Abbaye de Fontenay


The first time I visited the Abbaye de Fontenay the old walls were dripping with blood-red creeper. Afternoon sun warmed the cloisters, and yellow roses bloomed outside the old dormitory. The chapel was silent but for the footsteps of a few other visitors, and faintly green from the light coming in through the high windows.


The second time, months later, we awoke in Burgundy to the first flurries of morning snow, and drove for hours as these drifts gathered into a full storm. At last we arrived in the little valley where Fontenay is hidden away, stepping through the doors a mere fifteen minutes before it closed for three hours over lunch.


The place was empty but for the woman at the ticket desk, and we plunged into it like giddy children, excited by the snow and solitude. A medieval Christmas chant played in the chapel, lit by softest candlelight. Melting snow dripped from the cloister roofs, and the gardens were slippery with frost. Smoke wound out of a chimney and the only sounds were our own footsteps over the gravel paths as we ran from room to room to see it all, and our breathing as we paused to take it in.






In Stone

The interior perimeter of the Oxford Museum of Natural History is guarded by the stone effigies of various “men of Science”, from Aristotle to Darwin. These pedestaled figures serve as charming company to the casual wanderer, and there is nothing I like so much about them as their hands – folded, gesticulating, or holding the tools of their art or the objects by which they are recognized (Newton, for instance, bears an apple in his palm). A brief tour:











Afar, From the Archives, Home

Notes from a Wild Childhood


My sister and I were feral throughout much of our childhood. My most vivid memories are of cooking food over a campfire by a tepee out in a far, often-frightening, wooded corner of our land; of running through the dappled forests around our house wearing a billowing, homemade gown; of climbing up to the roof by a precarious route that involved an old stone wall and electrical wires to read up in the treetops; of dancing barefoot in the summer rains; of falling asleep on the screen porch to the sound of cicadas; and of hours upon hours spent drawing, painting and writing.

I was, at times, a little careless regarding personal safety in my unguarded activities—I broke my arm, stepped on scorpions, and once jumped off a roof—but I shied away from the truly dangerous, and generally erred on the side of safety. I was rarely bored; I relished every moment of free time I had. I resented school immensely and loved nothing so much as the potential of early Saturday morning. My imagination ran even more wild than I did, and around the age of perhaps six I began to experience the endless flow of words and stories that has yet to abate.

When I was eleven, I somehow argued my way into home schooling. My weeks lost whatever structure school imposed. In addition to the usual subjects, I read voraciously, took art classes, and wrote my first full-length novel (a charming little tale of revenge and friendship). I worked, even then, with the sort of self-motivation that would have never been possible if my time had been entirely accounted for, and with the kind of imagination that can only come of rampant freedom, physical and mental. It was the same impulse that led me to Oxford and into freelance writing, and I believe the same native drive to create (born out of a similarly wild childhood) that drew me to my husband, who spent his youth fashioning exceptionally accurate period weapons and woodland forts.

Of course, we needn’t confine our free roaming to childhood. Plane tickets and passports are all very well, but yards and parks, not to mention blanket forts, suited our purposes then—so why not now?


Opus 40


Opus 40 is the life’s work of sculptor Harvey Fite, who created the sprawling, labyrinthine structure from an old bluestone quarry. Inspired by Mayan ruins, the project began as a place for Fite to display his sculptures before becoming very much a sculpture in itself. For the next thirty-seven years, with little more than hand tools and ancient techniques, he single-handedly toiled over the massive six-acre architectural marvel, before dying of a fall while working on it, three years short of its anticipated forty-year completion.

All this does little to convey any sense of the place itself. It’s a beautiful, circuitous maze in rough hewn grey stone, with standing obelisks and resting pools of murky water. It’s warm rock and deep, cool shadow, winding stairs and steep ramps. Seen from above, it looks smooth and sculptural, but down in it you become lost amid sharp stones and narrow passageways.

Architectural Digest called it “a cousin of Stonehenge and the long since vanished Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” I found it evocative of the stone houses at Skara Brae. But there’s nothing quite like it, and if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Saugerties, New York, go wander.







Photos, with the exception of the top image, by a dear friend.

Afar, California

The Tea Garden


There’s something gently meditative about tea gardens, with their perfume of camellia flowers, the sound of perpetually running water, and the meandering pathways. San Francisco’s is a particularly fine rendition, with carefully pruned trees, painted structures, and a pergola where you can sip the tea in question. I’ve visited a few times, the latest with an old friend on a sunny January afternoon. We wandered and reminisced and, when all our stories were told for the time being, sat quietly together in the companionable, peaceful way that only old friends can.







Afar, California

To the Sea


“Some years ago- never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick