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I Have Fought My Way Here to the Castle Beyond the Goblin City
c is for cat
catvalente

Ten years ago, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh.

It wasn’t Platform 9 3/4, but it might as well have been. My life changed the moment that train pulled out of the brick archways and into the rolling green countryside beyond London–it was just beginning to be autumn then, and the trees were full of crows. I remember thinking about bird magic, auguries, every story I’d ever heard about England and Scotland. I was a tiny thing, a maiden in all but the technical sense. I knew, as the old novels say, nothing of the world. My EuroRail photo looked absurdly, hilariously, preposterously like an illustration of Snow White. I had a bacon sandwich. My mother was with me, a psychopomp in knock-off Prada sunglasses, bearing me across the wall and into the life I didn’t yet know I was in for. It was the first time I wanted something with that desperate, pure fire–and made it happen, by myself, with will and work. After all, if you grow up loving fairy tales and King Arthur and saints who battle monsters, you want the British Isles the way some kids want boyfriends. Edited to add: is that a silly reason to want to go to a country? Yep. Is it a direct outgrowth of the complicated relationship of American culture to British culture? Yep. Was I 21 years old, pretty silly, fully of inchoate dreamy nonsense and trying to learn how to be a real person? Absolutely. In fact, a big part of that growing up was going to a place I'd dreamed about and figuring out what reality there was like.

I lived there for something over a year. I came back to America for stupid reasons–but that’s what you do in your twenties. Make stupid decisions while meaning so earnestly well.

My interviewer in Finland asked me: you’ve written about everywhere you’ve lived but Edinburgh. Where is Scotland in your books?

I laughed a little, pressed my lips together as I always do when I’m thinking, looked out the window of our car at the swans nesting in the golden Nordic estuaries. This is what I told her:

A poetry professor once told me that you can never name the thing you’re writing about. If the poem is about death, you can’t say the word death. Poems about memory shouldn’t go on about the thing itself. If you’re writing about grief, you can’t actually say grief, or sadness, or even tears. If you want to talk about love, love is the one word you can’t use.

Edinburgh is the thing I am a poem about and do not name.

Today, not long before the Queen’s Jubilee, I boarded a train at King’s Cross Station for Edinburgh. It was Platform 7. It’s just beginning to be summer now, and the fields are full of chartreuse flowers. The old churches spring up out of them like strange, huge blossoms. The train rushes over a stream so full of swans the current is pure white.

I think about bird magic again. Auguries.

I am no longer small. I know something of the world. Maybe not much of a something, but something. I have made things with my hands and heart. I look a bit pugnacious in my passport photo, like I still have something to prove. I had a bacon sandwich. My husband is with me and this time I am bearing him across the wall, to show him this object that sits at the bottom of my mind, a grey stone city with a castle and a mountain, a place that was once wholly full of fairy fruit and temptation and the rich mess of becoming bigger, becoming grown. That fairy fruit made everywhere else look dimmer for awhile. My goblin city, that swallowed me whole. I think it took falling in love with Maine to fix me–before then I always had the idea that of course I’d go back, that somehow, somehow, this was where I’d live when I could choose.

I’ve been near tears most of the morning, riding north through sheep and cattle and chapels and flowers. When you love a place, it’s hard to leave, and harder still to come back. You hope it will be proud of you, of all you became when you left to seek your fortune.  You hope it will be as you remembered; you hope you are still as it knew you.
You hope it will forgive you long neglect, lines in your once-clear face, a hard blue edge of cynicism.

O goblin city, I hope you will forgive me for never writing a book about you.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.


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You seem to always have the most amazing talent to vocalise the things I have felt or am feeling but can't articulate. I'm about to make my first trip to London in July, and I am anticipating it with my whole being. I can't help but feel like there is something waiting there for me, some magic that I can't fathom. It is going to be the briefest trip, but I hope it is as full of magic as your first trip to Edinburgh. And I can only wish against wish that my life is as full and joyous and passionate and amazing as yours.

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered...

(To London from Australia, I should have mentioned)

I spent 10 glorious days in Edinburgh during the "Fringe" and now I sometimes catch myself going to google maps and walking the Royal Mile up and down.
And hiking up to Arthur's Seat'll always be one of my fondest memories. Plus the Oink at the Grassmarket. Best sandwich I ever had. Though the combination of pork, Haggis and apple sauce must have been too much for the one taking my order, I catched him flinching. But it was awesome and tasty and now I have to come back as soon as possible. *sigh*

Ours is an inspiring city, but perhaps a place you set out from, rather than adventure in.

I don't know about that. Edinburgh has great stories...

Is so beautiful. I get it. I get it so much. Reading this gave me chills. I found myself saying, out loud, "Oh, yes -- this."

The advice your poetry professor gave you is excellent. Sometimes, you cannot write through things. Some things, you must write around them. Or you just carry them with you, because they are pieces of you, now.

Wonderful post.

I loved Edinburgh, but it was the ruins and cliffs of Tintagel that truly took my breath away. I stood there on the edge, and wondered who had stood there before me in the distant past, gazing out at the ocean beyond, and just for a moment, I could feel her there.

My one trip to Great Britain - I love that land with all of my being, and still would live there if I had that choice to make. I will be going to Ireland soon - maybe 2015? I'm not sure. I fear I will love it there as much, and it may break me.

This city is close to my heart although I have never been there. Once upon a time, one of my fairy godmothers, the women who taught me my first taste of feminism, the woman who'd tell me all about virgin martyrs, medieval history, and taught me how to attack primary sources, studied in Scotland and would often speak of it. Her work centered the Scottish laity and their practices, and it later informed a lot of how I would approach my material. I miss Audrey-Beth Fitch terribly, and one day, I want to go there and walk the land and see the city she loved.

Once we settle out this stupid ass tax debt bullshit (finally done) and recoup our savings (starting now) I am going to begin saving to travel. This is one of those places that gets in your blood, I think--and I think it will welcome you back. :)

I came back to America for stupid reasons–but that’s what you do in your twenties. Make stupid decisions while meaning so earnestly well.

Are you me? Because fuck. All of it.

Going to go cry more now.

Wonnderful post and a wonderful city - I would like to live there for a while.

Apologies, I cannot spell.

This is such a gorgeous, true post. I love it - and you.

When I was there, 13 years ago, I remember thinking, as the train went north, that for the first time I was going toward something that had been promised to me. That I would find something there I'd never found before. I only got as far as Edinburgh, that city built on its own fallen city. And still, always, I had a tug north, but I could go no further (and still haven't). And when I came back to Cambridge, there was a distinct sense of leaving something behind that I hadn't even found yet.

I wonder if it's still there, whatever it is, or if it has moved on. I'd need to go as far as the Isle of Skye, maybe, to find it.

I've never felt that here, except the vaguely eastward tug that ended up being Rhode Island. But never that concentrated.

And there you are, in that goblin city. And soon you will see Amal, too! Which is just so awfully appropriate.

Have a beautiful time.

Oh, you should definitely go to the Isle of Skye someday! I've been there twice. You can rent a cottage there for a week for not much money and it's beautiful. There are sheep and beautiful hikes and there are fairy rings to be found. And you can get the very best haggis (in my opinion) at The Isles Inn in Portree!

Reading this was like reading a beautiful, but personal, reflection, until I came to your last paragraph. And suddenly you were telling my story, too.

I've only read Deathless, so far. But Deathless was a kind of one-book conversion experience for me - it became a book I couldn't leave home without, and you became, for me, an author I love. Because you're the kind of writer who can spin someone else's story, someone else's moving, beautiful, poignant story, and then suddenly hold up the mirror and tell me about myself, too.

I am barely one month into a 3-year stint doing peacework in Iraqi Kurdistan. (Hey. I'm in my twenties.) My first furlough is in September, when I'll go home again for a short time. I already know your words above will remain with me, through the leaving, and coming back again.

Thank you for sharing.

one place I have not been yet, but you remind me that it's been over a decade since I was off this continent. Missing the rest of the world keenly now.

I went back to Australia for stupid reasons. I thought they were good at the time. If that's what you do in your 20s, I suppose your 30s is for unfucking the remains.

"Waves" as you rattle past....

It's so strange walking in memories, seeing yourself as you were then one moment, and the way you are now the next. You've described it so beautifully. I hope you enjoy your time straddling the past and present and of course drinking Scottish tea! Yum. I didn't know Scotland was a special place for you--it is for me, too. There's just something about Scotland.

Thank you for sharing the journey.

Silly writer - ALL your books are about Edinburgh. It's the fountain where you draw your ink. Is that not so?

Such love. Such beauty. SO much resonance. I think it was always places that I craved. I have never had one of the cities in which I lived claim me, make itself my own home. I do not keep a bucket list, except for small secret hope that I may yet, somehow, get to live abroad for at least a couple of years.

I am going to stay in a castle in Scotland this summer. A friend's castle. How is this even possible? I hide from the excitement and curiosity about it sometimes, but really I know that I am waiting for the magic.

I love living in Edinburgh. So many things going on, but in a city that is somehow both sprawling and compact at the same time, with intricate backstreets, and roads scribbled over their erased ancestors, like a much-loved vellum.

Plus a great big hill in the middle of it. You can't go wrong with something like that.

You may never have written of it directly, but am I crazy for seeing pieces of your relationship with Edinburgh in Palimpsest? Obviously not Palimpsest in its entirety, but in pieces of having a place that is so you that you aren't sure where you and the city end and begin? That you want to share with the people important to you, and yet keep all to yourself? A place that called you even before you knew it was there? After reading this entry, all I could think was that Palimpsest could be almost a love story to Edinburgh. A fucked-up, roundabout way of getting there, and focused on so many other themes, but at its heart and in the method of delivering those themes lies a story about being so passionately in love with a city, whatever unnamed city it is.

Hehe

(Anonymous)

2012-05-24 09:36 pm (UTC)

That's what I was going to say. Surely Edinburgh is in Palimpsest. Darkness and beauty and labyrinthine streets only plottable by human lives.

Thoraiya

Tears in my eyes out of sympathetic joy. Thanks for sharing this.

My husband and I made ourselves a promise- that for our 25th anniversary, we would go to Europe- Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, Germany- the places our ancestors came from.

I think, like you, when we do go, we'll have a hard time leaving again.

Your commentary about After all, if you grow up loving fairy tales and King Arthur and saints who battle monsters, you want the British Isles the way some kids want ..." brought to mind my own feelings when I had the opportunity to lay eyes on the UK (brief though it may have been.)

It happens that I was on my way from Texas to Kuwait right at the end of the Gulf War. Flying BA, I was to make the Gatwick/Heathrow switch mid-trip. The bus ride from Gatwick to Heathrow was breathtaking. I mean, for me, what I saw on the short trip was everything I'd ever dreamed - seriously, everything I saw looked like a picture postcard.

Coincidentally, on my trip back, I was entertained on the leg from Bahrain to the UK by a trio of oil-field workers out of UAE who were headed home to Scotland for a break. We had a great time, and I got an invite to come see the Highlands if I ever came back that way. A friendlier bunch of folks (both BA and the Scotsmen) one could ever hope to meet.

I waved as you went past Newcastle (several times because I didn't know which train you were on) Have a glorious time.

I'm glad you and the other commentators like my country. I'm glad you feel welcome.
We aren't entirely a theme park, however. And these places that are beautiful to visit can be difficult to live in. I apologise if this seems unkind, but we are real, we are more than our myths and our past, we are more than a fantasy trend that's over and all the other things. I don't know what your reaction was to the Blur song 'Magic America', or if you know it at all. I understand how distant places can seem unreal. But today you made a number of us feel deeply elided and uncomfortable. I'm sure this was an accident, but I'm not sure some of the commenters realise the cumulative effect they are having.
Kari, who has the misfortune to be British-Celtic by birth and residence.

I don't entirely know how to respond to this. I find it deeply strange that you would think I imagine British people are not real. I lived hear for more than a year. Of course it can be difficult. Of course the mythic aspects faded fairly quickly in the face of real experience. Am I not allowed to love it because some fantasy writers have done poorly by This place? Have I ever so much as written about Britain, such that I could be accused of contributing?

I was happy here. It was a thing I chose to do and lived through. I worked here, studied, graduated. And I'm real, too.

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