Monthly Archives: May 2011

The People You Meet

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Today began with flowers.

We found them in Spello, an ancient Umbrian town known sometimes as the city of the painter Pinturicchio. Spello is also the city of the ‘infiorate,’ or flower art festival. We didn’t know this as we began to climb the steep, narrow streets until we found ourselves surrounded by scarlet geraniums, bunches of impatiens, phlox, delphinium, forget me not, roses of every hue.

Everywhere we looked there were flowers … in pots, in window boxes, in baskets hung from windows high above our heads, weaved into fragrant arches. There were no gardens that we could see… no wonder, considering that Spello is a city of stone. We were looking about in a sort of dazed awe when an elderly lady came walking out toward us.

She explained about the ‘Finestre, balconi e vicoli fiori,’ or flower festival and asked if we liked her garden. We introduced ourselves and explained, in uncertain Italian, that we had come from the United States. “Ah,” exclaimed Signora Lodi, “America. Sono Parisienne, eh?  I am a Parisienne. You come from America? Never will I forget ‘til I die that day when the Americans marched into Paris to liberate us. Never! I was fourteen…”

Tears stood in her eyes. The Signora was 93, she told us. Her husband and she had come to Italy forty years ago, but he was gone, now. They had both suffered under Hitler, and she spoke sadly of how there is still killing and war in the world. We talked for a long time mixing languages… French, Italian, German, English… but sharing understanding and laughter. When we said goodbye, the Signora reverted to her native tongue. “Au revoir, mes enfants,” she called out after us as we walked away up the street lined with flowers, “Goodbye, my children.”

Later, we found tables in the garden of a hillside trattoria. There, munching crescia, a crusty flatbread sandwich stuffed with prosciutto, cheese and small artichoke, we agreed that when we return home from our travels it is the people we meet that make the journey meaningful. When we truly connect with strangers, that connection comes straight from the heart.

When we had finished our lunch, we walked lazily to a museum featuring the artist. Pinturicchio as well as other masters. And there, as we wandered among frescoes and depictions of the saints, we found the pieta.

It was small, perhaps two feet in height, made of terra cotta sometime during the sixteenth century. The Madonna was missing an arm. She was not really beautiful or even young—a far cry from Michaelangelo’s magnificent work. But where Michaelangelo’s marble masterpiece conveys grace and a transcendent beauty even in grief, this little statue merely portrayed a mother. I leaned closer to study her, this work of some long dead and unknown sculptor, and saw the wrinkles on her brow and throat, the droop of her lips, the ache of inexpressible loss in her eyes. She could have been any mother of any time and of any country mourning the loss of her son. Perhaps, indeed, she was.

It is the people we meet who we remember most.

 

Ancients Abroad

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When we were younger, travel was always an exciting possibility. Faraway places were bejeweled with enchantment. We packed light, thought nothing of bone-crunching 15 hour flights and indigestible airplane food.

Now…

Consider the plight of two older adventurers lost in Rome. We have not planned to be lost in the ancient city, mind you—we meant to circumnavigate Rome and drive toward Spoleto. An easy task, we were sure.  But the GPS is buried somewhere deep in the heart of the suitcase and temporarily inaccessible, the written directions confuse, signs are missed, and here we are now plunging into the heart and awful traffic of the eternal city.

Mike, who is never shy about asking directions, does so—several times. The dialogue always goes something like this:

Allora, va destra e poi sinestra, destra, e sinestra…(go right and then left, right, and left)

Si, capisco. Mille grazie! (I get it, thanks!)

The problem was that before we reach the second left turn, we find that the directions are not quite accurate, and confusion reigns. Finally, in desperation we appeal to a young man riding  a scooter. He starts to give directions, looks at us pityingly (undoubtedly thinking of his own grandparents), then motions to us to follow him. Chasing a speeding scooter through glaring, honking, blaring traffic is no mean feat but we have courage and determination and we want desperately to get the heck out of this mess, and… yes… hooray! Here is the correct turn at last!

An hour of driving lies before us, but now we are on Easy Street for our chosen route leads us through rolling hills overflowing with color: the dusty green of the ubiquitous olive trees, the brilliant gold of broom, the soft pinks and white hues of oleander. Now and then we  catch a glimpse of some edifice built of ancient stone or the sweep of a Roman aqueduct or what might have once been a castle perched high on the brow of a hill. Camera in hand, my airline aches and indignities forgotten, I lean against the window and imagine what might once have been in this ancient land. So many legends are alive here still, so much philosophy and art, so much blood and treachery and beauty and history…

Soon our road parts company with the main highway and narrows, turns into a dirt road that bumps and meanders until we come suddenly upon field after field of poppies. Their crimson heads toss and dance in the light breeze, and  I lean out of the car window to take their picture. But instead of snapping that photograph I stare entranced. For beyond the poppies rise the Apennines—golden and green and ageless in the afternoon sun.

Fragments At the Airport

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Photo Courtesy of Sleepy Hollow Books

Airports can be interesting places. Surely not because of the security checks and the long lines and the little plastic baggies we stuff full of tiny bottles of shampoo and toothpaste tubes, but because everyone is in transit.

Airports are hubs in more ways than one. When you come down to it, all of us, including the universe, are moving somewhere, and airports are centers of movement.

Each plane carries a complement of people, folk who travel for pleasure or for business or because some crisis requires their presence. If I sit long enough at an airport (and given the pattern of delays favored by most airlines, this is a given), real people whose names I will never know stream past.

Today a woman in a nearby coffee shop is tearing a croissant into small pieces while scanning the crowd. Her cell phone lies beside her coffee cup and every now and again she stops decimating her croissant to text somebody. Her eyes are anxious, a little afraid. I wonder why.

A man with two children hurries past chattering directions. Don’t run, hold your brother’s hand, tie your shoe laces before you trip… the children ignore him. Their disdain is palpable, and even at this distance I can see the eye-rolls.

Behind this little group comes a pale young man bellowing into his cell phone and then a couple who walk so closely together that their shoulders constantly bump. Nothing is said between them, but he looks down at her and she up at him in complete understanding. Then, they, too are lost in the crowd, and in their wake trail a group of college students texting furiously as they saunter along.

Sitting in an airport is almost like visiting Mussorgsky’s  Pictures At An Exhibition. Tableaux arrange themselves then break away into new formations, snatches of conversation are tossed about. Sometimes, these snippets are fascinating.

“…Oh, my lord—a goat!”

“No way your aunt can stay with us. Remember what she did to my guitar last time?”

I can only guess at these stories which have neither beginning nor end. The woman with the croissant, for instance—what is her story, I wonder. Then… a man in a crumpled seersucker suit comes hurrying up the corridor. He waves at the croissant woman and shouts something. Her face crumples, then smoothes into such happiness that she is suddenly radiant. Coffee cup and crumbs are pushed aside as they embrace.

“Sorry I’m late…”

“I was so worried…”

They speak at once and then stop and laugh and look long at each other. I watch as he picks up her bags and they move off, and I hope that their story will be a happy one.

Fragments of stories are what I find in an airport… but perhaps it is so everywhere. In our busy lives we meet, we greet, and we often converse with—how many? We do this and move on without really understanding that we are fellow voyagers on a world that travels around the same sun.

In warm airport

Met stranger’s eye, shared smiles…

But we did not speak.

A Would-Be Beachcomber’s Thoughts on Friendship

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If I had my druthers, I would become a certified beachcomber. Beachcombing is a noble occupation which offers fresh air, time for contemplation, and a robust appreciation for what is important in life. It’s no wonder, then, that on my beach-walk this morning I have begun to think of shells, stones and friendship.

Perhaps (so goes my thought) my friends could be represented by unusual or beautiful or unique findings along the ocean’s edge?  For instance, here is a smooth, almost opaque stone which the waves have tumbled, smoothed and rounded. See how it  glows with inner beauty when I hold it against the sun?

Pale pink, translucent,

Rounded by incessant waves,

This very old soul.

Some friends are like that. Others will never be smooth or round. These friends are all corners and angles and crevices, uncomfortable juts everywhere. Such people are scarcely restful to be with, but they carry with them energy and an honesty that is sometimes uncomfortable but unassailable and true, and if those of us who know them can understand this, we  can appreciate their finer qualities. So, too, can we all admire the strong, stalwart but uninteresting block of granite that stands by the edge of the sea. There it is, uncomplaining, standing its ground and meeting storm and sea without fanfare or complaint. Strong, we think. Indestructible!  Yet, if we put our hands on that rock, we can feel the chips and pits and scars that life has made. And we see that this rock, too, grows warm with the sun and icy cold under the winter wind.

There are some friends, too, who are as transparent and as colorful as this piece of beach glass. What would we do without them? They bring a light touch to grave situations. They make us smile. Humor makes the world go round, doesn’t it? And the ability to laugh at ourselves is a most profound wisdom.

Through the years, some thought of as lifelong pals have gone. The lumps of coal masquerading as onyx have left. The bits of coral, which at first blush seemed to be so precious have departed for different company.

And, wait— here is a broken whelk. Once a beautiful shell full of life and color, it is scarred and chipped. It reminds me of mutual friends snatched away by death. These friends we keep so clear and vivid in our memory that they cannot really be lost to us. We speak of them often. We laugh as we recount some funny incident involving them. Then we share the tears that loves lost always brings, tears that bind our remaining circle closer than before.

At the end of my walk I set the damaged shell down near the sea and arrange the shells and the coral and the beach glass around it. Then I walk home, thinking that life is precious, that friends are invaluable, and that a good a cup of hot tea will taste wonderful with a large piece of home made coffee cake.

You see? Beach combing always gives an appreciation for the paramount things in life.

When the tide comes in

Our most important footsteps

Will be wished away.

A World Of Magic

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The last white peony, a late bloomer amongst its sisters, has flowered during the night. A bud when last I saw it, it has gradually unfurled its slender petals and now opens its golden heart to the sun.

Yesterday, a bud,

It has opened in the night

This white peony.

“Everything in the world is magic,” says Yuri in Yuri’s Brush With Magic, “if you have eyes to see and a heart to feel.” It sounded simple enough when I wrote the lines, but now I have to admit that reality is more complicated. True, there is a lot of magic in the world. Trees are magical. Roses are, too, and the white stars of clematis. So are sunsets and the first birdsong just before the dawn, and even those voracious caterpillars that munch up my parsley so that they can morph into elegant butterflies. So are… but the list goes on forever.

Given that nature is full of wonders, the problem arises when we get to the bit about the eyes and heart. As we hurry about to work or on errands or force ourselves to begin a chore, neither heart nor eyes are concentrating on beauty, much less magic. More likely we stare at traffic or try to remember a grocery list left behind on the kitchen table or mentally go over a presentation that has to be made at 9:00 this morning, or gnash our teeth because The Child has once again forgotten his lunch and needs rescue. I have forgotten that grocery list, tried to concentrate on that presentation and chased down those children, so I know. Time flies, and so do we.

But the peony opens anyway.

It neither cares whether I am there to admire it nor worries about schedules. It will bloom out its fragrant heart and then in the fullness of time let its petals drop and concentrate on being a seed pod.

Seeds are high up on my magic scale. Consider; a miniscule thing no bigger than a comma goes into the earth there to lie dormant until some command implanted into its tiny seed-brain awakens it. Down go roots, up comes a shoot that has never seen the sun before but knows that it’s what is wanted. It really doesn’t matter whether the shoot is going to be a weed or a flower… the whole process seems amazing to me. And, anyway, some weeds can be pretty wonderful.

The other day I knelt down to tie my shoe and spotted a tiny weed-flower. It was hiding behind a tuft of grass, and I would never have even known it was there had I remained standing. But there it was— bravely staking out its place in the Universe, a miniature white star, alone, unique, and in its humble way completely magical.

Small white flower blooms

Amongst tangle of tall grass…

Not a weed… a star!

Running Out of Thread

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Running Out of Thread

It seems that people are always running out of something these days. They might be running out of time, out of patience, out of money, out of luck. Or, if they are quilters, they could be running out of thread.

For a quilter, running out of thread can be a disaster. Consider: here is a quilt that has been worked on patiently and carefully for three hundred and forty six hours. It is seven-eighth completed, and the quilter is about to stretch her back and rejoice when the inconceivable happens. The thread on the big cone has started to run out! “So, go and buy some more, why don’t you?” some unsympathetic friend might suggest. “There are quilt stores, aren’t there? There is the internet. Stop tearing your hair and get with the program!” However well meant, such advice is useless, for the thread is the last of its kind. Found long ago on sale, it is a discontinued brand with colors that cannot easily be matched. The quilter at this point is… running out of options.

Did you think that quilting was a serene and relaxing pastime? It is. It can also be inspirational, fraught, joyous, frustrating, calming or simply… fun. Any quilter will tell you of days spent battling the tension on the sewing machine, of trudging back and forth to quilt shops seeking the right fabric, and of midnight hours during which a long overdue quilt is finally, finally, finished. That same quilter will also recall wonderful hours spent stitching, talking and sharing in the circle of like-minded friends, or tell of the chance-met enthusiast with a fabulous new idea. This last is fairly common as regard the woman I met on a swaying bridge in the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica. She drew me a machine quilting pattern on the back of a Kleenex, and I have used that pattern a dozen times over.

Quilters share patterns and ideas all the time and often share stories as they go. After all, quilts are not only valued for their beauty but also because they are repositories for small histories. One quilt, perhaps, was made by a great grand mother, long gone but remembered for her sparkling blue eyes and wicked sense of humor. Another might have been bought somewhere along the way from a very old lady who sold the most delicious moon pies on the side. Still another specimen could have come across the sea, the prized possession of an ancestor who left home and family behind but brought all their love stitched into the designs of a quilt.

Many of us have made such quilts for love—love of a child, a grand child, or for the wedding of a friend or a friend’s daughter. Stitching hopes and dreams for someone special is a quilter’s fondest past time, and when that quilt is made, it’s no wonder that an extraordinary energy thrums in the finished product. At other times we all try to turn away sorrow or worry by quilting something for a friend or a sick loved one, a loved one lost or one who has suffered loss, or who is in harm’s way on a distant battlefield. Into those stitches go so many prayers and hopes—be happy, I miss you, be well again, oh, be safe—so that those quilts held their own powerful magic.

Sewing this springtime…
Blind to pattern and color,
Thinking just of you.

Every quilter has a favorite story. Mine happened about ten years ago when our grandson, Ben, was not quite four. He was fascinated with the workings of my machine and, after helping me choose fabric to sew, he volunteered to work the machine pedal with his hands. Every few minutes he would pop up to ask, “How is it going, Grammy?” and I would tell him all was well. And things were going well until I noticed that the rhythm of the machine had slowed considerably. I asked him what was happening, and after a moment’s pause a muffled voice replied, “Grammy, I’m using my head to push the pedal. Isn’t that a good idea?”

We quilters use our hands, our heads, and our hearts. And though we may sometimes run out of thread, we never run out of ideas!

Quilting with grandson
So many years ago
In this sun-warmed room.

Memories for Mother’s Day

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The temperamental weather at this time of year leaves us chilly one day and sweltering the next. In the garden the rhododendrons glow bright, and the roses send up tightly furled buds which will soon morph into fragrant velvet. Amongst this largesse my pansies, hard workers that have withstood frost, hail, snow and freezing rain, are withering need to be replaced.

Their demise means that the really cold days have gone, but I whisper apologies as I uproot the pansies and refill the pots with summer flowers. It is what my mother would have done.

My mother….

Easy to think of her when I am close to flowers that she loved. She was always happiest in her garden, as every season offered something beautiful. In winter there were the hardy red camellias, nandina berries and pine branches with which to make stately flower arrangements for the New Year. In earliest spring came, Japanese quince and apricots blooming white and pale pink, and the sweet pea shoots pushing bravely out of the ground. In summer, her garden rioted with color as roses and sunflowers, lilies and hydrangea vied for her attention, and the autumn brought chrysanthemums of every shape and hue.

From all of these my mother would choose blossoms for her arrangements—whispering apologies as she cut. “This flower took all year to bloom,” she would explain somewhat wistfully, “and I’m taking it indoors, away from the sun.”

Apologizing

while I cut a small bouquet

of the white roses.

My mother was a fair-minded woman who never played favorites, but she couldn’t help having a preference for the humblest flowers in her domain. Pansies, small primroses, forget-me-nots, sprays of cosmos and ox-eye daisies were closest to her heart. She even liked the gold of early dandelions and would arrange them in small, elegant vases which she tucked into unexpected places. Pansies, especially the ones with ‘faces’ would find their way onto her dresser. A single daisy might decorate the bathroom sink. “They all have stories,” she would say. “We just can’t hear them.”

I have a flower story, too.

On my eleventh birthday I woke up to a delicate, sweet fragrance. When I opened my eyes, there was a cut glass vase by my bed filled with a huge bouquet of sweet peas. Pink, white, peach, soft lavender…these flowers were for me, alone! I remember catching my breath at their beauty and the perfection of the gift.
I have long since forgotten the presents I was given that day, but the sweet peas – and my mother’s smile when she saw my pleasure— remains alive and beautiful in my memory.

In sun-splashed garden,
Feeling a remembered warmth,
The touch of her hand.