Tuesday, July 29

places to keep

traveling is a thing I very much love, and I've been pretty lucky to find a million excuses for indulging in it, so I am not surprised that the list of places where I've spent time is getting a bit long.

the length of the list does surprise some people though. Canada? and Budapest? and the UK three times now? Paris too? I don't think I mean to sound boastful about it all. everyone has their priorities, and moving around in the world seems to be one of mine.

a more noteworthy and thoroughly more surprising thing, I think, would be to find someone who has never moved around. someone who has lived in one place and soaked up everything of it over years and years and years. wouldn't that be something to boast of? keeping to one, neat, consistent, contained set of spaces?

a few weekends back I stayed in Oxford with the lovely Nicola, and got to see lots of old nooks and corners and pubs and museums and parks. one such museum was the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology (can we start spelling archeology like that all the time, eh?), where there were displays from almost every corner and time period of the world.

I found myself drawn to the pottery. so different on the surface, all these bowls and urns and cups and vases. but they were all made for a pretty similar purpose: to keep stuff in. for holding water, or preserving food, or arranging flowers in.

there were cabinets full of vases from Greece, Egypt, China, Japan. little plaques listed out the distinctive markings, the stylistic marks and the contexts that give them archaeological significance. I did not read all the descriptions--it would've taken so long. and besides, museums are not only educational. this one is not only for archaeology, but also for art.

Greece, Egypt, China, and Japan are place I haven't been to yet. looking at artifacts could never count as visiting. I might someday find excuses for visiting the middle east and the orient and other far-away realms. I might not. I might have used up my life's traveling quota too soon, too euro-centrically. I hope not.

the day after our stroll through the Ashmolean, Nicola and I saw this exhibit on the Great War at the Bodleian Library. there weren't urns and vases on display there, not this time. the cabinets were mostly full of paper and ink: stories from soldiers and politicians and workers from the first of that infamous pair of long-ago (but not as long ago as some) wars. reading them was eye-opening on several levels.
this war is one I've learned about in school, of course. there are dates and holidays and all that in my head somewhere. but mainly this first world war is framed for US citizens as a prelude to the second, and World War II takes up more space in our cultural memory, for some reason. Pearl Harbor, perhaps, ties us more closely and corporeally to the tragedies of that conflict.

seeing the Great War through a British lens or two or three was so different than seeing it through the lens I'd always seen it through before. I'm not sure I can explain well enough how it was different, but if you think for a moment, you might be able to imagine for yourselves. I don't need to explain that Britain was touched by this war much more deeply and brutally than my own country was. nobody needed to explain that to me, exactly... yet I hadn't thought about it, not really, before. all these manuscripts, bound up for holding memories, preserving moments, arranging experiences in--they made those differences real.

my final night in the UK this year, I got to see Henry V (second time this summer). the Glasgow acting company who's been performing it framed their performance with a 1915 end-of-year school festival, complete with songs of Flanders Fields and letters of condolence filling the silence during simple costume changes. the juxtaposition of the great Battle of Agincourt with all the battles of the Great War, so many on the same French soil, prodded my thoughts further in the direction of war, duty, bravery, and the value of sacrifices. it ended so sadly--Elizabethan armor transformed to early twentieth-century uniforms, the desperate enemies of English and French soldiers transformed to allied casualties.

I've thought before that almost everything we humans ever touch becomes a place for us to keep things. we build shelters and tombs for our bodies, shelves and closets for our things. we use pottery for holding water and poetry for holding feelings. and then we bind books, build museums, raise up theatres, and dedicate monuments to hold those things that do so much holding for us. we can look at all the layers of containment and be grateful, awe-inspired at the combined beauty and utility of them, glad that they do so well at keeping our places as we move through time towards an end we can't quite see past. some shapes and some structures are better for keeping certain kinds of stuff. some museums are less art and more archaeology, or vice versa. plenty of this pottery is different on the outside, but the general purpose seems close enough. these are our necessities, collected and revered, filled to their brims with stories.

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