospital she fought the doctors and nurses. The third time, she just wanted to go, and did. I wasn’t ready to let go of her. One can’t make decisions like that when one is loved. I tried to get her to therapy, and tried to make her realize that life was still worth living. I failed in that, but it may have not been my mission to save her. I can’t say what my mission was, or still is.

All I know is this…

You don’t fight that hard for someone unless you love them. You don’t fight that hard to stay alive unless there is a reason to live. You also don’t give up because someone needs to live to tell the story.

I’ve survived one hell of a year.

I have a talent for survival, as I’ve learned over the past decade. With 2017 approaching, and my eyes toward the future, I’m preparing myself for the next big thing.

But first…

Would anyone like some tea?

Mom would have loved some.  

Copyright Riley Joyce 2016

Author's Note: I also wore a purple striped tie, lilac colored, to mom's funeral. I've seldom worn it since then. Though I took it with me to England, just in case I had to dress up. Since then, I've seen it as something of a good luck charm. 




                         

            

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dear Mom: Christmas 2016


Dear Mom,

            It’s been a month since I last spoke to you. I’m sorry for that, but as you know, I’ve been busy. I’ve moved twice, switched jobs, and completed another term at university. Though I spoke to you just the other night, it wasn’t a proper conversation. There’s a lot I’m thinking of this Christmas.

            First, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Not just because the snow has melted. The mood just isn’t there. It hasn’t been for some time. At least the temperatures are mild, and the roads are clear. You’d appreciate that.

            I keep having memories to previous Christmas Days. I remember gifts I’d gotten—like the blue dinosaur sleeping back when I was nine. I remember other things too. Every Christmas, you’d put a Mad Magazine, a Medieval or space Lego kit, and a Lifesavers Book in my stocking. I still have that stocking. It’s packed away, as I haven’t really unpacked since moving again. I looked for old school Lego, but decided to leave that for the next generation of kids. They need it more than I do.

Instead, I bought myself a copy of Lady Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots. I visited her in Westminster Abby, if you recall. I also have a plane ticket to San Francisco, to visit friends. You know, Kethry and her mom and dad. Her daughter, Miranda, has gotten sooooo big! It’ll be the first time I’ve seen them since she lost her husband.

As for myself…

I got an “A” in both of my classes this time. I don’t know how I did it. It was a miracle, because my heart wasn’t in the semester at first. Somehow, I pulled it together, and was determined not to fail. I scored perfectly on my first two psych tests. I was only four points shy of scoring a 100% in World Lit. Still, my essays and poetry were perfect scores. That’s what mattered most to me. My instructor says I’m a natural-born teacher. You once told me I should be a teacher, so it’s something to think about.

Yesterday is doing well. She’s lost a bit of weight, which she needed to lose. She’s an old cat now, but she has some years left in her. She misses you, too. July is happy and free with other cats. A friend took her to live with her parents. I know you’d by glad to know she’s in her element, chasing mice, and shagging tomcats like mad. She was never an indoor cat like Yesterday. She was always wild.
You know about the trip to Britain. I’m taking another one in June. I need to go back there. It’s the place where I feel I belong. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time I was there. Your Christmas gift would have been this Union Flag mug that I’ve been drinking out of lately. I’m sorry I couldn’t give it to you, but I know you’d want me to use it.

I love a lady over there. I’d write more, but I don’t want to embarrass her. She knows how I feel. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m hopeful. I think you would have really liked her. She’s smart, sweet, beautiful, and has a great sense of humor. You’d like her freckles! You’d also love where she lives. It’s all regency architecture, with a big statue of Queen Victoria.
  
I also have a friend that made an angel for you, and lit a candle. I know you saw that, in the chapel at Oxford. How could you not?

It’s going to be strange not seeing you on Christmas morning. Your chair will be empty. I won’t see you by the tree. There will be no presents. But I will try my best to make waffles and sausages, like I always did.

This is my first Christmas without you. I’m glad I’m not spending it alone, because that would be worse.

I won’t hear your television, with A Christmas Story playing in the background. Nor, will I hear you say, “Santa brought you something!” I won’t be making steaks for dinner, so I made them tonight. I cooked your steak just the way you like it. I hope you don’t mind, but I ate your steak. I don’t think you would mind at all.

Mom…

I’m trying my best to be good. I want you to be proud of me. Most of all, I want to fulfill my promises to you…not the least of which, is that I won’t give up. I want my life to have mattered, and to have made a difference. I may not be in the best place right now (geographically, or emotionally) but I’m still here. I’m still on a crusader, like I always am. Except now, I know I can do it. I didn’t have the faith in myself before, but I do now.

I wish that things were different toward the end of your life. I wish that you and I could have fixed things. Most of all, I wish you could be here to see how I’ve grown. I’m not the man I was before you died. Though I’m not sure what the future holds, I’m better than I was before. It’s scary, because I have no guide on the bridge, so to speak. Yet, I am sailing solo. I know one day I’ll land on calm shores, and stake a claim. Until then, I will brave the storm.

There are stars that guide me.
I know you are among them.

Love,
Your son.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"I Will Carry You."


“I Will Carry You.”

            How do we reaction when those we love are suffering? Do we give them advice? Do we tell them the perfunctory, “Everything is going to be okay?” Or, do we say nothing, and instead, listen?

           Pain is just one part of being human. While suffering can be a great teacher, it doesn’t feel as such during the suffering. I also feel that few people will want to share the suffering of a loved one. Instead, people pretty much try to distance themselves from it. I feel that to survive the suffering, one must lean into it, and perhaps even embrace it. That sounds counter-intuitive, but it allows one to exorcise the suffering by “riding it out.” This is the suffering that comes to us, not the suffering that we make. That kind of suffering is discussed later.  

            Since Christmas is coming up, I could use a Biblical reference, and I probably will. But first, I want to make a personal note.

            Someone I love is going through a tremendous amount of pain right now. I must confess that, though I’ve experienced something similar myself, I wasn’t sure at first what to tell her. I started with words of encouragement, and love. I then realized that what she needed in this moment for someone to listen. She also needed for someone to offer practical, as well as emotional, support. So, I thought of some questions to ask her, and switched into what I call “therapy mode.” I trust that my efforts will assist her in finding some relief. At least, I hope they do.

            There’s a sense of powerlessness that I feel in this situation. I wish I could take her suffering away. I sincerely wish that I could simply hold her, and somehow heal her. While faith healing doesn’t really work, emotional healing does. In this case a “laying on of hands,” is more like an embrace of arms. To feel the warmth of someone you love next to you, and to feel their arms around you, is a tool of healing. It’s one that we often overlook.

            We also often overlook the concept of grace.

            Grace, in this sense, means to, “Honor one by their presence.” That’s the definition that I used with Julie (longtime readers will know of her. She was my second therapist. Our work concluded in April of 2016). We honored one another by simply being present. People often forget how important that form of grace really is in our lives. We’d do well to remember, and perhaps, relearn it.

            The powerlessness also comes from a sense of, “Is there enough that I can do to help her?”

            The answer is, “I will never do enough.” Crusader types like me will always try to do more. Enough is never enough, and my kind will always strive to do more. Sometimes I go overboard with love and care. I’ll admit that being a romantic often involves being sappier than a maple tree in autumn—and twice as sweet as the syrup. I’m this odd mix of thinker, knight, and Eros. That makes for intense feelings of love, devotion, and longing. It also means that I sometimes overthink things, even the best of things in life, like love.

            But that’s another topic, for another time.

            But is it?

            If we look at the word, passion, in a dictionary, it means, “To suffer for love.” Therefore, medieval plays about the crucifixion of Christ were referred to as “passion plays.” I’m sure you’ll recall Mel Gibson’s controversial (and brutal film) The Passion of The Christ, so named because it dealt with that very subject. The death of Christ was a love sacrifice for the redemption of the world. At least that’s the Christian view of it.

            One could also take a Jungian view, and still be compatible with Christian concepts.

            Christ is the archetype of one who is wise, and yet suffers. Just as Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree, both suffered. Yet, Christ is an innocent who suffers. He took it upon himself to take the pain of the world, and release it through his suffering. That’s no mean feat, regardless of one’s beliefs.

            Then, of course, we can make martyrs of ourselves. We sometimes make ourselves suffer because we think we need to suffer. We are taught, in a warped way, that suffering builds character. We are taught that one must endure suffering, so that we may have entry into a better world beyond. Well, I find that sort of thinking self-defeating. Even for someone like myself that does believe in an afterlife. We don’t have to suffer to find favor with God, or ourselves.

            As Mary Oliver once put it,

You don’t not have to walk
On your knees for
A hundred miles
through the desert, repenting.
           
She’s right. At yet many of us take up a self-made cross, and try our best to hammer in the last nail. What if we didn’t need any nails? What if, as Douglas Adams put it, “No one needed to be nailed to anything?”

So, I urge you all to lead a nail-free existence, even if you believe in Christ. I think he’d appreciate that.

I also encourage this person I love to lead a nail-free existence herself. Someone already took up his cross for you. There’s no need to repeat his sacrifice. As is often said of Christ, “The debt is already paid.”

Those that we love don’t need us to solve their problems for them. So, it’s just as well that I can’t heal her. What she needs in this situation is for me to support her, so that she can find the strength to heal herself. She has that strength in her, I’ve seen it. She may not know she has it, but it’s there. She will find both strength, and courage, and she will overcome her suffering. Even if she feels a partial slide back into suffering, she will rise out of it. All she must do is believe.

In the words of Joss Whedon, “When you can't run, you crawl, and when you can't crawl--when you can't do that...You find someone to carry you.”

I pledged to her that I will carry her. Not because she can’t stand up, she can stand up. I will carry her because right now that is what she needs—support. I will carry her as far as she needs. When I set her feet down, it will be in soft grass…and then…she will fly.

Text copyright Riley Joyce 2016

Sources
Oliver, Mary. Wild Geese. From the book, Dream Work. 1986.
(My favorite poem. It deserves a full blog post at some date).

A brief quotation from Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (people who know me know my love for his work).

Quotation from the Firefly Episode The Message. 2002.
(This quote has taken on a life of its own in the years since Firefly was cancelled, and then rediscovered.)

Image: The Bedroom Mirror--Weisz 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Welcome to Stratford-Upon-Avon


Welcome to Stratford-Upon-Avon
            
         “Henley street is up there, sir. Shakespeare’s birthplace is on the right.”
           
           I only had to ask, “Where is Henley Street?” The town tourism guide knew exactly why I was headed there. I thanked him, and found that Henley street was only a few paces from where I stood. I had no trouble finding Shakespeare’s childhood home.
            
         
On my right stood a large Tudor house. As you can see in the photo, it’s lovely, and yet humble. Much as the King of Kings was born in a stable—the king of all authors was born in an upstairs bedroom of this unassuming house. The wood bracing gives it a charming look, which I’ve always adored. One of my childhood neighbors had a Tudor house, and since then I’ve wanted to live in one. However, this home was not a prospective rental property. It was no less sacred, in my mind, to that manger that so many venerate. Stratford-Upon-Avon is a place of pilgrimage for authors, poets, musicians, and actors alike. It’s as if entering that house is a form of blessing.   
           
           In a large bedroom, on an unknown date in April, John and Mary Shakespeare welcomed their son, William, into the world. As I stood in that bedroom, I tried to imagine what his first cries would have sounded like. How they would have echoed off those oak beams that formed the frame of the house.
            
          I thought to myself, “Was it a warm, sunny day like this? Or, was it raining when he was born?”
            
          The pale sunshine of an English spring would have illuminated the bedroom—and cast white light onto the face of Shakespeare, and his parents.
            
          As was the custom then, he would have been baptized either a day or two after his birth. In some cases, the child was baptized the same afternoon. Holy water would have washed away the original sin, and the fluid of the womb. Visceral, would the Bard’s birth be. He was born like all of us, human. Though in Britain, and the rest of the world, he would ascend to a form of immortality—etched in both parchment and stone.
            
         As the costumed guide on sight told us of Shakespeare’s sleeping arrangements, I thought of the following dialogue from Henry VI.
            
        “For I have often heard my mother say I came into the world with my legs forward.”
            
        Though I doubt Shakespeare was a breach birth. Or was he? We’ll never know.

 The actual bed where The Bard was born is no longer extent. However, some period furniture is on display. The bed I saw is exactly like the one where John and Mary would have slept. Their young children would be positioned on a fold out trunkle bed that slid out from the side; almost like a drawer for children (and the occasional pair of socks). Eventually, young William would be rotated out to another bed, a full-sized one, which he’d share with his brothers.
           
        Shakespeare’s sisters would have their own room, but would have also shared a bed. It was in the girl’s room that I saw the panes of glass you see below. It was a tradition at one time for visitors to etch their names onto these panes. I’m not sure if that was to insure some blessing of the Bard, or to prove they’d visited. But these were no ordinary guests. Charles Dickens, Ellen Terry, and Sir Henry Irving were among the prominent Victorians to pass through here. It was Dickens who started a campaign to save the site, and preserve Shakespeare’s home. Remember that the next time you hear the music to Oliver!

           
        When Shakespeare inherited the house from his parents, he converted it into an inn. The Swan and Maidenhead Inn was a prominent lodging house for travelers passing through Warwickshire. The Bard made a unique deal in those days with the managers he’d hired to run it, Mr. and Mrs. Hiccox. They could manage the inn as they saw fit, but Shakespeare would be paid a residual of their profits. Not a bad deal in those days. Since Shakespeare was already living at his New Place, he didn’t need his old childhood home. Rather than sell it outright, he turned it into an investment opportunity. By having someone else run it, he wouldn’t be distracted from his plays. Yet, he was still able to make bank from it. Shrewd, indeed.
            
         Did you think I was going to make a Taming of the Shrew pun there? Well, I resisted the urge…this time.

            
        My palms sweated in that room, and not from the unseasonal heat.
            
         I couldn’t believe I was standing where Shakespeare was born.
            
         As I headed down the narrow staircase, I re-entered the first floor, and then a gift shop. After I bought a “Will Power” t-shirt there, I headed to the garden area, where there is a small, round stage. It was here that actors performed requests from the museum goers. One person requested Henry V. Another requested Macbeth. The actor repeated this request without calling it “The Scottish Play.”

I thought to myself, “I daresay. We won’t be seeing that actor again.” Though technically, this wasn’t in a theater.

I requested Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The two actors on staff that day performed like a tag team.
            “I’ll do it.” The one actor said.
            “You sure? I’ll do it.”
            “Okay.”
            
He looked right at me, and performed.

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.” (Act V, Scene I)
            
           He didn’t miss a single line! These were young, but highly trained actors. I imagine they came from the RSC. This was probably a part-time gig between plays.
           
          On the lawn, just a few yards away, was a dry-erase cube. It featured Tudor and fantasy scenes, and acted as a coloring book. I took a Sharpie to a Tudor rose, and filled in it in with wild colors—orange and violet. You won’t find that on any royal standard! Duke of Orange, Princess of Crimson, Duchess of Lavender!  

            
         I had a few quiet moments in the garden nearby at Shakespeare’s New Place. I saw several bronze statues there, that depicted characters from his plays. 


       
I also found a plaque that appeared to be of the Virgin and Child. I had to stop for a moment, and sit on the bench beneath it. I was reminded of my mother in that moment. I paused, reflected, and then took a few breaths. I took a photo as well. When I felt ready, I moved on. It was almost a month since my mother had passed. As a side note, I did have a few flashbacks during my visit to England. Fortunately, none of them eclipsed my holiday.
            
       
 From there I visited The Guild Chapel, a medieval church next door, and then a long Tudor building, which housed a recreation of a Latin grammar school. Myself and other visitors were given a lesson in the various conjugations of “amour.”
           
       “Say it with me.” The Schoolmaster in costume said, “I love. You love. We love. Now, in Latin. Amo. Amas. Amamus.”
            
       We all sat on forms, wooden benches. Traditionally we would have had slates to write on, but this was only a quick lesson.
            
       The teacher did warn us though, “In Shakespeare’s time you’d be speaking only in Latin in this room. Naughty boys who speak English get the birch rod!”
            
      He held up what looked to me like a cross between a hyssop broom, and the dried roots you see in a decorative pot. My naughty side thought, “I know some people who’d have a lot of fun with that.”

            After those thoughts, I pressed on to a more wholesome place—Hall’s Croft. It was the house of Susanna (Shakespeare’s eldest daughter) and her husband, Dr. John Croft. That house was lovely. I’d say more about it, but I don’t want to spoil the surprised that house has for future visitors. Though there was one exhibit that comes to mind.
            
          Hall’s Croft has rotating exhibits. This time around, I saw one about Shakespeare and warfare. Photos from WWI were on display, as well as uniforms and medals. What struck me most was a glass case with a telegram inside. It was handwritten, and was very legible. I knew immediately what it would say, before I read it.
           
        “Dear Mrs. Logan. We regret to inform you that your son, Pvt. Logan was killed in action in France…”
            
        I couldn’t read the rest of it. Instead, I imagined who Private Logan was, and what he must have been like. He was a boy from Stratford, who’d probably walked along Henley street many times. Considering that I was wearing an olive flatcap, and army-style jacket, I probably looked much like he did. Once again, I reflected, and then stepped into the next room.
           
      I smiled soon after, when I saw the little mouse named Miranda (my honorary niece is named after the character from The Tempest). I then saw other such mice, all of whom had Shakespearean name tags. Oddly enough, they didn’t have                                                           these mice in the gift shop!
            
       My next approach was Trinity—the baptism and burial place of The Bard. Before I entered the gates of that hallowed place, I took a detour. There was a “stone garden” nearby, a war memorial. I passed through an iron gate, and found a large stone cross standing before me. At the base were plastic poppy wreaths. I took a photo of this, but wasn’t sure if I should. It felt a bit odd to photograph a memorial like this, but then again, I’ve taken several photos in old cemeteries. Still, this was different. My photo was taken with reverence though.

           
        I then approached another memorial, one with names on it. They were all lads from Stratford, all deceased in combat. I nearly cried when I saw the most recent entry was from 2008. Poppy wreaths were also laid at the base of this memorial. Fittingly, the famous “band of brothers” speech from Henry V was quoted above the names of the fallen.
            
        I saw an elderly woman sitting on a bench there. She seemed serene and meditative, so I let her be. Though I had a feeling that she must have known some of those names on that memorial.
            
        I crossed the road, and stood before Trinity.
            
        I laughed for a moment, at I read the sign posted at the gate, which you see here.

            
        No one found Pikachu on Shakespeare’s grave. That would have been awkward. Though a friend of mine did find Charizard in The Tower of London. I choose you, Prospero!
            
        I took a few photos of the moldering tombs in the churchyard. It was a peaceful place, not spooky at all. Though I must confess that I thought Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee would have felt at home there. I could easily see the churchyard being used a set for a Hammer film. Taste the Blood of Stratford!
            
        I entered Trinity, and removed my hat. I then approached the sanctuary, which was a bit crowded. Shakespeare’s birthplace was busy that day, but there was lots of breathing room. However, Trinity seemed to be hopping.  

            
         I approached the altar, slowly, and with reverence.
           
         I stood before the burial places of Shakespeare, and his family. I learned on my visit in Oxford (two days later) that those who are buried at the altar are the most prominent members of the church. There he was, right in front of the altar! His wife, his children, their husbands, were all beside him. A wooden effigy of The Bard stood watch over their tombs, with quill in hand.
            
         I thought to myself, “The only thing that stopped me from having a conversation with him was four-hundred years.”
            
         I took a few photos, and some video, but had little time for reflection. Other people wanted to pay their respects, and so I had to step away. I did however see a copy of Shakespeare’s baptismal record. I was reminded that we don’t know the exact day he was born, but we do know when he was sanctified. He was baptized and buried in the same church that he attended since childhood. His home was about a ten-minute walk from there. His whole life could be traced on just a few streets. Well, not entirely, as The Globe and the Rose are located elsewhere.

 Still, I find it remarkable that Shakespeare’s story is that of “hometown boy makes good.” There’s a real cult of Shakespeare in Stratford, but a welcome one. It’s easy to see why he is so venerated and loved, even today. Every emotion, every thought any human could possibly have was documented by that man. Before therapy, before psychology, there was Shakespeare. He’s permeated our language, or world, and our dreams for over four-hundred years. He’ll continue to do so for eternity.

It would have seemed that my pilgrimage was at an end. There were other pilgrimages I had to make on that trip, and others still in the future. This was only the start. So, the story doesn’t end here.

I started to cough as I left Trinity. At first, I thought that maybe it was from the dust of the old church, or from the graveyard itself. Perhaps the leaves and the pollen? Maybe it was from the unseasonal heat? I stopped at a local pound shop, and bought some soft drinks (two for a pound, mum would be proud). Still, I coughed a bit. It wasn’t until I returned to Leamington that afternoon that I stopped coughing.

I thought to myself, “Did I breath in some of Shakespeare’s dust?”

I’ve since jokingly said, “I breathed in some magic bard dust.”

Perhaps I did. Visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon was an emotional experience. It seems to have also inspired me greatly, and helped tremendously with my writing. Since my visit to not just Stratford, but England itself, my writing output has increased. Maybe this was the environment I needed to help spur me on, and remind me why I love to write?

Or, as I prefer, I obtained some sort of blessing from The Bard himself. If that’s the case, I’ll take it. I may have just invented a country legend with that one. If so, may it be so.

Whatever it is, I love Stratford-Upon-Avon. I would move there in a heartbeat. The River Avon flows gently, as the Bard in stone sits, and watches eternal. People gather round, and children play by the banks. Workers go to lunch nearby, and dine at The Food of Love (no joke, a real cafĂ© on Henley Street). There is a sense that this town was made special by Shakespeare’s presence…a presence that has never gone away, and never will.

It’s not just him, it’s also the people. We all can learn a lot, and be a bit more like Bill.

As the Bard wrote, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”






Always writing, as his Will dictates. 

Text and photos Copyright Riley Joyce 2016