Exchange House, Revisited

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In which I go back to a place I used to work at a job I used to hate.

When I was in London in September, I spent some time visiting places that were significant to me when I lived there for six months in 1998. This post is about one of those places.

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In the morning, I took the tube to Liverpool station and discovered I knew the way: up the stairs, behind the shops, down the little alley, and there I was. Intuitively, I travelled the shortcut I had used every day I worked in this building, without even realizing I remembered it.

I hated that job. It was a temp job, working for a brokerage firm that doesn’t exist any more, answering phones, typing letters, doing the filing. I hated it – for a bunch of reasons – but I stuck with it for as long as I could, saving my precious pounds sterling (worth much more than a Canadian dollar, especially back in 1998) to go backpacking through Europe later that year.

It was not the right place for me and yet working there taught me so many useful things about myself and about what I wanted to do with my life.

One lesson in particular stayed with me: the knowledge that I want to work at something I find meaningful.

For me, that is NOT brokerage banking. I spent several months watching a few hundred people in a high-stress environment spend their days (and their evenings and their weekends) shifting money from one account to another in the hope of ending up with more money at the end of the transaction.

After months of watching traders ride the highs and lows of the stock market, I realized that money – although nice to have – was not the only motivating factor for me. Making money was not enough: I wanted to do something that created something or helped people or contributed to the world in some way… a train of thought that eventually led me to a career in public libraries.

When I revisited this building, Exchange House, in September, I sat on the steps in front of the fountain, where I used to eat lunch (the fountain has been filled in is and is a grassy stage now). I wrote in my journal and remembered the people I used to work with and some of the things that happened while I worked there. And suddenly, much to my surprise, I was grateful for that horrible job and that experience, because it helped me figure out what the right place for me is.

Finding inspiration in history

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I discovered these dishes in the Vindolanda Museum, along Hadrian’s Wall, and have been thinking about them ever since.

This almost-complete set of Samian-ware pottery was imported into Roman Vindolanda from France and, after being broken in transit, was thrown away, unused, into the ditch of the fort.

Imagine the disappointment of the intended owner – and the thrill of the archaeologists who found these dishes almost two thousand years later!

As a writer, I have all sorts of questions:

Who were these dishes intended for?

Did whoever ordered these dishes get a replacement set? How long did that take? How much did it cost?

Not all the dishes are here… does that mean a few of them arrived intact? If so, what happened to them? Where they given to a slave or someone else, or did the owner keep them?

These questions could be the beginning of a story. My current project is set in Alberta in the 1930’s and I have been thinking about a set of dishes ordered out of the Eaton’s catalog that arrives broken…

The joy of a day spent walking

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From September 2-10, 2014, a friend and I walked across England along the line of Hadrian’s Wall, from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. We were not purists and skipped some less interesting parts of the path in favour of blistered feet (mine) or a side trip we wouldn’t have time for otherwise. Even so, we walked more than 100 km, and it was an amazing way to see this landscape.

Later, at home, I was telling someone about the experience and found myself talking about the joy of getting up and walking every day. How it felt strange on the tenth day to wake up and realize there was no walking to do, that all the miles were behind us.

I’ve been thinking about how to share the experience. I’m not sure I can, but I’m going to try, with the help of photos and a few brief words along the way.

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The walk started at the ruins of the Roman Segedunum, located at Wallsend.

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Although most of the first day was spent walking through the city of Newcastle, we found ourselves on country lanes by the afternoon.

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The second day began with this stretch of the wall. Note the modern road that runs alongside it.

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We relished the solitude of quiet paths…

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… and took time to notice small wonders.

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See the spider webs beaded with morning dew?

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Our journey took us through farmland…

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(Yes, there were sheep)

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…across rivers…

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…and over hills with magnificent views.

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I especially loved this hill, shaped like a sleeping dragon:

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We made new friends…

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… and admired the countryside.

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All the while, we followed in the footsteps of Roman troops 1800 years before.

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The layers of history were perhaps most evident when we discovered these trees – likely hundreds of years old – growing on the remains of the Roman wall.

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Then, nine days later, we found ourselves at the “official” end of the trail:

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And then, as I mentioned before, came the morning where there was no walking to do, which felt strange and unfamiliar. I missed the routine I had become accustomed to, of putting one foot in front of the other, of the feel of turf and asphalt beneath my feet, the weight of my day-pack on my back.

Although we walked up to 15 miles a day, it was a slow way to travel, at least by modern standards — we could have rented a car and covered the same area easily in a few days. Yet with the slowness came depth, and tranquility, and peace — and those amazing views.

Swimming

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Greece

As fall gives way to winter, I am settling into a routine and spending a few hours each day immersed in research for a new project. It feels good to be working steadily at something, after the dual luxuries of a summer off and an autumn filled with travel.

Each afternoon, at about 2 pm, I find myself missing my daily swim in the Aegean Sea. This swim became a part of my routine in Kardamyli, where I spent 10 days during Suzanne Harris’s amazing Breathing Space retreat.

The retreat was magical: new writing came effortlessly while I sat on the balcony of my little apartment, looking out at the mountain, the sound of the ocean behind me. When I wanted a change of view – or a coffee – I would walk to the other end of the village and sit on a terrace looking out toward the Mediterranean, sipping sweet Greek coffee from a tiny cup, and I would write some more.


Swimming


1.

sea calm, still

shades shift between
deepest blue, turquoise, teal
I can see to the bottom
the pebbled beach
gives way to sand
far below my feet

we tread water
talk and float in the sun
watch fish weave their way
between our legs


2.

today Poseidon is playful
waves swell as they approach

I learn the sound of this place:
waves sweeping into shore
the clattering cascade of rocks
rolling down, dropped
by retreating waves

a thousand years from now
this beach will be sand


3.

the heat of white rocks
beneath wet feet


Kardamyli, Greece
September 2014

Unpacking

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I am home, and home is beautiful.

I have spent much of this week recovering from jet lag, slowly unpacking, reintegrating myself into regular life, thinking about my routines and how I want to shape my time this fall. Admiring the last of the golden leaves and being grateful that they hung on long enough for me to see them.

I have also been thinking about how to unpack seven weeks worth of experiences. I am not sure where to begin, and so instead of putting off beginning, as I am often inclined to do, I am going to just start, with a single moment:

 

Ekklisia

this place
has been sacred
for millenia

temple
then church
the same stones
rearranged

the holiness
remains

in the air
in the ground

in the prayers
that linger
for centuries

 

Platsa, Greece
September 2014

The 48th Morning

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Greece

This morning I woke to the pleasant discovery that I was in my own bed, for the first time in almost seven weeks.  My travels over the past 47 days have taken me to three countries (Iceland, England, and Greece) and have filled me with inspiration from amazing new adventures. 

Although I did not manage to post here while travelling – I discovered that I need more time to process my thoughts about each place than life on the road allowed – you can be sure that my experiences will find their way into my writing here over the coming months.

Thank you for reading.

Photo: The view from Yialos, my favourite cafe and writing haunt in Kardamyli, Greece.

Summer Away

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I had three days in London last week, to wander around and remember the six months I spent living and working there in 1998. Here is a poem about that time.

My thanks to editor Anne Burke who published this poem in Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature in 2008.


Summer Away

After a week in London
I joke that my dream job
is to cut the grass
in Hyde Park, an oasis
in the grey jungle
of soot covered stone buildings,
the labyrinth of streets
that bears no resemblance
to maps in the A to Z.

Christina laughs
as we sit in the sun,
watch workers drive mowers
across the expanse of green,
says, you wouldn’t like it
when it rains.

So I give up the idea,
do what my friends do
and trudge each morning
to work, swallowed
by another dismal building
only to be spit back out
at five o’clock
to walk home through Hyde Park,
fresh clippings in my shoes.