On Wednesday, August 26, 2009, at approximately 1:00 PM, Becky Boop realized a daydream – to see the place with so much history, a site of religious pilgrimage for Christians everywhere, that had been established in 1090. But it is not so much the spirituality of the Abbey that appealed to me, though there’s no denying the awesome beauty of the accoutrements of this house of worship. No, what really quickened my pulse all this years was the sheer weight of the historical and literary importance of the site: the burial place of countless kings, queens and other important government persons, scientific figures, as well as scholarly geniuses by the dozens.
It was a stereotypically rainy and cool London day. Jessica and I rose at the Park Plaza Victoria and prepared to check out and swap locations. Eddie had been kind enough to book us a last evening’s stay at the Marriott London County Hall, a 5-star palace of a place inches away from the London Eye, and a few short paces from Big Ben and the Abbey. My husband is a Platinum Marriott Rewards member, one of the few benefits of all his weekly traveling, so the ostentation in which we found ourselves was absolutely free. Both Jessica and I grew up relatively lower middle class, so try as we might, we could hardly contain ourselves when the benefits of our Platinum stay were listed for us: turndown service, evening chocolates, access to the spa and the 4th floor executive lounge, where we were able to get snacks, drinks and frothy hot chocolate 24 hours a day. The hotel, as the name might imply, is a former seat of government in the City, and a breathtaking piece of architecture, inside and out.
Once we were able to subdue our joy in our new surroundings (sated by a cup of the aforementioned hot chocolate), we regrouped to head toward the Abbey. I had not yet recovered from my keen disappointment in missing it the day before, and I would not be denied again.
I knew in advance that touring Westminster Abbey was likely to be the highlight of my London visit, and yet, even I was surprised as I found myself getting choked up before we even reached the ticket counter. No sooner did I cross the threshold than I was greeted with monuments as far as the eye could travel in either direction. The weight of the importance of the place began instantly to impress itself upon me. Jessica looked at me as I prepared to pay our entrance fees and asked, “Are you crying?” There was no denying that I was, but I collected myself quickly as we headed toward the booth to pickup our audio guides.
I cannot do justice in describing the feast for the eyes that awaits a visitor to the Abbey, whatever your religion, or even if you have none at all. In America, where nearly everything is less than 100 years old, we simply have no frame of reference for a Millennium’s worth of figures, events, coronations, decrees, bombings and wars. It’s everywhere, in every pore of the site, and to walk through the Abbey, it is impossible not to feel the presence of all those who walked the halls and chapels before. I was reverent and subdued as I listened intently to all that was described in my headphones. I lost another tear or two when I happened upon the graves of Queen Elizabeth I, a figure who reigned during many of Shakespeare’s greatest years, as well as King Henry V, the subject of one of the Bard’s plays, and a personal favorite of mine. But these silent tears were subtle, few and easily wiped away.
Finally, we made our way over to Poet’s Corner, the famed burial and monument section of so many great literary figures. I started to feel an adrenaline rush as we moved that direction, but my heart, quite literally, burst as at last I stood on top and in front of the tangible evidence of centuries of authorial greatness: the Bronte sisters, Keats, Shelley, Blake, Jane Austen, and so many others. Curiously enough, it was the realization that I stood atop Charles Dickens that finally triggered my breakdown. I started crying copiously, actually having to make an effort to choke back my own sobs. Again folks, I am not writing this for dramatic effect. It is, I assure you, quite accurate. Just ask Jessica who I noticed inching away from me subtly as my breakdown continued. I am sure I looked either a) crazy or b) as though I were having a truly miserable time. I may be nuts, but the latter half of that presumption could not be further from the truth. I was overwhelmed with awe and joy on a level I have never experienced to this point in my life. Even if I wanted to put an end to my display, I couldn’t. Heavy loads of pain and disappointment I know how to compartmentalize, but obviously, a large rush of elation was a shock to my jaded system. I may have been embarrassed myself if I were not so engrossed.
I have called myself a writer for awhile now, but it wasn’t until this moment that I truly realized how much I love reading, and my utmost worship for those who have the gift of the pen. I am adequate at times, but my smallness was never more apparent than it was standing before figures I have adored all my life, the people who have entertained, inspired and kept me company as I grew and matured. It was at that moment, as the tears rushed from my eyes, that I swore to rededicate myself to the craft. After a rough summer, it was the kick in the pants I sorely needed, a refocusing of purpose.
As I tried to compose myself, Jessica rejoined me in front of the Abbey’s museum. Tears continued to fall though, and even I began to find it a bit much, but there was nothing to be done. As I looked at some of the funeral effigies of deceased monarchs, Jessica sneaked off to purchase me a souvenir: a book entitled Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards, a shorthand guide to the history of the British monarchy. Touched by my friend’s tremendous thoughtfulness, even after the humiliation I had just put her through in Poet’s Corner, I told her I couldn’t look inside the bag until after we left, or I might possibly die.
We finished the tour and departed the building at last, but my heart continued to pound and for hours after the visit. I couldn’t think or speak of it without welling up again. I am not sure I will ever be able to describe what I saw and felt without tearing up. Although Jessica declared me “the biggest nerd” she had ever seen, and took several photos of my puffy and streaked face as we walked out of the Abbey, she was nonetheless completely understood that I had just had what amounted to a religious experience for me.
The day continued with a walk along the Thames where we saw street performers, gambling, families, beaches and stalls of old books we had the pleasure of rifling through. In the evening, I had dinner at a fabulous Cuban restaurant in Islington with Jessica and her adorable husband Nick. Afterward, we met some old friends, Kedda and Tiade, choirmates of mine and Jessica’s from our high school days, for drinks. I hadn’t seen these gals in 13 years and in moments, we were laughing and remembering as old chums do.
It was a perfect day. I know I am cynical and tend to spread a fair amount of pessimism and gloom on this blog. But yesterday was one of the happiest days I have ever known. The frustrations and disappointments of Tuesday were utterly forgotten. Had I gone through this experience with a lesser friend, I might have felt shame. But as it was, I felt so comfortable with Jess, I was able to laugh at myself, just let go for once and stop being a control freak.
I am to fly home today. In a few short hours, I will hop the Tube for the ride back to Heathrow. I am not ready to go, even if I miss my husband, cats and home. But I will be back. London and I are one. I am not sure how I know this, but I do, and I know it somewhere deep inside. We are not finished with each other yet.