Monday, 6 January 2014

It's Been a Long Ride

On the 4th, it was ten years ago since I joined the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza. My cousin had made me aware of it; he was an early fan, as appears from the fact that he was still able to take the name ‘Denethor II’. I registered on the forum while my family had gone to church and I was left behind to take care of my baby sister. Some of the names I tried were taken, including ‘Turgon’, so I came up with a variant: Turgonian.

I owe a big debt of gratitude to the Plaza. It stimulated my curiosity, taught me to think in an interdisciplinary way, and awakened an interest in the history of ideas (a preoccupation that helped lead me home to the Catholic Church). Moreover, at the Plaza I was continually encouraged to keep writing poetry, knowing that people would read it and leave a potentially valuable review. Gerontian and Silendra in particular would write in-depth reviews that helped me to improve.

Another Plaza poet was Scea. At her blog At the Wicket Gate, she impresses on her readers that they should not get too complacent or stuck in a comfort zone. There is value, for instance, in travel that is accompanied by ‘uncertainty and discomfort’.

Because Saturday seemed to be an entirely free day, I decided to take Scea’s advice and do a bit of cycling. Before lunch, I looked up how to go from the seminary to Leiden, then to Alphen aan de Rijn, on to Aalsmeer and back again to the seminary. A trip of approximately 80 km, or 50 miles, through flat country. It was an excellent day, since the weather was mild for January and it wasn’t raining.

I had intended to go after lunch, before 2pm. Unfortunately, I got too involved in a game of Battle for Middle-earth, and therefore didn’t leave until almost 3.30pm, when the sky was already getting darker. Life Lesson One: don’t dawdle; favourable circumstances are not permanent.

Not very far along the way, the rain started and I sought shelter against a wooden shed. Thankfully, it lasted only a few minutes and did not return to trouble me further.

Because of the anniversary, I thought of a poem to post on the Plaza by way of commemoration. What came into my head, I jotted down on my Samsung mobile (the postmodern equivalent of the breast-pocket notebook). The poem automatically took the form of a sonnet; its familiarity makes it easy to write while you’re doing something else, such as cycling. I had one line before the rain started:

This womb, this playground of inquiring minds

I remember sitting at our garden table in Summer, with a Tolkien book and a college notebook, writing down every question that popped into my mind for discussion on the Plaza. This was before I went to university. My mother said that if I would approach my future studies the same way, I’d be a good student. I never got so involved in my studies, though.

The path to Leiden stretched alongside a canal. Before the trains came, horse-drawn boats would use this passage to ferry between Haarlem and Leiden. To my left was a line of water, with the occasional boathouse or boat. Fields lay to my right. All very flat.

I arrived in Leiden around 4.45pm. When I got to Central Station, it was completely dark. It would have been easy to take the train back to Hillegom and ride home; this would have taken about twenty minutes. But I was not tired yet, only a little hungry, and I had decided to make a longer journey. As Gimli said, ‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.’ Besides, I only had three lines of my poem.

When I had visited the place in Leiden that holds special memories for me, my road turned east, towards Alphen. One long and curving high road lies between the two towns, a dyke built to contain the Rhine. Somewhere halfway, I got rather tired, slowed down and started huffing and puffing. As Alphen came closer, I regained my motivation and speed.

It felt good when I finally got there (about 6.15pm), and I took a detour into the town to get something to eat. At first it was difficult to find something; all I saw were big shops, closed and dark, that sold cars and furniture and other inedible things. After some more deviations, I finally hit upon a Subway. Joy! I devoured a tuna sandwich and a bag of chips. Then I asked for a coffee. The girls behind the counter were talking about how dark it was outside, ‘as if it’s night’. I sat back, stretched my legs, enjoyed the coffee and wrote another stanza for my poem. Halfway there.

But I could not linger forever at this Lothl√≥rien Subway; I had to go on to Aalsmeer. It’s a place where I’d never been before and which I knew nothing about, except that a community of Benedictine sisters had recently taken up residence there. Mounting my bike again, I felt a certain soreness in my saddle parts, not having much of a natural cushion there.

I went on and got lost. At least, I could not find my way. Since I knew that part of the path lay between the Aarkanaal and the Zegerplas, however, it seemed safe to follow the signs to Ter Aar and Zegersloot. Later it turned out that this was a roundabout way, but at least the cyclist path ran parallel to the main road; the shortcut might have been a bit dodgy after dark, though no doubt beautiful by day.

At one crossroads, I did not know what to do. Here my breast-pocket notebook became my guide, as I connected to the Internet with my Samsung mobile. It was the first time I used it without WiFi; my brother had disabled the data connection for me to prevent me from accidentally spending a lot of money. To tell you the truth, I was astounded that it worked: there was a sudden awareness that there were all sorts of invisible powers and signals in the air around me. Life Lesson Two: even in solitude, we are never out of the range of the Great Network.

After a few kilometres, I was able to consult a map. It turned out that I had taken the East Canal Road rather than its Western counterpart. I was going north, in the right direction, and the next town would be Papenveer (Papists’ Ferry).

Between Papenveer and Kudelstaart, the path veered away from the highway and got very dark. It was nice and quiet and I was able to think of a few more lines for the poem. In Kudelstaart I stopped to write them down. It was very still; I heard only distant airplanes, flowing water and a faint ticking noise. A couple of silent ducks floated on the canal.

The most beautiful part of the Dutch countryside, by the way, are the old houses. They seem to say: ‘Here is a broad space to live the good life.’ With gardens, fences, little stone steps, pools and a proper distance from the road, they are a pleasure to behold.

Finally: Aalsmeer! I rode into its shopping centre, brightly lit with Christmas decorations, and out of it again. It was around 10pm; time to go home.

But that was not so easy. For what seemed the longest time, I rode on the Aalsmeerderdijk, with a growing fear that I’d missed the only road that would take me home in a straight line. Finally I came to its end, where the Aalsmeerderdijk became the Leimuiderdijk at a T-intersection. Neither of those was the road I was looking for.

For some moments I was at a profound loss, until my eyes fell on an inobtrusive sign that bore the saving name: the third road of the T-intersection was the Bennebroekerweg I wanted. Excellent! I had no stomach left for a long detour, and thankfully the architect who planned this road had no sense of the beauty of curves. We’ll do your ‘Five miles meandering with a mazy motion’ some other time, Coleridge.

Straight though it was, it was also very long – long enough to finish the poem. I stopped halfway to write the last lines down, pleased with the Milton quote that sounded like a Tolkien allusion. When I got back on the bike, the saddle soreness was more evident. If John Keats could have seen me, he might have remarked that I made sweet moan.

Through Hoofddorp and Zwaanshoek I went, on to Bennebroek – almost home! Vogelenzang … the last curve … the last yard … and thankfully I got home before midnight, around 11.30pm: just in time to post the finished poem on the Plaza. Here it is:

Ten years Plaza

This womb, this playground of inquiring minds,
I found ten years ago: much did it teach
Of dialogue and wordcraft of all kinds,
Applied to lands safely beyond the reach

Of felt perplexity and direct fear.
Wise and good friends I found in these abodes
Gave aid to shape my soul in words, and here
Began some truly unexpected roads.

And on these roads I came on something strange:
Some of the icons vanished into faces,
Revealing greater depth and further range,
Beauty and kindness in the widening spaces.

To Tolkien and the Plaza, friends. Be blessed!
Let’s go our ways; our circuit meets full West.

(P.S. The very same night I found my old ‘Plaza sister’ again on Facebook!)

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