Canterbury: I couldn’t have imagined a better place to hold a conference titled Re-Enchanting the Academy. Although cars run on the narrow streets and the ninety-degree angles of contemporary buildings can be found throughout the city, one can feel the Chaucerian age palpably. Cobblestones, thatched roofs, white walls between dark wooden beams that seem to bow out at the middle, as if the centuries are weighing on the building like a elderly man carries a potbelly. Canals and bridges, gardens and stone walls, crawling ivy touched by the crimson blush of early autumn—the air seemed to tingle with enchantment, but an old, slow enchantment, one that has settled deep into the stones along with the overgrown moss.
I came in to Canterbury after a non-stop flight from San Francisco to London Heathrow, and an adventure of trains and tubes, until I was deposited at the Canterbury East station as I approached twenty-four hours of being awake. Trailing my little suitcase I walked up the exceedingly narrow cobbled sidewalks to a hostel I’d booked ahead. A brief wander into town later and my first cup of English tea, I fell into a jet-lagged sleep.
Or tried to. For a variety of reasons I had a terrible night at the hostel and, desperate for a sense of peace and solitude, I checked out early the next morning and managed to find a lovely hotel right in the heart of Canterbury. For the rest of my stay I was grateful to myself for making this decision, so that I might have the space, comfort, and rest to engage fully in the conference. I must say, something about that first difficult night has made all the pleasures of the rest of my trip so far all the sweeter.
After getting my hotel situation sorted, I had a few hours to myself to wander in the morning sun. My feet carried me to the Westgate Towers that have stood at the entrance to the old city for six hundred years. Through the gate I found myself on a bridge over the Stour River, and stretching away on either side of the river were the beautiful Westgate Gardens, a meandering array of lawns, flowers, stone arches, twisting trees, and pathways. I even came across a California redwood, who had adapted to the English soil by growing up with curves and twists, rather than tall and straight like the redwoods on my home coast. I also found my way to Greyfriars Chapel, a small chapel built in 1267 that spans a narrow river.
Eventually the time came to meet Patrick Curry, one of the keynote speakers of the conference, for lunch at the Goods Shed near the Canterbury West station. Goods Shed is a large, barn-like structure filled with stands where piles of colorful organic produce are arranged, and counters selling cheeses, breads, meats, fish, and deserts. Moments later Patrick and his partner walked through the door, and we sat down to an exquisite lunch together: cappuccino, elderflower elixir, a vegetarian platter of grilled squash and eggplant, tomato toast, creamy soup, poached egg, and several other tasty arrangements. Among our topics discussed was Patrick’s new book, Deep Roots in a Time of Frost: Essays on Tolkien, of which he kindly gave me a copy.
Lunch led us straight to the conference, which Patrick opened with his talk: “The Enchantment of Learning and the Fate of Our Times.” He addressed the need to leave the door open to enchantment, but not to try to force or tame it. One cannot make enchantment happen, one can only cultivate the conditions that allow for its occurrence. With that note to start on we set off on three days of presentations, usually two tracks running simultaneously. The conference was held primarily in St. Martin’s Priory at Canterbury Christ Church University, a gorgeous brick building surrounded by truly enchanting gardens, filled with roses, apple trees, and even a labyrinth set up for one of the conference workshops.
Presentations ranged from psychogeography to depth psychology, the Book Fairy (that moment when you encounter just the right passage or phrase that sets you off on a new train of thought or research), astrology and astrological music, poetry and myth, and the need to re-invite the feminine, the body, and the Earth back into the academy. One issue I brought up in relation to some of the material was the need to address patriarchy both inside and outside the academy, without shaming men who want to be allies, and without recreating an essentialist gender binary. Through this conversation I encountered a wonderful astrologer, who happened to have been friends with my Dad for twenty years. We found that not only did we share a common astrological world view, but her sister is also a harpist! As we chatted together walking merrily home at sunset I felt like I had somehow found my fairy godmother.
My own presentation took place on Saturday afternoon, the third on a panel with the Jungians Jean Hinson Lall and Roderick Main, both of whom I was honored to follow. I presented on my dissertation work, Jung’s and Tolkien two Red Books, and found I had a receptive and supportive audience with wonderful questions and feedback. For me the dialogue carried on long into the evening and the conference dinner.
The magnificent Canterbury Cathedral was just a street away from my hotel, so I woke up early Sunday morning to attend communion, primarily from the desire to see and feel the cathedral from the inside in a role that wasn’t a tourist. The air was so still as I approached, my footsteps echoing on the cobblestones and my breath visible in the morning air. Entering inside I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the building, the long stone steps leading higher and further into the nave. This cathedral was founded by St. Augustine in 597 BCE when he came over from Rome to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and over the centuries it was expanded and rebuilt, including in 1070 after a major fire destroyed much of the cathedral. I felt a profound mixture of emotions, in part inspired by the minimal attendance in relation to the grandeur of the building. Turning inward I could feel the centuries upon centuries of people who had come here to worship, able to see and hear in my imagination the full crowds that once would have overflowed this hall. Yet now all was nearly quiet.
Ritual. If we are to revive enchantment we need ritual, but it must be ritual that is meaningful for who we are now. Perhaps for many we are in a time between rituals, seeking the meaning that will enchant.
Soon the conference was coming to a close. I was amazed to find that many of the ideas brought forward, presented by individuals from several parts of the world, were frequently ones I had encountered in some form at CIIS. Over the course of the weekend I came to value at a new level the education I am getting at my little institute in California. Yet to engage with so many others specifically on these topics was invaluable.
A final stop at the Goods Shed once again for a piece of quiche, and Patrick and I hopped on the train to London. From there new explorations would soon ensue…