An Uneasy Family Tree

Yaw, one of the many characters in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, begins his history class with the words: “History is Storytelling.”

Gyasi—who was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama—gives us a book of stories in this epic debut. Each of the sixteen chapters is named after a different character who all trace their lineage to a woman named Maame, an Asante slave in a Fante household in West Africa. The book moves chronologically through eight generations from the 18th century to the present day, alternating between two bloodlines. Maame has two daughters by different men: Effia (who lives in Asanteland in the interior of what we now call Ghana) and Esi who lives in Fanteland along the coast. They know nothing of each other. Effia is married off to an English official involved in the Atlantic slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Underneath its whitewashed exterior and palatial rooms lay separate female and male dungeons that African slaves were packed into for weeks before boarding boats to America to work on cotton plantations. This is the fate of young Esi who is captured in a raid on her village.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The half sisters and their descendants live very different lives. The strand from Effia stays in Ghana; the strand from Esi unfolds in America. And yet no character has it easy. Gyasi shows how each character and bloodline is implicated in the devastating legacy of slavery. A character reflects: “The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.”

With Homegoing, I felt like a student in Yaw’s class. Not a boring class but a riveting, I-want-to-know-more kind of class that often happens when I’m reading fiction and realize I’m also reading history. With each chapter/character, the author takes on multiple Black histories: the African-American slave trade, Britain’s colonization of West Africa and the arrival of Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Asante wars, slavery in the American South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also known as the “Bloodhound Law”, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration of Blacks from the Southern US to the North between 1916 and 1970, the Civil Rights Movement, the heroin and jazz scene in Harlem in the 1960s, the “war on drugs”, and the racism that underlies it all and still exists today. This incredible scope of time, subjects, places, and characters make Homegoing a contemporary classic and a must-read, especially now in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting racial protests.

With each character, I (probably foolishly) hoped, Surely this person will have a better life than their parents. What’s a better life though? Each story had sad parts. Each choice (when there was a choice) had repercussions. Some stories brimmed with sadness. As Gyasi took us through the uneasy family tree, I noticed the racism grew slightly less overt but no less damaging. 

When I was at a North American arts marketing conference in Seattle a couple years ago, I had dinner with a small group of attendees. One woman was Black and had studied Psychology. She told our group she thought all Black people should go to counselling by nature of being Black—to process what their people have been through. I didn’t fully understand her comment at the time but after reading this book, I have a clearer picture.

Yaw goes on to tell his history class:

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

The last two stories in the book, Marjorie and Marcus, provide the most hope. After just reading through how these modern-day characters came to be, the reader has a deep appreciation that the closing scene ends with laughter—play, even.

In keeping with the theme of split families (“A Tale of Two Sisters” is a moniker that comes to mind), Gyasi pairs each bloodline with a recurring natural symbol: fire on the Fante side, water on the Asante side. The novel begins:

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.

From there, the author continues to play with fire and water. How these symbols develop and culminate through her prose is as layered as the family’s storyline. I began to see fire and water imagery everywhere, even in a line like “a wave of missing hit her, separate and sad.” It’s as if Gysai reminds us that the memory of slavery is always present, breaking through the surface, breaking into speech.

While Homegoing‘s subject matter was far from enjoyable, Gyasi’s use of language certainly was. I would read this book a second time to pay more attention to how she connects characters through word choice. In the following examples, the emphasis is mine. 

Yaw’s daughter Marjorie has an Asante name, Abronoma, which means “little dove.” The author writes:

She had always hated it when her father called her Dove. It was her special name, the nickname born with her because of her Asante name, but it had always made Marjorie feel small somehow, young and fragile. She was not small. She was not young, either. 

Later in the book, Gyasi transforms Marjorie’s African name from noun to verb when another character describes Marjorie:

He had learned not to be surprised by how forthcoming she was. How she never gave in to small talk, just dove right into deep waters.

To layer the connection even more, Gyasi has Marjorie enact this metaphor in the closing scene of the book. She dives into the ocean.

Another example of linked language:

Marjorie muses about her parents who are watching a movie:

Maybe her mother was sleeping too, her own head leaning toward Yaw’s, her long box braids a curtain, hiding their faces.

When a character later meets Marjorie at a party, Gyasi writes:

At the mention of her name, Marjorie lifted her head, the curtain of wild hair parting to reveal a lovely face and a beautiful necklace.

Gyasi scatters family clues like Hansel and Gretal, and this reader loved picking them up. Another purpose these language connections have is unifying a book that could be criticized as resembling a collection of short stories more than a novel. I experienced this primarily in the first part of the book, but in part two, more preceding characters are present in various ways, strengthening the book’s cohesiveness. That being said, each character was so richly drawn, I wanted to follow them longer. To achieve this effect sixteen times is no small feat. Gyasi could write sixteen separate books for each character. Yet she provided just enough material to grasp each person’s essence. The choices they made, the choices made for them. Who they love, who they hurt. How they love, how they fight. Their small acts of defiance and compliance. The contradictions of the human heart. Split identities. 

I had the sense Gyasi could have kept writing this story forever. When do you stop a family lineage? When does that better life materialize? It’s what every parent wishes for their child. It’s why there are Black Lives Matter protests. If Gyasi were to continue with this family tree, what would the stories of future descendants say?

What Kind of Person?

Warning: graphic content in this post.

I scan the books on the shelf of my 7 month old’s library, all gifts from family and friends. Most are about animals, but the two below feature people—specifically, people of colour. I am reading them a lot more to my daughter these days when Black Lives Matter has moved to the front of white people’s minds.

Like many white people, I am asking myself what can I do? Now that I am a mom, I feel a heavier responsibility to do something because I am raising a child in this world and the question of what kind of person I want her to be is no small thing. I think the answer is hidden in the question: A kind person. An empathetic person. An authentic, courageous, compassionate, and self-aware person. I can read my daughter stories and give her dolls/toys of people with different types of bodies: Black bodies, Asian bodies, Indigenous bodies, disabled bodies, etc. Apparently as young as three months old, babies start showing a preference for the race that matches their caregivers. My husband and I took a trip to Kidsbooks the other day to address the gap in our daughter’s library. I am thankful we live in a diverse neighbourhood of Vancouver where we interact with different races. I am teaching her to wave to people we walk by. Babies are great at breaking down barriers.

While my husband and I need to educate our daughter about racism, I also need to educate myself and reflect on my own covert racism. To be honest, I haven’t known where to begin the past several days. And not because there isn’t ample information out there. There is. I’ve bookmarked webpages with resources by Black authors such as this one and have felt overwhelmed in choosing a starting point. And then I felt immediately guilty, because what a privilege: that I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to educate myself on racialized experiences when it’s a daily lived reality for people of colour. I read Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race after hearing her speak at the 2018 National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Seattle, and that was the first time I really thought about my privilege: white, middle class, educated, stable family, etc. and how this plays a huge role in how society treats me over someone who doesn’t have these privileges. After the protests broke out in the US following George Floyd’s death, I wondered what to do now.

My starting point happened last night, and rather unintentionally, I will confess. My husband gave me a book for my first Mother’s Day. It only arrived the other day and has been sitting on our coffee table. It’s called Motherhood: A Confession by Natalie Carnes who’s a professor at Baylor University. This book converses with Augustine’s Confessions. Carnes wonders how that seminal piece of writing for Western Christianity would have been different if it was a mother writing it instead of a man. I picked up her version last night and began reading.

She addresses her daughter in the first part. I am in the midst of writing a poem to my daughter and easily slipped into Carnes’s hopes, fears, and concerns that the birth of a child elicits in a mother, particularly the desire to protect your child from the suffering of the world.

I see that there is domination, at least, in my own dissipation, that my attempt to suffer for you is also an attempt to control your life by limiting its exposure. The temptation to save you from suffering can express a lust for domination and yearning for control over what is ultimately uncontrollable. The domination of diffusion derives from the illusion that I can absorb the world for you and so by my love create for you a painless world. ‘What madness,’ as Augustine writes, ‘not to understand how to love a human being with awareness of the human condition!'”

Natalie Carnes, Motherhood: A Confession, p.65

What kind of person does Carnes want her daughter to be? The kind that resists racism, patriarchy, and injustice. And so she talks about exposing her to an ugly piece of local history where they live in Waco, Texas. She tells the story of a young Black man named Jesse Washington who was lynched in front of the courthouse in 1916. Wait a minute. I’ve been to that courthouse. At this point, I put the book down, get on my computer. Yes, here it is. You may even remember that I shared this picture on a previous post about Waco.

McLellan County Courthouse in downtown Waco. Photo by author.

I stood near the spot where a 17-year-old Black teenager accused of murdering a white woman whom he worked for was beaten, chained, stabbed, dismembered, dragged, and finally hung and burned alive on a tree while a mob of 10 000 white people watched and cheered.

Lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, 1916. Photo by Fred Gildersleeve from the Texas Collection at Baylor University.

This Guardian article shows more pictures and the text of the original story that ran in a monthly magazine put out by the country’s oldest civil rights organization called NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

I felt sick to my stomach. Not just for what happened, but for my ignorance. I remember walking up to the courthouse to read about it because I was interested in its architecture.

What irony, eh? “Seat of justice…” Photo by author.

Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any sign in the area that addressed Jesse Washington’s lynching. And why would the City want to remember this death at their hands? It’s an act of erasure—white people wiping out Black bodies and memories. And I feel guilty because I visited the city as a tourist, consuming this site like any other. What would my posture have been if I had gone to remember, to pay respect? I wish I had known this story prior. I like to think it would have changed the way I moved through the city. And how was I to know if our cities don’t tell the (whole) truth, even if it’s unpleasant and inconvenient? This article describes efforts to have the lynching remembered; Waco has made strides to do so in recent years, though I am still uncertain if there is a marker at the site. A Black man who shares Jesse Washington’s name has been advocating for it and documents his story here.

Also on my previous post about Waco, I shared this postcard image from 1911, a piece of City marketing to attract residents to move to Waco after it had earned a bad reputation for crime in the 19th century.

Found on Wikipedia, sourced from the University of Houston Digital Library.

The figures imitate George Seurat’s 1884 painting La Grande Jatte. How do you reconcile this image with Washington’s charred body hanging from a tree six years later?

As Andrew Belonsky writes in the above Guardian article, the NAACP used racists’ images of Washington’s lynching—which were bought and shared like trading cards—to awaken their country to the horror. Not unlike Emmett Till’s mother in 1955. Her 14-year-old son was abducted, tortured, shot, and drowned in a Mississippi river after a white woman in a grocery store claimed he grabbed and propositioned her (which she later admitted was a lie). Carnes tells this story and I am back on the internet, researching another Black life that was brutally ripped away. The body was so mutilated, Emmett’s mother only recognized her son by a ring he wore.

Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, beside her son’s casket in Chicago in 1955. Chicago-Sun Times via AP

Let the people see what I’ve seen.

Mamie Till-Mobley

She insisted on an open casket. The image of her dead son (graphic image warning) was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks said when she was asked to give her seat up for a white person on the bus, she remembered Emmett and that gave her the strength to resist. Who else had an open casket recently? George Floyd.

By the way, Emmett’s family is still waiting for justice. After 65 years. His two killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. They’re dead now, but the grocery store woman, Carolyn Bryant, is still alive. Read the story in The Guardian, published this spring.

In the nature of Carnes’s honesty, I too want to confess. I didn’t know the names of Jesse Washington and Emmett Till before. I didn’t even know about lynching had it not been for my husband reading Black theologian James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which I’m going to read next. Approximately 3000 Black men were lynched between 1885 and 1915. That’s a staggering number.

My evening of reading didn’t turn out at all like I expected. Upon going to bed, I said to my husband with a weary voice, “I hate your country.” And the guilt came back, because of course my country, Canada, is no better, as this Huffington Post article reminds me. Racism and erasure happen here too. Slavery happened here. A vibrant Black community in Vancouver once lived and worked in Hogan’s Alley, before urban planning displaced it. I was talking with a friend the other day and we were trying to recall if we even learned about residential schools in our public education. How many places in Canada have I visited without knowing or remembering the atrocities that took place on their soil? What pictures have I seen in history books that don’t tell the truth? This one comes to mind:

The Last Spike, 1885. Photo courtesy Alexander Ross, Library and Archives Canada

An elderly white man hammers the last nail into the Canadian Pacific Railway in Craigellachie, BC, surrounded by other white men, when it was mostly Chinese men (about 15 000) who built this trans-continental railway in the 19th century and received half of what their white co-workers earned. And though they were invited to come from China, they then had to pay the Chinese Head Tax to immigrate here with their families. And then there’s the Japanese Canadian internment camps, Komagata Maru, the missing and murdered Indigenous women, the recent deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Chantel Moore involving police, the violent beating of Indigenous chief Allan Adam by RCMP, and the list goes on. Sigh.

A last confession before ending this: I was scared to publish this post. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of repeating things that have already been said and by much smarter voices. But worse, scared of saying nothing. And so even though I don’t have a big platform by any means, I want to use what I do have to share my journey of self-reflection and education to be a better anti-racist. We all have a journey to go on to help dismantle systemic racism, to inform ourselves, to be people of kind character. It starts with you and me. It starts now if it hasn’t already. And writing makes it more real, helps keep me accountable to committing and continuing to learn. Thanks for reading, friends.

Of Mother and Child

In light of Mother’s Day recently, I’m revisiting artwork of mothers and children. This relationship is on my mind a lot as a new mom myself, but also because I was gifted this wonderful book of poems for Mother’s Day from a close friend:

Written by Vicki Rivard, the poems land like small, soothing balms to cracked hands. They are sometimes shockingly short. I kept nodding along to the words. Yes, THIS! This is what I need to hear! This is exactly how I feel too! Here’s one example:

the baby rocks the mother too.
her whole world,
in fact.

– epicenter (from Brave New Mama by Vicki Rivard)

I think of this poem when I look at Berthe Morisot’s painting Le Berceau (The Cradle).

Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau, 1872, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

This is my own picture of the painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’m trying to remember what I liked about it enough to snap this photo back before I knew what this earth-shaking experience was like. Maybe because I could recognize a sacred moment: the sleeping babe and the mother who has eyes for nothing else but her child. She is enraptured with this creature, but now I wonder if there is perhaps doubt and fear and anxiety there too. What mother doesn’t cycle through all the emotions?

Mother and child are each other’s worlds. Enmeshed. Interconnected. Morisot shows this by having the mother (Morisot’s sister) and baby make the same gesture with one of their hands: rest it by their face. This creates a diagonal line between mother and child. As the Musée d’Orsay describes in the link above, the diagonal line is further emphasized by the angle of the curtain in the background. In her other hand, the mother holds the bassinet’s veil, putting a screen between the viewer and her child. I love this subtle but powerful gesture. It says everybody out; I’ve got a baby to learn.

Another mother/child Impressionist painting that been a long-time favourite is Coquelicots (Poppy Field) by Claude Monet. This painting is also found in the Musée d’Orsay and like The Cradle, it has a strong diagonal composition. The diagonal runs between the mother and child pairing in the background to the one in the foreground. They are the same mother and child, Monet’s own wife Camille and their son Jean.

Claude Monet, Poppy Field, 1873, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

I’ve always thought it was a bold move to portray the passage of time not through changing scenery but through human movement. Mother and son enjoy a leisurely walk through a poppy field, starting on the crest of a hill. By the time they reach the base, the mother has opened her parasol and her son has picked a bouquet. The viewer’s brain fills the space and time in between, imagining their stroll: boy running ahead a bit, stopping every so often to pick the poppies; Mother getting warm, relishing her son’s delight with the flowers, how they are almost as tall as he is, how he has grown so quickly. Wasn’t he just a baby? Oh what they say is true, I know now: the days are long, the years are short.

It’s impossible to think about mother and child paintings without at least one of the Virgin and Christ Child coming to mind. I saw more of them than I ever wanted to in The Louvre, many with golden halos and unrealistic faces. But that’s not the case with The Virgin and Child drawing by Raphael that I visited in the British Museum last spring.

Raphael, The Virgin and Child, 1510-12. The British Museum. (this is a postcard from the gift shop)

I marvel at Jesus’ fleshy plumpness and think good job, Mary! And good job Raphael—you made him look human. Jesus’ stance is so babylike, leaning in to his mother, his safe place, unlike many Virgin and Child paintings that make Jesus look like a grown man—stiff, formal, and wise beyond his years. Here, he looks like a regular baby. But of course he’s not just a regular baby. Mary cradles him but her eyes betray that they are somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the future and what makes her son different.

The curator of the British Museum writes:

The slight turn of the Virgin’s head away from her child and her lowered eyes eloquently convey a sense of the burden she has to endure, her thoughts clouded, even in moments of such intimacy, by the knowledge of her son’s fate. Such telling details give the composition a psychological depth not found in the quattrocento sculptural models on which it is based.

– British Museum website

Back to Impressionist depictions of mothers and children, I turn now to an American, Mary Cassatt, who has a painting that rifts off Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Christ, such as the one above.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), 1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This painting, titled Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) is at The Met in New York. The curator writes:

Here, Cassatt underscored the importance of the maternal bond by evoking religious art. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo. 

The Met website

The contrapposto stance originated with the Greeks but is famously depicted in Michelangelo’s David. Contrapposto means “opposite” and refers to the way one leg carries most of the weight, while the other is bent.

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04. Accademia Gallery.

Unlike Raphael’s drawing, Cassatt shows an older son looking away, while the mother’s gaze is fixed on her child. While Cassatt’s painting lacks the psychological depth that Raphael’s and Morisot’s have, I appreciate that Cassatt elevated the mother/child relationship, recognizing that these tender, ordinary interactions are important and worthy of being immortalized on canvas.

In a similar way, I am doing this (or attempting to) with my writing. Being a mother has given me a new range of experiences to process through words. I wrote one such poem called “they say you will teach me more than I will ever teach you” when I was pregnant and had the pleasure of finding out this past week that it was the runner-up for a poetry contest put on by Pulp Literature. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she is old enough to understand.

You can hear me read the poem on the video below—the announcement of being runner-up comes at 23:54 and my reading at 42:26.

This Isn’t the Whole Story

After four months postpartum, I am ready to enter the world again. But the world will not let me, nor any of us right now.

life before coronavirus

I am grateful I became a mom before COVID-19 took over. For those difficult newborn months, which Lydia Laceby accurately describes as “The 100 Days of Darkness,” I had help: family and friends coming over and even staying the night to hold my daughter so I could (try to) sleep. Helping me feed her when it was a multiple person job. Bringing us food. Cleaning our house. Keeping me company while I pumped. Calling and texting to check in and offer support.

There was some trauma in my transition to motherhood, but I want to remember that season because even though it was the hardest one I’ve lived, it’s also the season I’ve felt the most loved.

I wonder if I’ll look back on COVID-19 and say the same thing: that it was incredibly hard and people loved each other fiercely in creative and surprising ways. Both/and.

life during coronavirus

There are a number of sites and shows emerging now that share good news stories around the world, such as SGN by actor John Krasinski.

A local Facebook moms group I am part of has requested videos of our children doing silly/funny/cute things to put together for a seniors’ residence to lift their spirits during this acute time of isolation and loneliness.

I FaceTimed with a close friend in Ottawa who said her dad can’t visit their mom in her room at a nursing home anymore where she is suffering from Alzheimers. But he can arrange to come by her window and speak with her through the glass. She said there was something poetic about that image of her parents. A bit like Romeo and Juliet. I could hear the smile in her voice as she pictured it.

I strangely feel more connected with neighbours, chatting over fences, seeing each other on walks, and coming out of our cocoons for the 7pm ritual of applauding health care workers. One baked us paska (Easter bread).

I go for bike rides in this glorious Vancouver spring and look for houses with hearts in the windows that spread love from a distance and provide an outdoor scavenger hunt for cooped up kids.

I ride under blooming cherry blossom trees that are oblivious to a global virus, reminding me there is still beauty in the world.

I hold my daughter close, thankful for her giggles and pterodactyl noises. For the way she smiles with her whole mouth, showing off her two bottom teeth, when we lift her above our heads for flying lessons. For her lack of inhibition in putting any and everything in her mouth like a scientist testing out all the data. The way she can dismantle her activity gym with one fell swoop. For her intense curiosity of hands, straps, and zippers. The way her eyes sparkle when I say the word “gobble.” The way she lies on the change pad, legs bent like a turkey. How she thumps her feet against the bed in excitement after a nap, indicating she’s ready to play.

During these dark days of COVID-19, I find myself needing and wanting to practice gratitude while not ignoring the grief. Grief over the loss of lives, jobs, skin-to-skin connections, routines, stability, you can fill in the blank______. There are collective laments and there are individual ones. My pastor friend wisely reminded me that just because your griefs might not be as bad as other peoples’ (you’ll always find people who have it better and worse than you), it is still legitimate to feel them, name them, and grieve them.

It is Holy Week and I said to my friend how no one should give anything up for Lent this year since we’ve all had to give up too much already because of COVID-19. She wholeheartedly agreed: “This is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented.” And just like that, I was laughing at the silliness of the phrase and how true it felt.

I remind myself that a Lenten season doesn’t last forever, even though when you’re in it, it seems that way.

A friend sat next to my bedside when I was severely suffering from insomnia (despite my daughter being a great sleeper) and spoke similar words of hope over me:

“This isn’t the whole story. Though you’ve been more awake than anyone should be for the past three months, this won’t last forever.”

She was right.

Last but not least, London

My husband and I concluded our UK trip in London, which defied all expectation with sunshine for three days straight! Given this was the last leg of our trip, we lacked the energy to explore many interiors of buildings, but we were both okay with that (this was his first time and my second time in the city).

View of the Thames with the London Eye on the distant right and Houses of Parliament on the left.

We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in the neighbourhood of Pimlico, just south of Westminster. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a walk along the River Thames towards the Houses of Parliament or catch the tube or bus to other parts of central London.

Don’t you love these colourful doors?

I like doing walking tours of a city. London is too big to cover in one tour, so we focused on one close to our neighbourhood—Old Westminster by Gaslight offered by London Walks. It was great!

Houses of Parliament. The Jewel Tower is on the right (more commonly referred to as Big Ben). It was under scaffolding so we couldn’t see much of it.

I learned that the two bridges nearby are contrastingly painted green and red to mimic the colours of the two Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, respectively).

Westminster Bridge (green)
Lambeth Bridge (red)

We walked down a picturesque street featured in the recent Mary Poppins Returns movie (with Emily Blunt) and stood near doors of political intrigue, hobnobbing, and alliances.

As befits its name, gaslight was a big theme of the tour. I forget how many gas lamps there are still in London but this neighbourhood around Parliament has a large concentration of them that are still manually lit.

Another neighbourhood we enjoyed walking around was Bloomsbury. After getting our feet wet in the overwhelmingly massive British Museum, my husband found a bookstore that occupied him for a couple hours and I found a rubber stamp store—Blade Rubber! Turns out they’re the only rubber stamp store in central London. I told the clerks these stores are going by the wayside in Vancouver too, so it was serendipitous to stumble upon one. I naturally bought some rubber stamps to take home for my card-making.

We enjoyed peering at treasures of the written word in The British Library—the first folio of Shakespeare (Henry VI), early editions of the Bible, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Brontë sisters’ tiny cursive to save paper and money, the Magna Carta, The Beatles’ lyrics scribbled on a napkin, and so much more. We were really hoping to catch the Lindisfarne Gospels after our visit to Durham Cathedral but unfortunately, they weren’t on display when we were there.

As art lovers, we did tour the National Gallery one morning and then enjoyed a free lunchtime concert (pianist and violinist) at the adjacent church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, well-known for helping homeless and vulnerable people. This Anglican Church serves a delicious and reasonably priced hot lunch in their crypt!

St. Martin-in-the-Fields is in the thick of the action in Trafalgar Square.
Interior of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Note the unusual cross in the window.
Christ Child sculpture by Michael Chapman at the entrance to the church. From this view, you can see the neoclassical architecture of the National Gallery.

Moving from sacred to secular, my husband and I had watched Paddington before taking this trip and fell in love with this orphaned bear. So we made a pit stop to the tube station whom the bear is named after.

Other transit hubs with notable sculptures include King’s Cross Station where there’s always a line-up to don a scarf and pretend you are off to Hogwarts. We didn’t bother waiting in line although my photograph fools you into thinking you can just go right up to it. You can’t. And they take it away after hours.

Connected to King’s Cross Station is the striking St Pancras railway station with a hotel on one side, seen in the image below.

Here are two famous churches we saw from the outside. On our last night, we decided to keep it simple though and enjoyed a low-key picnic dinner in St James’s Park.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Westminster Abbey

What better way to end our vacation? Green grass, blue skies, and a patch of our own to watch Londoners go by.

Thanks for following with me as I’ve toured you through our trip! If you’ve been to any of these places in England and Scotland, let me know what your impressions were and favourite things you did.

Inverness & Edinburgh

This post wraps up our time in Scotland before spending a few days in London where we caught our flight back to Vancouver.

Inverness

I don’t have too much to say about Inverness. We spent two nights there as a way to break up the road trip from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. I described it as a workaday city in my journal. Our highlight was browsing this charming used bookstore called Leakey’s that used to be a Gaelic church built in the 17th century.

Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness

We also enjoyed walking and crossing the picturesque River Ness on one of the many footbridges and counting all the cathedrals that line the river. The city’s biggest disappointment though is that the prettiest building (the castle at the top of the picture) is actually a courthouse and not worth a visit. But our main focus was driving to the outskirts of the city anyway to do a self-guided whiskey distillery tour (on my husband’s wish list) and to visit the famous Battle of Culloden. You already know what happened after the whiskey distillery tour from my previous post.

View of River Ness with Inverness Castle/courthouse in the distance

Culloden probably holds a lot more significance to Outlander fans as there was paraphernalia of all types in the museum’s gift shop. I’ve never read the books or watched the show, but I still valued learning about this Jacobite uprising in 1745 that resulted in the Highlanders losing a huge part of their population and culture under the English Government (Whigs).

Culloden Battlefield with museum on far right in the distance

The museum is very thorough, worthy of repeat visits. From a curatorial perspective, it was interesting how the layout of the space made you choose a side to follow from beginning to end—either the Jacobites or the Whigs. Naturally, most visitors chose the Jacobites. Is it because we were in Scotland? Or because it’s human nature to vote for the underdog and defy the Man? Who knows. You could easily go a second time and walk through the other person’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a lot to try and read both sides simultaneously. I credit the museum for including both perspectives and trying to be as unbiased as possible. They addressed the complicated nature of this battle and how, for whatever reasons, some Highlanders chose to fight on the Government side and some English fought with the Highlanders. It reminded me how each event in history is riddled with complications and untidy categories.

Jacobite memorial

The battlefield outside the museum, however, is a little less subtle. This big gravestone shown above commemorates the Jacobites who died. The Government men get no such large memorial, just small stones set in the grass.

Memorial for the McDonald clan

Edinburgh

I had the good fortune of visiting Edinburgh ten years ago, and in much better weather than my husband and I had this time around. Edinburgh was one of the only places on our 3-week trip where it rained. Luckily we didn’t have a huge list of sights to see as the purpose of going there was to visit my brother and his family who moved there last year.

The iconic Edinburgh Castle that sits on top of an old volcano
A misty Edinburgh from the top of the castle

After a quick visit to the castle, my husband and I explored the Scottish National Gallery housed in a beautiful neoclassical building. We were impressed with the number of works by Scottish painters, many of whom we had never heard of before.

We wandered the winding city streets. I gravitated to photographing those with colour to liven up the grey day.

Since I missed this spot last time, we made sure to grab a bite to eat at the elephant house, where J.K. Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter novels while staring out a corner window towards Edinburgh Castle (thus inspiring the idea for Hogwarts).

Harry Potter graffiti in the washrooms

The weather cleared up our final day there and so we took a moderately strenuous hike up Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the many views from this extinct volcano.

Trail up Arthur’s Seat
You might be able to make out Edinburgh Castle on a hill in the distance, slightly right of centre
The water in the distance is the Firth of Forth

I also stopped by The Writers’ Museum (a favourite place from 10 years ago) and snapped pics of the evocative quotes etched into the pavement.