In July, I visited Colonial Williamsburg over Independence Day weekend. Given the roiled state of American politics, I hoped that taking a step back and looking at America’s past might lend insights into how to navigate today’s turmoil.
But how we choose to remember the past is just as telling as the facts themselves. What gets commemorated? What is left out of the story, and why? Whose stories are being told, and whose are not?
Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 5th anniversary. We are a nontraditional couple in many ways, and our married life fittingly enough began with a secret flight to Las Vegas and a wedding conducted at Graceland Wedding Chapel (Bon Jovi was also married here, and I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me! And to their credit, the staff did a lovely job.)
I naturally felt affinity for Kate Cochrane, heroine of my forthcoming novel, who also eloped. And despite the fact that elopements are much maligned, I believe there’s something powerful in couples who chose to dispense with ceremony. I believe there’s something powerful in couples who choose to begin their marriage with only each other.
In America, we are often guilty of falsely equating the size and scope of the wedding with the value the couple places on their marriage.
If a couple elopes or has a civil ceremony, there’s the nagging assumption that they were too indifferent or too impolite to give the event its due. Wrong. And if you’re thinking of marriage, via elopement or otherwise, I offer the following thoughts:
A wedding is not a chance to prove anything. Not how rich you (or your parents) are. Not how much sophistication and good taste you show. Not how many friends you have.
A wedding is not the culmination of your relationship. The road does not end at the altar. Your relationship is ever-evolving. A wedding marks the beginning of a new iteration of that relationship. Get ready for it – and open yourself to change and flexibility and growth.
A wedding is no guarantee. Don’t think that a wedding will fix anything. Don’t think that a wedding will make you happy. Don’t think that a wedding will prove that you are loved. Please don’t misunderstand me – weddings are important. Committing to a marriage is the most powerful, dynamic, thrilling, challenging commitment that two humans can make to each other. But weddings only mean that if you are all in.
For me, the biggest danger is that wedding planning can suck the energy and attention into things completely unrelated to the quality of your marriage. Do you really need to serve four kinds of artisinal salad dressing at your beachside buffet? Do your bridesmaids really need to wear lemon yellow strapless chiffon? Do you need a fairytale setting because you think perfect is the only path to happy?
Whenever you make a decision about your upcoming nuptials, ask yourself where your energy is going – to the wedding, or towards the marriage? If it is the latter, good on you. And if it’s the former, take a deep breath, make a choice, and remember the reason that you’re doing this.
P.S. After our Las Vegas elopement, my husband and I did have a traditional wedding ceremony attended by family and friends. I’m not anti-wedding, and I love a good party. The whole thing was as DIY as we could make it (My sister and I made the centerpieces ourselves, I did my own makeup, and one of my dad’s buddies was a champ and served as our bartender. My friends and in-laws set up the décor, and we had no wedding party to speak of but both of our sisters did readings.) We rented out a barn and a BBQ food truck, served beer and wine that we hand-selected from local offerings, and danced until the fireflies came out.
Last month I had the privilege of visiting Seattle – and incredibly, of seeing the city under consistently sunny skies.
Since moving to the Washington, DC area twelve years ago, I’ve become accustomed to seeing tourists. Rarely do I have the novelty of being a tourist myself! Seattle reminded me of what it is like to see a place for the first time, for every experience in that place to be your first, and for the wonderful mix of curiosity and bewilderment and surprise that being a “tourist” can offer.
My favorite moment in Seattle was taking the ferry to Bainbridge Island, just over the Puget Sound. While there I rented a bike from Classic Cycle and had an exhilarating afternoon pedaling around the island.
Yellow roses blooming at Culross village - in October! Fife, Scotland.
Blooms from the garden of Keats' House, London.
Arthur's Seat Summit
View near the summit of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Pathway leading up Arthur's Seat. Edinburgh, Scotland.
View through one of the gunports at Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh, Scotland.
Bust of Thomas Cochrane
Bust of Thomas Cochrane at Culross village, his birthplace and boyhood home.
Culross Abbey House
Culross Abbey House, boyhood home of Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane. Culross, Scotland.
Ancient church of Culross Abbey, partially in ruins yet still a working church. Village of Culross, Fife, Scotland.
Sunlight over the Firth of Forth at Culross. Fife, Scotland.
Street in the village of Culross, Fife, Scotland.
Tomb with anchor
Tomb with a carved anchor at Dunfermline Abbey. Dunfermline, Scotland.
Dunfermline Abbey, burial place of Robert the Bruce. Dunfermline, Scotland.
The city of Edinburgh, Scotland.
View from the train window, traveling north from London to Edinburgh.
Regents Park Canal on a quiet autumn morning.
Cochrane Street, London...perhaps named for Thomas Cochrane, who did represent Westminster in Parliament?
Keats House Garden
Garden behind the home of the poet John Keats. London.
One year ago I packed my bag and my laptop and hopped a plane to London, and from there, traveled by train to Edinburgh, Scotland. My journey allowed me to retrace the footsteps of Katherine Cochrane, whose story is at the center of my forthcoming novel, The Admiral’s Wife. I walked in Regents’ Park, the London neighborhood where she lived for a time, read her letters at the National Records of Scotland, and visited Culross Abbey House, the Scottish estate where her husband had lived as a boy and which she visited with him many years later. These pictures capture the places I visited and provided a thrilling opportunity to step into Kate and Thomas’ world.
Carnton Plantation stands 20 miles south of Nashville. Its proportions are elegant, its gardens filled with rare varieties of heirloom flowers, and its wide porch is stately and inviting. Visitors can wander the rooms and gaze at family portraits, look in awe at the family silver enshrined in a glass case and stamped with elegant monograms, and climb the stairs that lead to rooms whose windows offer views of sweeping lawns and boxwood hedges.
The slave cabins stood in the back, alongside the woods. And in the opposite direction, you will find the largest military cemetery in private hands in the Unites States. Nearly 1,500 graves hold the remains of men who fought and died at the Battle of Franklin. They are Confederates.
I visited Carnton earlier this spring. It was not the first time I had come to the site, but I was back again with more questions and an uneasy curiosity.
Carnton had been home to Carrie McGavock, a local legend whose story gained a wider audience with the release of the New York Times bestseller, The Widow of the South. During the Battle of Franklin and for months afterward, Carnton served as a field hospital where hundreds of wounded and dying men either succumbed or made slow recovery. Bloodstains mark the floors of makeshift operating rooms set up in the childrens’ bedrooms – tracing them will show where piles of amputated limbs were likely stacked, or where the cans of ether had been placed for primitive anesthesia.
The story goes that Carrie tore her petticoats into bandages after the household linens had been depleted. She personally nursed casualties and after the war, she and her husband arranged for bodies to be interred on family land –a book containing handwritten records of the names and information for each man can still be seen.
The place has the feel of a shrine, and walking through it on that bright spring morning, I bristled. Our tour guide noted that most of the household slaves had been sent to the Deep South once the war started to prevent their running away to Union lines. The McGavocks wanted to “protect their investment.” Lives and labor could be owned and bought and sold – and even now, in 2016, this was explained in terms that would have been perfectly at home in 1865. It was a matter of finance, and not morality – and the fact that the moral side of it was never addressed during that talk hangs with me even now.
For in the story we were given, Carrie’s compassion extended only to those who looked like her, and not to those whose endless servitude made her existence possible. The lost cause of the South still controls the Carnton narrative, making Carrie a heroine and leaving the uncomfortable questions unasked.
I left Carnton that day unsettled, and that feeling stays with me now. What do we make of Carrie McGavock? What do we make of the teenage soldiers who died on her porch that cold November night? Slavery is a hideous institution. The racism that was used to justify it equally ugly. I wonder if I can see the people in the Carnton story apart from their cause. Can I separate “good” behavior – compassion on the suffering – from a “bad” motivation – supporting a war justified by bigotry and exploitation? Can an act be judged apart from its context? Can I even truly know what drove Carrie and her family and the soldiers whose pieces lay scattered across the grounds?
Grass grows over the graves and the McGavocks are long gone, but it is still Carrie’s story that drives the place. It is one we should know, but it is not the only one. And at least for me, it is not all of the truth.
Isn’t it always interesting to revisit places we’ve known at different junctures in our lives? This spring I paid a return trip to Nashville, TN – after not seeing the city at all for more than a decade – and chronicled my experiences for World Travelers Today.
I would love to know which return trip has been the most surprising for you – please share your story in the comments! Then come along with me and discover a growing, gentrifying Southern city whose food reflects its changing identity in “A Taste of Nashville.”
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own. I’m lucky enough to have two – a cozy office with bookshelves that reach to the ceiling, and a sunroom that looks onto a tangled green backyard surrounded by trees. These are the places I feel at peace, where I can shut out the world for a time and focus on bringing my inner world, my writing world, out into life.
Unfortunately, neither are portable. While I have written in hotel rooms, on Amtrak trains, at writers’ retreats, in campgrounds, and even in bars, a rooted place has always felt most natural to me, most like home. So when I put together a research trip to Scotland for my upcoming novel, I went searching for a base camp, too.
Within seconds of launching into my first AirBnB search, it was love at first sight. A perfect, snug little hideaway of a flat just steps off of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. From here, I could easily walk to both the National Records of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland, two key sites for my research. There was a tiny galley kitchen, a comfortable bedroom, books and DVDs to keep myself entertained should I need them. Shops and restaurants stood within easy reach. The building itself had stood for over a century, and looked likely to stand for several more. I booked it straightaway.
The feeling I had when I stepped through the door went beyond “charm” and “character.” Yes, the flat had both, with its large windows of antique glass, thick stone walls, and utter lack of elevator (the flat stood on the 5th floor). But the appeal went beyond mere aesthetics.
Here, the space was mine, and mine alone – there was no schedule, no set times when coffee would be available or breakfast served. I could write and order my days as I pleased, breakfasting in my pajamas if I so desired on whatever lovely foods I brought up from the local market. (Scottish sausages, coffee, toast, and fresh eggs most mornings.)
I had a sense of space that was not sterile, but would be filled with the day’s rhythm of activities and the city around me. I had solitude and independence, but not isolation. If it wasn’t home, it was the next best thing. And I wrote and dreamt and pondered and wrote some more.
When I returned home, I finished the first draft of my novel within the month. I can’t say it was all due to AirBnB magic, but having a room of my own in what’s become one of my favorite cities certainly helped.
Disclaimer: This post is a statement of personal opinion, and is not an official endorsement of AirBnB services. No financial compensation, goods, or services have been received in exchange for this post.
Think of London and think of Big Ben, red telephone booths, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London. Or perhaps Claridge’s Hotel, Harrod’s, Hyde Park, and bespoke shops along Savile Road. Or there are the theaters, Notting Hill, Piccadilly, Carnaby Street, and the Beatles, and Wembley Arena. London is a shapeshifter, offering a seemingly infinite number of incarnations – just which city will you experience?
No matter how many times I visit, London always finds a way to surprise me. Many of my favorite places are those I found by accident.
The Church of St. Martin in the Field is hard to miss, sitting smack in the midst of Trafalgar Square and within a stone’s throw of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Both are well worth a visit. The church, however, contains a crypt which, in the midst of bustling, modern London, seems to offer a portal back into another world. Memorial tablets cover the walls and floor. The walls are hewn stone and brick, and you can easily read the names of the dead. A tiny café offers coffee, snacks and sandwiches – some nights, jazz musicians perform in the centuries-old space. I love it because instead of burying history, St. Martin in the Fields embraces it, build on it, and keeps both old and new alive.
Where would London be without the River Thames? The Thames helped to give birth to London, offering the city a gateway to the sea – and in time, the world. A morning jog alongside the river, with the Houses of Parliament and Lambeth Palace visible in the distance, took me away from the crowds and showed me an experience of the city I could have found in no other way.
Chic Bloomsbury, once the haunt of Virginia Woolf and others in the “Bloomsbury Group,” offers a glimpse of London at its loveliest and most refined. The neighborhood is home to the British Museum, and its proximity to the university creates an intellectual vibe. Bookstores are still in plentiful supply, and my shelves are home to happy treasures found here – one shop even allowed me to climb a ladder to reach a particularly tantalizing title! Russell Square gives residents and tourists alike a taste of nature; bring a lunch and take in the fountains, and don’t be surprised if the squirrels approach you for a treat.
St. James Park runs up to the gates of Buckingham Palace, so if you’re stopping by Buckingham, you’re stopping by St. James as well. From March to October, you can rest your weary feet by plopping into a deck chair. (Rented for a small fee – the service is also available in many other royal parks.) It’s relaxing. It’s lovely. For 8 quid, you can sit in the chair for an entire day. But why would you want to? It’s London, and the city beckons.
Back in Bloomsbury, the Founding Museum is one of London’s most poignant attractions. A small group of philanthropists established the Foundling Hospital in 1739 to care for abandoned children and the children of parents who were unable to care for them. The painter William Hogarth and composer George Frederick Handel played fascinating roles in supporting this institution. Most of these babies were given new names, and trained for servitude or military service. Mothers often surrendered a trinket or token along with their child – sometimes a keepsake, sometimes an item with information about the child’s father – for the purpose of identifying him or her should they be able to be reunited. You can still see some of these tokens today.
There’s a great saying from the film Back to the Future, in which Dr. Emmett Brown says to a baffled Marty McFly, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”
I traveled a lot of roads in the summer of 2010: more than 6,000 miles worth. Without Dr. Brown’s time travel capabilities, I did need the roads to take me where I wanted to go.
But I’m convinced I did catch a few moments where the lines between the past and the present blurred: standing on the summit of the Cahokia Mounds in the heat of the late afternoon sunshine; reading letters exchanged over a century ago between two Texas lovers; walking through the long grass that covers the hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield; catching Al Swearengen’s name in documents held at the South Dakota state archives.
In the years since, I’ve covered ground in other ways – gotten married, changed “day jobs,” moved homes, and continued to write.
I never expected this blog to last more than a few weeks, let alone four years. If this is your first visit here, I encourage you to visit the entries from 2010, starting with the oldest ones first, to get a taste of the original trip. If you like those, the 2011 posts chronicle my experiences on a cattle drive in Nevada. But now, in my final post, I’ve decided its time to close shop here, and move into other projects.
I’ve had ideas germinating that haven’t had the chance to develop further, and I need to take some time to see where those paths take me.
When I got in the car to leave Montana on July 12, 2010, it felt like a breakup. It was a goodbye I did not want. And as the car moved further east, into the Dakotas and Minnesota and Wisconsin, I kept hoping that somehow, I’d be able to get back to this place that had carved its way so deeply into my heart.
I did. In late April, my boyfriend and I flew out to Bozeman. We saw the mountains from the plane window, their tops dusted in thick snow. We had reached a different latitude, and a different season altogether. One night dumped 6″, which we scraped from the rental car and I was grateful for. If I could love Montana even when it didn’t cooperate, then it must be true love.
Walking around Bozeman felt familiar enough, and in a town that size, it was easy to revisit the bookstores, coffeeshops, and restaurants that had been part of my sightseeing last summer. But what I really wanted to get back to lay outside of the city.
Lava Lake trail. In my mind, it beckons in perpetual summer, the slopes of the mountain covered in lush green and the stream trickling trailside. In late April, freak snowfalls cast the mountain in a wintry shroud. We layered up, pulled yaktraks onto our boots, and headed onto the trail.
As we hiked, my mind kept flickering between what I remembered and what I was seeing. There were no wild roses, just conifers still drenched in snow. The stream was still flowing, but its waters were frigid, its banks crusted in ice. Piles of elk droppings peppered the trail. And the woods were very quiet. We hiked alone.
Would I feel anything when we reached the top? This placed pulled me. In absence, perhaps it had grown bigger and deeper in my mind. It was my totem, as surely as any shrine that ever served as a point of pilgrimage.
Walking out of the trees to the lakeshore took my breath away. It was not the breathlessness of surprise that I’d felt when I first caught sight of the top. But I was breathless with recognition, breathless with gratitude that this place had waited. Some places we only visit once, and that is enough. Others, we find our way back to.