ME AND…The Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica

First of all, you need to know I’m not Catholic. I don’t go to church. When I was a kid, our mother sent my sister and me to Lutheran Sunday school, but we didn’t attend church as a family.  If I stayed overnight at a girlfriend’s house and her family were church goes, I went with them. One summer, the parents of my best playmate signed her up for Bible School and I convinced my parents to sign me up, too. I remember the pleasure I took in using the box of eight crayons I’d been given to color an illustration of the Bible Story lesson each day.

Secondly, you need to know I think of myself as a spiritual person. Some of my experiences have convinced me this life is not the beginning or the end of being. In particular, I’d mention giving birth to our daughter Katie and our son Aaron. Cosmic to say the least. How else to explain feeling the presence of my father standing next to me after my brother-in-law Pete informed me that my father had just passed away. My mother, who had only a few hours to live, told me my father had come to visit her while I was off fetching a glass of water for her.

Why all the disclaimers and testimonials? They serve as a context for my visit last year at Easter time to the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica. I was interested in them from an art and architecture point of view.

The Sistine Chapel: Silly me. I thought the Sistine Chapel was going to be an little, intimate place about the size of chapel attached to a hospital. Wrong. It’s very large and those famous ceilings, painted by Michelangelo, are up very, very high. The brilliance of the colors surprised me. No disrespect intended, but I immediately flashed back to my my box of eight crayons and the Bible School pictures I’d colored.  There were so many panels on the ceiling, illustrating so many stories from the Bible, it was difficult to find the most famous, The Creation of Adam. My heart skipped a beat when I saw it.  The painting is as spectacular as the moment it depicts.  The walls of the Sistine Chapel are also covered with Michelangelo’s frescos and, at this lower level, it was possible to appreciate his unquestionable talent. Any further thoughts of a box of eight crayons vanished. I particularly loved the tapestries that also decorated the walls. I was able to get a close look at them and saw the threads made of spun gold, which made them a glow even in the filtered light.

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Saint Peter’s Basilica: How can I describe the quite unexpected feelings and thoughts that overwhelmed me upon entering? Simple words and relying on your imaginations might be the best way to do it. Breath takingly big. (730 feet long, 500 feet wide, by 448 feet high!)  Humbling. Its size reminded me that God is infinitely big  and, in the scheme of things, I am infantesimally small. A lesson worth keeping in mind.

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Familiar. For years, as I’d wrapped Christmas presents for our kids, I’d watched the broadcast of the Pope celebrating mid-night mass in Saint Peter’s. I looked at the familiar Bernini altar, the massive pillars, the seemingly draped canopy, and Saint Peter’s Chair. Quite surprising was the glow from the “Gloria,” which couldn’t be seen when the Basilica was lighted up for the TV cameras. With sunlight beaming through the Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, into the subdued natural light of the interior, it was well…glorious. I looked up into the magnificent dome. Off to the side, in a niche, sat Michelangelo’s Pieta. Michelangelo managed to carve the cold, hard marble into the supple folds of Mary’s garments and Christ’s limp body. The sculpture is massive and the moment it captures is enormous and, at the same time, deeply personal.

 

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Our group left by way of Saint Peter’s Square, which is defined by the graceful curves of colonnades that seem to embrace the open space. Our guide pointed out the balcony where the Pope appears on certain occasions. And, of course, the outside of the magnificent dome. We stopped at the souvenir shops. I waited outside, too moved by what I’d seen to look for something to take home.  (Which I regret now.)  I couldn’t help thinking, silly me.  As it turned out, the Sistine Chapel atctually was a little, intimate place – compared to Saint Peter’s Basilica.

 

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ME AND…paying it forward

I wasn’t taught phonics when learning to read.  As a result, I had a hard time in fourth grade when school changed from learning to read to reading to learn.  My grades plummeted.  Added to that, I was a Baby Boomer. Typical class size was 37 pupils.  Repeating a grade was out of the question.  So I was pushed along, learning as best I could.

Enter Senator Lyndon Bains Johnson and his Great Cities program.  It provided funds to improve reading levels in metropolitan areas.  (At that time, we lived in the city of Milwaukee.)  A tiny bit of that money went to pay the second grade teacher at my school to come in early to teach me (a seventh grader!) phonics.  By the time the school year was over, I’d become an excellent reader.

My teachers told my parents I shoul take college prep courses in high school.  I was thrilled and worried.  I told my parents I knew how tight money was and it was okay if I had to take secretarial training and get a job in stead of going to college.  My dad said, “You take the college prep classes and get the grades.  I’ll get the money.”

I did.  And he did.  I graduated with a liberal arts degree from Wayne State University with a second major in education.  My first job included teaching a tenth grade class in what was then called “remedial reading.”   About that time, my father, who had to quit school at a very young age, was offered a job as a State Mediator.   Govenor William Milliken was astonished to learn my father had not gone to high school.  He liked my father’s work in labor relations and said he would hold the job while my father got his GED.

For weeks, I sat at the kitchen table in my parents’ house and tutored him in phonics and five other subjects.  Then he took the GED exam.  He called me when the envelope with the results arrived.  He wanted me to come over to be there when he opened it.  Inside was his GED!  That was, and still is, one of the proudest moments of my life.  My dad thanked me for my help. I thanked him for my education, which prepared me to help him.   Driving home, I also silently thanked the second grade teacher and LBJ.

The latter was a bit tough because then President Johnson was Comander-in-Chief of the armed services.  In effect, he had been the one who sent Dave to Vietnam, where he was at the time.

Flash forward almost fifty years.  Our grandson Calum had a very hard time in kindergarten.  He used to hide under his desk to avoid being called on in class.  With the expert guidence of Dr. Zwi Steindler, in Irvine, Katie and Joe had Calum tested and qualified for an Individual Educational Plan and put him on ridalin.  (Which I highly recomend after proper tests.)  Calum’s doctor, classroom teachers, and his resource teachers were all doing an outstanding job.  He had the proverbial village on his side.

But it wasn’t enough.  He was falling further and further behind. I began going to his house after school for extra lessons three or four times a week.  I created lots of fun games to keep him interested and spent a lot of time making sure understood he was a smart boy who just happened to have a different way of learning.  Before long, Katie, Joe, Dave, and Molly, the nanny, became part of Calum’s village, too.  Now he’s reading chapter books at (4th) grade level.  Yeah!

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A couple of weeks ago, we had this conversation:

Calum:  I didn’t get an award at school today.

Me:  I’m so sorry, Calum.  But we’ve talked about this before, right?

He nodded.

Me:  At the beginning of this year, you couldn’t read a chapter book.  Now you’re on number 30!  You just have to give yourself an award.

He nodded again.

Me:  I know it’s not as good as getting one in front of the whole school. I hate to say it, Calum, but you might never get an award at school.  You mustn’t let that discourage you.  I admire how patiently and how hard and how long you’ve worked.

I gave him a hug.  I wanted to beat the crap out of a system that didn’t reward kids like him.

But he grinned:  I guess it’s just you and me, Grandma,  until I go to college.

I had to blink away tears.  In all these years of one hard fought for gain after another, the fact that Calum sees himself as college material is the greatest victory.

I’m grateful for the famous and not so famous who helped me overcome my learning difficulties.  I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to pay it forward.  One last thought:  Someone helped you learn; someone needs help learning.  I’m just sayin’

 

 

 

ME AND…being a stranger in a strange land

Traveling to new places is is wonderful. The first thing I notice is a sharper awareness of my surroundings. (Familiar places tend to become a fuzzy background to my day.) Sights, sounds, and smells vie for my attention. They tell me immediately that I’m out of my comfort zone. I find that stimulating and a bit intimidating. But going forward into the unknown is good for me.

Last spring, my sister Sheila and I booked a tour of Spain and Italy through her grand daughter Mackenzie’s high school Spanish class. Language barriers, cultural differences, and foreign money be damned! Our group was paired with another group of high school kids. My friends shook their heads and rolled their eyes and said there was no way they’d travel with about fifty “selfie” absorbed, overly hormonal teenagers. They’re not well read and their music sucks. They’ll ruin your trip. I hadn’t thought of that.

“It’ll be okay,” I told them, “Sheila and I aren’t chaperones. Except for traveling out and back from hotels and getting into places we’re going to tour, we don’t have to hang out with them.”

Since I was going to be my own porter, packing for the trip was a real challenge, a balancing act between what I needed and what I could realistically manage. We were going to be gone fourteen days! Doubly difficult for me because I have a very bad back. The only way I can walk or stand for any length of time is by using a walker. No way I could push that and pull a big, heavy suitcase on wheels. I ended up packing in two smaller suitcases and my walker turned out to be a blessing, my very own luggage cart.

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The other blessing was all of those teenagers. From the outset to the very last moments we were together, one or the other of them, guys and gals, stepped up to help me, as did Sheila, Mackenzie, our tour guide, and the bus drivers. They took my my walker, stowed it under the bus, retrieved, and brought it to me as I stepped down onto the sidewalk. Stairs to reach lunch tables or to get to a park? Someone showed up at my side and away went my walker so I could use the handrail. When we gathered at a spot to listen to our guide, the kids made way for me so I could sit in front and see. Those famous Roam roads (now sidewalks) were almost my undoing. The pavers are very uneven and have gaps between them. Two guys stepped up. One carried my walker. The other escorted me, groomsman-at-a-wedding style, as we walked along listening to the guide.

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It is my intention to write separate blogs about touring Madrid, Barcelona, and Rome, but I feel compelled to write about ann experience I had in each of those places.

Madrid, Spain: There was one group tour I had to skip because it involved walking over rough terrain and climbing lots of steps. As I wandered the streets on my own, I notice many elderly couples walking along with their arms linked or holding hands. The women were dressed in Channel type suits and the men wore fedora hats to compliment their business attire. Very retro. And very romantic.

Barcelona, Spain: Cooking demonstration six flights up – no elevator.  Again on my own, I discovered a huge, underground archaeological excavation site of a village that dated back to the time before Christ. An area under two square blocks of the city had been exposed and signs in English did a great job of explaining what daily life was like for the people who had lived in the village.

Rome, Italy: I couldn’t do the catacombs. I wandered the side streets, away from the “tourist traps.” I discovered the glory of a typical neighborhood. The ground floor of city block sized apartment buildings is given to shops. Clothes, small food markets, and cafes. I did a lot of window shopping and enjoyed an outdoor lunch. I could get used to that kind of life in a heart beat.

I loved all of the usual things people talk about when they come back from Spain and Italy, but the afternoons on my own are a favorite memory. The other is those teenagers. Yes, they were amazingly helpful. But they were also very bright and a lot of fun. We had great conversations over lunches and dinners. Especially about movies, one of my passions. They were well schooled in the elements of story telling. And they taught me a thing or two about CGI’s. (Computer Generated Images) I suppose the biggest surprise was that they were well informed in a wide range of subjects. Actually more than I had been at their age. Between video games and weekly comedy/drama programs, their TV’s seem to be tuned to the History and Discovery channels, NatGeo, and PBS’s Nova. No matter that they’re not “well read.”

That trip was my first to Europe. I plan to do more. I hope with Sheila. I wish I could do them with “my” teenagers, too. They were very different from what my friends thought they’d be and what I had come to fear they would be. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to visit their world, keeping in mind that it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.  My friends were right, though, about their music. It sucks. Thank God kids today use earbuds!

Carpe diem.

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ME AND…a butterfly cures my coulda, woulda, shoulda blues

In 1966,  when I graduated from Wayne State University, members of my family sent gifts of money that added up to $475.00. That was a fortune to me. I decided to buy myself a present. Something of lasting value. I headed to J.L.Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit in search of something unique.

I found myself in the art gallery. The salesman guided me to an etching named A DANCE IN THE COUNTRY by Renoir.   I loved the graceul lines  of the image and  looking at it made me think of a Chopin waltz.  A feeling similar to being star struck swept over me at the thought of owning a work of art by the famous Impressionist painter.    The salesman said I could have it for $475.00 including tax.

But then he showed me a pastel (chalk) picture called WOMEN ADMIRING A CHILD by an artist named Mary Cassatt. Never heard of her. He told me she was one of the few female Impressionist artists and her work was bound to have a greater appreciation than the Renoir because the pastel was one of a kind whereas there were hundreds of copies of the etching. The price of the pastel was $1,500. I could give him my cash and make payments on the balance.

 

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I told him I was going to have lunch, think about it,  and I’d come back after deciding between the two.  All of this was pretty high flauntin’ for a girl who lived in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a blue collar community. While eating my Waldorf salad, I weighed my preference for the image of the dancing couple over the image of the women and child. Reenoir vs Cassatt?  But the possibility of making more money on the later was very tempting. How could I make up my mind?  The deciding factor turned out to be my upcoming wedding. I didn’t want to walk down the aisle dragging debt behind me like tin cans tied to the back of a car. I bought the Renoir.

I couldn’t wait to show my parents, but they were not impressed. When they asked me how much I paid for it, I fibbed and said $75.00. My mother said there were nicer, bigger pictures in color at Art Van’s furniture store for less than that. Undeterred, I hung the etching in my bedroom and fell asleep looking at the dancing couple. Most interesting was the way the woman held herself slightly away from her partner so as not to be overwhelmed by him. A good thing to keep in mind since I was a timid young woman about to marry Dave, who had a type “A” personality.

Flash forward fifty years. I traveled from my home in Southern California to visit my sister Sheila, who lives in Milford, Michigan. We decided to spend a day at the Detroit Institute of Arts. We came across a room of Impressionist paintings. Among them was WOMEN ADMIRING A CHILD, the pastel by Mary Cassatt. That I didn’t buy. My original response was confirmed. I didn’t like it as much as I liked the Renoir, which, for decades, had given me a lot of pleasure. When Sheila and I got back to her house, I looked up the estimated value of the pastel. Millions of dollars! Lots and lots of millions of dollars!  I felt like kicking my butt around the block and back.  If only I could go back in time and…

I had many thoughts of the coulda, woulda, shoulda kind. How owning and, at some point, selling the pastel would have changed my life. I imagined all sorts of wonderful things. But then I thought of the butterfly effect, the theory that, if it could be done, even the smallest change in one’s past life would change what came after.  In movies, it is always the most important moment in the main character’s life that is changed by the butterfly effect.  And it’s always for the worst.

What if I had bought the pastel? Maybe Dave wouldn’t have come home from Vietnam alive. You need to know that Dave placed first in every army training cycle he went through, including Ranger School in country.  In other words, he’s very, very tough.  I feel safe with him by my side.  He also happens to be the smartest person I’ve ever known.  In nearly fifty years of marriage, I’ve never found a subject for conversation he didn’t know something about.  Best of all, he shares my passion for the arts.  How diminished my life would have been without him.  Then I had another thought.  We wouldn’t have had kids. No Katie. No Aaron. Their spouses Joe and Kaoru abscent from my life.  No grand kids Fiona and Calum. Was I willing to take the chance of loosing all that in exchange for millions of dollars?  Lots of millions of dollars?

No.

I put aside my coulda, woulda, shoulda thoughts.  I took out my iPad and pulled up a picture of A DANCE IN THE COUNTRY.  I still loved the romanticism of the image, but I saw something else in it, too.  The was a metaphor for life.  The woman is in its grasp and is carried along in life’s whirls and twirls.  But she is smart and does not allow it to over whelm her.  I whispered to her, in the venacular of today, you got that right, Sister.   I turned off my iPad, put out the light, and went to sleep.  No regrets.  The next morning I flew home to Dave and our family.

Priceless!