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  • Joan Schweighardt

Five Directions Press Authors Dish: Special Places

What a lovely topic 5DP Authors have chosen to dish about this month. Once we got going, we realized that a special place can be anything from an ancient structure rich in significance in a faraway world to the tract along a sheer cliff face, to the wild blue yonder itself, to the little bit of heaven that thrives in every well-loved reading nook.

C. P. Lesley: Historians live with one foot in the past. We are time travelers by nature, dipping into the diaries of long-dead lovers, investigating centuries-old murders, tracing the paths of ancient political conspiracies. Sure, we pretend that it’s all about the documents and conveying the truth of past societies, but at heart we’re gossips—maybe not the cliometricians, with their focus on grain yields and price indices, but most of us. How much more true that is of historical novelists, who mine the dusty records and dry tomes for drama and story.

Our travel to the past takes place only by proxy. Yet at odd, unscripted moments it happens. For me it happened in the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin, once the private chapel of the tsars. Unlike much of the Kremlin, the churches of Cathedral Square and the Faceted Palace that fronts on them look much as they did in the time of my novels (1534–1547). Of the five surviving cathedrals, the Annunciation is my favorite—a tiny, exquisite jewel box of a church. Its iconostasis displays the works of medieval Russia’s greatest painters set in a gold frame, and every inch of the walls and ceilings is covered with religious paintings.

It was the early 1980s. The heavy hand of communism still restricted foreign tourists and determined where they could go. The Annunciation wasn’t on the regular list. But because I spoke fluent Russian and had a student visa, I could get in anywhere ordinary Russians could go. So I walked into the Annunciation Cathedral. It was a weekday, and I was the only person there.

I stood in the center of the nave, knowing that the man whose career I’d spent years studying had once worked and prayed there. He was a priest in the Annunciation Cathedral, and he supervised the restoration of its paintings after the Great Moscow Fire of 1547. Although no services had been held in the church since the 1917 revolution, as I stood there, surrounded by dim light and silence, I could almost hear the deep bass voices of the priests, smell the incense, see the flickering candles. In my imagination I could travel in time. I’ve never forgotten it.

Gabrielle Mathieu: In my dreams, machines chase me, intent on imprisoning me. To get away from them, I rise into the air, heading towards the vastness of space. I never fall in my dreams. Gravity has no power there.

In my incarnate life, I have few fears. I like spiders; I’m not self-conscious about going out alone and have even been known to jog at night. But whereas I never fall in my dreams, I fear falling in real life. I was a clumsy child. I learned the hard way that unmodulated speed results in skinned knees and bruised elbows. Skis, sleds, bumpy downhill bike rides—I avoid them all.

It’s surprising then that, lured by photos, I signed up the editor-spouse, myself, and another couple for a canyoning tour on the island of Madeira. Madeira, located about 300 miles from the west coast of Africa, teems with flowers and mist, in spite of the fact that the annual rainfall is only 25 inches. Its canyons offer a microclimate, verdant and moist, and many are only accessible by abseiling (descending a rock face while attached to a rope).

After the first few abseils, I had complete confidence in our tour guides, who fixed the ropes for us. I was on a sheer cliff face, descending with my body positioned horizontally, my feet pushing off the rock, when I realized that—just as in my dreams—gravity had no power over me. A great peace filled me, connecting me to the rushing water below, the boundless sky above, the tree-filled shore, and even the hard stones on the banks. I felt embraced by the island, cradled in insubstantial arms which nevertheless would keep me safe.

It was then I realized how anxious I sometimes am, with my striving, and my constant movement. Had you asked me before, I would have denied it. It was only when I was at peace, suspended high in space over a pool full of boulders, that I could accept my insecurities.

I flew, though I was awake, and I did not fall.

Joan Schweighardt: Deeply inspired by Gabrielle Mathieu’s descent into the verdant canyons of Madeira, I offer three sonnets describing my ascent, during my first parasailing experience:


Postmenopausal, overweight, and torn

Between regard of drab reviews and stale

Relationships, I find myself one morn

Advancing down the dock to parasail.

Harnessed, waiting for sail to swallow wind,

I know somewhere besides the sky I’ll soar.

When did I last ascend? I can’t begin

To think what that will be like anymore.

I’m laughing then, my head thrown back, the sun

So close I might be Icarus on the rise,

Senseless, except to know shackles are gone

And words to name the space I occupy.

Could this be an epiphany? I ask,

And lose at once the moment to the task.

Ah, no. I see clearly in my mind’s eye

A woman hover’ing a bit above the swell,

A spectacle perhaps to passers-by,

As Icarus must have been before he fell.

Yet later when I see the mate prepare

To reel me in like some colossal carp,

And minutiae of my descent I hear,

Its significance remains a world apart.

I am a child on a swing again,

Able easily to dismiss the sound

Of mother’s voice calling, “Come in” again,

By watching the groove I scrape in the ground.

(I blocked it out; that was within my range,

Vaguely aware but that my mood had changed.)

I’m falling seaward slowly now. Like terns

The boys on the beach run from waves so high

Their mothers must congregate in the churn

To talk, to watch their youths, their youth, bound by.

Like terns, my sky dreams slip away as well

And marching in to take their place the pain,

The rout, the doubt, the chill, the need, the fear

That I may never reach for light again.

But the Captain is a prankster, I see.

He slows the boat so all at once I sink.

The tern boys stop to laugh and point at me.

A fitting ending for my flight, I think.

But then he gives it gas and up I go,

A fragment of an unsurpassed tableau.

Denise Allan Steele: After thirty years of my children asking “Mum, where’s my bag? key? lunch? Can you take me and my four pals to … and pick us up at midnight? Can you babysit for a week as we got great tickets to this band that no one’s ever heard of? Mum, can you lend me fifty quid/dollars? And can I borrow your car/shoes? Mum, I’m in the principal’s office/police station…” After all that, my favorite place is … solitude!

This little chair that I can swing backwards and forwards on, a cup of tea in a nice china cup with a saucer, maybe a bar of delicious Lindt chocolate and a good book … And just me … and my dogs, who can’t speak and who think I’m beautiful and clever.

The silence, the tranquility, the solitude … heaven!

Image credits: “Annunciation Cathedral,” © Petar Milošević, “Parasailing” © Adrián Cerón—both own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Abseiling” © Gabrielle Mathieu; “Reading Nook” © Denise Allan Steele.

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